Three feet on the ground

Marilyn Butler

  • William Wordsworth: The Borders of Vision by Jonathan Wordsworth
    Oxford, 496 pp, £25.00, February 1983, ISBN 0 19 812097 4
  • William Wordsworth: The Poetry of Grandeur and of Tenderness by David Pirie
    Methuen, 301 pp, £14.95, March 1982, ISBN 0 416 31300 0
  • Benjamin the Waggoner by William Wordsworth, edited by Paul Betz
    Cornell/Harvester, 356 pp, £40.00, September 1981, ISBN 0 85527 513 8

One evening, declares Jonathan Wordsworth as he begins his new critical book, a poet happened to be walking along a road, when the peasant who was with him pointed out a striking sight:

        ’Twas a horse, that stood
Alone upon a little breast of ground
With a clear silver moonlight sky behind.
With one leg from the ground the creature stood,
Insensible and still; breath, motion gone,
Hairs, colour, all but shape and substance gone,
Mane, ears, and tail, as lifeless as the trunk
That had no stir of breath. We paused awhile
In pleasure of the sight, and left him there,
With all his functions silently sealed up,
Like an amphibious work of Nature’s hand,
A borderer dwelling betwixt life and death,
A living statue or a statued life.

The lines are found in a draft, in the end never incorporated into a finished poem; the poet, says Jonathan Wordsworth, could only be William Wordsworth. It seems wholly true, and Wordsworthianness is very well brought out in the discussion that follows – a sensitive, lucid, light prose-paraphrase which includes the reflection that ‘hairs’ is much better than ‘hair’ would have been, and the useful information that horses often sleep on three legs.

Jonathan Wordsworth goes on to warn his reader, with a logic that may escape those unfamiliar with recent Romantic criticism, not to ‘overstress the ordinariness of what is happening’. We, like the peasant, would probably see a horse asleep in the moonlight, whereas Wordsworth ‘points out ... something quite different. We are not, in this case at least, laid afresh on the cool flowery lap of earth, shown an object sparkling anew with the dewdrops of childhood. We are offered a strange, personal vision, child-like only in its intensity.’ We are offered both, surely? Why otherwise should the poet stress his fellow-feeling with the peasant as they look at the horse: ‘We paused awhile/ In pleasure of the sight’? Would the critic have chosen to begin with this wonderful passage unless he sensed that we would warm to its ordinariness? In fact, here as elsewhere in the book, and in spite of his critical orthodoxy, Jonathan Wordsworth demonstrates that it is his great gift to make the poet accessible and sympathetic, an observer of common experience, remarkable for his articulacy, but still companionably attuned to neighbours and strangers.

There was a time when critics probably took it as a compliment if told that they wrote well, and made one want to go off to read the poet they discussed. Nowadays, with groups of mandarin critics circling each major author, writing mostly for one another, it can seem double-edged to say that an academic has the common touch. For most students, and such general readers as survive, the readiest approach to a writer is still a blend of biography and of the ‘close reading’ of a limited, knowable selection of the poet’s oeuvre. Formally, Wordsworth’s life has been written for our time by Mary Moorman, in her detailed two-volume biography (1957 and 1967). But her effort has over the last twenty years been paralleled and supplemented by Jonathan Wordsworth, who operates in an area between textual scholarship and literary biography, using the successive versions of one poem as evidence for Wordsworth’s changing state of mind, and vice versa. Where his earlier book, The Music of Humanity, focused on one poem, ‘The Ruined Cottage’, the present book is an eclectic collection of essays and lectures, the earliest delivered in 1969. They move about within the great decade of Wordsworth’s productivity in what would appear to be a random manner, if the Table of Contents did not reveal a fundamentally chronological and literary-biographical structure of thought by its tell-tale concern with dates.

Jonathan Wordsworth does not stray into biography for its own sake: in a disciplined way, he keeps the texts in view. So he does not here discuss Wordsworth’s marriage, recently so freshly and touchingly illuminated by the discovery of the letters which passed between William and Mary Wordsworth in 1810 and 1812, when the poet was away from home. But the intellectual and literary relationship between Wordsworth and Coleridge is of key importance to him, and one connecting thread in this volume of essays brings Coleridge into prominence as an influence and a commentator on Wordsworth’s oeuvre in its best years, 1797-1805.

