Wordsworth’s ‘Tintern Abbey’ has two climactic passages which are a report of mystical experience, and which poetically recreate that experience. The first evokes a ‘blessed mood’ in which ‘we see into the life of things’; in the second ‘a presence’ is felt, ‘a motion and a spirit’ that ‘rolls through all things.’ The two experiences are related to but carefully set off from other experiences that do not have the same mystical force. It is a formula for confusion and muddle to quote different parts of the poem as if they all referred to the same experiences, and in particular to move back and forth between common experiences of nature and the specifically mystical experience. Many critics do this. They hop dizzyingly from one part of the poem to another, sometimes for deconstructive purposes, having neglected to work out its basic argument in what the French call an explication du texte. To correct this, I shall comment on the entire poem, placing the mystical passages in their carefully prepared context.
Normally, mystical utterances are not very appealing to literary or even theological readers. One expects mystical discourse to be vague, verbose, and vacuous. Plotinus, Augustine, John of the Cross, and (at least for some readers) Eckhart are rare exceptions, in that they manage to write mystically in a literarily gripping way. In English, we might cite a few poems of Traherne and Vaughan, and some passages of Eliot’s Four Quartets. Wordsworth belongs in this select company. Critics obsess about real or alleged problematic aspects of the mystical passages and of ‘Tintern Abbey’ as a whole, but given the right perspective of interpretation these do not detract from the potency of the vision the poem expresses and in many cases are seen to augment it.
‘Wordsworth-bashing’ has long been a sport of literary critics, and it is easy to dismiss this sublime passage in the tones of Macaulay’s reaction to The Prelude: ‘There are the old raptures about mountains and cataracts; the old flimsy philosophy about the effect of scenery on the mind; the old crazy, mystical metaphysics; the endless wildernesses of dull, flat, prosaic twaddle’ (Wordsworth 1979:560). Macaulay well distinguishes three dimensions of Wordsworth’s cult of nature, also named in ‘Tintern Abbey’: the immediate ecstasy in presence of nature (and its enhancement in reflection); the (moral) impact of (recollected) nature, healing and ennobling the mind; and the ‘blessed mood’ of mystical perception with its metaphysical intimations. These are layered one on the other, forming a coherent set of experiences, which is often broken up by critics who are in a hurry to find hidden social or historical subtexts, in obedience to academic fashion.
In the New Historical perspective dominant in recent Wordsworth criticism ‘Tintern Abbey’ becomes a poem about Wordsworth’s homecoming to nature, or escape to nature, after the traumas of the French Revolution. As a reality check, one should reread the poem itself. It makes no reference whatever to the French Revolution, and not even the slightest allusion to any of the numberless ideas connected with that event. It is perfectly possible, indeed probable, that Wordsworth did not think of the French Revolution at all during the days he composed this poem. So discussion as to whether he has repressed or deliberately suppressed memory of the Revolution in the poem (Fry, 180) is rather otiose. Critics seem to be clutching at straws when they find in the date of the poem, July 13, 1798, an allusion to the fall of the Bastille, July 14, 1789. Anxious to assess Wordsworth as a poet of social liberation, many of these critics bring to bear an extreme hermeneutics of suspicion on the poet’s celebration of nature and its influences and of his sister. Sometimes this borders on cultural and spiritual vandalism.
I think we must recognize that the poet is a flop if the mystical moods that form its climax cannot be taken with full seriousness, on their own terms. Their authenticity gains credence from the fact that many people, unschooled by Wordsworth or by religious influences, have experienced not only similar ecstasy in connection with natural landscapes but a similar sense of supernal presence, which has surprised and disturbed them but filled them with joy. While critics have exposed these passages to many forms of distortion, suspicion, and neglect, an old Christian suspicion of Wordsworth’s early pantheism may meanwhile still block reception of his mystical utterances. It seems to me that professional theologians have little trouble taking such testimonies in their stride, and entering into a dialogue with them; nor do they feel a need to fit them into a Christian scheme or locate them on a biblical map, something the later, more orthodox Wordsworth of the 1850 Prelude did not even attempt, for he respected the integrity of his own experience, its magic, and was happy to draw on its whenever he could.
However, there is a danger that Christian readers too complacently enfold Wordsworth’s nature mysticism within a broad biblical vision. The entire absence of the biblical God from all of Wordsworth’s greatest verse could be linked with a like absence in most works of the other great nature poet of the time, Hölderlin. It is probable that Hölderlin and Wordsworth, both born in 1770, never heard of one another. Wordsworth spent a miserable winter with his sister in Goslar in the winter of 1798, making no progress with German, and enjoying no social life. Would it have saved him as a poet if he had been able to converse with Hölderlin or visit Goethe in Weimar? Hölderlin is of course the more powerful poetic genius, incapable of lapsing into the prosy conventionalism that lay in ambush for Wordsworth’s pen. His uncanny understanding of the ancient Greeks gave a foundation to his work for which there is no equivalent in Wordsworth. Wordsworth has to reach as far back as Shakespeare and Milton for great precursors; Hölderlin found them near at hand in Goethe and Schiller. The close friend of Schelling and Hegel, he also had original philosophical insights, whereas Wordsworth had to lean on Coleridge for muffled echoes of Schelling. When Henry James speaks of Wordsworth as ‘so harshly conditioned by his sparseness and bareness and bleakness’ (748), he is thinking of Wordsworth’s cultural world too, his small collection of books, his narrow circles of contacts, the threadbare philosophical ideas on which he thought to build a mighty epic. The mental becloudedness in which the German poet spent the second half of his life, dying in 1843, sets off the greatness of his early verse, whereas Wordsworth’s decline dragged down his great early poems by linking them with the vast, mediocre later output.
Like Wordsworth, Hölderlin was ‘educated’ by ‘mighty, divinely beautiful nature’ (‘Wie wenn am Feiertage,’ written in 1800), but this was linked with a sense that the gods had flown and that we are living in the age of ‘the lack of God.’ The poet’s task is ‘without fearing the appearance of godlessness, to await patiently in prepared closeness to the lack, until out of the closeness to the lacking God the initial word is granted, which names the high’ (Heidegger, 28). In a simpler way, Wordsworth is exploring a similar religious space, and the strangeness of his mystical intuitions puts him in a company of distinctly modern writers who can be seen as pathfinders of a future economy of the religious. Theologians can attempt to see them as attesting a ‘general revelation’ or a ‘natural religion,’ coming before the specific call of the biblical God. The sense of exile from God that can be found in many of them, whether they are avowed atheists or intoxicated with notions of divinity, could be interpreted as a prophetic longing, which demands to be fulfilled not by any shallow repristinations of traditional Christian language but by a radical revision of the entire stock of inherited religious representations.
I: The Recovered Landscape
The fundamental anchorage of the mystical vision lies in a sensual experience of nature, in particular of the emblematic landscape described in the first verse paragraph:
Five years have past; five summers, with the length
Of five long winters! and again I hear
These waters, rolling from their mountain-springs
With a soft inland murmur.—Once again
Do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs,
That on a wild secluded scene impress
Thoughts of more deep seclusion; and connect
The landscape with the quiet of the sky.
The day is come when I again repose
Here, under this dark sycamore, and view
These plots of cottage-ground, these orchard-tufts,
Which at this season, with their unripe fruits,
Are clad in one green hue, and lose themselves
’Mid groves and copses. Once again I see
These hedge-rows, hardly hedge-rows, little lines
Of sportive wood run wild: these pastoral farms,
Green to the very door; and wreaths of smoke
Sent up, in silence, from among the trees!
With some uncertain notice, as might seem
Of vagrant dwellers in the houseless woods,
Or of some Hermit’s cave, where by his fire
The Hermit sits alone. (ll. 1-22)
A poet so versed in Milton as Wordsworth was must have been aware that his opening line would recall the opening of ‘Lycidas’ (‘Yet once more, o ye laurels, and once more’). ‘That poem of ecstasy opens with mourning’ (Bromwich, 160). Yet, in contrast to Keats and Shelley, or Lamartine (see Richard, 148-51), Wordsworth does not make the flight of time, a common theme of Romantic elegy, a central and persistent concern of his verse. He may even have felt he had all the time in the world, time enough to project a vast epic, The Recluse, which remained uncompleted for lack not of time but of inspiration, as well as because of the discouraging reception of the section published in 1816, The Excursion. He had time enough to keep tinkering at his masterpiece The Prelude, for fortyfive years, leaving its reception to posterity; and time, in those long uninspired decades, may have hung heavily on his hands.
