Joan Aurel Preda's: The romantic poet in his pride.
In the passage from neo-classicism to romanticism the theory of poetry underwent substantive changes, which in certain respects represented a return to, and development of, romantic elements in Renaissance criticism. Among them was the view of the poet as a demiurge and of imagination as a faculty analogous to God's creative power. Neoclassic poetics had laid stress on a fertile invention, a good fancy, a sound judgment, a great power of reasoning, and a strong memory as the most important natural endowments of poetic genius. The shift from the mimetic to the expressive view of poetry involved, among other things, a repositioning of the poet in the poetic theory, whose centre he and his creative faculty became. In the process, the image of the poet as a man of wit and judgment was replaced by one which emphasized his keen sensibility, profound mind, responsiveness to beauty, human sympathy, and visionary powers.
In the Preface to the 1815 edition of his Poems, among the powers requisite for the production of poetry Wordsworth (2008: 626-627) included those of observation and discrimination, sensibility, reflection, imagination and fancy, invention, and, lastly, judgment:
The powers requisite for the production of poetry are, first, those of observation and description, i.e. the ability to observe with accuracy things as they are in themselves, and with fidelity to describe them, unmodified by any passion or feeling existing in the mind of the Describer: whether the things depicted be actually present to the senses, or have a place only in the memory. This power, though indispensable to a Poet, is one which he employs only in submission to necessity, and never for a continuance of time; as its exercise supposes all the higher qualities of the mind to be passive, and in a state of subjection to external objects, much in the same way as the Translator or Engraver ought to be to his Original. 2ndly, Sensibility,--which, the more exquisite it is, the wider will be the range of a Poet's perceptions; and the more will he be incited to observe objects, both as they exist in themselves and as re-acted upon by his own mind. [...] 3rdly, Reflection,--which makes the Poet acquainted with the value of actions, images, thoughts, and feelings; and assists the sensibility in perceiving their connection with each other. 4thly, Imagination and Fancy,--to modify, to create, and to associate. 5thly, Invention,--by which characters are composed out of materials supplied by observation; whether of the Poet's own heart and mind, or of external life and nature; and such incidents and situations produced as are most impressive to the imagination, and most fitted to do justice to the characters, sentiments, and passions, which the Poet undertakes to illustrate. And, lastly, Judgement,--to decide how and where, and in what degree, each of these faculties ought to be exerted; so that the less shall not be sacrificed to the greater; nor the greater, slighting the less, arrogate, to its own injury, more than its due. By judgement, also, is determined what are the laws and appropriate graces of every species of composition.
For Wordsworth, as for other romantics, the first distinguishing trait of the poet is his sensibility, which involves both an intense "Life of Sensations" (cf. Keats's Letter to Benjamin Bailey, dated 22 November 1817; Keats 1975: 37) and the power to feel and respond to things in a higher degree than is usual with other human beings. But sensibility must always be allied with powerful intellection. For, Wordsworth says,
[...] Poems to which any value can be attached, were never produced on any variety of subjects but by a man, who being possessed of more than usual organic sensibility, had also thought long and deeply. (Preface to Lyrical Ballads, 1802; Wordsworth 2008: 598)
The result of this union of keen sensibility and deep thought is what Wordsworth (2008: 603) calls "a more comprehensive soul" (the phrase, which reminds one of Dryden's characterization of Shakespeare in his Essay of dramatic poesie--see Dryden 1900: 79--, is highly significant for the light it throws on the romantic ideal) and what Keats, referring to himself as poet, but putting it in the terms of a generalized description, defines as follows:
[A] complex Mind--one that is imaginative and at the same time careful of its fruits--who would exist partly on sensation partly on thought [...]. (Letter to Benjamin Bailey, dated 22 November 1817; Keats 1975:38)
Characteristic of the poet's "more comprehensive soul" is not only its capacity, large enough for it to take in the entire universe, but also its sympathetic responsiveness and, deriving from the latter, its ability mentally to identify itself and vicariously to experience the thoughts, feelings and actions of another person or to project itself into the object, whether animate or inanimate, which it contemplates--in other words, its empathetic capability. To this effect, Wordsworth (2008: 604) writes the following in his Preface to Lyrical Ballads (1802):
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; modifying only the language which is thus suggested to him, by a consideration that he describes for a particular purpose, that of giving pleasure.
Empathy is inherent in all imaginative exploration of the inner world of fictitious characters in literature. With the romantics, however, it was not only of paramount importance, but it also extended to the whole of nature. Wordsworth (2008: 81) thought he could sense the birds' "thrill of pleasure" as well as the pleasure experienced by the "budding twigs" when they "spread out their fan, / To catch the breezy air" (Lines Written in Early Spring).
Coleridge held in a letter (to an unknown correspondent) dated 1820 that from his very childhood he had been accustomed to the following habit:
[T]o abstract and, as it were, unrealize whatever of more than common interest my eyes dwelt on, and then by a sort of transfusion and transmission of my consciousness to identify myself with the object [...]. (Coleridge 1911: 154; cf. also Gillman 1838: 309) (in Lowes 1927: 130, apud Bruhm 2001: 34, instead of the word "transmission" we read: "transformation of my consciousness")
Similarly, Keats (1975: 38) claimed that on seeing a bird ["a Sparrow"] before his window he would begin to "take part in its existence and pick about the Gravel" (cf. Letter to Benjamin Bailey, dated 22 November 1817). And the same would happen to him when he read poetry. He wrote, in a Letter to George and Georgiana Keats, dated [14, 16, 21, 24, 31] October 1918:
According to my state of mind I am with Achilles shouting in the Trenches or with Theocritus in the Vales of Sicily. Or I throw my whole being into Troilus and repeating those lines, "I wander, like a lost soul upon the stygian Banks staying for waftage," I melt into the air with a voluptuousness so delicate that I am content to be alone. (Keats 1975: 170)
His affective identification with imaginary persons and objects was so intense that it resulted in a complete annulment of self, or loss of identity. Hence his seemingly paradoxical conclusion on poets, to whose special group he felt he himself belonged:
[T]he poetical character [...] is not itself--it has no self--it is every thing and nothing--It has no character --it enjoys light and shade; it lives in gusto, be it foul or fair, high or low, rich or poor, mean or elevated--It has as much delight in conceiving an Iago as an Imogen. [...] A poet is the most unpoetical of any thing in existence; because he has no Identity--he is continually in for--and filling some other Body--The Sun, the Moon, the Sea and Men and Women who are creatures of impulse are poetical and have about them an unchangeable attribute--the poet has none; no identity--he is certainly the most unpoetical of all God's creatures. [...] When I am in a room with People if ever I am free from speculating on creations of my own brain, then not myself goes home to myself: but the identity of every one in the room begins so to press upon me that, I am in a very little time annihilated [...]. (Letter to Richard Woodhouse, dated 27 October 1818; Keats 1975: 157-158)
Byron's affective fusion with his heroes is to him a means of living--in the imagination--emotions of an intensity he sometimes cannot reach in actual life, and it seems to come close to Keats's self-destroying introjection:
What am I? Nothing; but not so art thou, / Soul of my thought! with whom I traverse earth, / Invisible but gazing, as I glow / Mix'd with thy spirit, blended with thy birth, / And feeling still with thee in my crush'd feelings' dearth. (Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, Canto III, 6, 50-54; Byron 2000: 106)
Or the empathetic experience may be one of coalescence with natural objects, as when he says:
I live not in myself, but I become / Portion of that around me; and to me, / High mountains are a feeling, but the hum / Of human cities torture: I can see / Nothing to loathe in nature, save to be / A link reluctant in a fleshly chain, / Class'd among creatures, when the soul can flee, / And with the sky, the peak, the heaving plain / Of ocean, or the stars, mingle, and not in vain. (Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, Canto III, 72, 680-688; Byron 2000: 125-126)
There is a pleasure in the pathless woods, / There is a rapture on the lonely shore, / There is society, where none intrudes, / By the deep Sea, and music in its roar: / I love not Man the less, but Nature more, / From these our interviews, in which I steal / From all I may be, or have been before, / To mingle with the Universe, and feel / What I can ne'er express, yet can not all conceal. (Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, Canto IV, 178, 1594-1602; Byron 2000: 199)
P. B. Shelley (2003: 635) combines the sailing forth of the soul into the universe with the absorption of the universe by the soul:
Those who are subject to the state called reverie feel as if their nature were dissolved into the surrounding universe, or as if the surrounding universe were absorbed into their being. They are conscious of no distinction. (On Life)
But empathy is not only an experience which the sensitive romantic soul indulges in when in a state of reverie. It is also a means by which the poet in love with nature explores the objects in it as from within, thereby illuminating their essence. According to Shelley (2003: 682), what impels the soul to mingle with other entities is love, defined as follows:
[A] going out of our own nature, and an identification of ourselves with the beautiful which exists in thought, action or person, not our own. (A Defence of Poetry)
It is love that arouses in the soul that longing for "communion with essence" that pervades poems like Shelley's Alastor or Keats's Endymion.
