20th Century Classics, Administrative Reform, Cambridge University Press, Constitutional Reform, Declining Sri Lanka, Divisional Secretariat, Genius, Harold Bloom, Industrial Revolution, Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood, Michael, Nature Poet, poems, Poetry, Selection of English Poetry, The World Is Too Much With Us, Tintern Abbey, William Wordsworth
I had been considering writing a companion series to 20th Century Classics, my assessment of 50 writers of English prose in the last century, but kept putting it off. Recently however three reasons arose around the same time, which has finally spurred me to take on the task.
First, Cambridge University Press in India finally brought out the book, and within a few months it has been reprinted twice, which is heartening. Secondly, having spent much time and energy writing about the current political situation, I realized that I had exhausted the thrust of what I had been doing over the last year, which is analysis aimed at encouraging future action. There have been series on both Constitutional Reform and Administrative Reform, while much energy has been expended on suggestions for promoting reconciliation, but these have led nowhere.
While I will continue with the Divisional Secretariat meetings which do have some purpose, if only to give people an opportunity to raise issues, and precipitate a few positive responses, writing to be purposeful requires a different direction. Analysis that aims at explication of the past then seems more useful in terms of a sequel to Declining Sri Lanka, which CUP brought out over five years ago, when I had no active political involvements. Now however seems the time to set down what occurred since then, in terms of both the defeat of terrorism and the comparative failure to build of that success.
The less urgent nature of this exercise also leaves room for greater attention to literature. But even so, I don’t think I would have ventured on the task had I not begun reading Harold Bloom’s Genius, which deals with a hundred writers he believes had that special quality. Some of his choices are strange, but my purpose is not to assess them. Nor will I discuss the brilliant insights he so often furnishes.
But I shall probably use some of his judgments as reference points in this series, and will begin with a sweeping judgment he makes, which can be challenged, but is nevertheless profoundly illuminating. This occurs in his discussion of Wordsworth, who he claims established a new tradition of poetry, in contrast to the great tradition which he claims extended from Homer to Goethe, who was not that very much older than Wordsworth. Bloom says there, ‘Wordsworth remains, in the twenty-first century, what he has been these last two hundred years: the inventor of a poetry that has been called, at intervals, Romantic, post-Romantic, Moder, and Postmodern, yet essentially is one phenomenon: the replacement of subject-matter by the poet’s subjectivity. Goethe was the final poet in a vast sequence that began with Homer; Wordsworth was something different.
Bloom’s claim was that Wordsworth firmly placed the poet himself at the centre of the world he wrote about. That is largely true, though one needs also to be aware, in looking both at those who wrote in what he sees as the different earlier tradition, and those who came afterwards, of the different perspectives individual poets bring to their subject matter. Even when that subject matter is the personal vision of the poet, the varying emphases, on spirit and mind, on relations with oneself and with others, on social and moral and emotional claims, all lead to different interpretations of the world, and our position within it. For, as Wordsworth himself put it, in one of those simple statements that reverberates with extensive meaning, ‘The World is too much with us’; and whether focusing on one’s own perspectives or looking on the responses of others to each other and the world, it is what poets have to say about the world around us that makes us read them.
That is why I have entitled this series ‘Poets and their Visions’, and I will try, in discussing a range of writers, to examine what they tell us about the world we live in, and about how we should and do respond to its impact on us.
In addition to Bloom’s assessment inspiring this series, there is another reason for beginning with Wordsworth, the reason that I gave in beginning the Selection of English Poetry I edited for the British Council nearly 30 years ago with the Romantics. They use simple language and imagery that appeals easily to all of us, and their use of rhyme and rhythm makes them easily accessible to the reader. And it was of course Wordsworth who started this all, when he and his friends overturned the rather precious road which English poetry had taken in the 18th century, with content and style that were readily understandable only by an educated elite.
Wordsworth is generally taught as a Nature Poet, and that makes sense for his descriptions and evocations of nature are superb. Whether admiring a rainbow, or wandering amidst a sea of daffodils, or watching London waking up early morning, he creates images of startling immediacy as well as beauty. And he does this also in the longer more reflective poems, as in a line from ‘Tintern Abbey’ that reverberates when I see running water, and not only a waterfall
The sounding cataract haunted me like a passion
But here, and elsewhere, as Bloom points out, the subject is as much Wordsworth’s reactions as the scene before him. The rainbow stirs him to record the enthusiasm it inspires, the daffodils the memories that comfort him ‘in pensive mood’. Tintern Abbey, written when he was just 28, is all about reflections on the past, and the comfort of the different responses and enhanced understanding as one ages.
Interestingly enough, Wordsworth even when young was acutely conscious of the problems age brings, and his depiction in Michael of the old shepherd is deeply moving. The poem is indeed a sort of rebuttal of Bloom’s contention, since it is emphatically about the old shepherd whose son has deserted him for the town, rather than about Wordsworth or his reactions to the sad tale he is told. In fact we can see Wordsworth here as understanding, and dealing sensitively with at least a limited aspect of, the social changes the country was undergoing as a result of the Industrial Revolution. Wordsworth has been accused of myopia, in celebrating the ‘smokeless air’ of London as he saw it from Westminster Bridge, whereas Blake had previously written of Satanic mills. But his perception of the slow death of the English countryside, or rather of the populace that had given it its character over the centuries, was as important as more obvious elements.
Nevertheless, his immortality as it were rests more on the reflections he engages in. As noted, these are vivid when he bases his sense of inner peace on nature and its beauties. But even more compelling I think are the application of his thoughts to a spiritual realm, as in the extraordinary Ode, Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood.
I still recall reading that when I was 13, and telling a friend with whom I had enjoyed mocking Wordsworth’s sentimentality (as one does at that age) and our teacher’s claims about how great he was, that I had changed my mind. He read the poem and thought I was being silly to have been so affected by a single poem. But, going through it again, I am moved again by its recreation of the vivid imaginings of childhood, its account of our sense that there is more to life than what we experience. Its conclusion is perhaps the most telling evocation in literature of the promise life holds, whatever experience suggests to the contrary
Hence in a season of calm weather
Though inland far we be,
Our Souls have sigh of that immortal sea
Which brought us hither,
Can in a moment travel thither,
And see the Children sport upon the shore,
And hear the mighty waters rolling evermore.
Given the length of the introduction, I have written less about Wordsworth himself than I should have. One could say much about the young idealist who settled into being a pillar of the establishment, and discuss whether that caused the decline in his poetic powers that Bloom notes. But, given the very basic appeal of a man whose message at its best was so clear and so simple, it would be more illuminating perhaps to end simply with citing the poem I began with in full, with its evocations of nature and its record of regrets about our failure to relish this to the full.
The World Is Too Much With Us
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!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not. Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.