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Seeing Is Believing: Wordsworth’s Modern Vision

ISSUE:  Winter 1977

The testimony is a familiar one of certain major figures of the 19th century who found in Wordsworth’s poetry a saving antidote to their crises of faith. Familiar, too, is Wordsworth’s own crisis of belief and his recovery among the Cumberland hills where he returned to take up vows once made for him. And in that recovery Wordsworth found a way of seeing into the source of his own being which in turn led to a rediscovery of his belief in man. He found also a new voice, personal and reflective in its tone, which gave a new authority to the poet’s role and a new statement of the poet’s vision. The vision is a singularly simple one of growth and identity, the same vision that would come to resolve the despair of John Stuart Mill and teach Arnold how to feel. This particular vision of William Wordsworth engendered a way of defining reality that in the 20th century still informs the poetry of certain major figures. Accordingly, not to be aware of this vision is not to understand wholly the achievement of modern poetry and not to hear fully the authenticity of its voice.

An understanding of Wordsworth’s achievement is a necessary condition of modern poetry. Lionel Trilling called Wordsworth the poet who understood the joy of being, the one who best perceived how to live in “the common routine.” He contrasted his poetry to the literature of the violent, apocalyptic, modern prophets of non-being, prophets who are often taken as the exclusive spokesmen for modern man and who reject the answer of man’s wholeness that Wordsworth found among his rural guides. For that reason, Trilling argues, we cannot separate Wordsworth from “the literature of our time. The separation cannot be made.” And Randall Jarrell insisted that any modern poet who wanted to be taken seriously needed a “right understanding of Wordsworth.” Wordsworth was not, Jarrell said, just a name or a writer whose style and vision anyone might “like” or “disagree with” or “enjoy”; he “was a fundamental stage through which the human imagination had to pass. . . .” Here then are two observations to begin from: Wordsworth cannot be separated from modern literature, and Wordsworth is a stage through which the modern imagination must pass.

Two opposing visions emerge in the modern world and find explicit expression in literature: one, the nature of being, and, two, the condition of nonbeing. The condition of non-being (man’s existential plight) appears often to be the only theme taken seriously in 20th-century literature, and the reason is that modern man has lost that vision of his identity and the consciousness of wholeness found in the nature of his own being. But this bleak vision of non-being is not exclusive, and that other, brighter vision of man’s being is just as persistent a theme in modern poetry1; indeed, Wordsworth is the first modern poet to explore significantly this condition of being and the one to discover its reality. I sometimes sense that for too many readers of modern poetry Wordsworth is one of the household gods to be acknowledged but not seriously attended to. His natural piety is raised to a kind of non-con forming pantheism; or, as I read somewhere, readers are turned away by the smell of daffodils. Such a response I suppose is due to a superficial acquaintance and to the reading of certain, unchanging anthology pieces. Even such a poet of being as Dylan Thomas dismissed Wordsworth as “a tea-time bore.” In a letter to Pamela Hansford Johnson, he wrote, “. . .old Father William was a human nanny goat with a pantheistic obsession.” He is “the humorless, the platitudinary reporter of Nature in her dullest moods.”

Dylan Thomas was only 17 when he offered his easy judgment, and he offered it with all the ebullience of a young poet who had just printed a few first poems. He is impatient with the tired, poetic mannerisms no longer possible in the 20th century. He did not “like” or “enjoy” Wordsworth; he did not realize that Wordsworth was a “stage through which [his] imagination had to pass”—was already passing. Thomas was of the devil’s party and did not know it. The best part of his own poetry is concerned with the search for self-knowledge, with the wisdom that comes with innocence, and with the problem of change and the quest for being. Just as ardently as Yeats (and surely Wordsworth) he longed to stand a sage “in God’s holy fire,” longed for unity of being and for that kind of wholeness achieved only by an act of the imagination.

What connects Wordsworth with modern literature and what makes him a necessary stage in the poet’s development is his insistence on the primacy of the imagination. For Wordsworth, as I read him, the imagination is the faculty that discovers the source of being, that recovers the mind’s priority. And what makes the imagination so particular is that its action is a controlled effort at recreation; it is a conscious striving to reconcile the external appearance with the inner reality. It is a synthesis of sensory perception with intellectual conception. It is, as Wallace Stevens says, a way of knowing. It is also a way of seeing. In short, it is a particular way of seeing because it is the discovery of the self which leads to the discovery of man—to the discovery of man’s kinship with man.

