WORDSWORTH: "NATURE AND THE LANGUAGE OF THE SENSE"
With all the madcap perversity of genius, Blake attacked
Wordsworth as an atheist! And with not the least charitable restraint to his accusation. Thus — from Blake's notes
on Wordsworth's Poems. ''I see in Wordsworth the Natural Man rising up against the Spiritual Man Continually,
& then he is No Poet but a Heathen Philosopher at Enmity
against all true Poetry or Inspiration." More fiercely still,
in Blake's Milton (with Wordsworth the obvious target):
These are the destroyers of Jerusalem, these are the
Of Jesus. . .
Who pretend to Poetry that they may destroy
By imitation of Nature's images drawn from
(Blake even complained that reading Wordsworth gave
him a "bowel complaint"; and yet concluded, with magnificent inconsistency, that Wordsworth was "the greatest poet
of his age.")
Out of his one weakness, Blake attacked Wordsworth's supreme qualities, his sacramental vision of nature, his childlike joy in the life of the senses. For Blake, "outward creation" had no spiritual authenticity except as a collection
of metaphysical symbols; in Wordsworth, We find no need
of symbols, but only the direct acceptance of nature for
what it is purely and immediately in the senses. Blake's eye
had to pierce nature as if it were a delusive veil; Wordsworth could let the natural aspect rest easy in his eye and
there become the simple wonder it is.
Both these are ways and means of transcendence. Both
transcend single vision. But Blake beneath his Gnostic
burden sweats at the job; he must climb home to heaven
hand over hand, hauling himself free of the "vegetable
universe." Wordsworth relaxes into the visionary mood,
moves submissively (with "a feminine softness") along the
grain of things, finding himself already at home within the
"outward creation." He is not afraid to enjoy Vala's beauties; he does not close out the "pure organic pleasure," but
delicately unfolds its secret.
I held unconscious intercourse with beauty
Old as creation, drinking in a pure
Organic pleasure from the silver wreaths
Of curling mist, or from the level plain
Of waters colored by impending clouds . . .
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.
Wordsworth's tone: always one of stillness, of pregnant
calm. But beneath the placid surface, there is a revolutionary current strongly running. Not political revolution
(which Wordsworth embraced in youth, rebuffed with
age) but a revolution of perception — in fact, that very
apocalypse-promising "improvement of sensual enjoyment" Blake himself demanded.
In Wordsworth, in all the Romantic nature lovers, the
secret idolatry of Judeo-Christian tradition finds its most
militant opposition. The natural objects cease to be idols;
they are resurrected and pulse with life. Their "inward
meaning" returns. They glow, they breathe, they speak. (my mind hath looked/Upon the speaking face of earth.) Wordsworth talks to mountains; to trees,
seas, clouds, birds, stones, stars — person to person. It is no
poetic convention but true conversation.
Here is indeed natural philosophy — but nothing of our science. For Wordsworth does not probe, prod, dissect ("We
murder to dissect"). No research, no theory. He but attends and converses. And then it happens: the power
breaks through . . ."gleams like the flashing of a shield."
. . . and I would stand,
lf the night blackened with a coming storm,
Beneath some rock, listening to notes that are
The ghostly language of the ancient earth
0r make their dim abode in distant winds.
Thence did I drink the visionary power
. . .
A "wise passiveness" does the trick. There is much here of
the Tao: the illuminated commonplace.
. . .in life's everyday appearances
I seemed about this time to gain clear sight.
0f a new world. . .
Whence spiritual dignity originates.
Wait, watch, be still, be open:, even the humblest objects
may allow fit discourse with the spiritual world."
"The spiritual world." Yet the spirit must always be a palpable, sensible presence: seen, touched, smelled, heard,
tasted. Wordsworth is pre-eminently the psychologist of the visionary senses. A mystic sentiency. His "visitings of
imaginative power" emerge invariably, necessarily, from
an enobling interchange
Of action from without and from within;
The excellence, pure function, and best power
Both of the object seen, and eye that sees,
and their sign is "aching joy," "sensations sweet felt in the
blood," "dizzy raptures," "bliss ineffable": an erotic knowledge.
If high the transport, great the joy I felt
Communing in this sort through earth and heaven
With every form of creature.
Wordsworth has been criticized (especially in his own time
by Shelley) for the asexuality of his poetry. But the charge misfires. Wordsworth's eroticism is pre-genital, diffused
throughout his senses — especially through his vision and
hearing. (At least his metaphors are always of raptures
seen or heard.) His poetry reports orgasms of perception
—an infantile delight in the world-discovering, world-
caressing eye and ear. He could even find "a grandeur inthe beatings of the heart." We have little poetry in the
language that is sensually richer than his.