Another British critic, David Pirie, writes in The Poetry of Grandeur and of Tenderness from a point of view which often resembles Jonathan Wordsworth’s. Pirie’s book is less obviously biographical in its orientation, yet in the end its goal is a portrait of Wordsworth’s mind and personality as revealed by his greatest poetry. Each of the individual chapters could stand alone, but as the title emphasises, the book is designed to cohere, with Wordsworth’s responses to the natural and social world as the unifying principle. Pirie is nothing if not a practical teacher, and he arranges his book so that undergraduates could base a week or fortnight’s work upon it, in a series of studies of major ‘syllabus’ poems or parts of poems. Width of selection is sacrificed to the careful consideration of particular passages, since, as he says, ‘closely observant readings cannot be brief,’ and Pirie at his best is indeed closely and shrewdly observant.

In the course of a discussion of some of Wordsworth’s poems about Solitaries, Pirie characteristically makes the poet’s world seem almost populated, and his empathy with others readier than critics of his own day or ours usually allow. He quotes from the description of the Cumberland Beggar, whose back is so bent he can hardly see where he is going. The discussion then picks up the points in the order in which Wordsworth made them: ‘Coleridge’s complaint that Wordsworth was only capable of “feeling for but never with” his characters is proved false by such a passage. The thoroughness of identification here in fact narrows Wordsworth’s focus to an almost microscopic view of the Beggar’s own abnormally limited world: a world of other people’s trivial losses – “some straw”; a world of nature’s random discards – “some scattered leaf”; a world whose dimensions are as remorselessly unchangeable as a coach’s wheelbase ...’ This is not done with the grace and flair of Jonathan Wordsworth at his best, and certainly not with the same telling selectivity. But taken as a whole Pirie’s book achieves a sharper focus than quotation perhaps conveys, bringing home the notion that the oeuvre is complex and varied but not inchoate, and that the poet’s richness and originality are at least related to his capacity to ‘feel with’ his characters.

As their discussions of the horse and the beggar illustrate, on one important topic these two critics are set upon divergent courses. They differ in their analysis of the poet’s relations with the world about him: Jonathan Wordsworth sees the poet of Nature as a philosopher and a visionary, while Pirie elicits a more humane aspect, the poet of ‘tenderness’. In considering that most characteristic of Wordsworthian scenes, the poet’s baffled, half-articulate encounter with someone very old or very young, beyond speech, or unready for it, Jonathan Wordsworth emphasises, not that such meetings are occasions for dialogue, but that they are occasions for meditation. He makes the poet-narrator of far more interest to the reader than his interlocutor. Sometimes Wordsworth might as well be walking by himself, in that the character he meets, especially if a singer like the Highland Reaper or the Danish Boy, can be taken as his surrogate. Sometimes, as with the Discharged Soldier in Book Four of The Prelude, the writing enforces the spiritual or intellectual or linguistic superiority of the poet over the peasant. Jonathan Wordsworth concedes that Wordsworth can write differently from this – that is, with more feeling for those other than himself: but, in a sweeping and very interesting statement, he declares that this side of the poet’s genius does not in practice co-exist with his best writing, which is more nearly solipsistic:

The Wordsworth of The Prelude never does look upon mankind. He had done so in 1797-8 (‘The Ruined Cottage’, ‘The Idiot Boy’, ‘Old Cumberland Beggar’), and in 1800 (‘The Brother’, ‘Home at Grasmere’, ‘Michael’), and would do so again in ‘The Waggoner’ of 1806, but in the periods that produced the great poetry of imagination (late 1798 and 1799, 1802, 1804-5), true fellow-feeling is very rare. The Prelude has its moments – Ann Tyson asleep on her bible in IV, the hunger-bitten girl of IX, the London artificer – but neither VIII (‘Love of Nature Leading to Love of Mankind’) nor VII (designed presumably to represent Experience, a seeing how the others live) turns out to be about people at all. In 1798 the song of the One Life had coexisted with the still sad music of humanity because both were to be perceived outside the self; but the internal voice of imagination that replaced the One Life was too loud – too dominant when in full song, and at other times too threatened – for the poet to do much listening. At these times he was indeed the ‘spectator ab extra’ that Coleridge called him, seeing man outwardly ennobled, or men in patterns, pageants, processions, that pleased his creativity and did not intrude too much upon his consciousness.

Where Pirie, more solicitous of the student, the novice or the amateur, stresses that Wordsworth is a human being like them, Jonathan Wordsworth, the professional critic, shifts the emphasis towards Wordsworth the self-absorbed thinker and man of letters.