The recognition for the modern poet of this poetic faculty is crucial, for it takes the poet beyond the exhibition of fancy, beyond the indulgence of self-expression and self-confession. If the imaginative vision is to sustain itself because grounded in the belief in man’s wholeness and holiness, it sustains itself because it is an act of will, an act of mind. Wordsworth says the act of the imagination is the means through which man transcends ‘the material and the mortal to find the joy of being:

Our destiny, our being’s heart and home,
Is with infinitude. . .
With hope it is, hope that can never die,
Effort, and expectation, and desire,
And something evermore about to be.

    (The Prelude, VI, 604—608)

And this achievement is not for conspicuous or sensational triumph; rather, “. . .the soul. . .blest in thoughts/ That are their own perfection and reward” finds its strength and fulfillment “in herself and in beatitude” (VI, 611—613).

The vision is idealistic and characteristically modern: the lines just quoted follow a mountain top experience (the crossing of the Alps) and they suggest the reality of the personal vision, as they suggest more immediately the poet’s new role of finding within himself the way out, of finding the other in the self. And this vision is what I take Wordsworth to mean by the unity of being. He best describes this revelation of the nature of being in those experiences he calls “spots of time.” The phrase itself and those occasions which he designates as “spots of time” are the links which connect Wordsworth with modern literature. How to recover the vision? How perceive it in the common routine (what Jarrell calls “the dailiness of life”)? How to make of the poet’s private experience a source of man’s common deliverance?

Two answers are immediately significant. One is found in Wordsworth’s definition of “spots of time,” and the other is a point of view, as that phrase is used to define a fictional voice or angle of narration. First, Wordsworth’s definition is important, and his account of one such experience suggests the condition and the place for discovering the nature of being:

There are in our existence spots of time,
That with distinct pre-eminence retain
A renovating virtue, whence . . .our minds
Are nourished and invisibly repaired . . .
This efficacious spirit chiefly lurks
Among those passages of lire that give
Profoundest knowledge to what point, and how,
The mind is lord and master—outward sense
The obedient servant of her will.

    (The Prelude, XII, 208—223)

Wordsworth explains that often these special events begin in childhood and are remembered long after. Here he tells the story of his separation, when a child of five, from a servant while riding a horse in the hills surrounding his mother’s home near Penrith. Wandering lost, he comes upon an old gibbet post where a man had been hanged many years ago, and on the grass he sees the carved initials of the murdered man; startled, he runs away and comes on to a small pool where he sees a girl carrying a pitcher and walking against the wind. Just this. Nothing more. Years later, coming on the same scene and in company with Mary Hutchinson, he remarks that this scene and its remembered details not only created an intense and magnifying insight but that the power and radiance of the vision, the intensity of the feeling, all give to his present emotion (his love for Mary Hutchinson) an even greater joy:

    . . . So feeling comes in aid
Of feeling, and diversity of strength
Attends us, if but once we have been strong.
Ohl mystery of man, from what a depth
Proceed thy honours.

    (The Prelude, XII, 269—273)

Wordsworth’s remarkable re-creating of such an experience is even more remarkable because with this metaphor of time he first points the way to the place where all imaginative vision starts: the rag and bone shop of the heart. The other answer to the significance of the reality of this personal vision is found in the poetic voice; the voice now is subjective, particular, and autobiographic. Personal utterance becomes public performance. Such moments of intense insight, those brief and exhilarating moments when one is allowed to see into the life of things, are for the poet glimpses of the whole when high nature selects him for the sudden vision and “build up greatest things/ From least suggestions” (XIV, 102-103). The poet is now free to find universal relationships out of his own disconnected associations. He summons a vision, Roethke will later say, and declares it pure:

Who rise from flesh to spirit know the fall:
The word outleaps the world, and light is all.

    (“The Vigil,” from The Collected

Another quality grows out of the new poetic voice: the condition of the poet’s solitude and the authenticity of his private vision; he will come to grow more inward, more private. This view of the self, withdrawn and finding its greatest pleasure in solitude and in the primacy of its unique self-revelation, is in fact a new way of seeing, a new way of knowing and finds its structure in a new angle of vision. The point of view becomes almost exclusively first person; the speaking voice is no longer fictional but the poet’s own voice. The poet talks with himself. Nevertheless, the privacy of his vision does not make him exclusive, does not allow him to be seduced by an unreal, self-indulgent celebration of himself. Wordsworth discerned the moral absolutes of his vision; he had known at first hand the trauma of inexplicable disillusionment. He knew the exhaustion of defeat when all that he had dreamed of bringing the world and man into harmony burst in the violence of Robespierre’s reign of terror and afterwards in Napoleon’s military dictatorship. He had to come to terms with himself and with the world, a world disruptive and cut off from itself and its affections.

