The Books: Six Centuries of Great Poetry: A Stunning Collection of Classic British Poems from Chaucer to Yeats: William Wordsworth

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Six Centuries of Great Poetry: A Stunning Collection of Classic British Poems from Chaucer to Yeats, edited by Robert Penn Warren and Albert Erskine

In his youth Wordsworth sympathized with the French Revolution, went to France, wrote good poetry, and had a natural daughter. At this period, he was called a ‘bad’ man. Then he became ‘good’, abandoned his daughter, adopted correct principles, and wrote bad poetry. — Bertrand Russell

Wordsworth once said, famously, that poetry was “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility”. This is a statement that people argue about to this day. Is he right? Wrong? Who cares? Well, whether or not you care, it is an interesting conversation to be a part of. He wanted to immerse himself in the experience, Romantic style, but he has a detachment that is evident in even his most emotional works. He’s not Shelley, who appears to be on the verge of spontaneous combustion at all times. Or Coleridge, who launched himself into fantasies and dream-spaces. Wordsworth wrote nature poems, and nostalgic poems, trying to give the reader the sense that he/she is there. He distrusted modernity. He feared separation from nature. Perhaps his most well-known poem is “The World Is Too Much With Us”, and it comes across almost as a philosophical mission statement.

Camille Paglia, in her book Break, Blow, Burn: Camille Paglia Reads Forty-three of the World’s Best Poems, writes about that particular poem:

Burdened with negatives, the poem sinks into melancholy but regenerates itself in a series of ecstatic perceptions … But as in “Tintern Abbey”, Wordsworth finds it difficult to sustain his faith in nature: “For this, for everything, we are out of tune; / It moves us not”. We have become too self-conscious, too sophisticated to be touched or inspired by nature alone. We no longer hear the soothing lullaby of natural energy. The phrase “out of tune” contains a buried image, a favorite metaphor of the Romantic poets: the human mind or body as an Aeolian lyre (wind harp) played upon and vibrated by nature. Wordsworth is implying that our lives in industrial society are so unbalanced that the music wrung from us is harsh, jangling, and dissonant.

Born in 1770 and died in 1850, Wordsworth saw the Industrial Revolution burgeoning. It caused great anxiety, and helped create the Romantic movement. It helped create some of the best literature the world has ever seen. Humanity on the cusp of a giant step forward. This is not “good” or “bad”. It just IS, and artists struggled to deal with what it all would mean.

As Bertrand Russell’s quote suggests, Wordsworth went through a transformation which is evident when you compare the poems he wrote as a young man to those he wrote as an old. I can understand why people may prefer one over the other, but to be disappointed that that is the case seems strange. Should an artist never change, even over a long life? Tennessee Williams wrote extensively about that, how people seemed to just want him to write Streetcar again, when, to him, it was clear that Streetcar was a play that could only have been written by a 30 year old, and he no longer had the energy to write such a work. He was writing other things. Anyway, Wordsworth was a big deal as a young man, and he abandoned that course and chose another way, leaving many followers disillusioned.

William Hazlitt, again, on this transformation (and he knew Wordsworth):

Liberty (the philosopher’s and the poet’s bride) had fallen a victim, meanwhile, to the murderous practices of the hag, Legitimacy. Proscribed by court-hierlings, too romantic for the herd of vulgar politicians, our enthusiast stood at bay, and at last turned on the pivot of a subtle casuistry to the unclean side: but his discursive reason would not let him trammel himself into a poet-laureate or stamp-distributor, and he stopped, ere he had quite passed that well-known ‘bourne from which no traveller returns’ – and so has sunk into torpid, uneasy repose, tantalised by useless resources, haunted by vain imaginings, his lips idly moving, but his heart for ever still, or, as the shattered chords vibrate of themselves, making melancholy music to the ear of memory!

Hazlitt sounds personally distressed by the turn of events.

Michael Schmidt, in Lives of the Poets, writes:

So Wordsworth’s last four decades were an aftermath.

I don’t know much about Wordsworth, but there is much in his poetry I love, and maybe just because I have learned some of them so often in school, or just by osmosis – some of his sonnets I can almost recite by heart. The lines are in me, they are part of me. They have entered the common lexicon. People probably quote him without realizing whom they are quoting.

He and Coleridge were good friends, and they were responsible for setting the tone for the Romantic Age. In 1798, they published a book together of ballads, and it was the opening salvo. They traveled together. Wordsworth had an intense relationship with his sister Dorothy, a poet herself. She kept a diary. She was basically married to her brother, devoted to his work. Other people remarked on the strangeness of their bond. When Wordsworth married, Dorothy did not like it.The famous and mysterious “Lucy” poems were included in the Ballad book. Michael Schmidt writes:

In the “Lucy” poems he struck briefly a tone and manner that he never repeated and that none of his imitators or disciples, not even Arnold, approached, try as they might. It is not possible to relate the poems to specific incidents or a specific person, despite the theories that have been advanced. The loved and lamented one may be emblematic. The physicality of the devotion and the sense of loss, the mysterious courtship and hinted characterization, and most poignantly the vision of death, bring these poems closer to ballads than the literary ballads Wordsworth had composed before.