In representing Wordsworth in these somewhat élite and specialist terms, Jonathan Wordsworth is not of course alone, as comparison of his own title with those listed in his bibliography fully confirms. Recent items of Wordsworthiana include The Visionary Company, The Unmediated Vision, ‘The Idiom of Vision’, and a host of treatments of cognate topics such as Dreams, the Sublime, Paradise or Eden (and the Fall therefrom), and Imagination, along with its primary and secondary variants. This elevated discourse (or vocabulary, if it isn’t yours), which nowadays commands the respect of the graduate schools, can be traced back to the mode of thought of the Canadian critic Northrop Frye, a Jungian, who schematises literature into a rather small series of recurring archetypal themes. According to this view, early Neo-Platonism and Jewish Gnosticism, two anti-materialist and otherworldly habits of thought, offer the most useful parallel to Romanticism. Critics of Frye’s persuasion, a number of whom are gathered at Cornell and Yale, believe in something they call the High Romantic Argument, in which Wordsworth, a key figure, participates. A pronouncement of Northrop Frye’s states grandly what this Argument might be: The great Romantic theme is the attaining of an apocalyptic vision by a fallen but potentially regenerate mind.’

Once upon a time, especially before the last war, the American Eng Lit Establishment was ruled by Anglophiles with what now seems a snobbish and selective view of the English literary tradition. They tended to be plus royaliste que le roi, more Anglican than the Archbishop of Canterbury, only as Common as the Book of Common Prayer. They did not care much for the Romantics, who were notoriously given to secularity (in Shelley’s case, to atheism), and to radicalism in politics. But the palace revolution which has now been worked on the American literary critical scene has swept the six major poets (Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley and Keats all count as ‘canonical’) to prominence and indeed to modishness, without for a moment implying that radicalism or atheism have suddenly become acceptable doctrines with which to confront the young. A highminded exercise in reinterpreting the poets’ actual beliefs has accordingly become necessary. One method of elevating and simplifying them at a stroke is to group them with ‘post-Kantians’, which makes them sound like naturalised Germans. Alternatively, the Frye transformation has them as stateless persons, or as Alexandrians of Roman Imperial days, or as Medieval dissident Jews. If this seems likely to lead to some strained readings, so it does. But it has the advantage, an advantage for many Americans at any rate, of de-Englishing the English Romantics pretty thoroughly, while making what used to be said about them, and those who used to say it, satisfyingly Old Hat.

American Neo-Romanticism has the energy of a revolution, and an appropriately radical rhetoric, but of course it has nothing to do with a social or political revolution. It signals a turnover at the top, notably at the top of the English departments of the most prestigious universities, in which critics with Continental backgrounds and (often) Jewish religious traditions have superseded the White Anglo-Saxon Protestants. In the 1960s the revolutionary message of poets like Blake and Shelley appealed to the young, and the critical industry has accordingly canonised them, but in more senses than one (for the religious idiom of the School of Frye is a key to its thinking). The more social themes of the Romantics, their democratic goals, their political changes of heart, are dropped or downgraded in favour of unworldly or otherworldly phases of their writing. Wordsworth and his contemporaries are made out to be visionaries, sometimes plausibly enough – provided enough of their lives and writings are left out.

Jonathan Wordsworth, the only British member of the editorial board superintending the vast Cornell Wordsworth, finds himself strangely placed in relation to where the Wordsworth critical industry is at. It is tempting, though nowhere specifically authorised, to see The Borders of Vision as a wonderfully sly title, which acknowledges the thunder-clouds of the transatlantic Apocalypse, while demurely hinting that Wordsworth when writing at his best stands on terra firma. There is a moment with wrecking potential when, after a protracted discussion of the presence in The Prelude of the most familiar of archetypes, the Fall, Jonathan Wordsworth suddenly observes that ‘when all is said and done, the paradise-lost-and-regained structure of The Prelude is never very marked.’ Here, and in much of the book, the habits of the editor, biographer and empiricist clash with the vogue for global generalisation. Wordsworth, presented day by day and draft by draft, seems willy-nilly rooted in the very world which is the world of all of us, and not where the transcendentalists would have him.

In the most sustained of his biographical discussions, on the other hand, the long chapter on the evolution of Wordsworth’s autobiographical Prelude called ‘Some Versions of the Fall’, Jonathan Wordsworth lets the pattern take over. Wordsworth came home from revolutionary France in December 1792 a self-confessed republican and a democrat. At the time of his return, the leading radical book in England was Paine’s Rights of Man, which is written in a ‘levelling’ style calculated to speak direct to the common people. In February 1793 Godwin’s Political Justice appeared, a book meant for highbrow radicals, a universal and fundamentalist study of the oppressiveness or injustice of the aristocratic system of government. Jonathan Wordsworth’s approach to Wordsworth’s complex relations with these books and this situation is to relate how William ‘falls’ into Godwinian error in 1793-6, to struggle onward and upward in the years that immediately follow. The significant feature of Godwin’s book for the young republican Wordsworth was, we are to believe, its ‘denial of emotional values’. Wordsworth ‘was confronted by the fact that “passions”, “notions” ... “shapes of faith” ... were outlawed by Godwin’s system.’

