- Idle Singers, Idle Songs:The Birth of Poetry from the Spirit of Idleness
In the opening lines of The Prelude (1850), William Wordsworth invokes a feeling of liberty and ease, since "escaped / From the vast city, where I long had pined," the speaker finds that "Long months of ease and undisturbed delight / Are mine in prospect."1 This is, he suggests, when he felt the first stirrings of what the 1805 version of The Prelude calls a "mild creative breeze" (I: 43), which, after many abortive attempts to embark on more epic or philosophical themes, finally results in the autobiographical narrative of The Prelude. Idleness, liberty, and a quiet enjoyment of rural scenes are thus framed as the seeds of creative production. Creative production itself is envisioned as "active days urged on by flying hours," but this activity, too, is based on leisure: "Days of sweet leisure, taxed with patient thought / Abstruse" (I: 42–44).
In Elizabeth Barrett Browning's version of a poet's autobiography, Aurora Leigh (1856), a work which clearly takes up and reacts to The Prelude in many ways,2 the conditions for poetic production sound strikingly different. Early in the story, Barrett Browning has Aurora reject not only her cousin's hand in marriage, but also his intended gift of a comfortable financial settlement. This rejection forces the poet-protagonist into a life of constant industry rather than idleness. Instead of producing her poetry in the ease of the countryside, Aurora sits in a garret in Kensington where she "worked on, on. / Through all the bristling fence of nights and days / Which hedges time in from the eternities" to the point where her health suffers from the constant strain.3 Wordsworth, for his part, tells us in the introductory verses of The Prelude how, his hopes for poetic production having been repeatedly thwarted, he falls back on an idle enjoyment of the moment: "Be it so; / Why think of any thing but present good?" He is content to wander on, with not "one wish / Again to bend the Sabbath of that time / To servile yoke. What need of many words?" (I: 99–100, 103–104). Aurora, in contrast, celebrates work for its own sake: "Get leave to work / In this world—' tis the best you get at all; / . . . Get work, get work; / Be sure 'tis better than what you work to get" (III: 161–168). [End Page 403] In turning her heroine into a martyr figure of poetic labor, Barrett Browning offers a notable contrast to the Wordsworthian poet, whose creative spark strikes from moments of idle enjoyment of nature. While Wordsworth never concluded the projected masterpiece to which The Prelude should have served, precisely, as a prelude (though, of course, The Prelude, arguably, came to stand in for the projected work in the process of composition), the fictional Aurora does complete her masterpiece. It is not idle contemplation which eventually leads to this success, however, but constant exertion.
It is not unrelated to this marked difference in their speakers that the two poems, though somewhat similar in outward form, are also strikingly different in the way they shape their narratives. Even though the subtitle of Wordsworth's poem, The Growth of a Poet's Mind, suggests a Bildungsroman plot, no one could mistake the poem for a novel. While the poem dramatizes a number of false starts, an accumulation of experiences which predicate the final epiphany, Herbert Lindenberger has noted that "[t]here is no real progression in The Prelude," and suggests "to look at the poem as saying essentially the same thing again and again."4 The primary narrative logic of the poem, which becomes emblematic in the Wordsworthian "spots of time," is one of return and revision. While there is ambition at the heart of the poem, the speaker's aim is to prove himself what he already believes himself to be: a great poet. In The Prelude, the dynamics of narrative desire, which Peter Brooks, in Reading for the Plot, has so closely linked to progressive ambition,5 recede largely into the background. It seems safe to say that few readers would be driven to read through the...