Sunday, June 10, 2012

Poems Written in Youth by William Wordsworth

Source of book: I own the complete Wordsworth - a gift from my friend Evalyn

For those familiar with my Poetry Project, it will come as no surprise that I have started my serious reading of Wordsworth at the beginning. In general, I have started with the early works of each poet, with the intent of working my way through the complete works in time.

The advantage of this approach is that there is insight to be gained by seeing the progression of the poet’s thoughts and ideas and skill.

The disadvantage is that I will be an old man by the time I reach the end of certain prolific poets like Tennyson, Frost, Auden - and Wordsworth. Either I need to read faster, or I will need a life “full of days” to complete this.

In any case, I cannot say I regret starting at the beginning with Wordsworth. Many of his important themes are apparent in a germinal state in these early works, and his style is already evident.

William Wordsworth has the distinction of having one of the best names of all time, perfectly suited to his profession, and euphonious. He is considered one of the most important poets of the English Romantic Era (along with Samuel Taylor Coleridge), and thoroughly embodies its values: intuition rather than reason, pristine nature rather than modern man. It was essentially a reaction against The Enlightenment and its values, which the Romantics considered sterile and impersonal.

I find the contrast interesting as a musician in its musical parallel. Music of the era tended to lag literature and philosophy in time, so that the musical Romantic Era postdated the poetic Romantic Era by a generation or so. The contrast here would be Mozart (Enlightenment Era) and Liszt (Romantic Era). In literature and music, it is easy to oversimplify. The poets and composers of the earlier era were capable of great emotion, and those of the latter were not lacking in cerebral ability, but the perceptions and goals were largely in line with the ideas of each era. For those reading on my blog, I have appended a note and some musical clips to illustrate the differences.

It was also interesting to me that the Romantic Poets were originally criticized for writing poetry in natural language rather than the formal and exalted language popular in the preceding era. To our modern ears, Wordsworth’s language may sound outdated and rather formal itself, but it was revolutionary in its time.

An early sonnet, written when Wordsworth was merely sixteen already shows an introverted concern with nature, and a leaning toward natural language devoid of classical allusions.

Calm is all nature as a resting wheel.
The kine are couched upon the dewy grass;
The horse alone, seen dimly as I pass,
Is cropping audibly his later meal:
Dark is the ground; a slumber seems to steal
O'er vale, and mountain, and the starless sky.
Now, in this blank of things, a harmony,
Home-felt, and home-created, comes to heal
That grief for which the senses still supply
Fresh food; for only then, when memory
Is hushed, am I at rest. My Friends! restrain
Those busy cares that would allay my pain;
Oh! leave me to myself, nor let me feel
The officious touch that makes me droop again.    
This Italian sonnet form is adapted in a completely different way than the earlier Milton, or the later Elizabeth Barrett Browning. (For discussion of the sonnet forms, see my blog here.)

Also enjoyable from this collection is the long narrative, An Evening Walk. The poet describes a memorable evening stroll in the Lake District of England, which is particularly associated with Wordsworth and a few other poets of the era. I loved his description of the sunset.

How pleasant, as the sun declines, to view
The spacious landscape change in form and hue!
Here, vanish, as in mist, before a flood
Of bright obscurity, hill, lawn, and wood;
There, objects, by the searching beams betrayed,
Come forth, and here retire in purple shade;
Even the white stems of birch, the cottage white,
Soften their glare before the mellow light;
The skiffs, at anchor where with umbrage wide
Yon chestnuts half the latticed boat-house hide,
Shed from their sides, that face the sun's slant beam,
Strong flakes of radiance on the tremulous stream:
Raised by yon travelling flock, a dusty cloud
Mounts from the road, and spreads its moving shroud;
The shepherd, all involved in wreaths of fire,
Now shows a shadowy speck, and now is lost entire.

Wordsworth uses here, as in many other poems, iambic pentameter grouped into rhymed couplets, although they are not always limited to a single sentence or thought, as in the heroic couplet form.

Another enjoyable description is found in the short poem "Lines written when sailing in a Boat at Evening."

How rich the wave, in front, imprest
With evening twilights summer hues,
While, facing thus the crimson west,
The boat her silent path pursues!
And see how dark the backward stream!
A little moment past, so smiling!
And still, perhaps, with faithless gleam,
Some other loiterer beguiling.
Such views the youthful bard allure,
But, heedless of the following gloom,
He deems their colours shall endure
'Till peace go with him to the tomb.
--And let him nurse his fond deceit,
And what if he must die in sorrow!
Who would not cherish dreams so sweet,
Though grief and pain may come to-morrow?

