‘Could a rule be given from without, poetry would cease to be poetry, and sink into a mechanical art. It would be μóρφωσις, not ποίησις. The rules of the IMAGINATION are themselves the very powers of growth and production. The words to which they are reducible, present only the outlines and external appearance of the fruit. A deceptive counterfeit of the superficial form and colours may be elaborated; but the marble peach feels cold and heavy, and children only put it to their mouths.’ [Coleridge, Biographia ch. 18]

‘ποίησις’ (poiēsis) means ‘a making, a creation, a production’ and is used of poetry in Aristotle and Plato. ‘μóρφωσις’ (morphōsis) in essence means the same thing: ‘a shaping, a bringing into shape.’ But Coleridge has in mind the New Testament use of the word as ‘semblance’ or ‘outward appearance’, which the KJV translates as ‘form’: ‘An instructor of the foolish, a teacher of babes, which hast the form [μóρφωσις] of knowledge and of the truth in the law’ [Romans 2:20]; ‘Having a form [μóρφωσις] of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away’ [2 Timothy 3:5]. I trust that's clear.

There is much more on Coleridge at my other, Coleridgean blog.

Thursday, 7 January 2016

Wordsworth's "Excursion": the Ruins of Book One

If I go on with many more of these WW-posts, I may need to herd them off into a blog of their own. At any rate, here's a second excursus on The Excursionfollowing on from the first excursus, which is here.

In the first book of The Excursion, the poet travels to a ruined cottage (up top, there: 'a roofless Hut; four naked walls/That stared upon each other!' in amongst the trees [30-1]) to meet his old friend, the Wanderer. This latter, a man of humble birth, had been a pedlar, and by careful husbandry of his earnings now has enough money not to need to work. Instead he indulges his passion for, in effect, excursing: wandering around the countryside. About half the 1000-line first book is given over to a description of the Wanderer's life and character. The remainder tells the story of the ruined cottage where the two meet.

It's a simple though not a cheering tale, first drafted by Wordsworth in the late 1790s and very often reworked and rewritten, and published in a final version (in 1814) here. It starts by describing the humble-idyllic pastoral existence of Margaret (our heroine) and her husband Robert:
She was a Woman of a steady mind,
Tender and deep in her excess of love;
Not speaking much, pleased rather with the joy
Of her own thoughts: by some especial care
Her temper had been framed, as if to make
A Being, who by adding love to peace
Might live on earth a life of happiness.
Her wedded Partner lacked not on his side
The humble worth that satisfied her heart:
Frugal, affectionate, sober, and withal
Keenly industrious. ...
          .... So their days were spent
In peace and comfort; and a pretty boy
Was their best hope, next to the God in heaven. [Excursion 1:553-74]
Things go wrong, though. Two successive harvests fail, and (as we would nowadays put it) the economy collapses. The husband falls sick, and by the time he has regained his health all their savings are spent. They have a second child, which adds to the strain. Then there is a war, which drains the land of men. Given that the poem specifies this all as happening twenty years previously, and that the first draft of 'The Ruined Cottage' was written in the 1790s, this might be the American War; although for the readers of the 1814 first publication it presumably made them think of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars. But it's important to Wordsworth's moral drama that the couple have not, in themselves, done anything wrong. Indeed, that neither of them 'do' anything wrong is bound-up in this episode's subtle problematic, which is that neither of them really 'do' anything. They suffer, passively, and that has its effect on their inner lives. The husband becomes emotionally cyclotropic, and the poem includes what is (surely) the first description of manic-depression in literature.
He mingled, where he might, the various tasks
Of summer, autumn, winter, and of spring.
But this endured not; his good humour soon
Became a weight in which no pleasure was:
And poverty brought on a petted mood
And a sore temper: day by day he drooped,
And he would leave his work--and to the town
Would turn without an errand his slack steps;
Or wander here and there among the fields.
One while he would speak lightly of his babes,
And with a cruel tongue: at other times
He tossed them with a false unnatural joy:
And 'twas a rueful thing to see the looks
Of the poor innocent children. 'Every smile,'
Said Margaret to me, here beneath these trees,
'Made my heart bleed.' [Excursion 1: 616-31]
His 'wandering' (a faint echo of the modus vivendi of the Wanderer himself, who is telling this tale) literalises his vacillating mood, and no good will come of it. And there's genuine diagnostic acuity in grasping that mania, as a sufferer of manic-depression experiences it, is not pleasure as such, but on the contrary a weight in which no pleasure is, a mode of running-on (to strike the keynote again), of 'humour'. And the reference to the bleeding heart, though a believable idiom for an uneducated countrywoman, is actually (of course) a Shakespearian tag, and one fitting to this circumstance: a goddess addresses a mortal man with whom she is in love:
'What should I do, seeing thee so indeed,
That tremble at the imagination?
The thought of it doth make my faint heart bleed,
And fear doth teach it divination:
I prophesy thy death, my living sorrow, [Shakespeare, Venus and Adonis 667-71]
What's notable about this understated piece of intertextuality is how low-key it is: Wordsworth is applying the mute to his Mythic-Underpinning-of-Everyday-Life jazz horn, and applying it so effectively that you hardly notice it. Clearly, though, this situation will not end well.

