Wordsworth on Wordsworth
What does William Wordsworth have to say to the modern age? Many of the issues that are taken for granted today - the problems of urban life, the importance of childhood - had their origins in the Romantic era. ``The world is too much with us,'' wrote Wordsworth 185 years ago,
late and soon, Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers (Little we see in Nature that is ours), We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
Wordsworth's vehemence was characteristic - partly because he was thinking of city life, partly because he was upholding values that even then seemed under threat. The London that provoked his thoughts was the center of the commercial world. William Cowper had written of it a generation earlier:
thither flow As to a common and most noisome sewer, The dregs and feculence of every land.
Wordsworth was less censorious. He could respond to the city's power, vitality, color, bustle - even at times see it as beautiful - but the endless round of ``getting and spending'' seemed to him a denial of all that is natural, generous, and life-enhancing. To give away the heart was for him a rejection of life itself.
He was right, of course - but then we expect great writers to be right. If they are to speak to us now, they must do more than merely tell the truth. Somehow they must bring it home. The vehemence is a good start, but not enough. More important are the pronouns: ``us,'' ``we,'' ``our.'' Wordsworth is telling us of shared experience. ``We have all of us,'' he wrote, ``one human heart'': ``There's not a man who lives that hath not had/ His godlike hours.'' His aspirations are for us all, and his sense of human frailty started with himself: ``we lay waste our powers.''
It may be that we need reminders of the very existence of these powers. Wordsworth makes us think better of ourselves. Not only was life to him infinitely precious, he believed passionately (as we all do in theory) in the importance of the individual human being. He was the spokesman of humanity and the humanities, believing above all that we have to be educated to live, to enjoy, to feel, and to give. ``Every great poet is a teacher,'' he wrote. ``I wish either to be considered as a teacher, or as nothing.''
The aim of his poetry, he said, was to render the values of his audience ``more sane, pure, and permanent, in short, more consonant to Nature and the great moving spirit of things.'' It was a wisdom that has proved to be accessible to people of many different ways of thought. Though spiritual in his aspirations, Wordsworth was undogmatic, deeply rooted in the ordinary and everyday. His was
the very world which is the world Of all of us, the place in which in the end We find our happiness or not at all.
We should beware of thinking that Wordsworth's world is the one that we make for ourselves with our ``getting and spending.'' Happiness for him had little to do with acquisition. It was a way of seeing, giving, loving - an act of imaginative sympathy that was ordinary only in the sense that it was (or should be) within everybody's reach. ``Thanks to the human heart by which we live,'' wrote Wordsworth at the end of his great ``Immortality Ode,''
Thanks to its tenderness, its joys and fears, To me the meanest flower that blows can give Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.
Some of us, of course, may find ourselves more in tune with Peter Bell than with the poet:
A primrose by a river's brim A yellow primrose was to him And it was nothing more.
It is extraordinary that those last five simple words can mean so much. Because Wordsworth had, as he put it, ``create[d] the taste by which he is enjoyed,'' he could depend on our reading into Peter's failure of response a whole system of values. The poet was not quite saying, as Blake did, ``If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, ``infinite''; but he believed it was his task ``to travel before men occasionally as well as at their sides.'' Thoughts that for him ``do often lie too deep for tears'' take the rest of us into realms of experience that we very seldom reach. Wordsworth had, in the famous words of ``Tintern Abbey'':
a sense sublime Of something far more deeply interfused, Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns, And the round ocean, and the living air, And the blue sky, and in the mind of man.
Laying waste our powers, we lose the wonderment of life - lose our sense of the ``something'' that connects ``the mind of man'' to the natural world in which he lives. To call this something God is to do what Wordsworth himself chose not to do. He would not have denied the implication, but he was writing about the human mind - about his own religious sense, and ours - and not about a specific creed or religion.
From our late 20th-century point of view, it is fascinating that at times he would go further still, tell us of exalted ``moods/ That are their own perfection and reward.'' Anticipating the Freudian un- (or sub-)conscious, he was able to conceive of ``a mighty mind''
that feeds upon infinity, That is exalted by an underpresence, The sense of God, or whatso'er is dim Or vast in its own being ...
CERTAIN moods can be regarded, Wordsworth was saying, either in religious terms as the ``sense of God,'' or in terms of secular intuition. By implication he refused to value one way of thinking above the other. Each was a ``feed[ing] upon infinity,'' a drawing of imaginative strength from underlying sources that cannot in the nature of things be fully understood, but that enable the human mind to attain its highest fulfillment. Freud's brilliant myth-making has never been verified, and Wordsworth's intuitions also reached a point where they could not be taken further. They are true now in the same sense in which they were true then - true, that is, to human experience.
One of the most impressive things about Wordsworth is that in his study of the mind he did not expect that everything could be explained. His method was broadly empirical: He looked inward, and back, and asked, ``How is it that I find myself here?'' ``What forces, pressures, influences turned the child of my distant memories into the adult of the present?'' In doing so, he set a higher value on memory than any writer had ever done before - and yet he knew that memory tells only part of the story. In the ``Immortality Ode,'' he gave thanks not for the conventionally happy childhood that we all like to look back upon,
But for those first affections
Those shadowy recollections
Which, be they what they may, Are yet the fountain-light of all our day, Are yet the master-light of all our seeing;
Uphold us, cherish us, and make Our noisy years seem moments in the being Of the eternal silence ...
What then are the ``shadowy recollections,'' which, be they what they may, are the basis of adult vision? Wordsworth's answer was that they will be different for each of us and yet essentially the same. They will be that which makes sense of existence, shows us how ``Our noisy years'' - brilliantly evocative both of childhood and of human life as a whole - can be seen as part of ``the being/ Of the eternal silence.'' Those who are not familiar with Wordsworth might expect that the memories would therefore be tranquil, comforting. Some are; many are not. Those for which he is especially grateful take us back to what we should now regard as pivotal experience:
... obstinate questionings
Of sense and outward things,
Fallings from us, vanishings;
Blank misgivings of a creature Moving about in worlds not realized ...
The poetry mimics the child's confusion. We admire his resolute questioning, share with him in his sense of betrayal, his life of the imagination amid worlds that are, and are not, real. We are reminded of comparable moods, moments, shadowy recollections of our own past. And then we have to confront the poet's strange certainty that such experience has been of value. The most obvious reason why it should be so for Wordsworth himself is that much of his writing was autobiographical and that writing about his childhood fears makes the most exciting poetry.
Wordsworth had a whole philosophy to offer - a philosophy of wholeness that took him back through ``The twilight of rememberable life'' to the period when as an infant he ``held mute dialogues with [his] mother's heart.'' In an intuition that was a hundred years ahead of his time, he saw the child as ``subjected to the discipline of love,'' receiving in the mother's love the confidence to respond to the world about him.
EVERYTHING, it seemed to Wordsworth, depended on this start in life. ``So feeling comes in aid/ Of feeling,'' he wrote, ``and diversity of strength/ Attends us, if but once we have been strong.'' Life is bound together by imaginative response. However painful at the time, the fears, guilts, and confusions of childhood are precious in retrospect because they have played their part in forming the adult psyche, and because they contribute through ``shadowy recollections'' to an understanding of the oneness of experience. It is a very modern view.
Jonathan Wordsworth, a great-great-grandnephew of William Wordsworth, is chairman of the Wordsworth Trust and a professor at St. Catherine's College, Oxford University. He co-curated the exhibition ``William Wordsworth and the Age of English Romanticism'' at the Indiana University Art Museum, Bloomington, through March 6, and the Chicago Historical Society from April 6 to June 5.