Wordsworth's ecstasies of the sense are real; so too the
natural world that excites them. He never lets us doubt
for a moment the reality of sense-life or its objects. His
study of nature is through and through empirical. And yet
(here is where the prophetic lightning strikes) nature
lovingly embraced by the senses becomes suddenly "a new
world" — in fact, "the spiritual world." Magically . . . it becomes more than it is . . . no! it becomes all that it really
is, but is rarely seen to be.
And then, Wordsworth tells us, we pass gracefully beyond,
"the bodily eye," "the fleshly ear." But "beyond" is only
reached "through." The spirit is in the thing and must be,
can only be, palpably known therein. Again: this is Adam's
"knowledge" of Eve: the person in the flesh.
Blake protested: "Wordsworth must know that what he
Writes Valuable is Not to be found in Nature." But Wordsworth's reply would be: the vision can be found no place
else but in the mind's marriage to living nature.
To every Form of being is assigned . . .
An active Principle:
. . .it subsists
In all things, in all natures. . .
Spirit that knows no insulated spot,
No chasm, no solitude; from link to link
It circulates, the Soul of all the worlds,
. . .and yet is reverenced least
And least respected in the human Mind,
Its most apparent home.
The idea is elusive, paradoxical. We are dealing with a
quality of awareness, not a methodological procedure.
What sense will ever be made of Wordsworth at this point
by those who have not caught at least a glimmer of the
sacramental vision? For Wordsworth, visionary power
works solely through the "faculties of sense"; it is "creator
and receiver both"
Working but in alliance with the works
Which it beholds.
So we must conceive of a moment when nature, senses,
and mind all merge to become a charm-locked unity. . .
a more, a something-other than the sum of these parts we
can analyze out of the whole. They become a unique entity. Wordsworth calls the experience a sort of marriage:
a "great consummation" for which his poetry is "the
spousal verse." In that instant of "blended might," the
Kantian dichotomy, a secondary abstraction, evaporates,
allowing Wordsworth to marvel
How exquisitely the individual Mind
. . .to the external World
Is fitted: — and how exquisitely, too —
Theme this but little heard of among men —
The external World is fitted to the Mind;
And the creation (by no lower name
Can it be called) which they with blended might
Accomplish: - this is our high argument.
The refutation of Kant is head-on, unmistakable. Question: Why is Kant's authority among the philosophers so
much greater? Indeed, why is — Wordsworth not even
brought into court? Answer: Because Wordsworth works
from experience; Kant works from logic. Wordsworth requires the: roaring wilderness: for his "high argument";
Kant reduces conveniently to print on the page and
perches nicely on the Seminar table. Alienated intellect will
always prefer fastidious abstractions, tricky arguments; it
works from secondary levels of the personality. Word-game
These, then are the great moments, "when the light of
sense/Goes out, but with a flash that has revealed/The
invisible world." For these moments (and "Such moments
are scattered everywhere") Wordsworth possessed
thestrange gift of eidetic memory. Years later, he could reconstruct the experience in vivid detail, enjoying
An active power to fasten images
Upon his brain; and on their pictured lines
Intensely brooded, even till they acquired
The liveliness of dreams
Wordsworth called it "the power of peculiar eye."
But — the obvious question — what is it such a "peculiar eye"
sees? Wordsworth gives no answer. He knows better than
to give. an answer. His art is one of eloquent and, utterly
honest evasion. Master of language, he knew the limits
of his medium. The power of his poetry, building through
the great passages into a mounting wave of rhetoric, conveys the authority of the experience. Yet, when the wave
peaks and breaks, the experience is left secret. We learn
only that he has known "the latent qualities and essences
of things"; "the types and symbols of Eternity"; the
shock of awful consciousness"; "authentic tidings of invisibleone of his supreme-passages (from Tintern Abbey), he
things"; "the mysteries being"; a "presence" . . .or, in
leaves it at a tense and pregnant "something."
And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things. Therefore am I still
A lover of the meadows and the woods,
And mountains; and 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 recognize
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.
(Who else could get away with that "something" That anti-poetic, totally artless, "something"? It is not a
word; it is a helpless gasp, a catch in the breath. The rolling wave of the verse crests in the hush before that "something," breaks in the astonished silence. — Of course, of
course: couldn't our analytical philosophers take such a
shambling incoherence apart at the seams in nothing flat?
For What does it all prove? But where are we to believe
such poetry comes from? Do people just "make it up"?
Out of nothing?)