The reflection of the universe in the poet's mind and the projection of his mind into natural objects in the universe define the romantic cognitive model of the interaction between the mind in perception and external reality in which the mind acts at once as a receiver and a giver. Wordsworth (2008: 578; var. 1994: 745) characterizes this condition thus:
A balance, an ennobling interchange / Of action from within and from without [var. from without and from within]: / The excellence, pure spirit [var. pure function], and best power / Both of the object seen, and eye that sees. (The Prelude, XII, 376-379; var. XIII, 375-378)
This model, which assumes that the mind reciprocates the action exercised on it by the external world, contrasts sharply with Locke's view (1824: 119) that in the reception of sense impressions the following condition is present:
[T]he understanding is merely passive; and whether or no it will have these beginnings, and, as it were, materials of knowledge, is not in its own power. For the objects of our senses do, many of them, obtrude their particular ideas upon our minds whether we will or no [...]. (Essay concerning human understanding, Book II, Chap. I, 25)
The other romantic model of cognition, the wind-harp, often used for describing the inspirational nature of poetic creation, however, implies that the mind, like the harp, is a passive object acted upon by the plastic spirit indwelling in the universe which Coleridge (2000: 29) refers to as an "intellectual breeze" in his poem The Eolian Harp. This is equally true of Shelley's representation (2003: 696-697) of the "mind in creation," whose deep nature and condition he metaphorically described as follows:
[A] fading coal which some invisible influence, like an inconstant wind, awakens to transitory brightness; this power arises from within like the colour of a flower which fades and changes as it is developed, and the conscious portions of our nature are unprophetic either of its approach or its departure. (A Defence of Poetry)
The empathetic capability of which most of the great romantics were possessed in an uncommon degree and their view of the universe as instinct with life may account for the frequency in their poetry of what John Ruskin was to call the "pathetic fallacy," that is to say, of the investing of natural objects with human moods, feelings and thoughts. Accordingly, the following situation emerged, as pointed out by M.H. Abrams (1971: 55):
[I]n literary criticism the valid animation of natural objects, traditionally treated as one form of the rhetorical device of prosopopoeia, or personification, now came to be a major index to the sovereign faculty of imagination, and almost in itself a sufficient criterion of the highest poetry.
But Ruskin (2004: 73-74) was to consider the use of this device as a serious weakness in a poet. In his view, there are three kinds of human beings as regards the way in which external reality is apprehended:
[T]he man who perceives rightly, because he does not feel, and to whom the primrose is very accurately the primrose, because he does not love it. Then, secondly, the man who perceives wrongly, because he feels, and to whom the primrose is anything else than a primrose: a star, or a sun, or a fairy's shield, or a forsaken maiden. And then, lastly, there is the man who perceives rightly in spite of his feelings, and to whom the primrose is for ever nothing else than itself--a little flower apprehended in the very plain and leafy fact of it, whatever and how many so-ever the associations and passions may be that crowd around it. (Of the pathetic fallacy, in Modern painters, III, 1856)
From this state of affairs Ruskin (2004: 74) came to conclude the following:
[I]n general, these three classes may be rated in comparative order, as the men who are not poets at all, and the poets of the second order, and the poets of the first. (Of the pathetic fallacy, in Modern painters, III, 1856)
Now the romantic poets would no doubt have indignantly rejected a view that relegated them to the second order of poets, those who "feel strongly, think weakly, and see untruly" (Ruskin 2004: 74), because they allow their perception of objects in nature to be distorted by their emotions, which to them, far from appearing to be a weakness, was a necessary prerequisite in poetry. So Coleridge (2000: 115), bemoaning the loss of his power of the imagination in Dejection. An Ode, pointed out that the difference which that made to him lay precisely in the fact that now he only saw, instead of feeling, how beautiful things in nature were:
Those stars, that glide behind them or between, / Now sparkling, now bedimmed, but always seen: / Yon crescent Moon as fixed as if it grew / In its own cloudless, starless lake of blue; / I see them all so excellently fair, / I see, not feel, how beautiful they are!
For the romantics, therefore, the relationship which they established between sensibility and the imagination in the poetic perception of the external world was essential to the writing of first-class poetry. According to them, it was the imagination that cast on everything in nature an aura--or discovered in it things--that the eyes of ordinary people could not see. But for this to happen it was necessary that the poet should feel, and not just see, what he contemplated. And then the imagination enabled him to read into objects an existence, or features, or meanings that for others simply did not exist. In Apologia pro vita sua (1800), Coleridge (2000: 113) put it this way:
The poet in his lone yet genial hour / Gives to his eyes a magnifying power: / Or rather he emancipates his eyes / From the black shapeless accidents of size--/ In unctuous cones of kindling coal, / Or smoke upwreathing from the pipe's trim bole, / His gifted ken can see / Phantoms of sublimity.
This is very close to the way Shakespeare (2008: 231) had defined the act of poetic creation as the work of the imagination that gives shape to the ineffable substance of visions:
The poet's eye, in a fine frenzy rolling, / Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven, / And as imagination bodies forth / The forms of things unknown, the poet's pen / Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing / A local habitation and a name. (A Midsummer Night's Dream, 5.1, 12-17)
The idea runs through all romantic poetics, couched in terms peculiar to each individual poet, as young Keats's verse epistle to his brother George shows:
It has been said, dear George, and true I hold it, / (For knightly Spenser to Libertas told it,) / That when a Poet is in such a trance, / In air he sees white coursers paw, and prance, / Bestridden of gay knights, in gay apparel, / Who at each other tilt in playful quarrel, / And what we, ignorantly, sheet-lightning call, / Is the swift opening of their wide portal, / When the bright warder blows his trumpet clear, / Whose tones reach nought on earth but Poet's ear. / When these enchanted portals open wide, / And through the light the horsemen swiftly glide, / The Poet's eye can reach those golden halls, / And view the glory of their festivals: / Their ladies fair, that in the distance seem / Fit for the silv'ring of a seraph's dream; / Their rich brimm'd goblets, that incessant run / Like the bright spots that move about the sun; / And, when upheld, the wine from each bright jar / Pours with the lustre of a falling star. / Yet further off, are dimly seen their bowers, / Of which no mortal eye can reach the flowers; / And 'tis right just, for well Apollo knows / 'Twould make the Poet quarrel with the rose. / All that's reveal'd from that far seat of blisses, / Is, the clear fountains' interchanging kisses, / As gracefully descending, light and thin, / Like silver streaks across a dolphin's fin, / When he upswimmeth from the coral caves, / And sports with half his tail above the waves. (To My Brother George, 23-52; Keats 2001: 26)
A good deal of romantic poetry is an expression of such "evanescent visitations of thought and feeling sometimes associated with place or person, sometimes regarding our own mind alone, and always arising unforseen and departing unbidden, but elevating and delightful beyond all expression," as Shelley (2003: 697) emphasized in his Defence of Poetry. It must be pointed out, however, that, as they acquired greater poetic experience, the romantics tended increasingly to subdue and control their imagination by the rigours of careful elaboration and expression. At the same time, it is equally true that to an ever greater extent the romantic imagination derived the substance it transmuted into poetry from the surrounding reality as intimately and dayly experienced by the poet, as well as from incidents in his own life. Nothing is, therefore, farther from the truth than the view that romantic poetry is made up chiefly of pure creations of the imagination akin to visions in dreams. More often than not, the apparent unconnectedness of such poetry with the world of actual human affairs is merely the effect of the transfiguration of the real by the romantic imagination, the process assuming a variety of forms, from the simple throwing of a "certain colouring of imagination" on the "incidents and situations from common life" chosen by Wordsworth (2008: 596-597) for his poems (cf. Preface to Lyrical Ballads, 1802), to the couching of the poetic idea in private symbols whose meaning is not easily grasped, as is the case of many of Blake's symbols.