Apart from this elusive touch of melancholy, the paragraph makes little reference to the sensations or sentiments that the landscape produces on him now. Only in the fourth of the five verse paragraphs will it become explicit that the pleasure of rediscovery is mixed with ‘perplexity,’ due to his own diminished sensibility. Sadness about what has been lost can be felt, at least on a second reading, in the opening lines; the ‘five years’ have been a time of loss, of seeping away of natural vitality, especially during the winters; but also a time of gain.
For the moment the note of melancholy is muted and of indeterminate significance. In general English meditative landscape poetry (Gray, Collins, Cowper, Thomson) has an elegiac aura, and the repeated ‘again’s serve here to project the landscape as a theme for meditation, so that we seek out spiritual resonances in its details. The ‘waters, rolling from their mountainsprings/With a soft inland murmur’ are an invisible presence, anticipating from afar the spirit that ‘rolls through all things’ at the climax of the poem. Aural sensations elsewhere in the poem are intensely inward: ‘The sounding cataract/Haunted me like a passion,’ ‘The still, sad music of humanity.’ Then the ‘thoughts of more deep seclusion’ anticipate the inner world of thought to be explored throughout the poem. The phrase ‘connect/The landscape with the quiet of the sky’ suggests that the landscape has a recollected quality, opening onto a transcendent calm. It will be taken up again in ‘an eye made quiet by the power/Of harmony’ and ‘impress/With quietness and beauty.’ The many recurring words in the poem weave a linked progression that anchors its highest mystical flights in the simplest initial sensations.
The run-on lines bring out the connectedness of everything in this landscape. The imagery ‘begins to stream before the “hedge-rows, hardly hedge-rows” passage occurs, which thereby reveals itself as continuing the flow set in motion… The image of the “orchard-tufts,” instead of remaining static and precise, streams to the vision of “one green hue” and streams further to “groves and copses”’ (McFarland, 52). The wave-like motion of the verse, as Hartman notes, is enhanced by caesurae on feminine endings – ‘murmur’ and ‘copses’ here – and throughout the poem there is a constant alternation of moods, creating the mobility of an ode. ‘It was written with a hope that in the transitions, and impassioned music of the versification, would be found the principal requisites of that species of composition’ (1800 Preface to Lyrical Ballads). Wordsworth changed the original title from ‘Lines Written a few miles above Tintern Abbey’ to ‘Lines Composed,’ the better to reflect the deliberative procedures of the poem.
‘By this wavering rhythm the halted consciousness flows precariously into the continuousness of meditation’ (Hartman, 27). The poem does give a sense of the elusive contours and rhythms of meditative thought, but this should not encourage us to mix together indiscriminately statements from different parts of the poem referring to different parts of Wordsworth’s multifaceted experience. The wave motion of the verse does not mean that the sentences flow vaguely into one another. Rather they are set off against one another by logical connectives such as ‘therefore’ and by adroitly managed transitions. The poem builds up its statement brick by brick, as it were.
Even the initial landscape is precisely structured by three acts of seeing: ‘Once again/ Do I behold,’ ‘I repose… and view,’ ‘Once again, I see,’ introducing respectively the cliffs, the plots of cottage ground and orchards, and the hedgerows, pastoral farms, and wreaths of smoke. In a sense the poet is composing the landscape, as a painter does. It is an exercise in the picturesque. To ‘behold’ and to ‘view’ is to take up a contemplative stance, from a distance, establishing a shaping perspective. In this sense, it may be true that ‘Wordsworth’s pastoral prospect is a fragile affair, artfully assembled by acts of exclusion’ (Levinson, cited McFarland, 3). The landscape is artfully composed; it has been recomposed in the poet’s recollection during the five years of absence, and the present composition rehandles the original model in light of this ‘picture of the mind.’ Modern tourists are obliged to eliminate from their perception the unsightly commercial trappings that clutter most beauty spots, and in this regard Wordsworth is emblematic of the first great age of tourism. Hölderlin also idealizes the landscapes that inspired him, but this has nothing to do with subjective prettification. ‘How long will we go on believing that there is first a nature in itself and a landscape in itself, that then with the help of “poetic feelings” is mythically coloured? How long will we bar ourselves from experiencing beings as being (das Seiende als seiend zu erfahren)?’ (Heidegger, 21).
The poem ‘creates its complete and persuasive fiction’ by ‘exclusion’: it ‘avoids localizing detail’ and ‘passes over everything that gave the area its actual day-to-day character—the commercial traffic on the river, the charcoal-burners serving the iron furnaces along its banks, whose smoke, Gilpin noted in his Observations on the River Wye (1782), “issuing from the sides of the hills; and spreading its thin veil over a part of them, beautifully breaks their lines, and unites them with the sky,” the beggars at Tintern Abbey itself, whose wretched hovels defeated even Gilpin’s capacity of harmonizing everything into the picturesque’ (Gill, 152-3; see also Roe, 159-62). Marjorie Levinson claims that Wordsworth misses the social significance of ‘green to the very door,’ namely that the enclosure of common lands withdrew them from the cottagers’ cultivation (McFarland, 34). As a criticism of Wordsworth this is inapt. The author of the inflammatory (but fortunately for him, unpublished) Letter to the Bishop of Llandaff in 1793 was not lacking in social awareness, even if he had become ideologically moderate; indeed John Keble acclaimed him as ‘the one among all poets who has set forth the manners, the pursuits, and the religion of the poor’ (cited, McFarland, 12). Of course such a testimony from a clergyman will confirm the impression that he sacrificed political radicalism for a conventional pious philanthropy. The image of Wordsworth as a renegade is fixed in the popular imagination by Browning’s catchy poem, ‘The Lost Leader’ (‘Just for a handful of silver he left us,/Just for a ribbon to hang on his coat’), but the tenacity with which modern critics try to find betrayal in every line of ‘Tintern Abbey’ is rather sophomoric and fanatical, comparable to the obsessive quest for hints of Nazism in every page of Heidegger.
Levinson claims that the ‘hedgerows,’ too, are signs of enclosure, but more likely the reference is to older hedges; ‘stems that were at first laid horizontally and interwoven for strength and thickness have now been allowed to grow wild’ (Myall). There is a realism and an integration of the dynamic process of perception here that shows Wordsworth transcending the picturesque, as Myall notes: ‘His situation, low in the scene, under a tree with cliffs rising above him, accords with the rule for picturesque viewpoints. The “vagrant dwellers” and the “Hermit” are a fanciful reminder of the human types most favoured by the picturesque artist (stemming from the banditti and gipsies of Salvator Rosa), albeit they enter only “as might seem,” a slightly clumsy Wordsworthian witticism that disavows, even as it reminds us of, the standard apparatus of the picturesque. Yet the process of perception, shown inthe hedgerow lines, rarely forms a part of picturesque description, since what is “agreeable in a picture” has already been selected, arranged, and rendered static. Moreover, Gilpin proscribes the inclusion of signs of cultivation in a picturesque scene, thus orchards and farms would be elided if he were representing this landscape.’
For Nicholas Roe, the poem is not evasive; ‘its vision of nature includes unobtrusively a range of personal, political, aesthetic and social contexts, all of them burdened with the torment Satan had felt on contemplating Paradise’ (169) in Paradise Lost IV. Thus the word ‘houseless’ may be a dint in paradisal perfection, for it echoes King Lear’s apostrophe to the ‘poor naked wretches,’ with their ‘houseless heads and unfed sides,’ and shows ‘a knowledge of humanity at odds with the picturesque attempt to subdue such an awareness’ (170). But it may be that Wordsworth does not think of the possible vagrants as suffering a miserable plight; they may be the romantic gypsies of much English pastoral. It is again rather a stretch to suppose that the opening words ‘allude to a number of revolutionary anniversaries, and also to a period of “dereliction and dismay” that would have been recognized by Wordsworth in some of the unhappy associations of the Wye valley itself’ (172).
