The Cruelest Month: Reading William Wordsworth

Can a poetry skeptic appreciate the most dreaded of all verse: a high school English classic?

Darryl is not really into poetry, but he’s giving it a shot for Poetry Month this year. Jonathan is a former poet and a lifelong poetry fan. Together, they may not try to take over the world, but they enjoyed analyzing Frank O’Hara so much last week, they decided to tackle a different poet today.

Jonathan: Darryl, you have admitted that you can admire, even enjoy, an example of plain, modern free verse. Let’s turn on the way-back machine and find an older, formal poem and see how you fare. I will try to stay away from the English-class staples. The first poem that comes to mind is Jubliate Agno, Fragment B [For I Will Consider My Cat Jeoffrey] by Christopher Smart. But there is little I can think of to say about this poem except that it exists, you should take the time to read every word of it (you will be amused, horrified, and bored all at the same time), and someone should start a Tumblr matching the lines of the poem to cat photos.


OK, the Smart poem is an outlier. But it brings me to something I have been thinking about: what does it mean to “not like poetry”? Isn’t that like saying, “I don’t like music”? The topic is so ancient and large that if you don’t like a particular singer or even musical genre, there are always others that you will like. Some readers are not moved by Shakespeare’s sonnets. Fine. Try Christopher Smart. Or Frank O’Hara. Or Christina Rossetti. Or Langston Hughes. Or Edna St. Vincent Millay. Or Rumi. Or Blake. On and on. One lifetime will not serve to explore all of the possibilities.

So out of this near-infinity of choice in the poetic constellations, I think we should focus our mind’s telescope on a poem I have not read in a while. It is a famous one, though maybe not the most read of the Romantic poems: William Wordsworth’s “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey.” (You can also listen to a BBC recording of it.) Let’s establish one ground rule: we can do no Google searches for what SparkNotes, or whoever, says about the poem or the author. Let’s just take it as it is. If it doesn’t work for us, we can always choose another — and keep choosing until we are both old men.

Darryl: Christopher Smart’s cat poem was actually in that How to Read a Poem book that I talked about at the beginning of the month. I read Hirsch’s commentary on the couch while my dog Kaiser tootled around the apartment. So I understood how Smart can read all sorts of stuff — divine and otherwise — in the various actions of his cat. There’s something extraordinary going on behind those little gimlet eyes. Except when there isn’t. A metaphor for Tumblr if there ever was one.

As for saying “I don’t like poetry,” I think it is code for simply saying that a person either hasn’t been exposed to poetry he or she likes, or has only ever approached poetry in a context that sucked all the fun out of it. And, okay, it’s just as absurd to say something like “I don’t like poetry” as it would be to say something like “I don’t like architecture,” but you also can’t dismiss that out of hand. It’s hard to overcome these kinds of deep-seated beliefs, especially if you don’t have a safe environment in which to do it, or a guide to keep you on track. Imagine trying to force yourself to like liver and onions, or quit smoking.

Jonathan: I guess you’re correct. It is — maybe — a valid position to just not like poetry. Well, no it isn’t. But, yes, there are reasons yo hold that position. And it is true that poetry does not occupy a central place in our culture and is therefore pretty optional, in a way that music is not. So, sure, I won’t judge (out loud) those for whom poetry is just not their bag.

And when people are thinking of poetry they don’t like, they are probably thinking of Wordsworth and others like him.

Darryl: But on to the poem. This one is harder for me to get into. The poet is addressing the river Wye and recounting the many ways it makes him feel — comparing the sound of its waters to “the language of my former heart” or describing how it reminds him that nature is constant and self-contained, whereas daily life demands “dreary intercourse” and invites “the sneers of selfish men.” Except Wordsworth never goes beyond the level of generality: as if Proust bit into the madeleine and told us how ecstatic it made him feel, but never actually mentioned his Sundays with Aunt Leonie at Combray.

I could imagine my way into the O’Hara poem we read last week, but here I am having trouble. Is Wordsworth going for the universal or the specific here? Is he just saying how the Wye makes him feel or is he trying to be a sort of riverine Transcendentalist? I’ve read it through a couple of times now and I still feel completely outside this poem. I’m not even sure a Google search would be much help.

