Wordsworth and Keats and Me; or, thinking about poets and poems


More and more these days I turn, and return, to Wordsworth and Keats. In them I find a patch of common ground, sometimes even kinship. This is a beginning, but only that. Common ground and kinship are not enough if the poetry does not rouse a feeling that it captures or expresses some deep and genuine sense of how things are. Poetry "should strike the Reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts, and appear almost a Remembrance." (John Keats, letter to John Taylor, February 27, 1818).

One of my favorite passages follows the opening stanza of "Tintern Abbey," where after describing the scene when he revisits the banks of the Wye, Wordsworth proceeds to relate its effect on him:

These beauteous forms, Through a long absence, have not been to me As is a landscape to a blind man's eye: But oft, in lonely rooms, and 'mid the din Of towns and cities, I have owed to them In hours of weariness, sensations sweet, Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart; And passing even into my purer mind, With tranquil restoration... . . . Nor less, I trust, To them I may have owed another gift, Of aspect more sublime; that blessed mood, In which the burthen of the mystery, In which the heavy and the weary weight Of all this unintelligible world, Is lightened: — that serene and blessed mood, In which the affections gently lead us on, — Until, the breath of this corporeal frame And even the motion of our human blood Almost suspended, we are laid asleep In body, and become a living soul: While with an eye made quiet by the power Of harmony, and the deep power of joy, We see into the life of things.

Another passage that hits home comes from The Prelude (Book XI, France; also in "French Revolution. As It Appeared to Enthusiasts at Its Commencement."):

Now it was that both found, the meek and lofty Did both find, helps 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.

As for Keats, I carry with me these lines from "Endymion": "...in spite of all / Some shape of beauty moves away the pall / From our dark spirits"; and from "Ode to Psyche": "I see, and sing, by my own eyes inspired."

I did not set out to make Wordsworth a project for the spring term. It began innocently enough when I found my way to the end of The Prelude for the first time, having on several previous occasions begun and abandoned the book-length poem about the growth of the poet's mind. Thence I began to wonder about the effect of Wordsworth and Keats on my own poetic project shaped at the outset by a European avant-garde tradition that remains a profound influence. Wordsworth and Keats can infuse in me an urgency to take up the pen that I once drew from Rimbaud and others, but I am not driven to my desk now as I was at nineteen, twenty-three, thirty-five, forty-eight. Once the pen swept across the page like a brush fire. No more. Is it possible that Wordsworth and Keats draw me somewhat away from these roots, certain styles, manners, and modes of expression, or more fundamental, a particular sensibility, the poetic enterprise's sine qua non, and thereby contribute to my pen's distressing silence? Maybe fodder for an essay?

Forty years ago I would not have guessed that I might one day find Wordsworth simpatico. The dream I had at nineteen of being a poet was sparked by the likes of Rimbaud, Apollinaire, Paul Éluard, Gregory Corso, and Bob Dylan, not at first thought a Wordsworthian crew. The brief passages that follow give an idea of the sort of thing that made my young spirit soar.

Rimbaud

As soon as the idea of the Deluge had subsided, A hare stopped in the clover and swaying flowerbells, and said a prayer to the rainbow, through the spider's web. Oh! the precious stones that began to hide,—and the flowers that already looked around. In the dirty main street, stalls were set up and boats were hauled towards the sea, high tiered as in old prints. Blood flowed at Blue Beard's, through slaughterhouses, in circuses, where the windows were blanched by God's seal. Blood and milk flowed. . . . Madame*** installed a piano in the Alps. Mass and first communions were celebrated at the hundred thousand altars of the cathedral. Caravans set out. And Hotel Splendid was built in the chaos of ice and of the polar night. Ever after the moon heard jackals howling across the deserts of thyme, and eclogues in wooden shoes growling in the orchard. Then in the violet and budding forest, Eucharis told me it was spring.... (from "After the Deluge," from Illuminations, tr. by Louse Varese) Apollinaire

Seeing the flags this morning I didn't say to myself Those are the rich garments of the poor Nor does democratic modesty wish to veil from me its grief Nor does the honoring of liberty require now that one imitate The newspapers O fertile liberty O sole earthly liberty Nor do houses flame because people are going away never to return Nor will these hurried hands work for us tomorrow Nor even have those men been hung who cannot make a go of life Nor even is the world made over by retaking the Bastille I know that only those will remake the world who are rooted in poetry Paris is decked out in flags because my friend André Salmon is to be

married here (from "Poem Read at the Marriage of Andre Salmon, July 13, 1909," tr. by Roger Shattuck) Paul Éluard