David Bromwich says that ‘Tintern Abbey’ is usually described as ‘a poem about the adaptation of landscape to consciousness’ or as ‘the original poem in English about the crystallization of a self, and how that process follows from reflection on the relations between a thinking subject and the objects it chooses in the world’ (69), hardly a very enlightening account of the critical tradition. Epistemological subject-object negotiations flicker here and there in the poem, but its core interest is the presence that pervades all minds and all objects of thought. Bromwich invents a fantastic interpretation based on the supposition that De Quincey is alluding to ‘Tintern Abbey’ when he remarks that the murderers in Macbeth are ‘sequestered in some deep recess… the world of ordinary life is suddenly arrested—laid asleep—tranced’ (quoted, 71). The only phrase in the poem that gives a basis for this is ‘Flying from something that he dreads,’ which Bromwich suggests refers to ‘something about his past that he now wished forgotten or undone’ (72). A more plausible reading, based on the poem itself, is that he is criticizing his attitude to nature in 1793, in that he used it as a mere escape, not linking it with humanity and its claims, or dreading the travail of thought and of ethical responsibility.
Bromwich sees the poem as a defence of aesthetic sublimation of guilty memories: this was ‘the way his contemporaries read it, without ever having to mention the fact’ (73)—an argument from silence. The poem enacts a ‘shift of bearings’ from social concern to personal experience (74). The dread he flees in 1793 is connected with the turmoil of the revolutionary years; he himself was ‘somehow implicated in the regime of terror’ (86). Even in 1798, Wordsworth is supposed to be affected by this turmoil: ‘In the French scheme of things in 1798… if the hermit was a monk, he might seem like a vagrant, but again for a determinate reason: his lands and the abbey built on them would have been confiscated by the new revolutionary state’ (78). ‘The confidence with which Wordsworth’s eye rests on the landscape shares something of the spirit by which the abbey once was tenanted. It seems a spirit opposed, by its very deliberateness, to the new utilitarian ethic of commerce both in France and England’ (78). True enough, but Wordsworth does not draw on the associations of the abbey in the poem, unless we read them into the title and to words like ‘seclusion’ and ‘hermit. To bring the abbey into the poem would have blurred the focus on nature as the primary site or occasion of contemplative insight.
Paul H. Fry, in a downbeat reading of the poem, finds funereal overtones in this opening paragraph. ‘The steep and lofty cliffs “impress/Thoughts of a [sic!] more deep seclusion,” as though they were stones pressing down from above. No matter that the word ‘impress’ does not mean ‘press down’; its use elsewhere in the poem—‘impress/With quietness and beauty’—confirms its gracious sense here. ‘The speaker has returned to this spot to “repose” under a “dark” tree and look around at “plots,” perhaps from his own plot. It is the language of the Graveyard School’ (179). Need it be pointed out that cottage plots have nothing to do with funeral plots? The shade of the sycamore highlights the sunniness of the day, and the spooky connotations Fry finds are totally gratuitous.
Fry thinks that Wordsworth’s distaste for city life means that he is ‘bent on distancing himself from even the most marginalized social conditions… a process that requires delaying even the address to his sister and begins with the amazing oxymorons…: the “notice” that is uncertain and may only seem to appear even as an uncertainty; the dwellers who are impossibly “vagrant” and in any case could scarcely dwell in woods that are “houseless,” leaving only a possible hermit… the ultimate symbol of those anti-social impulses’ (179-80). If Fry had read the lines more carefully he would see that the ‘notice’ is uncertain only because it is uncertain what it indicates; it certainly indicates a human presence, which Wordsworth reacts to, albeit only guessing, or perhaps playfully imagining, that it indicates homeless people dwelling temporarily in the woods (not of course in houses) or else a solitary hermit. There is no oxymoron.
II: Inner Landscapes
These beauteous forms,
Through a long absence, have not been to me
As is a landscape to a blind man’s eye:
But oft, in lonely rooms, and ’mid the din
Of towns and cities, I have owed to them,
In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,
Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart;
And passing even into my purer mind
With tranquil restoration:—feelings too
Of unremembered pleasure: such, perhaps,
As have no slight or trivial influence
On that best portion of a good man’s life,
His little, nameless, unremembered, acts
Of kindness and of love. (ll. 22-35)
‘As is a landscape to a blind man’s eye’ might seem a clumsy periphrasis for ‘unprofitable,’ but it introduces a note of disquiet and denial. ‘I have not been blind,’ he says, as if in denial of what he later confesses: that outward sights have lost their power for him and that he must cultivate the inner eye instead. Already the fear of spiritual blindness is nagging at him, the fear explicitly expressed a few years later: ‘I see by glimpses now, when age comes on/May scarcely see at all’ (Prelude 1805, XI, ll. 337-8). In this poem he is confident in the superiority and lasting value of his inner vision, but we may already fear that it, in turn, will fail.
Note that a ‘landscape’ can be a painting, and that ‘beauteous forms’ is more suggestive of artistic forms than of those of nature. The landscape as ‘recollected in tranquility’ is contemplated rather as if it were a work of art, and is indeed recomposed by the poetic imagination. The poem is a precipitate of those five years of recollection as much as of the impact of the revisited scene; even the poem’s eloquence and concentration, and the speed with which it was composed, may owe something to verbalizations accompanying those exercises in recollection. The beauteous forms produce three distinct effects, which too many critics conflate: first, ‘sensations sweet’ effecting inner ‘restoration’; second, a moral influence lying below the threshold of conscious memory; third, the ‘serene and blessed’ mystical mood. We may call these the restorative, the ethical, and the mystical impact of nature.
The ‘sensations sweet’ have almost a feverish quality, stirring his pulses, quickening his heartbeat, but then they become calmer, gently settling in his mind. Almost erotically, the poet is first excited and then soothed by his impassioned re-imagining of the landscape in his mind—‘in excited reverie,’ Yeats would say. The phrase ‘my purer mind’ is puzzling, but John Rudy’s explanation of it is even more so: ‘Indistinguishable from its surroundings, it s aligned with a spirituality outside or beyond the idiom of a specific cultural tradition.’ It is ‘in a state of disappearance’ (3). ‘The movement of thought and image here… is downward toward a spiritual ground that hides or obliterates the sense of mind as a distinct intellectual realm. To feel sensations “in the blood” and “along the heart” is to be sensation itself, not a separate being experiencing sensation as impulses different from the self. One cannot locate the mind in a still point or stable perspective outside the moving events that constitute it. The “beauteous forms” that produce the sensations and the “purer mind” that receives them occupy an existential priority, a unitary ground of being in which percipient and perceived emerge as variant aspects of each other’ (4). This has more to do with Zen doctrine than with anything Wordsworth says at this point.
The ethical effect of the landscape is harder to pin down, for it is the effect of pleasures that are not remembered and reimagined but that have left a mark on the character. The ‘feelings’ must be conscious, perhaps as a general benign sense of nature’s presence, but the precise events that generated and nourished them are no longer remembered. The connection between the ‘beauteous forms’ and this moral effect is a matter of faith: ‘perhaps.’ Indeed, the poet seems to be forgetting the ‘forms’ in favour of generic ‘unremembered pleasures.’ Wordsworth probably senses as keenly as Macaulay a flimsiness in his philosophy here. In fact the philosophy voiced is not even his own. Its abstraction, betrayed by the two ‘unremembered’s, recalls the ideas of Coleridge as expressed to his correspondent George Dyer in 1795: ‘beholding constantly the Best possible we at last become ourselves the best possible. In the country, all around us smile Good and Beauty’ (quoted, Roe, 36), and those of Dyer himself: ‘The GOOD MAN from the appearances of nature derives tender affections, generous principles, and humane conduct… universal tenderness’ (quoted, Roe, 37). The later passage about the ‘still, sad music of humanity’ captures an original Wordsworthian sense of the moral influence of nature far more memorably and mysteriously. The 1799 Prelude returns to the theme of moral influence, in an over-emphatic passage:
… ye mountains, and ye lakes
And sounding cataracts, ye mists and winds
That dwell among the hills where I was born.
If in my youth I have been pure in heart,
If, mingling with the world I am content
With my own modest pleasures, and have lived
With God and Nature communing, removed
From little enmities and low desires,
The gift is yours. (II, ll. 470-8)
This topic plays a less prominent role in the 1805 Prelude, where not banal moral virtue, but a distinctive contemplative calm and exaltation is what nature instils, ‘The calm existence that is mine when I/Am worthy of myself’ (I, ll. 360-1); ‘A grandeur in the beatings of the heart’ (l. 441).
