Wednesday, August 1, 2012

William Wordsworth

August, 2012: I always found poetry hard to read.  Where does one read it - in bed or over breakfast?  How does one read it - one at a time, followed by ten minutes of reflection?  Despite coming from a poetry-writing and -loving family, I struggled to find a place for it in my life.  I thought, "Oh, well, songs are my poetry."  Last year, my father (Geoffrey Lehmann) and his old friend, Robert Gray, published an anthology, Australian Poetry Since 1788.  It got me reading poetry.  I haven't written a post about it yet - as it's about the size of a house-brick, it doesn't come with me on my rambles, so I'm only two centimetres through it.  But it makes reading poetry pleasurable; the poems have been carefully selected, and Geoff and Bob's introductions guide the reader surely through the material.  For me, it has set a standard for reading poetry: if I'm not enjoying myself, then it's highly likely the poem is a dud.  Here's an enjoyable poem written by Jamie Grant about the anthology*:

So first there was Geoff and Bob's anthology.  Then there were the Philip Larkin poems Bob Ellis read aloud from his lap-top - they were so good, I carried around a volume called Witsun Weddings until I lost it.  Then there was the Wordsworth line Thomas Hardy quoted in Return Of The Native, "plain living and high thinking," that provoked me into seeking out the whole poem.  With William Wordsworth, my conversion to poetry was complete.  

For the rambler, a slim volume or two of poetry slipped into the backpack equates to incalculable hours of pleasure and enrichment, at a mere 50g of additional weight.  I took a Wordsworth best-of (selected by Stephen Logan from poems 1796-1845) off my grandfather's shelf, and have been carrying it around all year.  Wordsworth doesn't have a broad range.  He writes about love of the natural world, as opposed to the man-made world or "what man has made of man."  This just happens to be the theme closest to my heart - it's practically my religion.  I've never read anyone express the effect of nature on the soul as well as he does, and I don't care if it's the only thing he can write about.  His short poems written from (apparently) his point of view are my favourites.  They are pure, clear bursts of inspiration.  The poem quoted by Hardy, 'Written in London, September 1802', is only fourteen lines; here are a few of them:

The wealthiest man among us is the best:
No grandeur now in nature or in book
Delights us.  Rapine, avarice, expence,
This is idolatry; and these we adore:
Plain living and high thinking are no more:
The homely beauty of the good old cause
Is gone;

He gets a bit murky and muddled when he writes longer poems (though I like his long story-poems, or ballads).  I waded through the 206 lines of 'Ode' (1807), which, as far as I could gather, reiterates with each verse that the poet has become blinded to nature's beauty by a malaise, springing from his humanness.  There are beautiful lines, such as the last two, "To me the meanest flower that blows can give/ Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears", but the structure is weak - it has the simple, gem-like conclusion, but too few ideas leading up to it.  

Wordsworth is most successful when he has a narrative to hang his ideas on; often the narrative is as basic as "I went out walking and had an encounter that provoked an interesting thought," such as in 'Simon Lee, The Old Huntsman' (1798).  He describes an old man - and manages to slip in a few points about the transience of youth and vigour - whom the poet sees one summer day trying to grub up a rotten old tree stump.  Here are the last two verses (out of thirteen):

'You're overtasked, good Simon Lee,
Give me your tool' to him I said;
And at the word right gladly he
Received my proffer'd aid.
I struck and with a single blow
The tangled root I sever'd,
At which the poor old man so long
And vainly had endeavour'd.

The tears into his eyes were brought, 
And thanks and praises seemed to run
So fast out of his heart, I thought
They never would have done.
-I've heard of hearts unkind, kind deeds
With coldness still returning.
Alas! the gratitude of men
Has oftner left me mourning.

This unexpected conclusion brought tears to my eyes; despite Wordsworth's own misgivings about it - "My gentle reader, I perceive/ How patiently you've waited,/ And I'm afraid that you expect/ Some tale will be related" - 'Simon Lee' is a much more satisfying poem than the loftier 'Ode'.

I spend quite a bit of time lying in long grass looking up at the sky, and if anyone should ever charge me with being lazy or sluggish, there is a good retort in 'Expostulation and Reply' (1798):

'The eye it cannot chuse but see,
'We cannot bid the ear be still;
'Our bodies feel, where'er they be,
'Against, or with our will.

'Nor less I deem that there are powers,
'Which of themselves our minds impress,
'That we can feed this mind of ours,
'In a wise passiveness.

'Think you, mid all this mighty sum
'Of things forever speaking,
'That nothing of itself will come,
'But we must still be seeking?

'-Then ask not wherefore, here, alone,
'Conversing as I may,
'I sit upon this old grey stone,
'And dream my time away.'

In 'Lines Written A Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey' (1798), he revisits a landscape he knows and loves.  He speaks about these "forms of beauty":

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...
...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 lighten'd: - 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.

For me, this perfectly describes the effect that nature - all that time I've spent looking up at the sky and stroking gum trees - has on me.

The other lines quoted in my small circle are:

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers

And also:

My former thoughts return'd: the fear that kills;
And hope that is unwilling to be fed

The phrase 'Wordsworth's daffodils' is a shorthand for the solace that is to be found in nature:

I wandered lonely as a Cloud
That floats on high o'er Vales and Hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd
A host of dancing Daffodils;

I can understand Wordsworth in terms of songwriters: he's no Cole Porter or Dolly Parton - versatile writers constantly exploring different emotions, characters, themes and scenario.  He's more in the style of Stevie Nicks, capable only of one perspective (their own), but now and then producing a piece of work in which the intense subjectivity is pushed all the way through into universality, becoming the final word on that particular subject.

*erratum: Grant's poem was about a previous Geoff and Bob anthology.  It's still a good poem.