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WORDSWORTH'S VISION OF IMMORTALITY G. WILSON KNIGHT I W ORDSWORTHsucceeds moreoften as a teacher than as a poet. His nature mysticism has, indeed , exercised a wide and profoundly-beneficent influence. But we too often mistake his personal and discursive expressions for the concrete solidities of great literature. In The Prelude and Tintern Abbey we have what is usually considered the Wordsworthian essence. Yet those poems are but intermittently grand, and in places sink below the level of moderately good verse. With a few possible exceptions, their best is only a second best. In a famous passage the poet describes a typical experience, and then: . . . . but after I had seen That spectacle, for many days_, my brain Worked with a dim and undetermined sense Of unknown modes of being; o'er my thoughts There hung a darkness, call it solitude Or blank desertion. No familiar shapes Remained, no pleasant images of trees_, . Of sea or sky, no colours of green fields; But huge and mighty forms, that do not live Like liv~ng men, moved slowly through the mind By day, and were a trouble to my dreams. (The Prelude, r, 390). That is fine poetry; perhaps great poetry. Yet it contains certain characteristics of bad writing-here, however , not necessarily "bad'~-which indirectly point us to the fundamental weakness of The Prelude as a whole and 216 WORDSWORTH'S VISION OF IMMORTALITY other poems in this kind. Observe the abstract nouns: spectacle, brain, sense, modes of being, thoughts~ darkness , solitude, desertion. It is all vague, "undetermined ''. What are these "huge and mighty forms"? But, indeed, the poet is definitely describing an ineffable experience , and can we blame his failure in speech? Notice how "no familiar shapes" remained, nor any '\mages" of trees, sea, or sky, nor "colours of green fields". Yet these are the very stuff of poetry. What is the poet to do with a vision essentially unpoetical? Wordsworth tries to convey vague '~forms" to us, renouncing the "shapes" of the senses. But consider: And as imagination bodies forth The forms of things unknown, the poet's pen Turns them to shapes .... Again "forms'' and "shapes". If Theseus be right-he usually is-Wordsworth is by so tnuch the lesser poet in that he appears to be content to leave his "forms" untranslated into "shapes". Thus, in trying to be true to a personal experience, he fails to create a selfless and universal art. Wordsworth continually describes when -he should transmit, explains rather than presents. His very limitations , indeed, increase his popularity, for he comes down to our level, shows himself painfully struggling with his own vision, as all men ungifted with poetic utterance are pained at times by their enforced silences. Here he is in his difficulties: I cannot paint What then I was .... So he writes in Tintern Abbey. But this is nothing for a poet to be proud of: it is here his business to paint what then he was. Nor should a poet deal for long in any Hundetermined sense of unknown modes of being", since !217 THE UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO QUARTERLY he exists, as poet, to determine ·and shape this vague "sense" and render those "modes" known to us. Thus Shakespeare has his concrete figures Oberon and Puck, his ghosts, his Weird Sisters, Ariel and Caliban. And Keats can be as personal as Wordsworth without the limitations of personality which we feel when a poet too frequently describes his own inability to express his Vlston. Keats's Ode to the Nightingale exists serene, unbending to our approach, giving no hint as to the mysterious process of its own creation; almost remote, with the cold disregard that carves the aloofness of highest poetry. Personal, it is yet impersonal, purified of egocentricity . Yet, strangely, the popularity of Wordsworth as a "mystic poet" rests exactly on this failure in expresSion . We can all read-ourselves into his clouded personal statements. Thus he is continually, because so easily, being pressed into service to revitalise our vague religious sense with an additional vagueness. The Prelude gives us the experience which lies at the back of religion and poetry: but it gives us no religion, nor any consistent poetry...


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