The Parents' Review
A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture
"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
Wordsworth the Humanist.
by Felix Asher.
I now address myself to the task of seizing the secret of a few of Wordsworth's most representative poems. It is true, of course, that all Wordsworth's poems are animated by his spirit, but the amount of life which is revealed in the different parts varies considerably. In every great picture there are certain parts which have but a small portion of the painter's spirit in them. The goldfinch, in a famous picture of Raphael's, might have been painted by almost any artist of his day; the faces of the Madonna and Child give us the whole artist, Raphael. So, in Wordsworth's poetry, there are many parts that hardly rise above the commonplace, and if our attention is allowed to rest on theses, we find, as many readers of his verse have already found, nothing to awaken in us deeper sensations, nothing to stimulate the imaginative mind. Let me therefore press upon you the claims of the following poems to give the most vivid expression to Wordsworth's essential and permanent message to man:--"Lines composed a few miles above Tintern Abbey"; "Simon Lee"; "The old Cumberland Beggar"; "She dwelt among the untrodden ways"; "A Poet's Epitaph"; "The Solitary Reaper"; "Michael"; "Lines left upon a Seat in a Yew-tree"; the sonnets, "Composed upon Westminster Bridge," and "Calais"; "I wandered lonely as a cloud"; the sonnet on "Personal Talk," and on "The influence of the world's spirit"; and lastly, "The Prelude"; "The Excursion"; and the "Ode on Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood."
Remember that if the details of some of the poems seem to you trivial, they were as full of meaning to Wordsworth as the common sights and flowers are to an invalid who escapes from the artificial air of a sick room. After having his mind influenced by the false abstractions of Wm. Godwin and Rousseau with regard to human society and its destinies, the most ordinary events and sights were to him charged with the essential sacredness of truth.
"The Excursion" consists of nine Books. Of these, the first four and the ninth are the most important. I direct your attention especially to Book I., "The Wanderer"; Book IV., "Despondency Corrected"; and Book IX., "Discourse of the Wanderer." Throughout this poem, which, if truly interpreted, is a kind of drama, we see two principles-- calm despair and calm joy--struggling for mastery of the soul of man. The poet sets himself to show that there is, in this true human world of uncontaminated man and nature, a healing power which can raise drooping spirits into newness of life. You must look upon Wordsworth as one revealing the power of the most healing spirit in the human world. He teaches us that Nature, the pure growing life, is ever giving itself birth into our hearts through the saffron sky of morn, the mid-day shade, the pomp of the hills, the glorious setting sun, with his "retinue of flaming clouds," the lonely girl at her reaping, singing of "old, unhappy, far-off things," the toiling dalesman, the solemnity of the stars. He shows that all these many influences proceed from one and the self-same source, even that spirit, that active principle of being, the "spirit that knows no insulated spot," which, as it enters into and inhabits the mind of man, its most apparent home, can make him a freeman of the human world. Wordsworth addresses man as he found him in his day, educated by science into the habit of multiplying secondary distinctions, he takes him, listless from his failures, fretted with the mad endeavour to hurry on the history of the world, and bids him come humbly into the presence of Nature, that he may be made whole. We are not concerned here to protect Wordsworth from the charge of giving to Nature a power which we may feel belongs to more awful hands. No one who sees Wordsworth's meaning can accuse him of Pantheism or of belittling the moral sense. It is because we have made life so artificial, because we have fed our souls upon distorted images, and had our sentiments wrung by false appeals, that we fail to respond with joy to Wordsworth's deep appeal for a return to simplicity.