First Mystical Passage
The third impact of nature is also a matter of faith: ‘I trust.’ Again the faith bears not on the experience itself, which is indubitable, but on its connection with the sights and sounds of nature:
Nor less, I trust,
To them I may have owed another gift,
Of aspect more sublime; that blessed mood,
In which the burthen of the mystery,
In which the heavy and the weary weight
Of all this unintelligible world,
Is lightened:—that serene and blessed mood,
In which the affections gently lead us on,—
Until, the breath of this corporeal frame
And even the motion of our human blood
Almost suspended, we are laid asleep
In body, and become a living soul:
While with an eye made quiet by the power
Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,
We see into the life of things. (ll. 35-49)
The phrase ‘the affections gently lead us on’ suggests the process whereby this mystical breakthrough is enabled. The word immediately preceding this section is ‘love.’ Feelings of love become so absorbing that they change the entire consciousness into a living act of joy and vision. The shift from ‘I’ to ‘we’ marks the threshold to a new quality of experience, deeper, simpler and more universal. Bromwich thinks that if Wordsworth had written ‘I’ instead of ‘we’ he would have had trouble being accepted, whereas the plural ‘gave a normal glow to peculiar and estranging experiences’ (144). I would see it rather as phenomenologically exact, underlining the sense that the ‘mood’ is not peculiar and estranging but an encounter with fundamental reality that makes the whole world kin. There is an elusive interpersonal character to this mystical experience. If he had written ‘the affections gently lead me on,’ it would oddly suggest affections without any object of affection. ‘The power of harmony,’ another mysterious phrase, could refer to the harmony of shared affection among human beings, bringing the soul to rest.
Just as the ‘sensations sweet’ had a counterpart in the din of cities, so here the ‘blessed mood’ is opposed to the weary weight of the world, perhaps particularly as experienced in cities. The sensual elements previously mentioned are now invoked to be transcended (blood) or interiorized (eye). Does this leave the soul ‘adrift in a condition of disembodied, centerless spirituality’ (Rudy, 4)? Could one not equally say that the soul is centred and steadied? Rudy does not draw any distinction between the ‘sensations sweet’ that enter the ‘purer mind’ and the later ‘blessed mood,’ promoting the former also to mystical status: ‘The seeing eye, like the “purer mind,” is unsituated, or, if situated, then existing in the motion of the poet’s bloodstream.’ But in the ‘blessed mood’ this motion is ‘almost suspended,’ evidently in contrast to the ‘sensations sweet,’ and so it is rather in the absence of motion that the inner eye is ‘situated.’ ‘The light of seeing is coextensive with the lightness of being that comes with the sense of the essential emptiness of all things, their essencelessness’ (4). It is hard to find this Buddhist emptiness in this passage, and the possible analogies with Vedantic mysticism are more promising. ‘To be a “living soul” in this sense is to be one with a world in which all things including the human individual are in motion and interanimate with all other things, hence disembodied, lightened, continuous with a moving environment’ (4-5). The picture here is filled out with help from the second mystical passage, which indeed refers to ‘motion.’ Here, in contrast, the languages suggests a perfect stasis.
Fry (178) finds in the poem a ‘downward pull’ that is masked by its ‘rhetoric of transcendence,’ one of the reasons William Empson called the poem ‘a muddle’; the poem ‘reflects continuously on the somatism of the natural world in relation to death.’ ‘Wordsworth—in keeping with the word “sublime” itself [etymologically, ‘under the threshold’]—points down just when one might expect him to point up.’ I see no reason to think that readers expect Wordsworth to point up; nor does he point down here, but rather inward, ‘into’ the life of things. As an example of pointing down, Fry cites ‘the deep power of joy.’ But the depth of joy has nothing to do with being pulled back to an alleged death-like physicality of nature; quite the opposite, it denotes intensity of life. Fry’s effort to make the ‘somatism’ of nature the centre of gravity of the poem is thwarted by the emphatically non-somatic nature of the ‘blessed mood.’
Admitting that the ‘blessed mood’ can be called ‘visionary insight,’ Fry nonetheless says that it ‘resembles a coma’ (179) and regrets that Jonathan Wordsworth ‘moves gradually from his then unprecedented focus on somatic and marginal states to modulations of these states into transcendent registers’ (224). But a coma is not a heightened state of consciousness. The stilling of body, sense, blood, and breath in Wordsworth resembles the accompaniments of Buddhist meditative samadhi, which is a state of heightened consciousness, not a coma.
Finding that ‘lighten the burthen’ can mean ‘explain the point’ or ‘make the load lighter,’ Fry comments: ‘The poem is a “muddle” precisely because it must not overvalue language as a means of explanation, hence keeps ducking explanation in the perpetual flow of puns, antithetical meanings, subtexts…The rapt contemplative does not want an answer, a burden explained; he wants a respite from wanting an answer, a burden lifted; and in that respite he can hear music’(180). These last satirical words mix up the mystical mood with the ‘still, sad music’ passage; they suggest that Wordsworth is just an escapist daydreamer, whose mystic moods cannot have brought any genuine calm insight into reality (though Fry has just spoken of ‘visionary insight’). Wordsworth, we are told, wants to live in a ‘soundproof box,’ ‘the isolation that overcomes alienation’ (181). But any contemplative exercise or experience
could be caricatured in these terms. The much-caricatured Henry James more convincingly saw Wordsworth as ‘proof that observation feeding on Nature, and meditation feeding on itself, are processes which may very well go forward in company’ (772).
Roe says that the ‘universal tenderness’ (Dyer’s phrase) that Wordsworth intuited in the moral impact of nature ‘merges’ with the ‘“serene and blessed mood” in which corporeal or bodily feeling merges with a sense of “seeing into the life of things”’ (39). The word ‘merges’ is wrong both times. The ‘blessed mood’ transcends the moral ‘kindness’ and involves an arrest of bodily feeling. The ‘blessed mood’ passage is described by Roe in a flattening way: ‘The language of the poem at this point seems keyed to the exalted, transcendent sphere of Romantic ideology’ (39)—a vacuous, generic account, which indicates again how little the politicized reading of Wordsworth attends to the texture of mystical passages. Worse still, he adds: ‘Yet the phrase “the life of things” is also startlingly and uncompromisingly commonplace, in this instance approximating to Godwin’s “things as they are” which denoted the tyrannies and oppressions of life as treated in his novel Caleb Williams’ and to ‘the particularity of human experience that had given Dyer’s politics of nature their distinctive identity’ (39). This misses completely the quality of Wordsworth’s diction here, which clearly belongs to the register of mystical simplicity, something like Augustine’s idipsum or T. S. Eliot’s ‘heart of light’
III: A Note of Doubt
Be but a vain belief, yet, oh! how oft—
In darkness and amid the many shapes
Of joyless daylight; when the fretful stir
Unprofitable, and the fever of the world,
Have hung upon the beatings of my heart—
How oft, in spirit, have I turned to thee,
O sylvan Wye! thou wanderer thro’ the woods,
How often has my spirit turned to thee! (ll. 49-57)
In a shift of mood characteristic of a poetic ode, we turn from the serene confidence of one who sees into the heart of reality to the anxiety of one ridden by doubt. The ‘if’ clause has no proper pendant in this ancoluthic sentence. Instead we have an exclamatory outburst of exclamation: ‘yet, oh! how oft—’ If the ‘blessed mood’ is now merely a ‘belief,’ and even a belief that may turn out to be vain, then the poem is incoherent. But, again, careful reading shows that Wordsworth’s grasp of his own ideas is more precise than critics recognize. The note of belief already struck (‘Nor less, I trust’) concerned not the ‘blessed mood’ itself, but the connection between that inward, spiritual state and the experience and memory of external, physical nature. The poet does not question the validity of his experiences or sense the ‘possible vanity’ or his ‘early visions’ (Rudy, 6), but the solidity of the connection between his recent moral and mystical awareness and nature. All he can invoke as warrant of that connection is the constancy with which his mind turned to the memory of the rural scene. Nature provided the inner landscape of his mind, conditioning it for the mystical breakthroughs.
Again the city is evoked as a negative counterpart in Miltonic cadences (e.g. the noun sandwiched between two adjectives and the strong enjambment of ‘fretful stir/Unprofitable’). Subscribing to the belief that one can really be
good only if one remains in touch with nature, Wordsworth sees the city as a place where people become bad, or where they become unreal, ‘joyless shapes.’ Why does the language turn Miltonic at these junctures? Perhaps because Milton, much as Wordsworth admired him, lies at the artificial extreme of English verse whereas Wordworth represents the most natural inspiration and diction. He becomes Miltonic when addressing civilization and its ills, and drops back to his own most distinctive cadences when dwelling on the sights and sounds of nature.