I feel like this is where poetry breaks down for me — at the first sign of difficulty or emotional distance, I don’t know where to begin. So where should I start in this one?

Jonathan: Let’s think of all of the things that stand in the way of us and Wordsworth’s “Lines…”:

  1. Archaic words — sylvan, oft, thou, etc. — that sound pretentious to modern ears. (Though fewer of those here than in older poetry.)
  2. Metrical verse — we don’t deal with huge clumps of unrhymed iambic pentameter very often these days.
  3. The fact that the speaker of the poem is himself removed from the events he is contemplating. Therefore we feel a remove, even a creeping boredom perhaps, with his thoughts.

Those three things are inherent in the poem. For some, just the odd phrasing and strange words are enough to turn them off. Add to that a poetic voice that is contemplative and, I agree, you have a woozy hour of high school English class on your hands. And what is between us and the poem that is extraneous to the poem? (He asked himself, rhetorically, like the best English teacher ever.)

  1. All of the shitty nature poems that came after Wordsworth.
  2. The icky politicization of “nature”. It is now somehow liberal, or something, to like the woods and want to keep some around. And it is perceived as shallow and dopey to exult nature too much. (Whereas, you can sing the praises of computer programming all you like without being a flake.)
  3. The entire schools of poetry and philosophy that came after Wordsworth, either inspired by him or reacting to him. So when you describe him as a “riverine transcendentalist” — yes! — only this poem is the beginning of that whole turn toward “big N” Nature. So reading this poem is kind of like watching Psycho after you have seen all four Scream movies. Someone has to explain to you that, actually, Psycho was quite revolutionary for its time. And while you may perceive this intellectually, you probably won’t feel it on a gut level. What was a new and interesting philosophical throw-down 200 odd years ago is rather old-hat to us now.

I suggest going back to the poem. Re-reading it (out loud is best) and seeing what Wordsworth’s ideas about Nature, memory, and time might mean to you now. Is there anything radical in this poem? Anything that’s actually a pretty freaky idea? (Beyond the fact that expressing that much love for your sister is just not done these days.)

“Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey”

William Wordsworth

Five years have past; five summers, with the length
Of five long winters! and again I hear
These waters, rolling from their mountain-springs
With a soft inland murmur.—Once again
Do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs,
That on a wild secluded scene impress
Thoughts of more deep seclusion; and connect
The landscape with the quiet of the sky.
The day is come when I again repose
Here, under this dark sycamore, and view
These plots of cottage-ground, these orchard-tufts,
Which at this season, with their unripe fruits,
Are clad in one green hue, and lose themselves
‘Mid groves and copses. Once again I see
These hedge-rows, hardly hedge-rows, little lines
Of sportive wood run wild: these pastoral farms,
Green to the very door; and wreaths of smoke
Sent up, in silence, from among the trees!
With some uncertain notice, as might seem
Of vagrant dwellers in the houseless woods,
Or of some Hermit’s cave, where by his fire
The Hermit sits alone.

These beauteous forms,
Through a long absence, have not been to me
As is a landscape to a blind man’s eye:
But 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;
And passing even into my purer mind
With tranquil restoration:—feelings too
Of unremembered pleasure: such, perhaps,
As have no slight or trivial influence
On that best portion of a good man’s life,
His little, nameless, unremembered, acts
Of kindness and of love. 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 lightened:—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.

If this
Be but a vain belief, yet, oh! how oft—
In darkness and amid the many shapes
Of joyless daylight; when the fretful stir
Unprofitable, and the fever of the world,
Have hung upon the beatings of my heart—
How oft, in spirit, have I turned to thee,
O sylvan Wye! thou wanderer thro’ the woods,
How often has my spirit turned to thee!

