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  • Defending Wordsworth, Defending Poetry
  • Mark Edmundson

Near the close of Wordsworth’s first great poem, The Ruined Cottage, there arrives an extraordinary moment. Armytage has been telling the story of his friend Margaret’s decline and death to the young narrator of the poem, who is in some sense Wordsworth’s stand-in. Part of the poem’s achievement, Coleridge thought, was the way that Wordsworth conferred a tragic dignity on the sufferings of a common person. Margaret loses her husband, who enlists to fight in America so that he can leave his family his enlistment bonus, saving them from terrible want, perhaps starvation. Margaret never ceases to hope that her husband will return. Whenever a stranger passes by her gate, she stops him and asks for news about Robert. Years go by, Robert does not return home, and Margaret pines gradually away. Each time the wandering Armytage comes back to her door, Margaret is more gaunt and distracted. She neglects her children: one goes off to a meager apprenticeship; the other, the younger boy, dies.

Armytage is a stoical character, though not a frigid one. He has withdrawn his energies from the world of human things, and dispersed them throughout nature where they cannot, presumably, be betrayed. Nature will always regenerate itself; the world grows older, but returns each spring to its youth. Nature offers a sort of perfection that’s far removed from the human course of birth, decay, and death.

Armytage tells the young narrator Margaret’s story for many reasons, but one, I think, is to instruct him in the management of grief. The wanderer unfolds the tale with such patient eloquence, poise, and restraint that the young man ends up overwhelmed by feelings for Margaret that are, we can assume, much like the ones that Armytage has locked up in himself, has subdued with his reasoning powers. When [End Page 207] the tale is over, Armytage, compassionately if a touch formulaically, tries to salve the young man’s grief: “Enough to sorrow have you given,” he says, “the purposes of Wisdom ask no more.”

But if Armytage teaches the young man a measure of stoicism, the narrator’s strongly felt response also succeeds, however transiently, in restoring to the old man his life of feeling. For the lines that follow from Armytage—and that comprise the moment I want to call attention to—convey both force of feeling and supple but sure intellectual power. This synthesis is the culmination of the poem: it dramatizes the rich interpenetration of mind and emotion that The Ruined Cottage has been working toward:

“She sleeps in the calm earth, and peace is here. I well remember that those very plumes, Those weeds, and the high spear grass on that wall, By mist and silent raindrops silvered o’er, As once I passed, did to my mind convey So still an image of tranquility, So calm and still, and looked so beautiful Amid the uneasy thoughts which filled my mind, That what we feel of sorrow and despair From ruin and from change, and all the grief The passing shows of being leave behind, Appeared an idle dream that could not live Where meditation was. I turned away, And walked along my road in happiness.”

We praise poets, and rightly, when they make fine metaphors, finding the likeness in apparently unlike things. So Robert Frost asked his critics to be more responsive to his figurative breakthroughs: he talked about how we should note what an achievement it was to “turn that that way, and what a feat it was to remember that, to be reminded of that by this.”

Yet it can also be a feat to resist the act of metaphor making. And this I think is what Wordsworth is doing in the culminating passage. What calms Armytage is the remembered image of the weeds and the high spear grass silvered by mist and silent rain drops. The fact that this is weeds and grass, that the vegetation is dispersed and multiple, matters a great deal. What we are not getting here is a natural image for Margaret. Such an image—one lovely blowing wand of spear grass, say...

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pp. 207-213
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