Three modes of operation of the poetical faculty emerge from the reflections on it in the romantic poets and critics. The first mode implies, as it were, an excursion of the imagination into a reality lying beyond the world of the senses or alternatively the creation by it of a world of its own. The poetry produced by this mode is predominantly mythological, supernaturalistic or fantastic and usually has its formation in a metaphysic of Platonic, neo-Platonic or mystic inspiration. Thus, in "I stood tip-toe upon a little hill" (190-192), Keats (2001: 51) suggests precisely such a journeying of the imagination of the unknown poet with whom the myth of Endymion originated:
Ah! surely he had burst our mortal bars; / Into some wond'rous region he had gone, / To search for thee, divine Endymion!
In Sleep and Poetry (102; 123-124), Keats (2001: 36) represents the exploration of the world of poetry which he hopes to achieve as a traveling through the realm "[o]f Flora, and old Pan" towards a "nobler life," where he "may find the agonies, the strife / Of human hearts."
The second mode consists in rediscovering and setting off the beauty of the world, which man's senses, blunted by familiarity with external objects, tend not to perceive any longer. This was what--according to Coleridge (2000: 314)--Wordsworth aimed at in his contribution to the Lyrical Ballads, where he endeavoured to do the following:
[T]o give the charm of novelty to things of every day, and to excite a feeling analogous to the supernatural, by awakening the mind's attention from the lethargy of custom, and directing it to the loveliness and the wonders of the world before us; an inexhaustible treasure, but for which in consequence of the film of familiarity and selfish solicitude we have eyes, yet see not, ears that hear not, and hearts that neither feel nor understand. (Biographia Literaria, XIV)
Shelley (2003: 681) defines this mode in almost identical terms in one of his pronouncements on the relationship of the imagination to reality:
Poetry lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world; and makes familiar objects be as if they were not familiar [...]. (A Defence, of Poetry)
And farther in the Defence he adds:
It creates anew the universe after it has been annihilated in our minds by the recurrence of impressions blunted by reiteration. (Shelley 2003: 698)
The product of this imaginative apprehension of the external world, whether of nature or of man, might be called the romantic poetizing of the empirically real. It is firmly rooted in life and is, therefore, the least escapist form of romantic poetry, though it does not preclude elements of ideality.
The third mode is that haloing of the world, or projection of beauty on to it, referred to above as the transfiguring of empirical reality and dealt with in literary criticism as early as the Renaissance:
Only the poet, disdaining to be tied to any such subjection, lifted up with the vigour of his own invention, doth grow, in effect, into another nature, in making things either better than nature bringeth forth, or, quite anew, forms such as never were in nature, as the heroes, demi-gods, cyclops, chimeras, furies, and such like; so as he goeth hand in hand with nature, not enclosed within the narrow warrant of her gifts, but freely ranging within the zodiac of his own wit. Nature never set forth the earth in so rich tapestry as divers poets have done; neither with pleasant rivers, fruitful trees, sweet-smelling flowers, nor whatsoever else may make the too-much-loved earth more lovely; her world is brazen, the poets only deliver a golden. (Philip Sidney 1890: 7-8)
In the Romantic Age it became a critical leitmotif and, as has been seen, an essential element in the theory of perception. Wordsworth (2008: 402) describes the process as an "auxiliar [sic] light" which came from his mind as early as his boyhood and which "on the setting sun / Bestowed new splendour" (The Prelude, II, 387-389).
But while for Wordsworth the resulting image of the world is only half created by the mind, the other half being supplied by the senses, for Coleridge, at least in 1802, when he wrote Dejection: An Ode, all beauty in the external world stemmed from the "beauty-making power" of the imagination.
The creative character of the imagination, then, lies in the fusion which the senses, memory and thought supply it with--and/or which itself has spun--into a unity (the poem), which offers a fresh insight into things, into their essence and deeper meaning, different from ordinary or from scientific cognition because the truths it reveals through its images of beauty cannot be arrived at via the consecutive reasoning characteristic of philosophy and of science. In Keats's words, to the poet's sight, i.e. to his mind's eye, [t]he husk of natural objects opens quite / To the core: and every secret essence there / Reveals the elements of good and fair; / Making him see, where Learning hath no light. (The sonnet entitled The Poet, beginning: "At morn, at noon, at Eve, and Middle Night")
But the romantics were not the first to equate truth with beauty. The identification was a Platonic legacy and in the Neo-Classic age we find it in Shaftesbury (vol. 1, 1773: 142), who declared the following:
And thus, after all, the most natural Beauty in the World is Honesty, and moral Truth. For all Beauty is Truth. True Features make the Beauty of a Face; and true Proportions the Beauty of Architecture; as true Measures that of Harmony and Musick. In Poetry, which is all Fable, Truth still is the Perfection. (Treatise II, viz. Sensus Communis: An essay on the freedom of wit and humour, Part IV, Sect. III)
Shaftesbury and his age conceived of beauty as a matter of harmony, proportion, balance, and unity resulting from the perfect fitness of the parts to the wholes, while truth was to them primarily that of moral philosophy, underlying their equation of beauty and truth being that of virtue and beauty. With the romantics, however, truth did not need to have a foundation in an objective existence. Any creation of the imagination was to them true if imbued with beauty of a sensible and moral nature.
The highest cognitive claim made by the romantics for the poetical faculty was that it alone was capable of rending the veil--that conceals eternity from the temporal--and apprehending ultimate verities. But thereby they inevitably opposed intuitive imagination to reason, though they did not deny all relevance of the reasoning faculty to the apprehension of truth. By contrasting the imaginative, non-speculative perception of truth with systematic, i.e. philosophical, reasoning, the romantic poets only intended to emphasize, on the one hand, the comparative inadequacy of the latter when divorced from the poetical faculty and, on the other hand, the distinct natures of poetic and scientific cognition and of poetic and scientific truth. On the whole, however, they eventually acknowledged reason's high place among man's intellectual faculties and its creativity. Thus, in Wordsworth's view, the imagination, in truth, was defined as:
[B]ut another name for absolute power / And clearest insight, amplitude of mind, / And Reason in her most exalted mood. (The Prelude, XIV, 190-192; Wordsworth 1994: 749)
Shelley (2003: 675), however, looked upon reason as only a handmaid of the creative faculty:
Reason is to Imagination as the instrument to the agent, as the body to the spirit, as the shadow to the substance. (A Defence of Poetry)
The romantics' distrust of reason--which Wordsworth himself had shared earlier in his writing life and which Blake expressed downright with disparagement and hostility--was an aspect of their revulsion from the rationalism of the preceding age, from that "cold philosophy" Keats complains of in Lamia, that is, from abstract reasoning devoid of imaginative insight and, therefore, unmindful of human interests.