The wonderfully cranky William Hazlitt wrote:

Coleridge has told me that he himself liked to compose in walking over uneven ground, or breaking through the straggling branches of a copse-wood; whereas Wordsworth always wrote (if he could) walking up and down a straight gravel-walk, or in some spot where the continuity of his voice met with no collateral interruption.

Lucy Maud Montgomery, author of the Anne of Green Gables series and many other books, turned to Wordsworth during the horrors of World War I, which hit her very hard. She wrote in her journal:

The classic calm and repose and beauty of his lines seemed to belong to another planet and to have as little to do with this world-welter as an evening star.

There is something otherworldly about some of Wordsworth’s stuff.

Michael Schmidt makes this claim for Wordsworth:

Before disappointment, by questioning poetic convention, with a powerful and original vision of nature, and by developing an inclusive personal style, Wordsworth – with Coleridge now beside, and now beyond him – extended the language and thematic range of English poetry into the new century. After the great poems and especially The Prelude, we forgive the Wordsworth who was all fresh growth and bright foliage for turning to bark and wood and winter, and we defend him against his numerous detractors who included Landor: “Dank, limber verses, stuft with lakeside sedges, / And propt with rotten stakes from broken hedges.”

Wordsworth’s poems cured Locke of terrible depression in the illness that came over him from excessive study as a youth. Arnold elegized him with a need and passion as intense as that which Wordsworth on a different occasion felt in conjuring Milton. Arnold’s father befriended Wordsworth, who supervised the building of the Arnolds’ house at Fox How while Dr. Arnold was headmastering at Rugby (“What beautiful English the old man speaks!” the Doctor declared). It is no accident, given Wordsworth’s change of political and artistic direction, that Matthew Arnold speaks of him in couplets. Couplets without the humor or wit of Pope: from Wordsworth he sucked unsmiling earnestness, sincere, moving, a little portentous.

Ah, since dark days still bring to light
Man’s prudence and man’s fiery might,
Time may restore us in his course
Goethe’s sage mind and Byron’s force;
But where will Europe’s latter hour
Again find Wordsworth’s healing power?
Others will teach us how to dare,
And against fear our breasts to steel;
Others will strengthen us to bear –
But who, ah! who, will make us feel?
The cloud of mortal destiny,
Others will front it fearlessly –
But who, like him, will put it by?

For today’s poetic excerpt, I will choose one of the “Lucy” poems, maybe the most famous one. The last line still has the capacity to surprise me. To me, there is emotion in the line. In the words themselves. The punctuation. It is not association or context or meaning … the emotion is in the line.

She Dwelt Among the Untrodden Ways

She dwelt among the untrodden ways
Beside the springs of Dove,
Maid whom there were none to praise
And very few to love:

A violet by a mosy tone
Half hidden from the eye!
—Fair as a star, when only one
Is shining in the sky.

She lived unknown, and few could know
When Lucy ceased to be;
But she is in her grave, and, oh,
The difference to me!

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7 Responses to The Books: Six Centuries of Great Poetry: A Stunning Collection of Classic British Poems from Chaucer to Yeats: William Wordsworth

  1. Shelley says:

    Writers have to stay painfully open to experience in order not to end up becoming caricatures of themselves.

    Not easy.

  2. sheila says:

    Great point, Shelley. A lifelong battle!

  3. Nick says:

    I’d forgotten the Arnold connection to Wordsworth, which is appropriate when you consider the old stick-in-the-mud he became (I was referring to Wordsworth, but the muddy stick fits Arnold, too). I loved his early poems, though, and was inspired by the romantic figure he cut as a young poet.

    My favorite Lucy poem:

    A slumber did my spirit seal
    I had no human fears
    She seemed a thing that could not feel
    the touch of earthly years.

    No spirit has she now, no force—
    she neither hears, nor sees;
    rolled round, in earth’s diurnal course
    with rocks, and stones, and trees.

    (still gets me)

  4. sheila says:

    Beautiful. Yup, when he’s good he’s very very good.

  5. Nick says:

    Wordsworth was one of those guys who inexplicably went from age 30 to 60 in the blink of an eye. As much as I admire his later poetry, it does not move me.

    I see that you list Atwood, Auden, Yeats and Wilde among your poets (I assume your including Oscar for his poetry, which I like very much)—surprised to find no Eliot. And what of Wallace Stevens, or Ted Hughes? Or Sylvia Plath, for that matter? Sorry to be a bore (or a boor), but I think they’re indispensable. As is Dickinson!

  6. sheila says:

    He really did go from 30 to 60.

    If you search my enormous archives, you’ll see that I have written extensively about all of those people! I know, it’s high-maintenance, but just because it’s not immediately apparent doesn’t mean it isn’t there! I love poetry!

  7. sheila says:

    Oh, and not sure what you’re referring to when you say I list certain people as poets – are you talking about the “writers I love” links on the sidebar? Those are not just poets, they are novelists and historians and biographers, etc. Just writers I love. That list needs to be updated, anyway. I do love Wilde’s poetry, but I really list him there because of his plays, which are magnificent.

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