And now, with gleams of half-extinguished thought,
With many recognitions dim and faint,
And somewhat of a sad perplexity,
The picture of the mind revives again:
While here I stand, not only with the sense
Of present pleasure, but with pleasing thoughts
That in this moment there is life and food
For future years. And so I dare to hope,
Though changed, no doubt, from what I was when first
I came among these hills; when like a roe
I bounded o’er the mountains, by the sides
Of the deep rivers, and the lonely streams,
Wherever nature led: more like a man
Flying from something that he dreads, than one
Who sought the thing he loved. For nature then
(The coarser pleasures of my boyish days
And their glad animal movements all gone by)
To me was all in all.—I cannot paint
What then I was. The sounding cataract
Haunted me like a passion: the tall rock,
The mountain, and the deep and gloomy wood,
Their colours and their forms, were then to me
An appetite; a feeling and a love,
That had no need of a remoter charm,
By thought supplied, not any interest
Unborrowed from the eye.—That time is past,
And all its aching joys are now no more,
And all its dizzy raptures. Not for this
Faint I, nor mourn nor murmur; other gifts
Have followed; for such loss, I would believe,
Abundant recompense. For I have learned
To look on nature, not as in the hour
Of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes
The still sad music of humanity,
Nor harsh nor grating, though of ample power
To chasten and subdue.—And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things. Therefore am I still
A lover of the meadows and the woods
And mountains; and of all that we behold
From this green earth; of all the mighty world
Of eye, and ear,—both what they half create,
And what perceive; well pleased to recognise
In nature and the language of the sense
The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse,
The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul
Of all my moral being.

Nor perchance,
If I were not thus taught, should I the more
Suffer my genial spirits to decay:
For thou art with me here upon the banks
Of this fair river; thou my dearest Friend,
My dear, dear Friend; and in thy voice I catch
The language of my former heart, and read
My former pleasures in the shooting lights
Of thy wild eyes. Oh! yet a little while
May I behold in thee what I was once,
My dear, dear Sister! and this prayer I make,
Knowing that Nature never did betray
The heart that loved her; ’tis her privilege,
Through all the years of this our life, to lead
From joy to joy: for she can so inform
The mind that is within us, so impress
With quietness and beauty, and so feed
With lofty thoughts, that neither evil tongues,
Rash judgments, nor the sneers of selfish men,
Nor greetings where no kindness is, nor all
The dreary intercourse of daily life,
Shall e’er prevail against us, or disturb
Our cheerful faith, that all which we behold
Is full of blessings. Therefore let the moon
Shine on thee in thy solitary walk;
And let the misty mountain-winds be free
To blow against thee: and, in after years,
When these wild ecstasies shall be matured
Into a sober pleasure; when thy mind
Shall be a mansion for all lovely forms,
Thy memory be as a dwelling-place
For all sweet sounds and harmonies; oh! then,
If solitude, or fear, or pain, or grief,
Should be thy portion, with what healing thoughts
Of tender joy wilt thou remember me,
And these my exhortations! Nor, perchance—
If I should be where I no more can hear
Thy voice, nor catch from thy wild eyes these gleams
Of past existence—wilt thou then forget
That on the banks of this delightful stream
We stood together; and that I, so long
A worshipper of Nature, hither came
Unwearied in that service: rather say
With warmer love—oh! with far deeper zeal
Of holier love. Nor wilt thou then forget,
That after many wanderings, many years
Of absence, these steep woods and lofty cliffs,
And this green pastoral landscape, were to me
More dear, both for themselves and for thy sake!

Darryl: The only poems of similar length that I ever tried in high school and college were “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot. Those were easier to digest I think for two reasons. First, Eliot played with language and meter a lot more transparently than Wordsworth did: With Eliot you get “O O O O that Shakespeherian rag” or words and entire lines that repeat over and over, whereas with Wordsworth you get the almost subliminal meter and no obvious rhyme scheme. Second, Eliot’s poetry is violent — not just in terms of topic (abortion, death, drowning, Hamlet) but also in terms of the reading experience. It demands great leaps of imagination to understand his references, and even includes footnotes that aren’t much help at all. Wordsworth is very clear and plodding and there is no confusion about what image leads to which memory.

Which is part of Wordsworth’s point. He is the cool observer of past youth, commenting but not necessarily lamenting the end of “The coarser pleasures of my boyish days, / And their glad animal movements all gone by.” When he was young, he went into frenzies at the mere sound of rivers and trees and whatnot — I imagine him flopping around the green English countryside in ecstasy — but now can barely feel “a presence that disturbs me with the joy / Of elevated thoughts…A motion and a spirit, that impels / All thinking things.” (Maybe he’s read his Philip Pullman). The speaker is not physical at all — he’s almost exhausted and withdrawn from everything.

