Sunday, March 13, 2011

Wandering with Wordsworth

A week ago, I couldn't have said I was really familiar with Wordsworth's poetry, but I could have given someone a standard blurb on Wordsworth at the level of the introduction to an encyclopedia article or the introduction in a survey class on English literature: (1) With Coleridge he published Lyrical Ballads, a book of poetry that essentially founded the Romantic movement in literature in the last years of the eighteenth century. (2) He said that poetry should come from the remembrance of great feelings at a later time of tranquility (or something to that effect -- I'm never good at remembering exact words). (3) And, in poems like "Nutting," he recommended drawing inspiration and peace from the contemplation of nature.

So, as I said in my last post, with only this scanty knowledge of the poet, I was surprised to come across his early sensational poems about ruined families and wayfarers traveling the world trying to find release from the guilt of their horrific sins. I never heard about this side of Wordsworth in literature-survey courses. My anthology's editor suggested that the real Wordsworth would show up in 1797, but in the last couple of days, reading further in my chronologically arranged anthology, I've reached the more famous poems like "Tintern Abbey," and Wordswirth still intersperses the nature poetry with shocking tales about guilt-ridden wanderers, like Peter Bell, who married twelve women on twelve whims and thinks nothing of beating a donkey fiercely just because he (Peter) has lost his way in the woods.

But while the two kinds of poem seem very different in tone -- some glowing with tranquility and others stained red with lurid crimes -- I notice they both usually deal with wanderers, especially people wandering in the woods. So now I'm wondering, when Wordsworth wanders to Tintern Abbey and sits under a tree quietly looking at the placid ruins, what hidden terrors of the heart is he trying to get away from? When he wanders through the woods with a basket in "Nutting," is he really just seeking nuts, or is he seeking absolution? Peter Bell, in a twist that surprised me this morning, thinks he is only seeking an easy way home but finds Jesus. Walking by a Methodist church, he hears the preacher exhorting the congregation to repent and receive God's forgiveness, and Peter knows he needs to do it. Then he looks at the donkey's back and, seeing the cross, feels that God is speaking to him directly. Might not Peter reflect Wordsworth's heart as much as the persona of "Tintern Abbey"? Perhaps both kinds of poem should be taught in school, since they complement each other so interestingly.

I, also, am wandering -- wandering through this poetry, curious about what I'll find. I notice that Wordsworth and his characters do not draw all their solace and divine lessons from scenes of nature. Peter learns from the leaves and from the water and from the cross on the donkey's back, but he also learns from the sermon of a Methodist preacher. And of course Wordsworth hopes that we will learn from his poetry. So human institutions and art also have their place in Wordsworth's Romantic view, right next to nature -- something else they didn't teach me in my literature courses. But then I'm only about one-fifth of the way through the book, and maybe I'll found out later that Wordsworth abandons the human interactions (and the shock lit) in order to concentrate on quiet encounters with the Divine in the wild.

But for me Wordsworthian epiphanies come through human artifacts as well as God's handiwork, so I hope both sources of inspiration remain. I read "Peter Bell" this morning as I wandered yet another way: walking around the town of Norwich, CT. Passing what looked like an abandoned church, I heard bells from the steeple playing "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross." The melody became clear to me just as I read about Peter surveying the wondrous cross on the donkey's back, and I think I experienced something like the feelings Wordsworth so highly prized and wondered also that I had the experience not by a lake in the woods but on a concrete sidewalk next to a dusty, boarded-up building, while listening to music composed by a man. I think the purveyors of the music must not have felt anything like what I did, though, because they cut the recording off abruptly in the middle of a phrase. But then I've heard this kind of disregard for musical integrity before in church and am not surprised to find a lack of aesthetic sensibility in someone who uses recordings for church music.

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