He found the answer in the rural solitude of Grasmere and in the solitary dalesmen and shepherds who wandered the Cumberland hills. The setting is no sentimental pastoral retreat, nor are the inhabitants stock characters from some conventional Arcadia. They are “men as they are men within themselves”:

Of these . . . shall be my song . . . my theme
No other than the very heart of man,
As found among the best of those who live . . .
In Nature’s presence . . .

    (The Prelude, XIII, 226—245)

And this place and these solitaries become for him the symbol of the unity of man with nature when man is made aware of the human heart; when man in truth can be himself. In turning from the world of becoming, he discovers the joy of being. The revelation brings with it often a still, sad music and at times thoughts too deep for tears, but as Wordsworth discovers the vision allows the poet

To hold fit converse with the spiritual world,
And with the generations of mankind
Spread over time, past, present, and to come,
Age after age, till Time shall be no more.

    (XIV, 108—111)

Yeats too contended with the world of being and becoming; as a poet he longed to be gathered into the “artifice of eternity” and fashioned like a golden bird to sing “Of what is past, or passing, or to come.” Like Wordsworth, the modern poet longed also to recover the sense of that distinction between the innocence of wisdom and the illusion of knowledge. Wordsworth’s solitaries are emblems of this dilemma: they are cut off but they recover a radical innocence; they achieve wholeness through “wise passiveness.” Wordsworth rememered his own fears, “the fear that kills;/ And hope that is unwilling to be fed . . ./ And mighty Poets in their misery dead.” But he resolved his crisis of despair in his meeting with that old man who paced “About the weary moors continually, / Wandering about alone and silently.” And when the Leech-gatherer told his simple tale, the poet writes;

I could have laughed myself to scorn to find
In that decrepit Man so firm a mind.

    (“Resolution and Independence,” 235-240)

Just so, the meaning of Wordsworth’s psychological odyssey reappears in the themes of modern poetry: the themes of isolation, alienation, the search for belief, and the awful response to the crisis of non-being. How does the modern poet resolve his crisis of belief? Where does he find the grounds of his being? I know of no modern poet, for example, more committed to Wordsworth’s vision of being and to the primacy of the imagination as the way to achieve wholeness than Wallace Stevens. Stevens creates a fictional mask to maintain a dramatic distance, but the tone is still personal and autobiographic; the third person protagonist, Crispin, in a major poem called “The Comedian as the Letter C,” undertakes a spiritual odyssey that will recover his awareness of his oneness with nature and is an account of the growth of his own mind. Crispin is at first, he tell us, only “the Socrates of snails”; he “wrote his couplet yearly to the spring” and, dandy-like, he “saw / The stride of vanishing autumn in a park by way of decorous melancholy. . . .” But Crispin grows dissatisfied with his shallow, conventional vision, and, like Wordsworth, he sets out to discover the joy of being, to find his identity in nature. He finds his natural knowledge in a vision of the sea, where, Stevens writes:

Crispin was washed away by magnitude.
The whole of life that still remained in him
Dwindled to one sound strumming in his ear . . .

Later, he says,

The salt hung on his spirit like a frost,
The dead brine melted in him like a dew
Of winter, until nothing of himself
Remained, except some starker, barer self
In a starker, barer world . . .

Crispin is transformed, “. . . a man made vivid by the sea” whose poetic vision is now not only enlarged and quickened, but

    . . . His mind was free
And more than free, elate, intent, profound
And studious of a self possessing him . . .

    (The Collected Poems, pp. 28—33)

In his new and sharper awareness of natural piety, Crispin confesses that “his soil is his intelligence” (p. 36). The wholeness of man’s union with nature is summarized in “A man and a woman/ Are one./ A man and a woman and a blackbird/ Are one” (Collected Poems, p.93). What the poet discovers is the unity of being, the relationship of all things to each other, what in a happy phrase Stevens calls “the bouquet of being.” In another and familiar poem, Stevens’s protagonist longs for fulfillment of self when time reveals what is past, passing, or to come:

She says, ‘I am content when wakened birds,
. . . test the reality
Of misty fields, by their sweet questionings

and no matter where reality tests its facts and no matter where mortality finds its place, nothing endures

As April’s green endures; or will endure
Like her remembrance of awakened birds,
Or her desire for June and evening, tipped
By the consummation of the swallow s wings.

