Saturday, 20 June 2015

The triumph of spirit - William Wordsworth

As a child, William Wordsworth imagined he heard the moorlands breathing down his neck; he rowed in panic when he thought a cliff was pursuing him across moonlit water; and once, when he found himself on the hills east of Penrith Beacon, beside a gibbet where a murderer had been executed, the place and its associations were enough to send him fleeing in terror to the beacon summit.
Every childhood has its share of such uncanny moments. Nowadays, however, it is easy to underestimate the originality and confidence of a writer who came to consciousness in the far-from-child-centred 18th century and then managed to force a way through its literary conventions and its established modes of understanding: by intuition and introspection he recognised that such moments were not only the foundation of his sensibility, but the clue to his fulfilled identity.
By his late 20s, Wordsworth knew this one big truth, and during the next 10 years he kept developing its implications with intense excitement, industry and purpose. During this period, he also elaborated a personal idiom: "nature" and "imagination" are not words that belong exclusively to Wordsworth, yet they keep coming up when we consider his achievement, which is the largest and most securely founded in the canon of native English poetry since Milton. He is an indispensable figure in the evolution of modern writing, a finder and keeper of the self-as-subject, a theorist and apologist whose Preface to Lyrical Ballads (1802) remains definitive.
Wordsworth's power over his reader stems from his success in integrating several potentially contradictory efforts. More than a century before Yeats imposed on himself the task of hammering his thoughts into unity, Wordsworth was fulfilling it with deliberate intent. Indeed, it is not until Yeats that we encounter another poet in whom emotional susceptibility, intellectual force, psychological acuteness, political awareness, artistic self-knowledge, and bardic representativeness are so truly and resolutely combined (William Blake also comes to mind, but he does not possess - indeed he would have disdained - the "representativeness".)
Take, for example, a poem such as "Resolution and Independence". Democratic, even republican, in its characteristic eye-level encounter with the outcast, and in its curiosity about his economic survival. Visionary in its presentation of the old man transfigured by the moment of epiphany. Philosophic in its retrieval of the stance of wisdom out of the experience of wonder. Cathartic in the forthrightness of its self-analysis. Masterful in its handling of the stanza form. Salutary - not just picturesque - in its evocation of landscape and weather, inciting us to perceive connections between the leech-gatherer's ascetic majesty and the austere setting of moorland, cloud, and pool. In a word, Wordsworthian.
Furthermore, "Resolution and Independence" exemplifies the kind of revolutionary poem Wordsworth envisaged in the Preface. It takes its origin from "emotion recollected in tranquillity"; that emotion is contemplated until "by a species of reaction the tranquillity gradually disappears, and an emotion, kindred to that which was before the subject of contemplation, is gradually produced and does actually exist in the mind". What happens also in the new poetry (again, these are the terms of the Preface) is that a common incident is viewed under a certain "colouring of imagination"; ordinary things are presented to the mind in an unusual way and made interesting by the poet's capacity to trace in them, "truly though not ostentatiously, the primary laws of our nature".
Faced with the almost geological sobriety of works such as "Tintern Abbey", "Michael", "The Ruined Cottage", and the celebrated "spots of time" in The Prelude, it is easy to forget that they are the work of a young man. These poems, which enabled Wordsworth to speak with such authority - not just about the creative process but about the attributes of a poetry adequate to contemporary conditions - were written while he was still in his 20s. Yet the note is sure, the desire to impress absent, and the poems thoroughly absorbed in their own unglamorous necessities.
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