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WORDSWORTH: "NATURE AND THE LANGUAGE OF THE SENSE"

Theodore Roszak

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

murderers  

Of Jesus. . .

Who pretend to Poetry that they may destroy

Imagination

By imitation of Nature's images drawn from

Remembrance.

(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.   

Wonder not

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 in the 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 philosophy.  

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 the strange 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 invisible things"; "the mysteries being"; a "presence" . . .or, in one of his supreme-passages (from Tintern Abbey), he 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 Snowdon:

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 in nature.

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:

Science then    

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 infancy."

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

In infancy! 

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 before 

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

 

Mindfire