Wordsworth, of all poets, most often confesses the "sad
incompetence of human speech." He could not, like Blake,
reach for a piece of mythic tradition to express "the spiritual presences of absent things." The furthest he goes is, in
several places, to liken his vision — but darkly — to the presence of mind in nature. As at the close of The Prelude,
Where he stands in flooding sunrise at the summit of Mount
There I beheld the emblem of a mind
That feeds upon infinity, that broods
Over the dark abyss, intent to hear
Its voice issuing forth to silent light
In one continuous stream; a mind sustained —
By recognitions of transcendent power . . .
This could, no doubt, be theologized into deism . . .
pantheism . . . panentheism. . . what have you. But it is
not theology. It does not argue or deduce or seek to prove. It is living experience, rhapsodically reported — utterly
vulnerable to critical analysis. Just that. No elaborations or
clarifications. Wordsworth has found mind-likeness in nature. He invites us to share the vision. Open up. Accept.
Enjoy. Our loss if we refuse.
An old cliche: that art and science both begin in wonder,
and are at one in their pursuit of beauty. How convenient
to think so. But this is a treacherous superficiality. Wordsworth was not the polemicist Blake was; he never takes
severe issue with the scientists. Yet he knew the difference.
In the preface to Lyrical Ballads he shrewdly observes that
the key philosophical distinction is not between poetry and
prose, but between "Poetry and Matter of Fact, or "Science." The difference is - the primacy in poetry (and
absence in science) of Imagination-as-visionary-power.
Because science objectifies. Its beauty is that of the behavioral surface: uniform relationships, predictive regularity . . . depersonalized order — which is surely a real and
legitimate beauty. The beauty of the puzzle cunningly
solved, of the machine broken down to its working parts.
So James Watson called the DNA double helix "an idea
too pretty not to be true.'' But such aesthetic tastes have
not prevented the new biology from taking the most
fiercely reductionist course any science has ever followed.
"Living beings are chemical machines," says Jacques
Monod — cleverly synthesized nothing-buts that now invite
strange fantasies of molecular engineering. How should it
be otherwise? Objectified order is dead order. It does not
speak. Charles Gillispie, discussing Leonardo, draws the
distinction with a fine, clean edge:
For Leonardo da Vinci, as for many a Renaissance humanist, there was a whole world in man. In his eyes science and art were both illumination — the reality of the
great world suffusing the consciousness of the little in
the act of perception. This was not to be, of course. The
two modes of grasping nature are different, the one particular and concrete, the other general and abstract.
(The Edge of Objectivity)
Or again, as Henri Poincare once put it:
If nature were not beautiful, it would not be worth
knowing . . . I am not speaking, of course, of the beauty of qualities and appearances. I am far from despising this, but it has nothing to do with science. What
I mean is that more intimate beauty which comes from
the harmonious order of its parts, and which a pure intelligence can grasp. (Science and Method)
But Wordsworth's beauty is the experience of a speaking
presence, "carried alive into the heart by passion." Cloud,
flower, mountain, sea . . . let them be unruly forms,
anarchic motions . . . things just happening . . . just being
there. The sheer impact of their phenomenological address
to the person is enough. Wordsworth's poetry begins and
ends in the clairvoyant sense of an empowered presence
Presence before order. Where this priority is lost, it is always at the expense of visionary art.
Here is precisely why art — visionary art — does not "get beyond" initial wonder. Because there is nowhere more important to be. Such art rests in the spell of the Sacred. It
does not lead to research. It is content to celebrate its revelations over and again. It does not seek progress or accumulation, but repetition . . . Or rather, stasis: the still
point, where we balance "Like angels stopped upon the
wing by sound/Of harmony from Heaven's remotest
spheres." For who would want to turn off and move
on . . . to other things?
Yes, there are Other things worth doing. But not just as
worth doing. Not by a long way. Either we know that, or
there can be no discipline of the sacred to guide curiosity
and learning. Wordsworth is gentle in his critique, but he
makes it clear that, compared to knowledge of the sacramental reality, science is a strictly "secondary power"
By which we multiply distinctions, then
Deem that our puny boundaries are things
That we perceive and not that we have made.
First things first, he insists. First, knowledge of "the
spiritual presences". Then (perhaps) research and analysis, But — only afterwards:
Shall be a precious visitant; and then,
And only then, be worthy of her name:
For then her heart shall kindle; her dull eye,
Dull, and inanimate, no more shall hang
Chained to its object in brute slavery.
Judged by mainstream Christian standards, Wordsworth's
nature worship is heresy of the first water. Fearing as
much, he makes an apology in Book Two of The Prelude.
If this be error, and another faith
Find easier access to the pious mind,
Yet were I grossly destitute of all
Those human sentiments that make this earth
So dear, if I should fail with grateful voice
To speak to you, ye mountains, and ye lakes
And sounding cataracts, ye mists and winds. . .