In the first Book of "The Excursion," he traces the growth, in the mind of The Wanderer, of the sense of dread which nature awakens in him, which deepens into love, in "one high hour of visitation from the living God." Taking up the occupation of a pedlar, he wanders far, seeing much of men, their manners and enjoyments, their pursuits and their passions. Taught by nature, "he was alive to all that was enjoyed where'er he went, and all that was endured." Having obtained sufficient money to provide for his wants, he lays aside his calling and lives at ease, "vigorous in health, of hopeful spirits, undamped by worldly-mindedness--refreshed by knowledge gathered up from day to day." The rest of the first Book shows us this Wanderer, telling to the poet, by the ruins of a cottage, the story of poor Margaret, "a tale of silent suffering, hardly clothed in bodily form." In Book II., The Wanderer tells the story of a man who, living secluded among the hills, had slowly grown out of touch with life. This man, once a clergyman, had renounced his sacred function and become a sceptical cynic, nourishing his disconsolate mind on the pages of Voltaire, as he contemplates in "disconnection dead and spiritless, a world no longer moving to his mind." We have had brought before us now the two persons of the drama, we see clearly before our eye the vigorous, humble, healthy-minded Wanderer, with his wide sympathies, and the dull and jaded cynic, the victim of a reasoned pessimism--a Nemesis waiting upon all disconnection from the living world. In the next Book, The Solitary develops the story of his life. We hear of his early married days in a cottage in a sunny bay,
"Where the salt sea innocuously breaks
One by one, the things which he loves most are taken from him, and he is left on earth, disconsolate. He throws himself with furious enthusiasm into the tumult of the French Revolution, he sails the seas to the great Republic of the West, but neither in France nor in America can he find that contact with life which his soul craves. At last he finds his way to the shelter of the hills, a crippled spirit, looking languidly upon the visible fabric of the world. The fourth Book, perhaps the most important part of "The Excursion," gives us the Wanderer's profound answer to the candid sadness of the cynic. In face of "the loss of confidence in social man," there must come that humility which grows within the mind, as it is "by Nature's gradual processes taught." Thus, "through all the mighty commonwealth of things, up from the creeping plant to sovereign Man," one constitution is felt. Fortified, the soul ascends, drawn towards her native firmament of heaven, and the tranquillising power of time is felt more and more; life is measured by its advance in Admiration, Hope and Love. To such a man, at once inspired and subdued by the world of Nature, there comes through the speaking face of earth and sky, a new sense of relationship to the suffering human world, and intimations of a "central peace, subsisting at the heart of endless agitation." We find, in the ninth Book, the culmination of this teaching. The Wanderer has now led The Solitary from point to point and shown him that life, though languid and hopeless, can be renewed, be made whole. It is possible to feel the one spirit which lives through all life. These are the words with which The Wanderer closes his injunction to The Solitary to find rest--
"Whate'er exists hath properties that spread
In order to trace the development of this remarkable sense of Nature's companionship, we turn to the long poem called "The Prelude." It is the autobiography of a poet, and is extremely interesting to those who have felt anything of the communion with Nature which Wordsworth had, because he gives perfect expression to thoughts of which we are only half conscious, and thus brings our deeper feelings to the brink of consciousness. We see him as a boy, with his early passion for "rivers, woods and fields"; we see the young man, after a night of pleasure, watch the morning rise "in memorable pomp," dedicating himself solemnly to his office as priest of Nature; we see him at college, struggling to read the message which Nature was giving to him under such new forms; we watch him perturbed and irritated by the failure of the great movement in France; lastly, we see him emerging from the illusions of the abstract intelligence, until, sick at heart and in utter bitterness of soul, he come back to Nature, from whom he had been separated by his own disordered mind, he greets her lovingly once more, feeling her two gifts of peace and excitation, watching the new light which fell on human kind. As Nature came to teach him, he took up his life-work with calm earnestness. He closes with these impressive words--
"Prophets of Nature, we to them will speak
Let us now come to the consideration of his greatest poem-- "Lines composed a few miles above Tintern Abbey." It is difficult to speak with appreciation without appearing extravagant. If Wordsworth be a poet, if he be a teacher, here are both music and message. It will ever keep
"A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
We see the poet returning to the river, and the cliffs, and the landscape which have haunted his mind for the last five years. He renews his communion with the one sacred spot, which, "in lonely rooms, and 'mid the din of towns and cities," had visited him like an angel.
He sees that these sacred memories have exerted
"That blessed mood,
In this poem we have his clear confession of faith. He is a worshipper of Nature; unwearied in her service, he comes back to her with holier love, "knowing that Nature never did betray the heart that loved her." She leads us from joy to joy, she informs the mind that is within us, she impresses with quietness and beauty; above all she ministers to us the deep power of joy, whereby "we see into the life of things."
His great Ode on "Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood" is more often quoted than understood. To Wordsworth, immortality means wholeness. Life must be penetrated, interfused, by a heaven outside itself, in order to gain that wholeness which gives permanence. The child lives in communion with the heaven from which he has not yet, by self-consciousness, emerged, and in this unbroken fellowship with brooding eternity, he sees gleams, which all too soon cease, and die "into the light of common day." From the great deep to the great deep he goes. It is his destiny to win for himself through pain, and fortitude, and hope, a conscious existence in the new heaven and new earth which dawn on his humbled spirit.