     (The Collected Poems, p.68)

I do not pretend to suggest that all modern poets find the way to the beatific vision. The “fear that kills;/ And hope that is unwilling to be fed” are insistent themes as well, and the words of these writers contend against a terrifying and annihilating vision of non-being.Richard Chase calls this response the hyperaesthesia of the modern mind: “. . .its feeling that no thought is permissible except an extreme thought: that every idea must be directly emblematic of . . .alienation, madness, hell, history, and God; that every word must bristle and explode with the magic potency of our plight.” And one quickly thinks of writers like Kafka, Camus, Sartre, Hesse, of the lost, violent characters of Faulkner and O’Connor, of Hardy’s vision of Being as a “vast Imbecility,” and especially of that dark, proud vision of man’s mad struggle against himself and God that haunted Dostoyevsky, himself a stranger and afraid in a world he never made.

Yet over and above the nihilism and myopia of non-being, Wordsworth’s clear vision is repeated in the language of other modern poets. In the Tower poems Yeats sought the symbolic world of Byzantium and the solution to the old dilemma: in a world of violent and often meaningless change where does one find absolutes? Where to find the still point, the union of man with nature? In ceremony and innocence Yeats writes in one poem; and in another, called up by a long-suffering spot of time, he senses not only a Ledean body but those Presences “that all heavenly glory symbolise.” Just as he senses those images that mock man’s striving for unity, so he knows how man strives for that wholeness of being where one no longer separates the dancer from the dance. After the penitential prayer of “Ash Wednesday,” Eliot finds the resolution

At the still point of the turning world. Neither
    flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there     the dance is, But neither arrest nor movement . . . Where past and future are gathered.

    (“Burnt Norton” from Four Quartets)

Robert Frost is more spell-binding, although no less symbolic, and in a poem like “Directive” he looks back to “a time made simple by the loss/ Of detail” to discover a “broken drinking goblet like the Grail/ Under a spell so the wrong ones can’t find it,” for

Here are your waters and your watering place.
Drink ana be whole again beyond confusion.

And in another place, kneeling at a well curb, he sees, if only momentarily, something:

One drop fell from a fern, and lo, a ripple
Shook whatever it was lay there at the bottom,
Blurred it, blotted it out. What was that whiteness?
Truth? A pebble of quartz? For once, then, something.

    (“For Once, Then, Something )

Theodore Roethke finds his true self when he returns to the origins of his early vision, to “the far field” where “At the field’s end . . ./ One learned of the eternal”;

I learned not to fear infinity,
The far field, the windy cliffs of forever,
The dying of time in the white light of tomorrow,
The wheel turning away from itself,
The sprawl of the wave,
The on-coming water.

And like Wordsworth he finds within himself infinitude (“something ever more to be”); and he finds

A man faced with his own immensity
Wakes all the waves. . .
The murmur of the absolute, the why
Of being born fails on his naked ears.
His spirit moves like monumental wind
That gentles on a sunny blue plateau.
He is the end of things the final man.

    (“The Far Field”)

These few examples only begin to suggest the direction and the source of Wordsworth’s modernity. To be sure the modern attitude burdens itself too self-consciously with the celebration of its own despair and would seem to shy away from Wordsworth’s vision of the self at home with itself. But the vision of being is an insistent one, the soil, as Stevens said, of one’s intelligence, and like Wordsworth, these modern poets learned in their need to discover the nature of being and learned that one had only to see (to come to a right understanding of the condition of his own being) in order to believe. As “prelude,” Wordsworth’s major poem discovers for us what he called “an auxiliar light” from which the mind “Bestowed new splendour” (II, 368—70). He taught us how to be.

Matthew Arnold found Wordsworth in an iron time, and no poet expressed more persuasively the condition of the modern world and its need to appropriate Wordsworth’s saving vision:

But we, brought forth and rear’d in hours
Of change, alarm, surprise—
What shelter to grow ripe is ours?
What leisure to grow wise?

    (“Stanzas in Memory of the Author of ‘Obermann’ “)

So that Trilling and Jarrell knew with the sureness of their own strong visions that Wordsworth could not be separated from the literature of the modern age and that the knowledge that comes with right seeing is that kind of imaginative vision through which the modern poet has to pass—has to pass, that is, if he is to achieve the joy of being and the human hope of continuing effort, the promise of expectation and the heart’s desire, “and something evermore about to be.”


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