She is standing on my lids And her hair is in my hair She has the colour of my eye She has the body of my hand In my shade she is engulfed As a stone against the sky She will never close her eyes And she does not let me sleep And her dreams in the bright day Make the suns evaporate And me laugh cry and laugh Speak when I have nothing to say (L'Amoureuse, tr. by Samuel Beckett)

Gregory Corso

Should I get married? Should I be good? Astound the girl next door with my velvet suit and faustus hood? Don't take her to movies but to cemeteries tell all about werewolf bathtubs and forked clarinets then desire her and kiss her and all the preliminaries and she going just so far and I understanding why not getting angry saying You must feel! It's beautiful to feel! Instead take her in my arms lean against an old crooked tombstone and woo her the entire night the constellations in the sky — (from Marriage)

Bob Dylan

With your mercury mouth in the missionary times, And your eyes like smoke and your prayers like rhymes, And your silver cross, and your voice like chimes, Oh, who do they think could bury you? With your pockets well protected at last, And your streetcar visions which you place on the grass, And your flesh like silk, and your face like glass, Who could they get to carry you? Sad-eyed lady of the lowlands, Where the sad-eyed prophet says that no man comes, My warehouse eyes, my Arabian drums, Should I put them by your gate, Or, sad-eyed lady, should I wait? (Sad-Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands)

In the spirit of Harold Bloom I misread Surrealism and appropriated it as my own project dictated, taking what I could put to my own ends in the spirit of Corso when he compared his approach to surrealism with that of Philip Lamantia: "Philip sees surrealism as an end in itself, but I take it as just another toy to play with." Maybe I would not call it just another toy, but then maybe I sometimes take things too seriously.

This is the point where even a reader kindly disposed to my meanderings might reasonably expect a comparison of those poets who spoke to me early on and Wordsworth and Keats, to whom I came later. What is it, if anything, that makes Rimbaud and Éluard different from Wordsworth and Keats? Is there a shared quality beyond my affinity for all of them? There is with Rimbaud and others who came after him a fixation on modernity, the new, the hip, that I once found appealing but now see as something of a chimera. What I find still in that tradition are the inventive juxtapositions of images and ideas not usually associated with one another that when expressed in the rhythms and cadences of poetry come naturally and evoke feelings of joy, melancholy, despair, intimations of love, beauty, and mortality, and our own remembrances. They can send us soaring, as can Wordsworth and Keats after a somewhat different fashion that tends to be more along the lines of making a case poetically. More thinking remains to be done here.

I once found Wordsworth pedestrian, sometimes didactic, often tedious, and lacking in the qualities that drew me to poetry. Much of it is a slog even today when I have a quite different take on him. Not every line is luminous. In this I feel vindicated by Bloom when he writes of

the drab, flat awfulness of Wordsworth at his common worst in The Excursion or even (heresy to admit this!) in so many passages of The Prelude—passages that we hastily skip by, feeling zeal and relief in getting at the great moments. (Introduction to Samuel Taylor Coleridge, p. 9)

Nature does not have the hold on me that it does on Wordsworth. Hiking through fields, up hill and down, tramping along streams and rivers, taking in waterfalls, mountain vistas, and vast expanse of sky are conducive to contemplation and cultivation of a sensibility necessary for me to write poems, but no more so than wandering city streets and neighborhoods, taking in bookstores and museums, cafés and taverns, bridges, public art, urban characters and eccentricities, and chance discoveries of secluded little plazas and parks, unanticipated oases amid the hubbub. More than any of these things though I am brought to poetry by other poets, books and ideas, and history, the grand intellectual adventure.

I cannot seem to take on poets and their poems without getting into their lives. We want to know about women and men who express thoughts, sensibilities, and experiences in a fashion that amazes, entertains, amuses, and touches us, appearing almost as a remembrance of our own highest thoughts. We never come to anything with a blank slate. No poem simply stands as a thing in itself apart from a totality of context and circumstances, biography, history, etc., within which it was created by some existing individual self and an attendant totality of context and circumstances, biography, history, etc., within which it is taken in as a poem when read by another existing individual self.