But before we get to the tragic denouement, Wordsworth gives us a (deliberately) wrongfooting two-part interlude. First, the narrator temporarily forgets the whole story:
He spake with somewhat of a solemn tone:
But, when he ended, there was in his face
Such easy cheerfulness, a look so mild,
That for a little time it stole away
All recollection; and that simple tale
Passed from my mind like a forgotten sound. [Excursion 1: 645-49]
This is very strange. Perhaps the effect is to stress how unremarkable and therefore unmemorable Margaret's tale is, in the sense of being quotidian and unexceptional; or perhaps the point is to stress how overwhelmingly upbeat and positive the Wanderer is, despite the mournful quality of the story he is telling, so much so that it makes the narrator forget the sorrow. The two men talk about 'trivial things', for a while, although this conversation is 'soon tasteless' to our narrator. And then, having abruptly entirely forgotten about Margaret, the narrator as abruptly suddenly remembers her as one of the central, if vicarious, experiences of his life:
            In my own despite,
I thought of that poor Woman as of one
Whom I had known and loved. He had rehearsed
Her homely tale with such familiar power,
With such an active countenance, an eye
So busy, that the things of which he spake
Seemed present; and, attention now relaxed,
A heart-felt chillness crept along my veins. [Excursion 1: 645-49]
But if the narrator had exercised such 'familiar power' in his telling, then why did the narrator forget it, even if temporarily? Why does remembering it (a woman he now claims to have known and loved even though he has never met her) come 'in his own despite'? He begs the Wanderer to continue her tale, and in reply Wordsworth gives us one of the occasional quasi-sonnets that punctuate the Excursion:
"It were a wantonness, and would demand
Severe reproof, if we were men whose hearts
Could hold vain dalliance with the misery
Even of the dead; contented thence to draw
A momentary pleasure, never marked
By reason, barren of all future good.
But we have known that there is often found
In mournful thoughts, and always might be found,
A power to virtue friendly; were't not so,
I am a dreamer among men, indeed
An idle dreamer! 'Tis a common tale,
An ordinary sorrow of man's life,
A tale of silent suffering, hardly clothed
In bodily form.' [Excursion 1: 665-78]
'But', he adds, in-effect completing the final line, 'I will proceed.' Not for the first time in The Excursion, this verse-paragraph of blank verse mimics a rhymed, or half-rhymed, sonnet ('hearts'/'marked'; 'found'/'found'; 'so'/'clothed' and the final rhyme 'indeed'/'proceed'). I start to wonder if sonnet-sized chunks of verse weren't, by this stage in WW's career, his natural pulse or rhythm of poetic thought. This one has a slightly unusual form, though: there is a turn, although in inverted one: a sestet followed by an octave (not an unprecedented model for a sonnet, as it happens). The first half rebukes the sort of person who could draw idle pleasure from the 'misery/even of the dead'; the second, after 'But ...' stressing that the pleasure is not idle because it serves a moral purpose (it is 'a power friendly to virtue'). And so the Wanderer continues. He spent some years 'in a country far remote'; on his return he discovered that Margaret's husband has abandoned her to join the army. Rather than have his wife and children become camp followers, he sneaks away, leaving her some coins wrapped in a piece of paper. Margaret is caved-in by this development and sinks into (again: I find myself reaching for the anachronistic diagnosis) depression. Her older child has been apprenticed to a distant farmer; but she still has to care for her infant, which care she neglects.
I journeyed back this way,
When, in the warmth of midsummer, the wheat
Was yellow; and the soft and bladed grass,
Springing afresh, had o'er the hay-field spread
Its tender verdure. At the door arrived,
I found that she was absent. In the shade,
Where now we sit, I waited her return.
Her cottage, then a cheerful object, wore
Its customary look,—only, it seemed,
The honeysuckle, crowding round the porch,
Hung down in heavier tufts; and that bright weed,
The yellow stone-crop, suffered to take root
Along the window's edge, profusely grew,
Blinding the lower panes. I turned aside,
And strolled into her garden. It appeared
To lag behind the season, and had lost
Its pride of neatness. Daisy-flowers and thrift
Had broken their trim border-lines, and straggled
O'er paths they used to deck: carnations, once
Prized for surpassing beauty, and no less
For the peculiar pains they had required,
Declined their languid heads, wanting support.
The cumbrous bind-weed, with its wreaths and bells,
Had twined about her two small rows of peas,
And dragged them to the earth.

