A week ago I would have told you that I loved William Wordsworth. After reading the selections in the Norton Anthology of English Literature, I have concluded that it’s only a few of his poems that I love, and a few lines from here and there. I was all excited to read The Prelude because I thought it would be 56 pages of the same kind of bliss I get from reading “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey on Revisiting the Banks of the Wye During a Tour July 13, 1798,” mercifully shortened to “Tintern Abbey.” The Prelude is essentially Wordsworth’s memoir in 14 “books” of blank verse. I was only a few pages into it when I was already thumbing ahead to see how many more there were, which is how I know there are 56 pages; and I was reading an abridged version in the Norton Anthology. I read half of it, then just read all the footnotes for the second half and called it good. There was a funny footnote on the following line from Book Five:
. . .The visible scene
Would enter unawares into his mind,
With all its solemn imagery, its rocks,
Its woods, and that uncertain heaven, received
Into the bosom of the steady lake.”
Of this line, Wordsworth’s friend Coleridge had said: “Had I met these lines running wild in the deserts of Arabia, I should have instantly screamed out ‘Wordsworth!’”
It’s hard to appreciate Wordsworth’s contribution to poetry in an age when a poem can be written about anything: a big toe, a leaky pen, Elvis, a road in the woods, or a lanyard. But as I learned in his interminable preface to Lyrical Ballads, his folksy poems about commoners were a departure from the grand subjects and formal language of earlier poets. Wordsworth wrote that “all good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.” He felt that the working classes lived closer to the common feelings that unite humanity. They also have more fun. While the aristocracy is sitting around the drawing room trying to be cool and unmoved, saying things like “So amusing to hear a bit of Chopin,” the servants are waltzing in their bare feet in the hall.
In our post-Freudian age, it’s also hard to appreciate how much poetry anticipated psycho-analysis although I think Freud appreciated it: “Everywhere I go I find a poet has been there before me.” Wordsworth was interested in how our perceptions and imagination “half creates” the world we inhabit and in how memory re-orders our experiences. In many of his poems he visits the idea that “. . .in this moment there is life and food for future years” and “thy memory be as a dwelling place.” This is the appeal for me of “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey on Revisiting the Banks of the Wye During a Tour July 13, 1798,”and usually mercifully shortened to “Tintern Abbey.”
The last time I visited England, my cousins took me to Tintern Abbey. I wandered off (as a cloud) on my own as I usually did, with plans to meet later. I walked half a mile and found a clearing in the trees where I could see the pinkish colored ruins from a distance. I stood in the quiet and read the poem aloud, hoping to catch some of the genius loci. In the midst of my mystical experience I heard a tramping and the sound of voices. Around the corner came a woman who looked like an old time scout mistress and two younger women.
“Of course, there are a few places where there still is ethical fishing. . .” the scout mistress was saying.
They tramped on past me. My mood completely broken, I thought, “This is why I like to travel alone.”
Here are some Wordsworth jewels:
. . .that best portion of a good man’s life,
His little, nameless, unremembered acts
Of kindnesses and of love.
. . . I have learned to look on nature, not as in the hour
Of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes
The still, sad music of humanity.
. . . 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 lights of setting suns,
And the round ocean and 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.
(From “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey on Revisiting the Banks of the Wye During a Tour July 13, 1798,”and usually mercifully shortened to “Tintern Abbey.”)
There is a comfort in the strength of love:
‘Twill make a thing endurable which else
Would overset the brain or break the heart. . . (from“Michael”)
Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy. . .
. . .Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower:
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind:
In the primal sympathy
Which having been must ever be:
In the soothing thoughts that spring
Out of human suffering:
In the faith that looks through death,
In years that bring the philosophic mind. (from “Ode: Intimations of Immortality”)
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
Little we see in Nature that is ours:
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon. . .
(from “The World is Too Much with Us”)
*Up! Up! My friends and quit your books. . .
Books! Tis a dull and endless strife. . .
(from “The Tables Turned” and often quoted by Debi, my fellow English major at Whitman College, now Putzer, the attorney)