IV: From Perplexity to Bliss
The reason why he wants to preserve the link between his mystical ecstasy and his more sensual delight in nature is that the latter is fading, as the opening lines of the fourth verse paragraph suggest:
And now, with gleams of half-extinguished thought,
With many recognitions dim and faint,
And somewhat of a sad perplexity,
The picture of the mind revives again:
While here I stand, not only with the sense
Of present pleasure, but with pleasing thoughts
That in this moment there is life and food
For future years. (ll. 58-65)
The phrases ‘half-extinguished thought,’ ‘recognitions dim and faint,’ and ‘sad perplexity’ confess that his present pleasure in the scene falls far short of the ecstasy he remembers from five years earlier. I do not think that the perplexity can be seen as due to harsh experience lived through since the last visit. ‘The picture of the mind’ suggests again that the scene is composed by the poet, who shapes it not only in recollection, but even when he perceived it directly five years ago, and even as he perceives it again now. He is repainting the picture in a different way from the first time, perhaps ensuring it a more stable and substantial presence for future reference.
The Early Joys
And so I dare to hope,
Though changed, no doubt, from what I was when first
I came among these hills; when like a roe
I bounded o’er the mountains, by the sides
Of the deep rivers, and the lonely streams,
Wherever nature led: more like a man
Flying from something that he dreads, than one
Who sought the thing he loved. (ll. 65-72)
‘And so I dare to hope,’ is a note of faith that recurs throughout. The ‘so’ does not mean ‘consequently’; the sense is: ‘that is what I dare to hope,’ namely that the revisited landscape offers spiritual nourishment for the future. It is unlikely to generate again the powerful sensations recorded in the second paragraph. Here the word ‘years’ no longer refers to the past, as in the opening line, but to the future; in the final paragraph we will hear of ‘all the years of this our life’ and ‘after years’ before a final evocation of the five ‘years/Of absence.’
For nature then
(The coarser pleasures of my boyish days
And their glad animal movements all gone by)
To me was all in all.—I cannot paint
What then I was. The sounding cataract
Haunted me like a passion: the tall rock,
The mountain, and the deep and gloomy wood,
Their colours and their forms, were then to me
An appetite; a feeling and a love,
That had no need of a remoter charm,
By thought supplied, nor any interest
Unborrowed from the eye.—That time is past,
And all its aching joys are now no more,
And all its dizzy raptures. (ll. 72-85)
Wordsworth can ‘paint’ the landscape and even the inner ‘picture of the mind’ cannot paint the first immediacy of his passion for nature. That is because painting is a reflective art of composition, and the first ecstasy was without thought or perspectival distance.
Fry (181) incorrectly conflates the boyhood pleasures, mentioned only in a two-line parenthesis, with the joys of young manhood: ‘The “glad animal movements” when “like a roe/I bounded o’er the mountains”’ marked by ‘living energy that makes the child a hoofed being… tainted however by the first motions of guilt… “flying from something that he dreads.”’ Then he cuts off another section of the 23 year-old’s experience to misattribute it to ‘adolescence… when an indiscriminate eroticism is sublimated as an indiscriminate “appetite’ for nature.’ ‘That time is past’ echoes the opening ‘Five years have past’ (it is
important not to modernize the spelling here; in the first line it is changed from the ‘passed’ of the first edition) and explains its elegiac tone.
The Still, Sad Music
Not for this
Faint I, nor mourn nor murmur; other gifts
Have followed; for such loss, I would believe,
Abundant recompense. For I have learned
To look on nature, not as in the hour
Of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes
The still, sad music of humanity,
Nor harsh nor grating, though of ample power
To chasten and subdue. (ll. 85-93)
Again, the speaker is thrown back on the necessity of faith, or of the wish to believe: ‘I would believe.’
‘The sounding cataract’ is the first sound in the poem since the ‘soft inland murmur’ of the opening. Both prepare the internal music that the mind
hears. This ‘still, sad music’ chastens and subdues, representing the moral influence of nature, to be distinguished from the mystical impact that follows after the dash with ‘And I have felt.’ Rudy mistakenly thinks that the still sad music comes after the mystical vision: it ‘differs radically from the earlier repose in which the abiding harmony of things rose upon the poet as an innate aspect of his being and as a “power of joy.” The quietude Wordsworth now experiences results from learned behavior… The present learning process is focused in the human dimension and culminates not, as earlier, in a dispersion of the self…’ (7).
If critics have been sceptical about Wordsworth’s mysticism, they have also cast doubt on his way of moralizing and humanizing nature. ‘The still, sad music I believe is the cry of human suffering and human need: the same cry that Rousseau in his Discourse on Inequality had heard as the original motive for a society founded on nature, but that Wordsworth now treats as the impulse for the creation of a quite small, quite visible community of two persons, himself and Dorothy… What is chastened and subdued… is the desire to participate in any larger community’ (Bromwich, 88). ‘Our membership in this larger community… has no claim on our actions at all, any more than music does’ (89). This moral critique ruins the most famous line in the poem. It is also totally arbitrary. What is chastened and subdued is perhaps the inhumanity that Wordsworth explored in the character of Rivers in The Borderers, and of which he speaks in The Prelude (1805, X, 888-900):
So I fared,
Dragging all passions, notions, shapes of faith,
Like culprits to the bar….
till, demanding proof,
And seeking it in every thing, I lost
All feeling of conviction, and, in fine,
Sick, wearied out with contrarieties,
Yielded up moral questions in despair.
From all this he was rescued by the humanity of Dorothy and Coleridge, while ‘Nature’s self, by human love/Assisted, through the weary labyrinth/Conducted me again to common day’ (921-3). McFarland (144-51) imagines that Wordsworth could have become an unhappy loner like Nietzsche without their help; the sister and friend humanized his relationship to nature.
Fry (179) interprets the still sad music as follows: ‘Nature tells us something about the human condition that lies too deep for tears: that we are bodies, that we perish, and that being human means simply that we are the only bodies in nature that know their fate, and suffer accordingly in sadness.’ He hears echoes of ‘Lycidas,’ a funeral poem, in the phrase ‘nor harsh nor grating.’ Again this attributes to Wordsworth a clichéd sense of transience
which in fact is not typical of his verse at all, in addition to a crass materialism unknown to him. But in the version of materialistic monism Fry ascribes to the poet, ‘who knows what radioactive half-life may be in store for us in the state we call death?’ This is a projection from the famous lines of another poem: ‘Rolled round in earth’s diurnal course/With rocks and stones and trees.’ The music of humanity heard in ‘Tintern Abbey’ has nothing to do with death; its ‘objective correlative’ is clear enough: the nobility of human destinies as lived out in natural settings, in which ‘the passions of men are incorporated with the beautiful and permanent forms of nature’ (Wordsworth 1989:155), as in ‘The Ruined Cottage,’ ‘Michael,’ or ‘Resolution and Independence.’ The ‘abundant recompense’ Fry interprets, vaguely and unconvincingly, as the sense that ‘our alienation from our embodied life [in the modern city] is now suspended.’ He makes no reference to the moral dimension, signaled in the parallel passage in the second paragraph, where the influence of nature prompts to acts of kindness and love.
‘The music heard by the almost insensate contemplative is the sound of being that reunites human beings with other beings in a common “dwelling” that really is houseless because it is in the light of setting suns’ (Fry, 80). Again, this conflates different themes in the poem. It is not humanity but a divine ‘presence’ that dwells in the light of setting suns. Wordsworth has plenty to say about actual earthly rural dwellings, including the cottages of the opening paragraph. With Hölderlin he could say, ‘poetically man dwells upon earth.’ Listening to music, contrary to what Fry and Bromwich seem to think, is not a passive activity, but a labour of spiritual attention, such as we see Wordsworth practise in poems like ‘Michael.’
Fry is sceptical about Wordsworth’s turn from the ‘thoughtless youth’ that Dorothy is still living in and his posturing as the wiser elder brother ‘Far from staking a claim as a thinker, the mature poet is dedicated to the avoidance of thought and its estrangements so as to register in a finer tone… the very somatic immediacy that the then-now structure of the poem has staged as a “loss,”’ thus espousing ‘a condition differing from death only in degree’ (181-2). In short, the poem chronicles a regression. But this evaluation seems to be based on an incapacity to give to the words ‘thought’ and ‘thinking’ any other connotation than enlightenment critical rationalism. By the same argument any contemplative thinker, Plotinus, Eckhart or Heidegger, would be seen as in flight from thought. It is true that to be ‘thoughtless’ is an enviable condition, a condition of intense immediacy and spontaneity, in this poem; yet it is clear that the speaker prizes more highly than that immediacy the heights of contemplative thought that he has attained.