The shorter poems need little analysis. The latent emotion steals forth to each sympathetic reader. I believe it to be a mistake to begin with the shorter poems in teaching Wordsworth. Let anyone who really wishes to appreciate Wordsworth read the first four Books of "The Excursion" with the warm breath of spring around him, and he will receive his impulse from the Poet. When we have overcome the "illusion of the tribe" that "The Excursion" is wholly dull, we are in a state to read "The Prelude"-- then his smaller poems.
It is quite impossible to speak adequately of Wordsworth except under the influence of a determined enthusiasm. Rejected by his generation, the laughing-stock of the brilliant, tame, colourless, and prolix to the majority of his readers, he has risen at last and become a great Teacher of men.
He resorted to no popular methods to diffuse the truth which (though at first the peculiar and private experience of his own inner self) he felt to be the common heritage of man. In honoured poverty he sent forth his verses to the world with an impressive quietness like the very breath of Nature. Gifted with great natural determination, with a firmness which could soon have stiffened into obstinacy, he might easily have raved and shouted to force a message on an unheeding world. To his honour be it said-- "He created the taste by which he was to be enjoyed." We love to see him stepping reverently amid the mysteries of growing life, perusing the day, responding to the silent looks of happy things, watching the blue smoke sent up in silence from among the trees, in his deep heart remaining a portion of that loveliness which he ever made more lovely. Let us see the extent and the depth of his permanent influence.
Humility is the secret of all knowledge: without this we hear nothing but the whirring of our own minds. He became still in the presence of Nature. Seldom is a soul silent enough to hear Nature speak. Few have a tranquil knowledge of the commonest things. In Wordsworth's day the air was sickly with the dull musings of restless souls: the minds of men were busy with artificial pedantries and elaborate conceits. In quiet awe he penetrated the inmost recesses of that dread presence, and came forth strengthened, irradiated, inspired.
Having once become still, a new world breaks upon him. He is delivered from the heresy which permanently imputes to Nature the mood which is first in the observer. Wordsworth of course knows as well as anyone that the light by which we observe Nature, comes out of our own soul. He would have echoed Coleridge's words--
"We receive but what we give,
but he insists that if we have first learned to peruse Nature with the jealous scrutiny of love, if our minds become intertwined with the real objective forms and shapes of loveliness, if we know the real fluttering daffodils, or the daisy's shadow, or the wind-blown celandine, we are delivered from the dreariness of supposing that our private moods are the measure of Nature's presence to the soul.
Again he asserts the sacredness and the universality of that knowledge which makes its way far into the heart through the medium of the senses. It is in Nature and the language of the sense that we find the Guardian of our being. There are not wanting those who say that a truth can have no real value in a man's life until reason has conducted it to its place, and given it solemn introduction. We have surely had enough of science and of philosophy too. Let us learn this truth, there are impressions of sense which need no admixture of the mind to give them value.
Poets of old time did not hesitate to bring a message. Either it is the awful drama played out by opposing wills, or the nearness of death, or the idyll of the passing joy. It has been their delight to use the highest creative powers to vindicate the dominion of some great truth. Wordsworth came at a time when men were playing with verse and dallying with the fineries of their own minds. He laid bare the secret springs of simple, faithful, joyous life. He saw anew the meaning and value of unnoticed things. All this he gave to the world through the medium of verse. He took himself and his art seriously. Since his time, poets have looked up to him as to one who taught them afresh the loftiness and power of that "breath and finer spirit of all knowledge."
He has accomplished the marvellous task of reflecting in his mind, as in a mirror, the exact form and value of each living object, and at the same time linking us with the One Spirit of which it is an exponent. He sees the fact, and he sees the idea. He reveals Nature, not himself. Full though he is of a kind of sublime egotism, insisting strenuously on the sacredness of his own experience, he does so because he has been touched by this dread presence, all his moods are her creation, and what he has seen and felt may be a "joy in widest commonalty spread."
Nothing is permanent save that which is joyous. Gladness is, after all, of the very substance and texture of Eternity. Wordsworth had been smitten into despair by his own relentless intellect, he had unsouled all the mysteries which make a brotherhood of the human race, he had hated his country and his kind; yet out of this spectral life, he had been led to see that it is to our hearts that Nature and humanity bring the sense of oneness, and with oneness comes for ever joy.
No one can study Wordsworth without feeling that , before the shadows fall, there is time to win something from the world by the struggle of life. In contact with discord, the jar of personal life, with sadness, and failure, there is a world which he has revealed to us which is never wearying, never dull; at all times and in all places this presence of the many forms and the one spirit of Nature is ours, and from it we shall ever come strengthened and refreshed.
Typed by L.A. Hernandez, July, 2023
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