The cognitive role ascribed by the romantic poets to the imagination was also the epistemological foundation of their claim that the poet is a seer who can peer into the future and descy the shape of things to come. The claim is as old as poetry itself, but it did not receive the same emphasis in all ages. In the Renaissance the idea was prominent, but the succeeding age with its confidence in reason and misgivings about the imagination did not countenance such a view of the poet and his gift of prophecy. Gradually, however, in the second half of the eighteenth century, poets began to revive the image of the "bard" endowed with visionary powers, though it was only with the romantic movement that "prophesying" became a distinguishing feature of the poetry of the age. Being deeply concerned with the fate of mankind, the romantic poets tried to read its future in the present, and their visions of it supplied the substance of such poems as William Blake's The French Revolution, Visions of the Daughters of Albion, America, Europe, etc., P. B. Shelley's Prometheus Unbound and John Keats's Hyperion, or of passages in William Wordsworth's The Prelude and The Excursion, and in Lord Byron's Don Juan. Here are a few relevant passages:
Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, / But to be young was very Heaven! O times, / In which the meagre, stale, forbidding ways / Of custom, law, and statute, took at once / The attraction of a country in romance! / When Reason seemed the most to assert her rights / When most intent on making of herself / A prime enchantress--to assist the work, / Which then was going forward in her name! / Not favoured spots alone, but the whole Earth, / The beauty wore of promise--that which sets / (As at some moments might not be unfelt / Among the bowers of Paradise itself) / The budding rose above the rose full blown. / What temper at the prospect did not wake / To happiness unthought of? The inert / Were roused, and lively natures rapt away! / They who had fed their childhood upon dreams, / The play-fellows of fancy, who had made / All powers of swiftness, subtilty, and strength / Their ministers,--who in lordly wise had stirred / Among the grandest objects of the sense, / And dealt with whatsoever they found there / As if they had within some lurking right / To wield it;--they, too, who of gentle mood / Had watched all gentle motions, and to these / Had fitted their own thoughts, schemers more mild, / And in the region of their peaceful selves;--/ Now was it that both found, the meek and lofty / Did both find, helpers to their hearts' desire, / And stuff at hand, plastic as they could wish, --/ Were called upon to exercise their skill, / Not in Utopia, subterranean fields,--/ Or some secreted island, Heaven knows where! / But in the very world, which is the world / Of all of us,--the place where, in the end, / We find our happiness, or not at all! (The Prelude, XI, 108-144; Wordsworth 1994: 728-729)
Change wide, and deep, and silently performed, / This Land shall witness; and as days roll on, / Earth's universal frame shall feel the effect; / Even till the smallest habitable rock, / Beaten by lonely billows, hear the songs / Of humanised society; and bloom / With civil arts, that shall breathe forth their fragrance, / A grateful tribute to all-ruling Heaven. / From culture, unexclusively bestowed / On Albion's noble Race in freedom born, / Expect these mighty issues: from the pains / And faithful care of unambitious schools / Instructing simple childhood's ready ear: / Thence look for these magnificent results! /--Vast the circumference of hope--and ye / Are at its centre, British Lawgivers; [...]. (The Excursion, IX, 384-399; Wordsworth 1994: 889-890)
But ye--our children's children! think how we / Showed what things were before the world was free! // That hour is not for us, but 'tis for you: / And as, in the great joy of your millennium, / You hardly will believe such things were true / As now occur, I thought that I would pen you 'em; / But may their very memory perish too!--/ Yet if perchance remembered, still disdain you 'em / More than you scorn the savages of yore, / Who painted their bare limbs, but not with gore. // And when you hear historians talk of thrones, / And those that sate upon them, let it be / As we now gaze upon the Mammoth's bones, / And wonder what old world such things could see, / Or hieroglyphics on Egyptian stones, / The pleasant riddles of Futurity--/ Guessing at what shall happily be hid, / As the real purpose of a Pyramid. (Don Juan, VIII, 135-137, 1079-1096; Byron 2000: 676)
The question was also given reasoned expression in verse and in prose. Thus, Wordsworth (1994: 744) proclaimed the following:
That Poets, even as Prophets, each with each / Connected in a mighty scheme of truth, / Have each his own peculiar faculty, / Heaven's gift, a sense that fits him to perceive / Objects unseen before [...]. (The Prelude, XIII, 301-305)
And P. B. Shelley (2003: 677) explained that the poet is a prophet and an unacknowledged legislator of the world by virtue of the following fact:
[H]e not only beholds intensely the present as it is, and discovers those laws according to which present things ought to be ordered, but he beholds the future in the present, and his thoughts are the germs of the flower and the fruit of latest time. (A Defence of Poetry)
He made his meaning clear by emphasizing the following aspects:
Not that I assert poets to be prophets in the gross sense of the word, or that they can foretell the form as surely as they foreknow the spirit of events: such is the pretence of superstition which would make poetry an attribute of prophecy, rather than prophecy an attribute of poetry. A Poet participates in the eternal, the infinite and the one; as far as relates to his conceptions, time and place and number are not. (A Defence of Poetry; Shelley 2003: 677)
It is on these assumptions concerning the poet and the creative faculty that the romantic views on the nature of poetry and on its spiritual pursuits are founded, which accounts for the central place the two concepts held in the poetic theory and the poetry of the age. Coleridge (2000: 319) saw this clearly when he wrote in Biographia Literaria (XIV) that it is difficult to define poetry otherwise than by first explaining what a poet is and how his "synthetic and magical power," the imagination, works. Similarly, the exalted terms in which poetry is described by the romantics follow from those they use when they speak and write about the poet and the poetical faculty. The contention that poetry is superior to all other human intellectual pursuits had originated with Aristotle's considerations on poetry and history in his Poetics and had been elaborated upon in Renaissance literary criticism. But it had never been so unanimously shared and passionately asserted by poets and critics as in the Romantic Age, for reasons that were above all gnoseological. For to the romantics poetry was "the first and last of all knowledge" (Wordsworth 2008: 606; Preface to Lyrical Ballads, 1802), "the blossom and the fragrancy of all human knowledge, human thoughts, human passions, emotions, language" (Coleridge 2000: 325; Biographia Literaria XV). It was what P. B. Shelley announced it to be:
[T]he centre and circumference of knowledge; it is that which comprehends all science, and that to which all science must be referred. It is at the same time the root and the blossom of all other systems of thought: it is that from which all spring, and that which adorns all; and that which if blighted denies the fruit and the seed, and withholds from the barren world the nourishment and the succession of the scions of the tree of life. [...] Poetry redeems from decay the visitations of the divinity in man. (A Defence of Poetry; Shelley 2003: 696, 698)
The poet in his vision
While the sensible world is imagined in all poetry, poets have only seldom turned their attention to the very nature and process of its perception. It was in the romantic age that the relationship between the mind and the external world became central to their vision of man and the universe. But their views on the subject were widely different at times. Thus, Blake, rejecting the Newtonian representation of the universe and Lockian epistemology, which he called the single vision, asserted the following:
The desires & perceptions of man, untaught by any thing but organs of sense, must be limited to objects of sense. (There Is No Natural Religion, VI; Blake 1979: 97)
To him, however, everything was vision:
All that we See is Vision, from Generated Organs gone as soon as come, Permanent in The Imagination, Consider'd as Nothing by the Natural Man. (The Laocoon; Blake 1979: 776)
And the organ of vision is not the bodily, but the spiritual eye, the human imagination, where all things are contained, for everything that appears without is in reality within, the visible world being but the creation of the mind:
For all are Men in Eternity, Rivers, Mountains, Cities, Villages, / All are Human, & when you enter into their Bosoms you walk / In Heavens & Earths, as in your own Bosom you bear your Heaven / And Earth & all you behold; tho' it appears Without, it is Within, / In your Imagination, of which this World of Mortality is but a Shadow. (Jerusalem, 71, 15-19; Blake 1979: 709)
Hence Blake's contempt for the "Vegetative and Generative Nature," which to him was merely a shadow. He wrote:
I assert for My Self that I do not behold the outward Creation & that to me it is hindrance & not Action; it is as the Dirt upon my feet, No part of Me. "What," it will be Question'd, "When the Sun rises, do you not see a round disk of fire somewhat like a Guinea?" O no, no, I see an Innumerable company of the Heavenly host crying 'Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God Almighty.' I question not my Corporeal or Vegetative Eye any more than I would Question a Window concerning a Sight. I look thro' it & not with it. (A Vision of the Last Vision; Blake 1979: 617)
To rise from the "single vision"--to which only the finite temporal "World of Generation, or Vegetation" is given--to the "double vision," to which the infinite "World of Eternity" reveals itself, man must struggle to transcend the limits set to him by his five senses, "the chief inlets of Soul in this age" (The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, 4; Blake 1979: 149). He summed up the matter:
If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro' narrow chinks of his cavern. (The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, 14; Blake 1979: 154)
Then, when man's perception has become "Spiritual Sensation" [Blake's way of defining the human imagination as convergence of spirit and the physical senses], he will be able to do the following:
To see a World in a Grain of Sand / And a Heaven in a Wild Flower, / Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand / And Eternity in an hour. (Auguries of Innocence, 1-4; Blake 1979: 431)
For, in Blake's view, "As the Eye, Such the Object" (Annotations to Sir Joshua Reynolds's Discourses, II, 34; Blake 1979: 456). Or, as he put it in verse:
The Sun's Light when he unfolds it / Depends on the Organ that beholds it. (For the Sexes: The Gates of Paradise; Blake 1979: 760)
To this last statement Wordsworth would probably have subscribed, at least insofar as, following Edward Young, he considered that the senses do not just perceive, but half-create the world which the mind contemplates through them:
[...] of all that we behold / From this green earth; of all the mighty world / Of eye, and ear,--both what they half create, / And what perceive; well pleased to recognise / In nature and the language of the sense / The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse, / The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul / Of all my moral being. (Lines composed a few miles above Tintern Abbey, 104-111; Wordsworth 1994: 207)
The senses, therefore, are not mere passive receptors as Locke had maintained with reference to the process of perception, but make an essential contribution to the latter:
There is creation in the eye, / Nor less in all the other senses: powers / They are that colour, model and combine / The things perceived with such an absolute / Essential energy that we may say / That these most godlike faculties of ours / At one and the same moment are the mind / And the mind's minister: [...]. (Fragment, 1798-1799, from a note-book; cf. Wordsworth 1949: 343-344; and Wordsworth 1992: 323-324, apud Jarvis 2007: 174)
However much this view of perception diverged from that of Lockian empiricism, it did not represent a complete break with it, as Wordsworth did not question the existence of an external, material reality and the assumption that sense data are the source of the mind's knowledge of it, modified as the picture of that reality might be by what the mind itself projects on to it. The empiricist strand in his view of perception is apparent in the emphasis he lays in poems like Tintern Abbey, The Prelude, Expostulation and Reply, and The Tables Turned on the vital role of the senses in binding up the human mind and heart with, and in attuning them to, the physical universe, which makes it possible for nature to exert its benefic influence on man's spiritual and moral development. Wordsworth saw his own moral being as having been shaped primarily by his close contact--mediated by the "language of the sense"--with nature and its beauties, which were also the source of his "visionary powers":
If the dear faculty of sight should fail, / Still, it may be allowed me to remember / What visionary powers of eye and soul / In youth were mine; when, stationed on the top / Of some huge hill, expectant, I beheld / The sun rise up, from distant climes returned / Darkness to chase, and sleep; and bring the day / His bounteous gift! or saw him toward the deep / Sink, with a retinue of flaming clouds / Attended; then, my spirit was entranced / With joy exalted to beatitude; / The measure of my soul was filled with bliss, / And holiest love; as earth, sea, air, with light, / With pomp, with glory, with magnificence! (The Excursion, IV, 109-122; Wordsworth 1994: 803)
In Book III of The Prelude, recollecting his intercourse with nature during his residence at Cambridge, Wordsworth points out the connection between what his sight revealed to him, the construction that his mind put on his perceptions, and his emotional response to the insight afforded to him by the natural scenery:
To every natural form, rock, fruit, or flower, / Even the loose stones that cover the highway, / I gave a moral life: I saw them feel, / Or linked them to some feeling: the great mass / Lay bedded in a quickening soul, and all / That I beheld respired with inward meaning. / Add that whate'er of Terror or of Love / Or Beauty, Nature's daily face put on / From transitory passion, unto this / I was as sensitive as waters are / To the sky's influence; in a kindred mood / Of passion was obedient as a lute / That waits upon the touches of the wind. / Unknown, unthought of, yet I was most rich--/ I had a world about me--'twas my own; / I made it, for it only lived to me, / And to the God who sees into the heart. / Such sympathies, though rarely, were betrayed / By outward gestures and by visible looks: / Some called it madness--so indeed it was, / If child-like fruitfulness in passing joy, / If steady moods of thoughtfulness matured / To inspiration, sort with such a name; / If prophecy be madness; if things viewed / By poets in old time, and higher up / By the first men, earth's first inhabitants, / May in these tutored days no more be seen / With undisordered sight. But leaving this, / It was no madness, for the bodily eye / Amid my strongest workings evermore / Was searching out the lines of difference / As they lie hid in all external forms, / Near or remote, minute or vast; an eye / Which, from a tree, a stone, a withered leaf, / To the broad ocean and the azure heavens / Spangled with kindred multitudes of stars, / Could find no surface where its power might sleep; / Which spake perpetual logic to my soul, / And by an unrelenting agency / Did bind my feelings even as in a chain. (The Prelude, III, 127-166; Wordsworth 1994: 651)
Two things are of interest to our discussion in the passage quoted above. One (lines 127-132) is an instance of pathetic fallacy, the investing of inanimate objects with human attributes such as "a moral life" and "feeling," which, however, is immediately followed by the suggestion that those objects were parts of a "quickening soul," whence the "inward meaning" which they respired with. The other (lines 155-166) is the activity of the poet's mind while he was contemplating the forms of nature. That activity involved both discrimination ("searching out the lines of difference / As they lie hid in all external forms"; a variant of the first verse reads: "looking for the shades of difference", cf. verse 158, Wordsworth 2008: 408) and the integration of the near with the remote, as all things were to him parts of "the Life / Of the great whole" to which his eyes' unrelenting energy bound his feelings "even as in a chain." But that activity was also a cognitive process of high importance for him, because it resulted in insights into the nature and meaning of what he was experiencing. Speaking about Wordsworth's modes of experience, Frederick Garber (1971: 11) has said the following:
[Each of them] was clearly and particularly an affair of significant epistemological excitement. They could include a vision of apocalypse, a steady gaze into the life of things, or merely the recognition of the sudden beauty of a star, but every one shaped out an increase in what he could know and therefore what he could be and do.
And much of Wordsworth's poetry is a record of his emotional and intellective response to what he saw and heard in the middle of nature, and of the insights occasioned by those experiences.
Thus, although Wordsworth evolved an essentially expressive poetic theory, at the same time he also considered poetry to be "the image of man and nature" (Preface to Lyrical Ballads, 1802; Wordsworth 2008: 605), which was a restatement in his own terms of the mimetic view of poetry. And in his explanation of how that image is arrived at by the poet he ascribed to the senses and to feelings a function which reminds one of the part that he held them to play in shaping the ties that link man to the physical universe. He wrote in 1815:
The appropriate business of poetry (which, nevertheless, if genuine is as permanent as pure science), her appropriate employment, her privilege and her duty, is to treat of things not as they are, but as they appear; not as they exist in themselves, but as they seem to exist to the senses and to the passions. (Essay, Supplementary to the Preface (1815); Wordsworth 2008: 641)
Now, in the terms of this account, the image of the external world offered by poetry is a highly subjective one. For, on the one hand, what the mind perceives is, as has been seen, partly of its own creation and, on the other, the representation of empirical reality in poetry is not a straightforward one, but one modified both by the transactions between the poet's mind and the scene which he is contemplating and by the emotions which that scene arouses in him. This is why the process whereby Wordsworth's mind ordered the data supplied by his senses and, under the pressure of the emotions, worked out the meaningfulness of those data to him--and whereby the experience expanded his awareness and understanding--is as much part of the poetry as what the latter relates or describes. The grammar that governs the structuring of Wordsworth's nature-poems is no longer that of the eighteenth-century prospect-view with its organization of space according to the rules of neoclassical landscape painting. Its rules are psychological, associationist. And the aim of the poet is not only to offer a picture of natural beauty, but also to decipher the cognitive and emotional gains which what he had experienced had brought him. In some poems these implications of the experience reveal themselves gradually to the mind as it takes in the constitutive elements of the scene which it is scanning, while in others they burst upon it as a sudden illumination, an epiphany. At the same time, it is a characteristic of Wordsworth's that he seldom tends to empathize with what he focuses his attention on. More often than not, for all his emotional and intellective involvement in the respective natural object, person or scene, his is essentially an observer's stance. Keats (1975: 157) calls it "the wordsworthian or egotistical sublime" (cf. Letter to Richard Woodhouse, dated 27 October 1818), the very opposite of the empathetic capability of the "poetical character" to which he, as mentioned, considered himself to belong.