Second Mystical Passage
And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; 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:
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things. (ll. 93-102)
The key words ‘joy’ and ‘sublime,’ recurring from the first mystical passage and prominently placed at the end of two successive lines, indicate that we have again crossed the mystical threshold. The passage is again set off from what precedes it by a comparative: ‘more deeply interfused’ corresponds to ‘aspect more sublime.’ Empson’s puzzling about what is more deeply interfused than what is the fruit of attentive reading, but further attentive reading ought to resolve it. Of course the ‘something’ is not more deeply interfused than the ‘presence’; the two nouns are related in a chiastic structure: ‘(A) a presence that disturbs me (B) with the joy of elevated thoughts; (B’) a sense sublime (A’) of something far more deeply interfused’; the two halves of the chiasmus have one and a half lines each.
In the first mystical passage the comparative ‘more sublime,’ obliged us to look back to the lines preceding it: the ‘blessed mood’ was more sublime than the ‘sensations sweet’ and the moral improvement brought by the ‘unremembered pleasures.’ Here the presence is more deeply interfused than ‘the still, sad music of humanity.’ On both occasions the mystical insight is ‘another gift,’ surpassing a preceding gift or gifts. Here it is the second of the ‘other gifts’ mentioned as ‘abundant recompense.’ The first gift is that ‘I have learned/To look on nature…’ and the second is that ‘I have felt/A presence.’ The structure of the statements becomes clearer the more one examines them, and the parallel between the two passages increases their clarity.
Note the structural balance between the second and fourth paragraphs, which list three gifts of nature, and between the first and fifth which deal with the Wye valley as seen by Wordsworth apparently alone and as seen by him and his sister. The central third paragraph is the only one to name the Wye, personifying it, and apostrophizing it, as the sister is apostrophized in the fifth paragraph. The second and fourth are the two paragraphs of intense thought whereas the first, third, and fifth involve an active engagement or exchange with the external scene in which the meditation is taking place. This musical structure is characteristic of an ode.
The subjective experience in this passage probably adds nothing to the earlier passage; but now it is accompanied by a pantheistic metaphysics that must be influenced by Spinoza, or the Romantic myth of Spinoza, as relayed by Schelling through Coleridge. It is possible to be impressed by the mystical while rejecting its metaphysical interpretation as a projection or superimposition, especially given that Wordsworth himself soon left the pantheist metaphysics behind. But the metaphysics is sketched so delicately that it offers no hard dogma at which to take offence. Who can object to a spirit that rolls through all things?
We noted an elusive interpersonal dimension in the first mystical passage. Here, again, the mystical breakthrough may be permitted by loving and harmonious affections for other people. He has just been talking of the music that chastens and subdues, and it is in this chastened and subdued state that he is able to advance to a deeper perception; the words ‘and I have felt’ emerge from this subdued state as if the soul had been freed to feel, to rise to elevated thoughts, by the deep power of its harmony with humanity. Does humanity disappear in the rest of the passage? No, for a climactic phrase is ‘in the mind of man,’ which need not be read as referring to the individual mind only; the collective mind of humanity is actually a more satisfying reference, for he insists that the spirit is present in ‘All thinking things, all objects of all thought.’
Bromwich sees the reference to ‘a spirit and pulse of good,/A life and soul, to every mode of being/Inseparably linked’ in ‘The Old Cumberland Beggar’ (1797) as anticipating the ‘spirit that impels/All thinking things’ of our mystical passage; but actually Wordsworth is using the word ‘spirit’ in a different sense now, mystical not moral. The beggar’s goodness and the goodness he prompts in others would correspond rather to the ‘still, sad music of humanity’ while the vocabulary of ‘spirit’ is now retained for the divine ‘presence.’ Bromwich is also wrong—in a way typical of New Historicist critics—to refer the phrase ‘something far more deeply interfused’ to Burke’s conservative virtue that ‘imparts to all the routines of life a steady continuity’ (80); Wordsworth’s ‘presence’ is precisely more deeply interfused than this humaneness, as Bromwich himself notes: ‘inward relations, as known in the mind of man, are in this way more self-consistent and compelling than relations only knowable through social sympathy’ (87). But if ‘the mind of man’ actually means ‘the mind of all men,’ then the deeply interfused presence is the very foundation of all social sympathy. Bromwich identifies the ‘presence’ with ‘necessity’ (1), a rather barren, abstract relation, hardly the stuff of mystical perception. He is not being inconsistent, then when he adds that the ‘presence’ is not just an inward relation: ‘The experience of the soul thus far has been represented as wholly inward’ (what about the ‘acts/Of kindness and of love’?). ‘Now we are told that it is the internalization of something in the world outside’ (87). What he means, apparently, is that Wordsworth is internalizing a relation of necessity in nature. But it is misleading to speak of ‘internalization’ at all: the mind is again looking into the ‘life of things,’ that is, beyond itself, and again with an ‘eye made quiet,’ which is itself part of the supreme reality it contemplates. He is not drawing reality back to the limits of his own individual mind, but hailing it as a force that is present in all minds.
For those who think, with T. E. Hulme, that Romanticism is ‘spilt religion,’ it may seem irreverent to compare Wordsworth’s lines with a famous Plotinian passage in St Augustine’s Confessions (VII, 16): ‘I entered even into my inward self, with You as my guide: and I was able, for You had become my helper. I entered and beheld with the eye of my soul, such as it was, above the same eye of my soul, above my mind, the Light Unchangeable. Not this ordinary light, which all flesh may look upon... but other, yea, far other’ (trans. Pusey, modified). (There are some who read even this passage as nonmystical.) Augustine certainly looks upward to a transcendent Light above the mind, whereas Wordsworth’s ‘presence’ is emphatically in the mind, yet in both texts the mind is opened to a reality bearing down upon it and in a mode of awareness quite other than everyday thinking. The language in which they recollect their experience is supremely tactful, suggesting sublimity by economical touches, that of course presuppose a modicum of sensibility in their readers.
Bromwich sees Wordsworth as a renegade from ‘universal hopes of redemption for mankind’ (88), here visibly retiring, in Arnoldian phrase, into the monastery of his own mind. He thinks the preposition of ‘in the mind of man’ is ‘pedantry’ (87) missing its nuanced intimation of inwardness. Carl Woodring notes the strangeness of the preposition. In the first edition ‘in the mind of man’ is followed by a comma, in later editions by a colon: ‘The punctuation here apparently troubled Wordsworth; the preposition in should have troubled the rest of us. How does it function grammatically?’ He suggests that ‘everything after the colon is within the mind, a reflection of the supposedly external world, of objects, and of other minds thinking objects, in the mind of the perceiver’ (19). The implication, left in a nimbus of sublime suggestion, is that ‘all objects take definition and value only from the human mind’ (20). But the comma was changed to a colon precisely to exclude this misreading. ‘A motion and a spirit’ dwells in the mind of man, but it is not confined to the mind of man as the comma might suggest.
Fry makes Wordsworth a mystical materialist: ‘Is this not a monistic poem straining rhetorically to find transcendence but finally anchored in materiality?’ (178). This is needlessly sceptical. The two mystical passages are not striving to find something, but are recording a datum of experience. The ‘presence’ they apprehend dwells in the physical cosmos but also in the mind; Wordsworth is not concerned with divine transcendence in a high theological sense, but neither does his recognition of divinity dwelling in nature mean that material nature is all there is. Fry finds a downward pull in the fact that ‘this sense sublime “rolls through all things”; it is found in “the language of the sense”—the sensorium of Locke.’ But it is not the ‘sense sublime’ that rolls through all things; it is the ‘something’ or the ‘presence’ that it senses; Fry seems to want to wish this more objective ‘presence’ out of the poem. Nor is it accurate to say that this mystical mood is found in the language of the sense; the latter is indeed the ‘anchor’ of Wordsworth’s entire spiritual experience, but in the two mystical climaxes the outer senses are replaced by the inner ones. The language of the sense has been transmuted, by recollection and imagination, and now it falls away in favour of a deeper inner sense.