But how did a man who called himelf a republican and a democrat come to lose those ideals to ‘notions’ and ‘shapes of faith’? Precisely when did Wordsworth swop the clichés of the Left of his day for the clichés of the Right? For a phrase like ‘shapes of faith’, which Wordsworth uses in the 1805 Prelude when apologising for his early radicalism, echoes the common criticism of atheistic Godwin by his orthodox opponents. Jonathan Wordsworth is too indulgent to the poet over Godwin – or too keen to have him out of politics and into visions before his best poems are written. It would be enormously interesting to have a convincing account of Wordsworth’s retreat from radicalism, but this is not it, since it omits the counter-evidence which points to delays in his recruitment of ‘poeticity’. Why can the democrat and republican still be so clearly heard in Wordsworth’s post-Godwinian poetry, and why did his politically radical statements about poetry come so oddly late?

The radical side of Wordsworth’s imaginative writing, what Hazlitt called his ‘levelling Muse’, has evidently become an embarrassment all round. So Jonathan Wordsworth takes the key critical text for Wordsworth’s great poetry to be Coleridge’s book of over a decade later, the Biographia Literaria, and he applies the transcendentalist Coleridgean phrase, ‘the One Life’, far more regularly to the Wordsworthian oeuvre than any critical concept coined by the poet himself. Yet Wordsworth wrote a major critical essay in the very middle of producing his greatest poetry, the Preface of 1800 for the Lyrical Ballads, and of this neither Jonathan Wordsworth nor David Pirie makes much use. The Preface hardly seems an irrelevancy, for the poet who wrote of idiots, war victims, beggars, people not gifted with tongues but barely articulate:

What is a Poet? To whom does he address himself? And what language is to be expected from him? He is a man speaking to men ... However exalted a notion we would wish to cherish of the character of a Poet, it is obvious, that, while he describes and imitates passions, his situation is altogether slavish and mechanical, compared with the freedom and power of real and substantial action and suffering. So that it will be the wish of the Poet to bring his feelings near to those of the persons whose feelings he describes, nay, for short spaces of time perhaps, to let himself slip into an entire delusion, and even confound and identify his own feelings with theirs ... These passions and thoughts and feelings are the general passions and thoughts and feelings of men ... Poets do not write for Poets alone, but for men.

This passage was added by Wordsworth in 1802, when in the poetry (according to Jonathan Wordsworth) ‘true fellow-feeling is very rare.’ It clearly insists upon a democratic view of culture, in which poetry’s true subject matter, common experience, bonds the educated poet to humble people in real life. This is all most inconvenient, since it is not at all what the transcendentalists think poetry is about. It disturbs Jonathan Wordsworth’s fall-and-redemption pattern, since Wordsworth’s self-discharge from radicalism, or at least from Godwinism, was supposed to have been achieved by 1797. It sharply distinguishes Wordsworth from Coleridge, who did not write poems about peasants, and came to deplore the presence in Wordsworth’s poetry of ‘those parts of composition where the Poet speaks through the mouths of his characters’. Neither clashes of opinion between poets, nor assertions of common humanity with those who are not poets, are good news for the archetypalists and super-professionals.

In a happy hour comes the fifth volume of the authoritative Cornell Wordsworth series, the popular, uncanonical Benjamin the Waggoner, which was begun by 1806 but not published until 1819. Though written in the manner and metre which Scott had popularised at the time of its inception, in subjectmatter Benjamin the Waggoner comes closer to Crabbe or (especially) to Burns. It is a genial anecdote about a loved local figure, kind to vagrants, good with horses, but over-attached to the bottle – though he is at the moment, in more senses than one, on the waggon. For this last reason, as well as for the poem’s prevailing good humour, Lamb the drinker and intermittent abstainer liked it when he heard it recited in 1806, and Wordsworth dedicated the first edition to him. This is nice, as is Wordsworth’s light placing of himself in the poem, in quite unvisionary form, as ‘a simple water-drinking Bard’, the new occupant of what used to be the hospitable Dove and Olive Branch. Only a mile down the road, unfortunately for Benjamin, the Swan is still open, and is having ‘a merry-night’.

Like ‘The Idiot Boy’ of 1798, Benjamin of 1819 is a narrative which recalls familiar literary models – ghostlier night rides, Falls from a greater height. But it counters them. The only demon which actually appears is the demon drink, and Benjamin, instead of being haled off to hell, acquires a hangover and is fired. Wordsworth lightly refers throughout to other poems by himself and others, but in order to make the point that these people and this action do not belong to a preconceived category of the ‘poetic’. Here is another of his characteristic paradoxes. Benjamin, and the poet’s fleeting relations with him, make another kind of poem that is essentially Wordsworthian.