                                  Ere this an hour
Was wasted.—Back I turned my restless steps;
A stranger passed; and, guessing whom I sought,
He said that she was used to ramble far.—
The sun was sinking in the west; and now
I sate with sad impatience. From within
Her solitary infant cried aloud;
Then, like a blast that dies away self-stilled,
The voice was silent. From the bench I rose;
But neither could divert nor soothe my thoughts.
The spot, though fair, was very desolate—
The longer I remained, more desolate:
And, looking round me, now I first observed
The corner stones, on either side the porch,
With dull red stains discoloured, and stuck o'er
With tufts and hairs of wool, as if the sheep,
That fed upon the Common, thither came
Familiarly, and found a couching-place
Even at her threshold. [Excursion 1: 746-86]
Excuse the lengthy quotation, but it makes several key points. The main one is the way Wordsworth tropes Margaret's psychological and emotional decline in terms of the neglect of the physical fabric of her living space: the garden unweeded, the house unrepaired. We are on our way to the image at the top, the cottage itself ruined and roofless. But the most astonishing moment in this long description are these few lines from the middle:
The sun was sinking in the west; and now
I sate with sad impatience. From within
Her solitary infant cried aloud;
Then, like a blast that dies away self-stilled,
The voice was silent. [Excursion 1: 774-78]
Imagine this: you have a friend, a young mother, who lives alone (since her husband abandoned her) in a remote cottage. Her child is very young; WW doesn't say how young, but 'infant' surely means pre-speech. You visit her. She is not in. A passing stranger tells you that she often 'rambles far'. You know that your friend has suffered chronic depressive episodes since her partner left. You don't know how long she has been away. You don't know when, or if, she'll be back. You hear her infant crying inside the locked cottage. What do you do?

If your answer is: nothing, then congratulations, you share the attitude of the Wanderer. If your answer is: something, anything, for crying out loud, then you have the consolation of being one with the vast majority of society. Remember: you don't know if, never mind when, this infant's psychologically crippled mother will return. Yes, the domicile is locked: but it's a humble DIY-built cottage, not Fort Knox. Indeed, the Wanderer's mournful-superior tut-tutting at the place's dilapidation is only liable to infuriate us more, since one of the things he is doing is surveying how easy it would be to break in.

I'm suggesting that doing something to attend the distressed infant would function as a moral imperative for most people: break the lock, unloose a window, run to a neighbour's to see if there's another key, something. That the Wanderer does nothing, and indeed considers doing nothing an act of positive charity (since he is not abandoning his friend, but rather waiting out the tedious time until she returns) is, when you come to think of it, gobsmacking. There is more here than a shift in social mores over two centuries, and no sane person would think of arguing that the rights of property and trespass take precedence over the duty of care to an infant in distress. And if I consider for a moment, I think the aspect to this little vignette that really gets to me is the way the wailing infant stops crying like a blast that dies away. I'm sure lots of parents will recall the experience of your first child, and putting them to bed in their cot, and then lying awake in your own room listening to them. The anxiety of: 'oh, no they're crying, they keep on crying!' is only surpassed when the tot finally falls asleep, and you think to yourself 'oh no they've stopped crying! Are they alright have they stopped breathing?' And that's when you drag yourself from bed and go check on them.