So I guess part of the general sense of ennui that I felt on the first and second read-through is intentional. Even if it doesn’t demand heroic acts of reference, like The Waste Land does.

And you’re right—this does work better when you read it again, and out loud. It’s a bit like sanding down a block of wood: over time, I find myself speeding through a good chunk of the poem and returning to the same few passages. Line 30 onward, where he starts questioning his own train of thought with words like “perhaps” or “I trust.” Line 61— “in this moment there is life and food / For future years.”

Jonathan: I just took my own advice and read the poem out loud. Where I was previously ready to discount the poem — whatever power I remember it having appeared to have been lost when I read it a few days ago — now I am pretty certain it is essential. I think I even had a semi-transcendent experience.

I felt the same way you did on first read. I glossed over a lot of the poem because I figured I knew where it was going. (I was reading it, in other words, like a #longread.) But the power is in the incantation, I think. The emotions feel wilder and barely contained in the blank verse. As a young man Wordsworth was all appetite and nature “a feeling and a love, / That had no need of remoter charm.” Now he is older, so his relationship to nature is more thinky and perceptive. The section beginning on line 94: “And I have felt / A presence that disturbs me with the joy / of elevated thoughts” is, I think, pretty incredible.

You said that the more general language in the poem was off-putting when compared with the hyper-personal style of Frank O’Hara’s poem. I agree. In reading “Tintern Abbey” aloud, however, the general specificness of the poem gave it a more incantatory feel — more prayer-like, that is.

I think this explains the poem’s power and why I got sucked into it again. (The poem is a greedy mirror.) Also, a poem like this takes what you bring to it (your stage of life, your willingness to accept that there is some kind of ineffable, moral wonder present in nature) and meets you half-way. Rather than peering into someone else’s life, you see your own life reflected in the poet’s mind. Or maybe that’s all just hoo-ha.

I have been taking a lot of walks in the woods recently. And Wordsworth is on to something in this poem — is it Romantic to think there is some kind of force in nature that grounds us, morally, to our own best humanity? Or is this merely a fact? A delusion? If there is no sublime something in nature, why do I keep returning to it?

Darryl: It sort of sounds like Wordsworth is trying to create a kind of quasi-religious communion. You’re right that it has all the makings of a hymn or a sermon in it: he testifies how he’s moved by it, how specific experiences lead to general feelings of awe and wonder, the sharp distinctions between darkness and light, youth and age, the clear descriptions of the things he can see/hear against the fumbling abstractions of his feelings. The “incantatory” rhythm and the King James Bible-grade language just cement that impression.

So I think I’ve finally understood what has given me so much trouble reading poems alone, and why this has been helpful for me. I know the author is dead and blah blah, but especially for poems like this one I felt that I could not understand them until I knew the author’s intent — what kind of images and feelings he or she was trying to convey. The poems that I’ve liked have either been fairly transparent (O’Hara, the Jeoffrey poem) or willfully obtuse (The Waste Land). The ones that are less transparent — old-fashioned or archaically written or whatever — have been the most frustrating.

But I think I’m starting to get a better grasp on them now. Or maybe it’s just because for the purposes of this exercise, I’m forcing myself to give them a real shot and not give up halfway through. Which is a small victory, too.

Jonathan: The Wordsworth poem is something besides its philosophical content, besides its meter, besides its emotion, besides the author’s biography. Well, it is all of those things, but it isn’t any one thing. It is just a poem, in other words. It expresses things in the way poems do, which is unlike paintings or novels or blogs or videogames. It’s not better than any of those things, it just isn’t those things. It isn’t snootier or higher or even more difficult. Poetry is merely an ancient mode of human expression that was repurposed for many of us as an annoying academic hurdle. A specimen from a lost time laid out in sophomore English textbooks like a patient etherized on a table. But encounter it in the wild and poetry is a drinking song, an elegy, a love sonnet, a thought, a memory… I better cut myself off before I get too poetical. Let’s just end here: You are not being graded. Read a poem.