In this context, the poems The Solitary Reaper, I wandered lonely as a Cloud and To the Cuckoo have in common the gradual unfolding and grasping by the poet's mind of the meaning of the scene which had inspired them; on the other hand, in the stolen-boat episode in Book I of The Prelude, Nutting, and The Simplon Pass the poet has a sudden insight into the sacred nature of being. All these, like other poems of Wordsworth's, are records of what he has called "spots of time" (The Prelude, XII, 208) in human existence:
[...] [P]assages of life that give / Profoundest knowledge to what point, and how, / The mind is lord and master--outward sense / The obedient servant of her will. (The Prelude, XII, 220-223; Wordsworth 1994: 737)
In The Solitary Reaper (written in 1805, published in 1807), the topography of the space which the poet observes from an eminence is only defined by the words "field," "Highland" and "Vale," which localize it. For here the focus of attention is not nature, but the solitary peasant girl reaping the corn and singing in the distance. The imperative sentence, "Behold her ...!," with which the poem opens, directs the eye straight to the figure at the centre of the scene, while the second one, "O listen!," further in the first stanza, calls upon the ear to take notice of her song. The two imperatives seem to be addressed to someone standing by the speaker's side. But, in fact, the latter is alone, and therefore it is the reader that is required to look and listen.
Three of the four stanzas of the poem have a basic binary internal organization. The first is structured in terms of two kinds of sense perception--visual and auditive. But the dominant feature of the scene is the aloneness of the figure in its centre, forcibly brought out by four synonyms: "single," "solitary," "by herself," and "alone":
Behold her, single in the field, / Yon solitary Highland Lass! / Reaping and singing by herself; / Stop here, or gently pass! / Alone she cuts and binds the grain [...]. (The Solitary Reaper, 1-5; Wordsworth 1994:289)
The resulting emphasis on this component of the poet's visual perception combines with the melancholy character of the song he hears to create a dramatic atmosphere characterized by an indefinite feeling of sadness.
The poet's emotional response to the scene, which forms the substance of the second stanza, is in sharp contrast to that feeling, for it is one of exhilaration expressed by the two negative comparisons that structure the stanza--with the joy that weary travelers in the Arabian desert would feel on hearing the song of a nightingale and the thrill that a cuckoo's voice suddenly breaking the silence of the sea would give someone on a distant island in the Hebrides. Underlying both comparisons is the analogy of the two contexts to each other and to that of the speaker's experience, an analogy the associations [having been] triggered by the sense perceptions have forced upon his mind.
The third stanza is an interrogation on the meaning of the Highland girl's song, which the poet cannot grasp either because she is too far from him or because she sings in an idiom he does not understand. It begins with a rhetorical question about the meaning--"Will no one tell me what she sings?"--and continues with two disjunctive suppositions about the nature of the song: it may be an old ballad about things that had happened or battles that had been fought in a distant place and past, or it may tell some recent mishaps of everyday humble life. Whichever it is, what it suggests is unhappiness and sorrow. The sense of drama implied by the epithet "melancholy" by which the reaper's "strain" was described in the first stanza has now delivered its load of connotations, and the past-present opposition in the two suppositions has raised the song into an expression of the permanence of suffering in human life.
In the last stanza Wordsworth turns to a consideration of the gain which what he had seen and heard had brought him:
Whate'er the theme, the Maiden sang / As if her song could have no ending; / I saw her singing at her work, / And o'er the sickle bending;--/ I listened, motionless and still; And, as I mounted up the hill, / The music in my heart I bore, / Long after it was heard no more. (The Solitary Reaper, 25-32; Wordsworth 1994: 289)
The third line states the central fact of the experience once again, bringing together the visual and auditive perception from which the poem started and whose significance the poet has explored in the third stanza. In the process the image has become pregnant with symbolic meanings. The solitary reaper's song has acquired a timeless, archetypal dimension as an expression of the "still, sad music of humanity," the possibility of hearing which was part of the "abundant recompense" Wordsworth had found for the loss of the passionate love of nature of his youth. (cf. Tintern Abbey, 87-91; Wordsworth 1994: 207)
If in The Solitary Reaper it was the soul of common humanity of all times that revealed itself to the poet in the Highland girl's image and song and that made of the scene and the music which he bore away in his heart a valuable memory, in I wandered lonely as a Cloud (composed in 1804, published in 1805) what lent the experience its value for him was the intense pleasure which he felt on seeing the graceful dance of the daffodils in the wind and which subsequently he relived every time their image flashed upon his mind in happy moments of solitude.
The simile in the first two lines of the poem, "I wandered lonely as a cloud / That floats on high o'er vales and hills" (Wordsworth 1994: 187), establishes the convention from whose angle the scene is regarded. It is while so wandering aimlessly that the speaker's attention is suddenly arrested by the daffodils lining the bank of the lake. The visual perception is at first that of a bird's-eye-view, taking stock of general topographical detail with the focus on the mass of flowers and their motions. But he instantly begins to clarify the configuration of the scene in the sense of a greater definition of the image as concerns the multitude of flowers, which from a "crowd" becomes a host, while at the same time their colour is specified by the epithet "golden," which brings in a connotation of value.
The second stanza further particularizes the configuration of what is seen by the comparison between the endless carpet of flowers and the compact cluster of stars that make up the Milky Way and by finally estimating the number of the daffodils at ten thousand in line 11. The simile draws the infinite in, suggesting the continuity of the micro- and the macrocosm. The same pulsation seems to show itself in the twinkling of the stars, the dance of the waves on the lake and the fluttering of the flowers, joining them to one another and to the whole, though the daffodils remain the focusing centre of the experience. It is not only the intrinsic beauty of the golden flowers, but also this harmonized rhythm and gleeful dance of theirs and of the waves, which share, as it were, in a universal joy of being, that are the source of the intense pleasure felt by the poet as his mind orders the sense data, discovers the analogy between the flowers and the stars and reads meaning into what it has perceived.
In the description of the scene, the breeze--which sets the flowers dancing and the waves rolling--is simply mentioned as one of the elements participating in it. And yet it inevitably brings with it the connotation is has as an analogue of the spiritual power that sweeps through--and inspirits everything in--the universe. And thereby it too contributes to the welding of the elements that compose the scene into the unity of being which the poet discovers everywhere in nature.
Three groups of words and phrases make up the semantic configuration of the first three stanzas of the poem. One includes those, already pointed out, which assess the number of the daffodils; the second, those which describe the motion of the flowers ("fluttering," "dancing," "tossing their heads," "sprightly dance") and of the waves ("dance"); and the third, those which express the gaiety of the scene and the corresponding feeling of the poet ("glee," "gay," "jocund"). Through these interweaving isotopies Wordsworth conveys the richness of his experience, whose strong impact was to stay with him for a long time.
Both in his account of how nature acts on the human mind from the very infancy of the human being and in his poetic theory, Wordsworth drew for some of his basic assumptions on eighteenth-century associationist psychology, and, as already mentioned, the association of ideas plays an important part in the structuring of his lyrics. The concluding stanza of the poem evidences the associationist basis of the recollection that with the image of the dancing daffodils also brings back the emotion felt on seeing them:
For oft, when on my couch I lie / In vacant or in pensive mood, / They flash upon that inward eye / Which is the bliss of solitude; / And then my heart with pleasure fills, / And dances with the daffodils. (I wandered lonely as a Cloud, 19-24; Wordsworth 1994: 187)
This is, in fact, the condition in which, according to Wordsworth, poetic composition begins, for, as he puts it, poetry takes its origin from "emotion recollected in tranquility." (Wordsworth 2008: 611; Preface to Lyrical Ballads, 1802)
In To the Cuckoo ("O blithe New-comer!"--written in 1802, published in 1807), unlike in I wandered lonely as a Cloud, the recollection is triggered by the experience. The "wandering Voice" of the unseen bird which the poet hears calls up the many times when he listened to that same "twofold shout" in his schoolboy days and vainly wandered through woods and on the plain in the hope of catching sight of the "invisible thing" from which it came, but which has remained a "mystery" to him ever since, because only a voice (Wordsworth 1994: 183).