Rudy contrasts the two mystical passages: the former is marked by ‘alignment with spiritual emptiness,’ the latter apprehends a ‘something’ (7-8). Again he is misled by a false chronological supposition.
Therefore am I still
A lover of the meadows and the woods
And mountains; and of all that we behold
From this green earth; of all the mighty world
Of eye, and ear,—both what they half create,
And what perceive; well pleased to recognise
In nature and the language of the sense
The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse,
The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul
Of all my moral being. (ll. 102-111)
The ‘therefore’ indicates that the poet is composing his creed, on evidentiary bases. He is ‘well pleased to recognise’ the status of nature, in an act of appreciation that is willed and argued as well as granted to instinct. These lines revert to the moral influence or further back to the restorative sensations of a maternal nature. The poet insists that his vision of nature is rooted in ‘the language of the sense’; it is nature as apprehended by the senses that is called the soul of his moral being.
The world of the senses is something they ‘half create’ as well as perceive. In March 1975, during an enchanted tour of the Lake District, as I climbed a mountain slope, suddenly some bars of Siegfried (the forging song) leapt into my mind and connected electrically with the landscape. It was as if the music lit up the inner nature of the mountain, while the mountain revealed the sense of the music. This uncanny effect confirmed for me that Wagner is the greatest Nature composer (following on Beethoven,
Weber, Mendelssohn), though this seems insufficiently stressed in modern productions and discussions. Think of the mighty presence of the sea in The Flying Dutchman and Tristan, the sunny meadows in the Mastersingers and Parsifal, and in the Ring Cycle the Rhine depths, the spring night, the sunny heights, rocks and caves, the forest murmurs, the dawn light, and much else. Wordsworth’s Nature, likewise, is a visionary or fantastical phenomenon, haunted by unfathomable enigma, ‘a dim and undetermined sense/Of unknown modes of being’ (Prelude 1799, I, 121-2). As Andrew Gibson argues, Wordsworth offers ‘not a unified concept of Nature, but a representation of “the diverse manner in which nature works” (Wordsworth 1997:198)… The multiplicity of Nature is also the multiplicity of the mind responding to it’ (Gibson, 100).
For Rudy the earlier pleasure in nature and the acts of kindness and of love that it produced ‘derived from the visible absence of stability, from a process “In which the affections gently lead us on”’ and a ‘happy acceptance of motion’ (again the sequence of the experiences is mixed up), but the new mood is ‘grounded in the need for stability’; ‘the earlier process of opening… has given way to a quest for moral and intellectual anchorage’ (8). There is no need to think that the poet contradicts himself in the course of few lines; the anchoring in the ‘beauteous forms’ is already quite palpable in the second paragraph. The later mood does not cancel the earlier, however: ‘To his credit, Wordsworth does not reject the visions of his youth as false’ (8); again Rudy wrongly supposes that the two mystical passages refer to different times.
The poet has now completed his substantive statement. But he feels the urge to communicate it, in line with that ‘spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings’ in which he saw the essence of poetry. The movement is comparable to that in the lines: ‘Surprised by joy, impatient as the wind,/I turned to share the transport…’ Here Dorothy is the ideal recipient of the joy and insight he is bursting to share.
If I were not thus taught, should I the more
Suffer my genial spirits to decay:
For thou art with me here upon the banks
Of this fair river; thou my dearest Friend,
My dear, dear Friend; and in thy voice I catch
The language of my former heart, and read
My former pleasures in the shooting lights
Of thy wild eyes. Oh! yet a little while
May I behold in thee what I was once,
My dear, dear Sister! (ll. 111-21)
‘If I were not thus taught’ refers to the calm conclusions about nature’s role as guardian of our moral being. This is edifying and a source of cheer, but the old warmth for the loss of which it is a recompense is still with Wordsworth, not in himself but in his companion. Some readers dislike what they see as his high-handed way of placing Dorothy in his own psychic map and mapping her future along the lines of his own philosophy. In the reduced community, Dorothy is moulded and manipulated by her elder brother: ‘She is asked to preside over the scene of his final homecoming and restoration… The chords of willful loyalty boom out here with insistent confidence, with none of Coleridge’s tact… Wordsworth is not quite happy with the authority she has thus seemed to gain over him; and so he takes it away, as if he resented her having played a part that he conceived’ (Bromwich, 90). Taking the opposite tack, Rudy offers a rather unhelpful resume: ‘Structurally, the poem reveals a movement from memories of disembodied spirituality, through a sense of sublimity as inclusive of a chastened but nevertheless persistent selfhood, to a final displacement of the self in the poet’s deferral to the spiritual force and authority of his sister’ (9). There is no indication that Dorothy has higher authority on the mystical plane; rather she has a similar role to Nature on the moral plane, the plane of the ‘music of humanity,’ as well as retaining the immediacy of the first encounters with Nature.
Bromwich sees the poem as written in competition with Coleridge’s ‘Frost at Midnight,’ which excels it in ‘delicacy of tone and cadence’ (70); actually Coleridge’s 74 lines invite comparison only with Wordsworth’s final paragraph. Bromwich sees Coleridge’s idea of nature as ‘inclusive and integrating,’ able to support him and bless his son, with space for the reader too, whereas Wordsworth cultivates a seclusion that ‘belongs to the poet alone, in which he may expand infinitely and then contract to the scope of a thought of himself,’ leaving to the reader the role of ‘an eavesdropper, or at most a passerby’ (70). This alleged solipsism disqualifies the poem as a ‘wisdom poem’ for Bromwich. But is the reader really excluded from sharing the mystical intuitions so spellbindingly conveyed by the poet—not to mention the many other more normal delights evoked? Could it be that the critic himself is fixated in the role of eavesdropper and passerby? His remark is as inapposite as if one were to say that some Beethoven symphony or quartet consigned the listener to the role of eavesdropper. Indeed there are few poets whose lines (when they are great) so often lodge in the memory as belonging to one’s own inner voice; one reason why he is still probably the most quoted English poet alongside Shakespeare.
and this prayer I make,
Knowing that Nature never did betray
The heart that loved her; ’tis her privilege,
Through all the years of this our life, to lead
From joy to joy: for she can so inform
The mind that is within us, so impress
With quietness and beauty, and so feed
With lofty thoughts, that neither evil tongues,
Rash judgments, nor the sneers of selfish men,
Nor greetings where no kindness is, nor all
The dreary intercourse of daily life,
Shall e’er prevail against us, or disturb
Our cheerful faith, that all which we behold
Is full of blessings. (ll. 121-34)
It is once again a faith, a call to cheer, and again the shallowness of everyday existence is evoked as a counterpart to the blessed influence of nature. A disturbing anticipation of the later, preachy Wordsworth may be heard here and there in this section. ‘Nature never did betray/The heart that loved her’ is the most salient of the poet’s ‘exhortations’ and may well be the least convincing utterance in the poem. The reference is directly to the poet’s own heart, since the ‘prayer’ that nature answers is: ‘May I behold in thee what I was once.’ ‘Nature’ is capitalized here, unlike in its earlier occurrences: ‘Wherever nature led,’ ‘For nature then… To me was all in all,’ ‘To look on nature,’ ‘In nature and the language of the sense.’ Its final occurrence is also capitalized: ‘A worshipper of Nature.’ The capitalization suggests that Nature has become a credal object rather than a phenomenon of perception. Clearly the poet does not know what Nature holds in store for him; he wishfully predicts a future that held true neither for himself nor for Dorothy. Nature left both of them in the lurch. It is hard not to read the entire passage as tinged with denial and defence. The ‘cheerful faith’ of the duo is palpably faltering. But Wordsworth erred not by pessimism about his sister’s future but, if anything, by optimism.