How could I not feel some kinship with a man who

[a]t 28 years of age...had neither a settled income nor the professional qualifications needed to secure one. He had no home, a recent visit to Germany being only the latest in a series of rather fortuitous brief settlements. In an impetuous love affair in France he fathered an illegitimate daughter, from whom he was separated and whom he could not support. Involvement in radical politics had inspired an eloquent pamphlet and some protest poems, but as none of them had been published Wordsworth could hardly claim, as Southey and Coleridge plausibly could, that he was a public figure in political-literary life. (Gill, pp. 3, 4)

A poet's life need not be interesting for the poems to be interesting. We do not have to know that between early July and late September 1790 Wordsworth and his college chum Robert Jones covered "nearly three thousand miles, walking at least two thousand of them, many over mountainous terrain, at a rate of more than twenty, sometimes more than thirty, miles a day" (Gill, p. 44) to get into the poet's account of their European tour in The Prelude. Nor to love the poems must we know that Rimbaud turned away from poetry when scarcely out of his teens and later ran guns in Africa, where he was the first white person to set foot in some parts of the continent, or that Keats was dead at twenty-five. But what we do know about poets we bring to our encounters with them and this colors our response as much as recognition of a literary or historical allusion even when we might well enjoy the poem quite apart from that recognition and the deeper pleasure, the greater reward, it brings.

The flip side of that coin is the temptation to critique poems on the basis of the poet's life or character. The sad and all too human reality is that much art we value would be lost if we banished genuine jerks, scoundrels, and miscreants from the ranks, much less all those whose character and habits fall outside the bounds of a self-righteous and puritanical correctness that some today would dictate. Then there are the ones who are simply not particularly likable. Wordsworth was not a lovable sort. He was vain, prickly about criticism, and fairly obsessed with his reputation as a poet. Coleridge was an ardent champion of his friend Wordsworth's poetry. Wordsworth, ever an ardent champion of his own poetry, notably did not return the favor. Testimony of his contemporaries bears out these shortcomings.

[Wordsworth] says he does not see much difficulty in writing like Shakespeare, if he had a mind to try it. It is clear then nothing is wanting but the mind. Even Coleridge a little checked at this hardihood of assertion. (Charles Lamb, quoted in Gill, p. 266)

Southey claimed that 'entire & intense selfishness' was 'so pure & unmixed a passion in him that Ben Jonson would have had him in a play had he been his contemporary' and Henry Crabb Robinson, an admirer who was later to become an intimate friend, noted on meeting him in London that 'He is not attentive to others...He does not spare those he opposes'. It is significant, however, that both comments locate Wordsworth's egotism in his zeal for 'his own productions' and his 'sense of his own worth'. As a husband, father, brother, and provider Wordsworth was rarely selfish, but whatever impinged on his integrity as poet roused him—and that was not being subjects to its severest challenges. (Gill, p. 266)

The young Wordsworth's enthusiasm for the French Revolution gave way to an understandable disillusion when Revolution turned to Terror. More open to criticism is a progressive drift rightward later in life when he embraced the established order, actively campaigning for Tory causes and politicians, some of them outright reactionary, a move that dismayed young Keats and others who knew him. He came to remember and emphasize only "the calamities [he witnessed] brought upon all classes, and especially the poor, by the Revolution" (quoted in Gill, p. 382), forgetting perhaps episodes such as this one recounted in The Prelude (Book IX, Residence in France):

...And when we chanced One day to meet a hunger-bitten girl, who crept along fitting her lauguid gait Unto a heifer's motion, by a cord Tied to her arm, and picking thus from the lane Its sustenance, while the girl with pallid hands Was busy knitting in a heartless mood Of solitude, and at the sight my friend In agitation said, ' 'Tis against that That we are fighting', I with him believed That a benignant spirit was abroad Which might not be withstood, that poverty Abject as this would in a little time Be found no more...

Yet even the older, crankier Wordsworth could in 1835 oppose the Poor Law, which provided that assistance to the poor

was to be available solely in workhouses and conditions in them were to be such that no one would voluntarily enter one if there was any alternative. As Carlyle sardonically observed: 'If paupers are made miserable, paupers will needs decline in multitude. It is a secret known to all rat-catchers.' (Gill, p. 381)

Wordsworth to his credit held that the Act "proceeds too much upon the presumption that it is a labouring man's own fault if he be not, as the phrase is, beforehand with the world." (quoted in Gill, p. 382)

We wonder about the poems that might have been written but were not when a poet dies or turns away from poetry, or inexplicably goes silent, at a young age. Wordsworth famously wrote little of merit after the age of thirty-seven. Corso was derailed early on by heroin and alcohol. What might he have done with his three score and ten years had he nailed a poet in residence gig and settled in somewhere or remained faithful to one of several heiresses who took him in during the wayward youth that preceded wayward middle and older age? Maybe we have it. Or might he have gone at it like Jim Harrison, who could never be accused of neglecting pleasures of various appetites, yet died at seventy-eight at his desk while at work on a poem, after cranking out twenty-one volumes of fiction, fourteen books of poetry, two books of essays, a memoir, and a children's book?