The poem, like the ones discussed above, reveals a basic pattern of impact and response which is found in much of Wordsworth's poetry: the poet's attention is arrested by something he sees or hears and he records his intellective and emotional response to the experience. At the same time, the poem also evidences a characteristic of romantic poetry in general: the reflection--in the oppositions that structure it--of the essentially polar nature of the romantic vision of man and universe. Besides the central contrast here, between hearing and not seeing, which is also present in To a Skylark ("Up with me! up with me into the clouds!"), as well as in P.B. Shelley's ode to the same bird and Keats's Ode to a Nightingale, there is the implicit one between the "golden time" (To the Cuckoo, 28) of childhood with its "visionary hours" (To the Cuckoo, 12) and the irretrievable loss of that happy condition, which fills the poet's soul with a nostalgia familiar to us from such poems as Tintern Abbey, The Prelude and the Intimations of Immortality Ode. But the feeling is subdued. For the voice of the cuckoo which the poet hears once again on that particular day in spring has the power to restore that "golden time" and to bring back, even if only as long as it resounds, the vision and the mood that went with the earlier perception of the earth as an "unsubstantial, faery place" (To the Cuckoo, 31; Wordsworth 1994: 184) contrasting with palpable, empirical reality, now stripped of that halo, of the world that surrounds him.
To the Cuckoo is a further illustration of the processes of association of ideas and feelings in the terms of which Wordsworth responds poetically to experience and from which the texture of the poem is woven. But unlike in the poems where visual perception predominates, here his mind rather turns upon itself to recapture thoughts and emotions embedded in his memory, and the poem is essentially inward-looking, a landscape of the imagination through which the perception acquires significance.
The three poems we have considered so far dramatize experiences that relate to sensible reality alone, as does the insight the poet arrives at in them. The next three poems to be explored, as has been pointed out already, differ from them in that they record an incident or a scene that reveals to the poet the mysterious inner life and meaning of things. One such incident, described in Book I of The Prelude (357-400; Wordsworth 1994: 637-638), occurred during a summer vacation in his boyhood, when, while he was rowing one evening in a stolen boat on Lake Patterdale, a huge cliff suddenly rose menacing before him in the distance, as if to admonish him for the theft. Trembling with fear, he rowed the pinnace back to her mooring-place and, for a long time after he had seen that spectacle, his brain "[w]ork'd with a dim and undetermined sense / Of unknown modes of being," and "huge and mighty forms, that do not live / Like living men" (The Prelude, I, 392-393, 398-399; Wordsworth 1994: 638) haunted his mind by day and in his dreams.
Nutting ("--It seems a day"; written in 1798-1799, published in 1800) relates another such early insight into being on which Wordsworth's immanentism, at times taking the form of animism, was founded. The poem is built in terms of a sharp contrast. On the one hand, there is the beauty and richness of nature in the nook which the poet found when, as a child, he set out in search of hazel nuts and which showed no sign of having been visited by anyone before, as "not a broken bough / Drooped with its withered leaves, ungracious sign / Of devastation" (17-19; Wordsworth 1994: 185); his delight at the "banquet" that met his eyes there is exquisite. On the other hand, there is the "mutilated bower" into which, in his indifference to that "virgin scene," he had turned it and the sudden sense of pain which invaded him, while preparing to leave the place, on contemplating the havoc he had wrought on it. The meaning of the experience--the realization that he had injured more than just some hazel--is indirectly expressed in the advice the poet gives to his sister in the closing lines of the poem:
Then, dearest Maiden, move along these shades / In gentleness of heart; with gentle hand / Touch--for there is a spirit in the woods. (Nutting, 54-56; Wordsworth 1994: 186)
In The Simplon Pass ("--Brook and road") we find a more complex imaginative response to a scene which was fraught with deep and awe-inspiring significations. Composed probably in 1799, yet no later than 1803 (published in 1845), it was included in Book VI of the 1805 draft of The Prelude and was also kept in the final version of the latter. It was inspired by the overwhelming impression which the alpine scenery made on Wordsworth during the walking tour through France and Italy on which he went with a fellow student, Robert Jones, in the long vacation of 1790. The Simplon Pass belongs to Poems of the Imagination in Wordsworth's arrangement of his poetry. The fact is not immaterial, for in The Prelude it follows directly after the passage that relates how imagination burst upon the young man just before he and his companion entered the Pass:
[H]ere the Power so called / Through sad incompetence of human speech, / That awful Power rose from the mind's abyss / Like an unfathered vapour that enwraps, / At once, some lonely traveller. I was lost; / Halted without an effort to break through; / But to my conscious soul I now can say-- / "I recognize thy glory;" in such strength / Of usurpation, when the light of sense / Goes out, but with a flash that has revealed / The invisible world, doth greatness make abode, / There harbours; whether we be young or old, / Our destiny, our being's heart and home, / Is with infinitude, and only there; [...]. (The Prelude, VI, 592-605; Wordsworth 1994: 684)
These lines have a direct bearing on the meaning of The Simplon Pass. No less relevant is Wordsworth's romantic assumption that nature is a secret book:
[T]he volume that displays / The mystery, the life which cannot die; [...]. (The Excursion, I, 224-225; Wordsworth 1994: 759) [Much of Book I and II of The Excursion were written in 1802]
Further in The Excursion (IX, 81-92) Wordsworth (1994: 885) enlarged on the idea that the forms and voices of nature are the language in which what in The Prelude, Book I (401), he called the "Wisdom and Spirit of the universe" (Wordsworth 1994: 638) speaks to a few favourite beings who live in solitude. In The Simplon Pass (16-20) the majestic aspects of the landscape that presented itself to the eyes of the two travelers appeared to Wordsworth thus:
all like workings of one mind, the features / Of the same face, blossoms upon one tree, / Characters of the great Apocalypse, / The types and symbols of Eternity, / Of first, and last, and midst, and without end. (Wordsworth 1994: 186)
The realization that what he beheld were emblems of the One in the Many, ideograms for ultimate verities, comes in the poem as the climax of the dramatic tension which builds up in the second of the two sentences of which the text of the poem consists. In contrast to Wordsworth's characteristic mode of poetic discourse--which, in Josephine Miles' terms, strikes a balance between the causal, or predicative, and the phrasal, or adjectival, sentence structure, with an average of 9 adjectives and 16 nouns and finite verbs in ten lines (Miles 1964: 3-4, 8, 256)--the syntactic structure of the second sentence (sixteen and a half lines) in The Simplon Pass is heavily phrasal: 19 adjectives, 37 nouns and 4 finite verbs. The force of the utterance is further enhanced by the succession of powerful polar and oxymoronic images, kinetic or at once kinetic and static, that structure the poetic idea: "woods decaying, never to be decayed" (5), "[t]he stationary blasts of waterfalls" (6), "[t]umult and peace, the darkness and the light" (15); by the cosmic dimension of things: "immeasurable height" (4), "[t]he torrents shooting from the clear blue sky" (9); and by the unleashed elemental violence (Wordsworth 1994: 186). The scene unfolds as slowly as the beholder advances, with the brook and the road, down the Pass, until the accumulation of visual and auditive details explodes into the illumination in which their perception and processing by the mind end. The distance the speaker has traveled has been one not only in space, but also in knowledge. And the fact that the heightened consciousness brought by the revelation of symbolic meaning in the natural objects seen by him is conveyed by means of a simile, not of a straightforward assertion, does not detract from the forcefulness of the poetic statement, though in principle the use of the trope may be taken to indicate a reservation concerning its truth. But poetic truth is conveyed by poetic means, and, besides, the general tenor of Wordsworth's poetry precludes the idea that he questioned the truth of his intuitions and epiphanic experiences.