My thoughts on this episode have been brought into focus by my recent reading of Adam Potkay's excellent Wordsworth's Ethics (John Hopkins University Press 2012). One thing Potkay brings out very clearly is how Stoic, or neo-Stoic, Wordsworth's view of man and nature and society really was. In turn it leads us to a place where we have to see this strange little interlude not as a glitch in the moral fabric of The Excursion, but as an emblem of its larger argument. Potkay notes that
'Independence' and 'independent' play substantial and positive roles in Wordsworth's poetic lexicon, especially as his ethics come to accord more fully with Stoicism. 'Dependent', by contrast, and 'dependency' (singular or plural) is used only of humanity's relationship with 'godhead: 'Man, instinct [imbued]/With godhead' acknowledges 'dependency sublime' (Prelude 8:640); 'our sublime dependencies' (Excursion 5:240). The phrase implies that dependency on anything less than a God of which we instinctively feel ourselves to be a part is not sublime but servile ... Dependence on particular others—others who, like us, suffer and die—is eschewed in Wordsworth's poetry. [Potkay, 150]
There's something core to Wordsworth's ethical design in this. The chapter on The Prelude in Nancy Yousef's Isolated Cases: The Anxieties of Autonomy in Enlightenment Philosophy and Romantic Literature (Cornell 2004) argues convincingly of the extent to which Wordsworth's poetic autobiography downplays his actual childhood dependencies, on his parents (who are barely mentioned), his friends (bit-part players) or the communities of village, school and university that shaped him. Instead Wordsworth wants to present himself as ethically and psychologically autochthonic, a creature who has grown as naturally as a plant, from the 'fair seed time' of his childhood. Potkay engages with Yousef's argument, downplaying the more obvious explanations for this 'concealment' of dependencies (Wordsworth's dislike of social dependency on principle, his 'cryptomisanthropy', 'however real,' Potkay concedes, 'these facets of Wordsworth's personality might be') in favour of a reading that rather flatters the plan of the Prelude. It has, he thinks,:
to do with the heuristic goal of making his readers imagine, counterintuitively, what moral independence might feel like, an independence compromised only by 'dependency sublime' and one's interdependence with energies less personalized, and more comprehensive, than mother and father, brother and sister.
Or, it seems, adult and helpless infant. Because, really, this starts to look monstrous: if the flipside to existential and moral independence is a refusal to interfere with the bonds defined as 'natural' by Wordsworth's procrustean sense, that that 'indepedence' is tantamount to sociopathy. In a letter to John Wilson, Wordsworth laid out his belief that 'a great poet' ought 'to rectify men's feelings, to give them new compositions of feeling, to render their feelings more sane, pure and permanent, in short, more consonant with nature, that is, to eternal nature, and the great moving spirit of things' [quoted in Potkay, 151]. This is the crux of the matter: in Wordsworth's view, which is to say in the view of The Excursion, the mother has a 'natural', decreed-by-Nature and the Power behind Nature, duty of care for her infant and it is tragic when her melancholia gets in the way of her practising it. But the Wanderer has no duty of care for an infant not his own. And that's insane.