Therefore let the moon
Shine on thee in thy solitary walk;
And let the misty mountain-winds be free
To blow against thee: and, in after years,
When these wild ecstasies shall be matured
Into a sober pleasure; when thy mind
Shall be a mansion for all lovely forms,
Thy memory be as a dwelling-place
For all sweet sounds and harmonies; (ll. 134-42)
The first two lines here might be suspected of a false romanticism; but there is no reason not to see them as an affectionate portrait of the sister’s habits. Notice that the two occurrences of ‘wild’ in this paragraph counterbalance the two occurrences in the first paragraph. ‘Harmonies,’ recalls ‘the power/Of harmony’ at the end of paragraph two; ‘tender forms’ recalls ‘these beauteous forms’ (2nd paragraph) and ‘their colours and their forms’ (4th paragraph). ‘Mind’ recalls ‘into my purer mind,’ ‘the picture of the mind revives again,’ ‘and in the mind of man,’ ‘the mind that is within us.’ ‘Joy’ recalls ‘the deep power of joy,’ ‘joyless daylight,’ ‘aching joys,’ ‘the joy/Of elevated thoughts,’ ‘from joy to joy.’ ‘Pleasure’ connects with ‘unremembered pleasure,’ ‘present pleasure,’ ‘coarser pleasures,’ ‘former pleasures.’ ‘Dwelling’ recalls ‘vagrant dwellers’ and ‘whose dwelling is the light of setting suns.’ Critics will object that insofar as a transcendental vocabulary is nakedly transferred from the brother’s to the sister’s mind one senses an element of control and dehumanization. At the same time they object that he keeps his sister in a state of ‘thoughtless youth.’ In fact, he simply anticipates that she will grow as he has done under nature’s guidance, and does not specify that her more sober and mature experience will be exactly the same as his own. Indeed he seems to augur for her a distinctive experience different from his own: her mind will be ‘a mansion for all lovely forms,.. a dwelling-place/For all sweet sounds and harmonies,’ a wealthier compendium of experience than Wordsworth himself, a less keen observer and less intense in his reactions, could boast of.
If solitude, or fear, or pain, or grief,
Should be thy portion, with what healing thoughts
Of tender joy wilt thou remember me,
And these my exhortations! (ll. 142-6)
The phrase ‘these my exhortations’ might indicate a playful irony, but it seems that Wordsworth has no sense that ‘exhortations’ can mean vacuous, tedious preaching. Recall Hallam and Tennyson’s proposal for the worst imaginable Wordsworthian line: ‘A Mr Wilkinson, a clergyman’! The ‘healing thoughts’ recall ‘thoughts of more deep seclusion,’ ‘half-extinguished thought,’ ‘pleasing thoughts,’ ‘by thought supplied,’ ‘thoughtless youth,’ ‘elevated thoughts,’ ‘all objects of all thought,’ ‘the anchor of my purest thoughts,’ ‘lofty thoughts.’ The communion between brother and sister is in the medium of thought, as they think of one another and as they share thoughts with one another.
Bromwich sees the various woes Wordsworth predicts for Dorothy in stilted Miltonic diction as a vengeful wish inspired by jealousy of her strength; as ‘one particularly gifted student’ (to whom Bromwich gives surprising authority) declared in a class discussion: ‘He’s taking everything from her’ (90). Melodramatically, Bromwich detects: ‘He took his revenge by proving how much she would need his wisdom… when at last her childlike powers gave out like his’ (90). But at no point in the poem does Wordsworth refer to his former powers as childlike or those of a child; they are distinguished, rather, from the ‘coarser pleasures’ and ‘animal movements’ of boyhood. Wordsworth became the poet of childhood only with ‘There was a boy,’ written in Goslar late in 1798 and in the two-book Prelude (1799). Bromwich shares Fry’s misreading when he amalgamates the poet’s boyhood and adulthood in the phrase ‘“the glad animal movements” when “like a roe/I bounded oe’r the mountains”’ and in speaking of the child as ‘flying from something that he dreads.’ Nor does Wordsworth characterize Dorothy as childlike.
‘He makes himself necessary to Dorothy, without being asked to, under a pretense of showing why she is necessary to him’ (91). But it should be remembered that Dorothy was a very vulnerable person: ‘She was, of course, neurotic, and finding no outlet for her excessive sensibility, the repression became too much for her, and she finally went insane in 1828’ (Read, 91). In fact, she suffered from pre-senile dementia from at least 1835 until her death in 1854, and was lovingly cared for by Wordsworth and his wife (Gittings/Manton, 268-79, 282-3). Her emotional and exciteable temperament had deleterious effects on her physical health from at least 1801, and modern doctors diagnose that she was ‘a particular type of migrainous personality’ (quoted, Gittings/Manton, 123). Wordsworth may well have felt how much she needed him, and he generously assured her that, on the contrary, it was he who needed her. Bromwich’s allegations are the sort of victim-narrative that literary critics today feel obliged to construct whenever there is a suffering woman in the vicinity of a famous male writer (compare the cases of Hegel, T. S. Eliot, Claudel).
Since the intuition that she would encounter ‘solitude, or fear, or pain, or grief’ was all too well-grounded, Wordsworth’s hope that Nature would be a healing presence, along with himself or his memory, was no light fancy but corresponded to a deep worry about her. The Miltonic cadences soften the sorrows he anticipates; they are not a note of falsehood as Bromwich thinks. For himself he probably did not really fear solitude or pain; it is for his sister that he hoped in the first place to find in Nature a healing balm. This is not in order to live in a closed community of two; as even Bromwich admits: ‘Maybe it goes some way to vindicate this last turn of the poem if one recalls that in suffering such a fate [sc. of being made necessary to Wordsworth], Dorothy stood for all the remoter persons by whom Wordsworth could no longer be touched as closely’ (91). Bromwich forgets that millions have been touched, even healed, by Wordsworth’s verse; the most famous testimony is that of John Stuart Mill in his Autobiography. Wordsworth’s address to his sister is continuous with his exhortations to his readers, as ‘a man speaking to men’ (1800 Preface to Lyrical Ballads), and both are ‘acts of kindness and of love.’ To see Wordsworth as a self-indulgent egotist is to miss the fact that he analyzes his own mind and its growth with the aim that others will learn from it; his role is that of a healer, and he demonstrates how his medicine has worked on himself. As to Dorothy herself, she wrote in 1831: ‘No prisoner in this lonely room,/I saw the green banks of the Wye,/Recalling thy prophetic words—/Bard, brother, friend from infancy’ (‘Thoughts on My Sickbed’).
If I should be where I no more can hear
Thy voice, nor catch from thy wild eyes these gleams
Of past existence—wilt thou then forget
That on the banks of this delightful stream
We stood together; and that I, so long
A worshipper of Nature, hither came
Unwearied in that service: rather say
With warmer love—oh! with far deeper zeal
Of holier love. Nor wilt thou then forget,
That after many wanderings, many years
Of absence, these steep woods and lofty cliffs,
And this green pastoral landscape, were to me
More dear, both for themselves and for thy sake! (ll. 146-59)
The evocation of his own death between the first two dashes here is characteristic of the shifting moods of the odic style, and is the last little cloud in the poem, which from then on moves to its peaceful, relaxed conclusion. The reactions to nature have become less intense in this idyllic close: ‘on the banks of this delightful stream’ could be written on a postcard. The final paragraph is folded in on itself by the second reference to Dorothy’s voice and eyes, and then the whole poem is rounded off in an inclusio by the closing echoes of its beginning, which again add no new perception, but quietly resume earlier ones, making them emblematic by the repetition, images, to be treasured in memory, of their shared nature worship. The phrase ‘a worshipper of Nature,’ though cited against Wordsworth to his embarrassment later, does not carry any mystical and pantheistic force here, but refers merely to love of dear landscapes. The repeated ‘love’ might seem an unjustified effusion, but it too echoes previous lines: ‘Of kindness and of love,’ ‘Who sought the thing he loved,’ ‘An appetite, a feeling and love,’ ‘The heart that loved her,’ ‘A lover of the meadows and the woods.’
This peaceful ending of the poem where it begun is a relaxation after the high notes struck earlier. Gracefully, the poet looks forward to the future and from there turns back to the present. The opening lines approached that present from the past, but now it is focused from the imagined future, with the repetition of ‘years’ (from l. 1), ‘absence’ (l. 23), ‘steep’ and ‘lofty cliffs’ (l. 5), ‘landscape’ (l. 8), ‘green’ (ll. 13, 17), ‘pastoral’ (l. 16), and ‘woods’ (l. 20); ‘landscape’ has also occurred in the 2nd paragraph, ‘green’ in the 4th, ‘woods’ in the 3rd and 4th ‘years’ in the 4th and twice in the 5th.). The ‘gleams of past existence’ echo the opening ‘past’ and ‘gleams of half-extinguished thought.’ ‘Wanderings’ echoes ‘thou wanderer thro’ the woods.’ Mystic ecstasies, even the exaltation of a real joy in nature, are rare, but the quiet frequentation of dear natural places retains a spiritual and human value.
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