Like the other romantics, Wordsworth attributed supreme cognitive value to poetry. In the Preface to Lyrical Ballads (1802) he wrote:
Poetry is the breath and finer spirit of all knowledge; it is the impassioned expression which is in the countenance of all Science. (Wordsworth 2008: 606)
Both the poet and the scientist devote their labours to truth, and to both the knowledge they acquire in their search for it is pleasure. But their relationship with truth is different:
The Man of Science seeks truth as a remote and unknown benefactor; he cherishes and loves it in his solitude: the Poet, singing a song in which all human beings join with him, rejoices in the presence of truth as our visible friend and hourly companion. (Preface to Lyrical Ballads, 1802; Wordsworth 2008: 606)
The truth of poetry in Wordsworth's view has the following nature:
[it is] not individual and local, but general, and operative; not standing upon external testimony, but carried alive into the heart by passion; truth which is its own testimony, which gives strength and divinity [var. competence and confidence] to the tribunal to which it appeals, and receives them from the same tribunal. (Preface to Lyrical Ballads, 1802; Wordsworth 2008: 605) [The variant "competence and confidence" appears in the third edition of Lyrical Ballads; cf. The Poetic Art, Wordsworth 1893: 20]
Underlying this belief in the cognitive value and the truth of poetry was Wordsworth's following conviction that "to the imagination may be given / A type and shadow of an awful truth" (The Excursion, VII, 526-527; Wordsworth 1994: 865) which the poetic faculty apprehends in those privileged moments when things suddenly reveal their essence and their hidden meaning, that is to say, during the poet's experiences in the middle of nature.
Acknowledgements The present text has been extracted, adapted and updated from: Ioan Aurel Preda (1994) Studies in eighteenth-century and romantic literature. Bucuresti: Editura Universitasii din Bucuresti.
Page 13 "It creates anew the universe after it has been annihilated in our minds": Lines that remind us of Nancy Andreasen's point of view on the processes taking place in the brain when extraordinary creativity emerges: the brain namely disorganizes itself suddenly, and after that reorganizes itself in new modes, which bring about the basic elements of fresh perspective, a new world, etc., in short, they make possible the sudden appearance, as if from nothingness, of extraordinary creativity, i.e. that kind of creativity which is apt to become an iconic presence in the world that stays with people for many generations.
Page 14 "The husk of natural objects opens quite": John Keats's paternity of the poem entitled The Poet is uncertain, a reason for which this sonnet is missing from the most recent editions of Keats's works. The real authors might have been in fact John Taylor and Richard Woodhouse (but this has not been definitively established). Here is the entire sonnet:
At morn, at noon, at Eve, and Middle Night / He passes forth into the charmed air, / With Talisman to call up spirits rare / From plant, cave, rock, and fountain.--To his sight / The husk of natural objects opens quite / To the core: and every secret essence there / Reveals the elements of good and fair; / Making him see, where Learning hath no light. / Sometimes, above the gross and palpable things / Of this diurnal sphere, his spirit flies / On awful wing; and with its destined skies / Holds premature and mystic communings: / Till such unearthly intercourses shed / A visible halo round his living [mortal] head. (The Poet, a poem written in Richard Woodhouse's hand, cf. Keats 1985: 305 - Poems, transcripts, letters, &c. facsimiles of Richard Woodhouse's Scrapbook materials in the Pierpont Morgan Library, Jack Stillinger, ed., vol. 4; New York: Garland Publishing; apud Wunder 2008: 69-70)
The special expression "to the core" appears in the Keats canon no less than four times, in unmistakeable key works. Here are the larger contexts in which this formula appears, which show Keats indeed to have been under the "spell" of occult knowledge of the type present in the above quoted sonnet in which the formula "to the core" is itself a key, a sort of password or tessera for access to the deeper initiational meanings of the entire poem:
Now I have tasted her sweet soul to the core / All other depths are shallow: essences, / Once spiritual, are like muddy lees, / Meant but to fertilize my earthly root, / And make my branches lift a golden fruit / Into the bloom of heaven: other light, / Though it be quick and sharp enough to blight / The Olympian eagle's vision, is dark, / Dark as the parentage of chaos. (Endymion, II, 904-912; Keats 2001: 108)
That old nurse stood beside her wondering, / Until her heart felt pity to the core / At sight of such a dismal labouring, / And so she kneeled, with her locks all hoar, / And put her lean hands to the horrid thing: / Three hours they labour'd at this travail sore; / At last they felt the kernel of the grave, / And Isabella did not stamp and rave. (Isabella; or, The Pot of Basil: A story from Boccaccio, 48, 377-384; Keats 2001: 197)
Then in a silken scarf,--sweet with the dews / Of precious flowers pluck'd in Araby, / And divine liquids come with odorous ooze / Through the cold serpent-pipe refreshfully,-- / She wrapp'd it up; and for its tomb did choose / A garden-pot, wherein she laid it by, / And cover'd it with mould, and o'er it set / Sweet Basil, which her tears kept ever wet. // And she forgot the stars, the moon, and sun, / And she forgot the blue above the trees, / And she forgot the dells where waters run, / And she forgot the chilly autumn breeze; / She had no knowledge when the day was done, / And the new morn she saw not: but in peace / Hung over her sweet Basil evermore, / And moisten'd it with tears unto the core. (Isabella; or, The Pot of Basil: A story from Boccaccio, 52-53, 409-424; Keats 2001: 198)
Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, / Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun; / Conspiring with him how to load and bless / With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run; / To bend with apples the moss'd cottage-trees, / And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core; [...]. (To Autumn, I, 1-6; Keats 2001: 324)
No wonder then that scholars believed The Poet to be part of the Keats corpus. Below are a few details about this intriguing poem, with which Keats's works do show definite affinities (a reason for which critics saw in it the hand of the British poet), thereby in effect he rightly being associated with Rosicrucianism and Freemasonry, as brilliantly reported by Jennifer N. Wunder in her book Keats, hermeticism, and the secret societies:
In her 1925 biography John Keats, Amy Lowell introduced scholars to the sonnet The Poet from the Pierpont Morgan Woodhouse Collection of Keatsiana. For years, scholars thought that Keats had written The Poet, in part because Lowell found the unattributed sonnet in a section Richard Woodhouse had labeled as "Poem, &c. by, or relating to, John Keats," and had noted "All that are not by Keats, have the names of the authors added." (Woodhouse, apud Amy Lowell 1925: 60-61: John Keats, vol. 1. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co.) Then, E. L. Brooks discovered that London Magazine had published a variation of The Poet signed "S." in October 1821, and Mabel Steele found evidence indicating that James Hessey believed John Taylor wrote the sonnet published in London Magazine. (E. L. Brooks 1952: 450-454: The Poet an Error in the Keats Cannon?, Modern Language Notes 67.7, Nov.; Mabel A. E. Steele 1956: 69-80: The authorship of The Poet and other sonnets: Selections from a 19th century manuscript anthology, Keats-Shelley Journal 5, Winter). Steele suggested that Taylor gave the sonnet to Woodhouse to place with his other Keatsiana, and Woodhouse modified the poem to his own taste while copying it into his book but forgot to provide an author's name. (Wunder 2008: 69)
In the last analysis, therefore, it is unclear who the actual author of this poem is, but Wunder's book evidences precisely the occult vein in Keats's thought that would qualify the mystic British poet as a possible creator of such verse that is imbued with occult knowledge.
Page 18 "The appropriate business of poetry": By this observation, Wordsworth seems to anticipate Alfred Korzybski's foundation of general semantics: the Polish thinker asserted that perception is already an abstraction, of first degree, while the event in itself (as it really is) is impossible to be described in any other way than by an infinity of attributes. The pure phenomenon, therefore, contains infinite information, whereas perception of the phenomenon is a useful reduction for the finite purposes of any perceptive act by which communication and life are made possible. Starting from this notion, Korzybski thus speaks of an infinite hierarchy of levels of abstraction: event (zero degree: non-abstraction), perception (first degree abstraction), description of perception (second degree abstraction), conclusion (third degree abstraction), creed (fourth degree abstraction), and action, which is fifth degree abstraction, but also zero' degree abstraction, because action in itself is an event, and so the whole cycle repeats (degrees zero to four) (explanation adapted from Korzybski 1971).
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