What happens is that eventually Margaret does come back, unlocks the door and lets the Wanderer in. She explains that she spends her time now wandering about the fields, hoping for news of her absent husband, but knowing really that 'what I seek I cannot find':
And so I waste my time: for I am changed;
And to myself,' said she, 'have done much wrong
And to this helpless infant. I have slept
Weeping, and weeping have I waked; my tears
Have flowed as if my body were not such
As others are; and I could never die. [Excursion 1:805-11]
Later we are told her child has died, although we are not given the specifics. Neglect seems likely, by what is implied here. Margaret herself lives on 'released/From her maternal cares', and earns a meagre living spinning hemp. She lasts nine years in total after the departure of her husband ('if he lived,/She knew not that he lived; if he were dead,/She knew not he was dead') lingering 'in unquiet widowhood;/A Wife and Widow'. Then she dies. The narrator is saddened by this tale, but not the teller. With something of a flourish, as if revealing a clever narrative twist, he wraps-up thuswise:
          Why then should we read
The forms of things with an unworthy eye?
She sleeps in the calm earth, and peace is here.
I well remember that those very plumes,
Those weeds, and the high spear-grass on that wall,
By mist and silent rain-drops silvered o'er,
As once I passed, into my heart conveyed
So still an image of tranquillity,
So calm and still, and looked so beautiful
Amid the uneasy thoughts which filled my mind,
That what we feel of sorrow and despair
From ruin and from change, and all the grief
That passing shows of Being leave behind,
Appeared an idle dream, that could maintain,
Nowhere, dominion o'er the enlightened spirit
Whose meditative sympathies repose
Upon the breast of Faith. I turned away,
And walked along my road in happiness. [Excursion, 1:979-95]
This is the crucial moment: the moment, we could say, in which The Excursion is asking us to go with it, or else to accept that we cannot buy-into its ethical-aesthetic programme. What redeems all the misery and drawn-out suffering, not to mention the neo-Stoic moral arm's-length remoteness from human neediness, is this: a moment of pure and natural beauty.

It matters that this image is from an untended garden, since its weediness moves it closer to unspoiled Nature. And it matters that it is beautiful, because this beauty is an exact correlative, for Wordsworth, of the image's ethical strength. It is a spot-of-time, something for which The Prelude would have prepared us, had Wordsworth ever published his whole Recluse, Prelude-and-all. Nor can I deny the beauty, not only of the thing described, but of the way Wordsworth describes it. To read the measured, dignified, precise blank verse
                    those very plumes,
Those weeds, and the high spear-grass on that wall,
By mist and silent rain-drops silvered o'er,
As once I passed, into my heart conveyed
So still an image of tranquillity,
So calm and still, and looked so beautiful
Amid the uneasy thoughts which filled my mind,
is to be reminded of that apothegm by Vernon Watkins that even when poetry doesn't rhyme at the ends of the line (and especially when it does) the best poetry always rhymes all the way along the line. Here that's realised by Wordsworth's extraordinarily skilful pacing and repetition of the il sound: silvered in one line picking up (wait for it) still and tranquillity two lines on, echoed by a straightforward repetition in the line after 'so calm and still' brought to a conclusion with 'filled my mind'. The labial pulsing of this il, il, il is exquisite, and draws down the very peacefulness the passage seeks to praise by evoking.

On the other hand: is this really enough? Does a single beautiful glimpse of mist-silvered tall grass renovate and redeem nearly decade's psychological agony, bereavement and material degradation? I'm tempted to say: only if it's somebody else's psychological agony, bereavement and material degradation we're talking about. I'm tempted to say: any ethical programme founded upon such an attitude is bound to be ruinous. Wordsworth would not be pleased by my saying so, I suppose.

1 comment:

  1. An Unsympathetic Reader Writes: a synonym for that key word 'silvered' would be 'shiny'. Breast of Faith, indeed - he's just switched off.

    I remember a critique of an evangelical church to the effect that they combined individual, communal and (imagined) global experiences of the divine without ever engaging with anything social - or any real people outside their own ranks. Wordsworth's 'Faith' seems to have gone one better - individual experience, vast uncontainability of natural world and, er, that's it. Quite inhuman.

    It's odd that he's remembered now as a rather sweetly pretty young romantic, half Romeo and half fotherington-tomas. I found myself wondering what would have happened if Morrissey had read Wordsworth instead of Wilde.

    The point about the Wanderer's interrupted story - I think this is plausible, although it's clumsily handled. He seems to be getting at the experience of hearing somebody's story and thinking nothing of it at the time, then finding yourself much more deeply stirred by it than you'd realised (to the point of thinking of the protagonist as of someone you'd known and loved). The clumsy part is the time compression - for the listener to forget the story, let time pass and have the story come back to him despite himself all in the one scene is stretching things. But maybe Wordsworth's character had been practising his own stoical disengagement and he'd been distracted by something shiny.