Sunday, June 19, 2011

History of English Poetry, Chapter Five: Wordsworth

Oh, I hated him. “LIES,” is scrawled in large letters across the my college copy of The Prelude. The letters scored the paper deeply: they almost tore it.

I loved the other English romantics: Coleridge and Shelley and above all Blake. And here was tedious, complacent William Wordsworth, who betrayed all of our revolutionary ideals: who slowly, slowly deliquesced over a couple of generations into a feeble imitator of himself and a lickspittle lackey of the state, still lionized. I couldn't understand it.

Shelley drowned in Italy in his twenties. Coleridge sank helplessly into his opium addiction, fuddled by German philosophy and by his enormous capacity for love. Blake howled in the wilderness. William Wordsworth had busts of himself set up in libraries, and his daffodil poems were quoted in Hallmark cards.

What set the seal on it was the devotion of his immediate circle. Coleridge adored him, was in awe of him all his life. His sister Dorothy Wordsworth, whose nature writing I always thought much finer than William's, devoted her life to making him comfortable. His French mistress never made any detectable fuss. William could do no wrong. It was maddening. No young man wants to see that sort of devotion accorded to some other man.

It took me a long time to figure out the sequence of things, and to realize that Wordsworth, in fact, deserved all that devotion. That he invented modern English poetry, and made what all of us do possible.

The problem was that I read, in my steamroller way, straight through the Norton anthology, and Blake, who is chronologically the first of the romantics, came first. William Blake, I thought then, and still think, is the greatest modern English poet. No one touches him, certainly not Wordsworth. It was to Blake that I gave the credit. Screw rebuilding the temple in English stone. Screw the Roman poets. Screw decorum. There are people starving in the goddamn streets, there are visions of Jesus haunting us, there's the human body in all its glory and all its suffering. There's six year old boys deliberately starved so they stay small enough to crawl naked through the chimneys, cleaning them, collecting poisonous soot on their genitals so as to die of testicular cancer in their teens; there are twelve year old girls pimped on the street spreading syphilis. Write a goddamn poem about that. What's wanted is not a comely English version of the works of Seneca. What's wanted is a prophet.

Well. It was true then, and it's true now. But no one was listening to poor old Blake. It was Wordsworth who made them hear.

Whenever Wordsworth tried to explain what he was doing – or let Coleridge try for him – it came out muddled and confusing. But essentially he was trying to do two things, both radically new. First, he was trying to draw exactly what he saw around him, like a naturalist – poor people, women, and idiots included – and to do it in everyday language. And second, he was trying to describe his own mind. He was the first explicitly psychological poet. Other English poets, of course, Donne and Herbert and Vaughan and Crashaw, had written about the movements of the spirit. But this was somewhat different. In Wordsworth, God, Judge, and Jury were nowhere to be seen. Wordsworth calmly sat down to write a book about his own mind. Nobody had ever really done that before. Now it sometimes seems that no poet does anything else. We're hampered in seeing Wordsworth's radicalism by his own radical success: everybody's a Wordsworth now.


Sarsparilla said...

Absolutely agree.
(What, no Byron?)

Dale said...

Byron's never been a big favorite of mine. (Some lovely lyrics, though.) It's interesting, his international rep is much higher than his native one: I'm told that Russians, for instance, rate him next after Shakespeare.

But I haven't really read him since college, when I tried really hard to like Manfred and didn't succeed :-)

Zhoen said...

Like Citizen Kane, that seems so cliche now, because everyone after him copies him?

Amanda said...

No Keats? I loved him madly as a teenager. Still do, in a more temperate way. Though he did give me an anti-Wordsworthian bias that I'm still working to overcome.

(I just this weekend decided to memorize Coleridge's "This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison," which, in retrospect, I'm surprised I never memorized. A couple of lines of it got into my head and earwormed me, and the only thing for it is to try to get the rest of it in there to keep them company.)

Dave said...

"We're hampered in seeing Wordsworth's radicalism by his own radical success: everybody's a Wordsworth now." Interesting point. I never cared all that much for Wordsworth either, but we are very much in the Romantics' debt, of course. I've kind of gotten the impression that the German Romantics would be more to my taste, if only I knew German.

Dale said...

@Amanda, God knows I have more Keats by heart than Wordsworth. But I don't think he really broke a lot of new ground, as Wordsworth and Coleridge and Shelley did. He didn't have a political bone in his body. Nor even a whiff of the naturalist. In many ways he's the most old-fashioned of the poets we call Romantics: he fits in pretty comfortably with the 18th Century.

Dale said...

@Zhoen, exactly :-)

Dave, yes, I can picture you soaking up the German Romantics like a sponge! The story of German poetry is immensely complicated by the fact that for the Germans their great Classic poet and their great Romantic poet are the same person. Or maybe simplified. Anyway, different :-)

Lucy said...

Poor old Wordsworth, he should have dies earlier!

Funny, I tend to think of Keats as in some ways the most Victorian, probably because of all those Pre-Raphaelite paintings he inspired.