Rimbaud turned away from poetry somewhere around the age of twenty if not a little before. Keats was dead at twenty-five. While Keats's accomplishment is to my mind markedly greater, Rimbaud's precocity is no less astounding and as with Keats lies not only in the poems but also with critical theories and insights expressed in correspondence, although, again, Keats does so with greater depth and substance. Writing to Paul Demeny on May 15, 1871, five months shy of his seventeenth birthday, Rimbaud presents "a discourse on the future of poetry":

All ancient poetry culminated in Greek poetry, harmonious Life. From Greece to the Romantic movement—Middle Ages—there are men of letters, versifiers. From Ennius to Theroldus, from Theroldus to Casimir Delavigne, nothing but rhymed prose, a game, fatty degeneration and glory of countless idiotic generations: Racine is the pure, the strong, the great man. Had his rhymes been effaaced, his hemistitches got mixed up, today the Divine Imbecile would be as unknown as any old author of Origins. After Racine the game gets moldy. It lasted for two thousand years!

Neither a joke, nor a paradox. Reason inspires me with more certainties on this subject than any Young-France ever had angers. Besides, newcomers have a right to condemn their ancestors: one is at home and there's plenty of time.

Romanticism has never been properly judged. Who were there to judge it? The critics!! The Romantics? who prove so clearly that the song is very seldom the work, that is, the idea sung and understood by the singer.

For, I is some one else. If brass wakes up a trumpet, it isn't to blame. To me this is evident: I witness the birth of my thought: I look at it, I listen to it: I give a stroke of the bow: the symphony begin to stir in the depths or comes bursting onto the stage. (tr. Varese).

Sartre comes at the "I is some one else" motif from an existentialist perspective given extended treatment in The Transcendence of the Ego, which many years ago I used for a paper in a class on philosophy of mind. The professor returned the paper with a note that he thought I was getting at some things he found of interest. Ah, but I digress.

Keats at twenty-two gives axioms that serve us in good stead, I think, whatever school or tradition we claim as our own:

In Poetry I have a few Axioms... 1st I think Poetry should surprise by a fine excess and not by Singularity—it should strike the Reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts, and appear almost a Remembrance–2nd Its touches of Beauty should never be half way therby making the reader breathless instead of content: the rise, the progress, the setting of imagery should like the sun come natural natural too him—shine over him and set soberly although in magnificence leaving him in the Luxury of twilight—but it is easier to think what Poetry should be than to write it—and this leads to another axiom. That if Poetry comes not as naturally as the Leaves to a tree it had better not come at all. (letter to John Taylor, 27 February 1818; erratic spelling, repetitions, etc., are Keats's)

Good grief, what kind of tangent have I drifted off on? And where are those fiends from the editorial desk when I could do with one? Once again my rambles and digressions arrive at no definitive end. Ponder as I have on the subject for weeks now, I am no nearer determining whether my present immersion in Wordsworth and Keats is inimical to my own work because it diverts me from genuine precursors on whom I have drawn for almost half a century. Maybe I need to misread them better in some fashion I have yet to manage. I ponder on.

Memo from the Editorial Desk

Minor, nonsubstantive edits were made to this piece after it was initially published. Yes, this one too.

References

Guillaume Apollinaire, Selected Writings, tr. Roger Shattuck, New Directions, 1971

Harold Bloom, The Best Poems of the English Language, HarperCollins Publishers, 2004

Bloom, How to Read and Why, Scribner, 2000

Bloom, Introduction to Modern Critical Views: Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Chelsea House Publishers, 1986

Stephen Gill, William Wordsworth: A Life, Oxford Univ Press, 1989

Letters of John Keats, A Selection Edited by Robert Gittings, Oxford University Press, 1970

Arthur Rimbaud, Illuminations and Other Prose Poems, tr. Louise Varese, New Directions, 1946

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