At first glance, Wordsworth's sacramental vision of nature
looks like the old paganism reborn. (Blake bluntly called
him a "pagan.") But where are the bridges that connect
Wordsworth back across the Christian centuries to the
pagan worship? They are not there. Take Wordsworth at
his word: he did not borrow his vision from some manner
of historical influence, but found it in his own "underconsciousness." It was an "awful Power" that "rose from
the mind's abyss. ''That is what gives his work its authority: he is not imitating, but recreating.
Coleridge said what his age needed (and our age still) was
a "Reconciliation from this Enmity with Nature." Wordsworth possessed the singular gift that answered the need:
the vibrant retention of "infant sensibility, great birthright
of our being." His poetry is an archaeology of consciousness, burrowing back through time . . . back to childhood
and to that reality "appareled in celestial light" which the
child alone knows in full splendor.
One poem — the Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood — throws a new and startling light
across the entire history of human culture — but especially
over modern adulthood's "Reality Principle." One simple,
explosively subversive idea: "Heaven lies about us in our
Wordsworth is ambiguous. He sometimes thinks adult
recollection (if vivid) can salvage philosophical gold from
raw childhood wonder. At other times, there is the sense
of an unmitigated loss that comes with age. (Wordsworth
seems to have lost his capacity for trancelike rapture at
the age of thirty.) In any case, by the going standards of
adulthood, we clearly sacrifice more than we gain in
"growing up." Worst of all, we lose (beyond even feeble
recollection) "the visionary gleam." We lose all sense that
the child is (by nature)
Mighty Prophet! Seer blest!
On whom those truths do rest,
Which we are toiling all our lives to find,
In darkness lost. . .
Blake knew as much, and Rousseau. Wordsworth was only
more obsessed with this devastating insight. Further back
still — a century before the Romantics — beautiful, neglected
Thomas Traherne knew it best of all:
How wise was I
I then saw in the clearest Light;
But corrupt Custom is a second Night
Endlessly celebrating "sweet infancy," working a theme so
marvelously mad, so radically original that it earned him
two hundred years of unrelieved obscurity, Traherne
realized, before all the others "that "the first impressions are
immortal all." He traced the fact to the child's "dumness"
— to perception unburdened by language and its empiricidal abstractions. Before the words take over: a different universe: Eden reborn with every child.
And evry Stone, and Every Star a Tongue,
And evry Gale of Wind a Curious Song.
The Heavens were an Orakle, and spake
Divinity. . .
A century later, Wordsworth and the Romantics rediscover
independently the same buried garden of childish delights.
Another example, of a subjectivity so deep it has become,
interpersonal . . . universal. And following the Romantics: Freud, Wilhelm Reich, the offbeat psychiatrists, (especially the Gestaltists), and the libertarian educators:
. . . every child, before family indoctrination passes a
certain point and primary school indoctrination begins,
is, germinally at least, an artist, a visionary, and a revolutionary. (David Cooper)
But, as Wordsworth knew, this fragile sensibility goes down
The tendency, too potent in itself,
Of use and custom to bow down the soul
Under a growing Weight of vulgar sense,
And substitute a universe of death
For that which moves With light and life informed,
Actual, divine, and true.
"A universe of death." The world that is "too' much with
us." Pre-eminently, the world of single vision — as Coleridge
observed in a letter to Wordsworth:' "the philosophy of
mechanism . . . in everything that is most worthy of the
human Intellect strikes Death." The world as seen through
a dead man's eyes. Blake's Ulro.
And, like Blake, Wordsworth knew: to transcend Ulro
risks the charge of madness, perhaps risks madness itself.
Wordsworth suffered the accusation. He was, in his youth,
reclusive and much bemused . . . "so that spells seemed
on me when I was alone." Even at school, or in the midst
of cities, he was "a dreamer in the wood," eidetically recollecting the wilderness of the Lake Country.
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.
"Undisordered sight": gift of the child, the poet, the
mystic, the primitive. From such unlikely types. Romanticism drew its new standard of sanity . . . with all the
perversity of desperation.
I have said Wordsworth had "no need of symbols." A
better way to put it; he needed only one symbol — if by
"symbol" we understand a magical object. And this was
the whole natural world — as it reveals itself to what Wordsworth called "higher minds," by which he meant those
By sensible impressions not enthralled,
But by their quickening impulse made more prompt
To hold fit converse with the spiritual world . . .
For they are Powers; and hence the highest bliss
That flesh can know is theirs — the consciousness
Of Whom they are, habitually infused
Through every image and through every thought,
And all affections by communion raised
From earth to heaven, from human to divine.
What more? What more?
From Chapter 9 of Theodore Roszak's book,
Where the Wasteland Ends:
Politics and Transcendence in Postindustrial Society
The Voice of the Earth