Wordsworth here also shows the undercurrent of melancholy which flows through many of his works.

Another theme which was popularized during the romantic era was the idea of the “Noble Savage”, the supposedly ideal state of man before the advent of modern technology and thought. In his long description of a journey through the Alps, (Taken During a Pedestrian Tour Among the Alps) Wordsworth expresses the idea as well as any textbook.

Once, Man entirely free, alone and wild,
Was blest as free--for he was Nature's child.
He, all superior but his God disdained,
Walked none restraining, and by none restrained
Confessed no law but what his reason taught,
Did all he wished, and wished but what he ought.
As man in his primeval dower arrayed
The image of his glorious Sire displayed,                     
Even so, by faithful Nature guarded, here
The traces of primeval Man appear;
The simple dignity no forms debase;
The eye sublime, and surly lion-grace:
The slave of none, of beasts alone the lord,
His book he prizes, nor neglects his sword;
Well taught by that to feel his rights, prepared
With this "the blessings he enjoys to guard."

This idea, that mankind would be better if left alone to nature and itself, has been proven to be ludicrous, but it lingers on. (Murder and rape rates, for example, are highest in the most “primitive” cultures, and lowest in modern civilizations. The reality is opposite to the perception.) Thus, we glorify and fetishize the Native Americans for their supposed communion with nature, while ignoring their mass slaughter of the bison. We still claim an affinity with tribal Africa, although none of us would really wish to live in a time and place where brutal tribal rape and genocide is considered the normal state of affairs. Still, Wordsworth’s chimera holds its attraction today, and has become part of the cultural fabric.

On the other hand, Wordsworth expresses a timeless truth in a beautiful poem inspired by an inscription on an ancient yew tree by a lake in “Lines: Left upon a Seat in a Yew-tree, which stands near the lake of Esthwaite, on a desolate part of the shore, commanding a beautiful prospect,” which ends as follows:

If Thou be one whose heart the holy forms
Of young imagination have kept pure,
Stranger! henceforth be warned; and know that pride,           
Howe'er disguised in its own majesty,
Is littleness; that he, who feels contempt
For any living thing, hath faculties
Which he has never used; that thought with him
Is in its infancy. The man whose eye
Is ever on himself doth look on one,
The least of Nature's works, one who might move
The wise man to that scorn which wisdom holds
Unlawful, ever. O be wiser, Thou!
Instructed that true knowledge leads to love;                  
True dignity abides with him alone
Who, in the silent hour of inward thought,
Can still suspect, and still revere himself
In lowliness of heart.

I will also mention Guilt and Sorrow, another long narrative poem telling a rather melodramatic story of a soldier who in anger commits a murder and faces the consequences long afterward. The stanza form for that poem interests me, being a nine line stanza, iambic pentameter rhymed as ABABBCBCC. Although our modern ears seem to prefer a certain cynicism and distance, there is still something moving about unabashed emotion, told in a straightforward and sympathetic manner.

Although there are a few moments in Wordsworth’s works where I find myself thinking, “Oh brother!”, in my modern way, there is much to love and enjoy. In some ways, Wordsworth himself is as he aspires to be: the noble savage seeing nature without the veneer of jaded modernity and with the childlike fascination with the beauty of life and nature untainted. This ideal may not be found in any particular time and place, but it can be found in each and every one of us, as we choose to rise above the cynical concerns of our everyday life, and view the wonders of creation and existence with awe and love. 

Note on Music:

Those who know me know that I am fascinated by the intersection of music with other arts and sciences. At its core, music seeks to express emotional truth in a way that other media cannot. Too often, we think of Mozart and the Enlightenment as cerebral and stilted, completely out of date. While the music of the late Eighteenth Century may not yield its emotion as easily as some popular music, there is a depth that can be plumbed with a little time and effort.

Interestingly, there is a difference between music and literature in a crucial way. The Romantic poets valued introversion over extroversion, and sought a more personal expression. In music, the Enlightenment composers were the more introverted. Mozart’s emotion, for example, must be sought out because it is beneath the surface. The romantic composers, in contrast, went for broad effects, with the emotion at the surface, while the poets focused inwardly.

Mozart: One of his most famous sonatas. Perfect balance, impeccable structure, and a restrained beauty. The emotion is there, but carefully kept in check. 


Liszt: A total contrast in mood and emotion. Here, the drama is easily apparent, but the structure is hidden. This one is amazing when performed live, if you ever get the chance to hear it that way. 

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