Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Here is a paper I wrote on William Wordsworth and how he wrote poetry:

Wordsworth was a poet who was just as concerned with the actual process of writing as he was with the final product. He made it a point to separate emotion and contemplation from each other and consider each a step in the creation of a poem. Where the inspiration for a poem would come from a strong emotional response to something, that response would then be sculpted into a work of art through thought and meditation. In the Preface to the Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth claims that poetry is the "spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings" but tempers that idea by saying that no poem has been produced by someone who had not "thought long and deeply" (4)about those feelings first. A feeling could not be immediately written about without it being prone to accident and flights of fancy. It is only when an emotion has been contemplated for a long time that it is able to be turned into a work of art that truly represents a human idea and belief. Thought turns an experience into something that can last beyond the experience itself. Wordsworth, in doing so, turns something abstract into something more concrete. The idea becomes eternalized within the words of the poem. However, as will be shown, Wordsworth separated the two aspects of poetry from each other so as not to corrupt nature through the artifice of writing. Writing was not something that could contain nature, it was merely to represent the ideas found there in a concrete object. Poetry for him made a thing that would not have otherwise lasted past the initial emotional experience of a natural setting and made it permanent. Wordsworth knows, however, that nature as a whole can never be contained within a poem and that there are limitations to the writing of poetry. Nature and writing can never be reconciled with each other and must always be kept separate. In the poem Tintern Abbey it is evident how important the act of revisitation as a means of separation is to the transcription of a poem for Wordsworth. His memory tempers his new experience with his natural setting while he composes in his mind the poem he is writing. He creates both a temporal and spatial divide between emotion & thought and nature & writing.

Wordsworth begins "Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey" by creating a distance between himself and his original experience with the landscape. He emphasizes this distance through the repetition of "Five years have past; five summers, with the length/Of five long winters". It is the very first thing the poet mentions so as to foreground the importance of how long it has been since he has last visited the setting of his poem. Five years is a long time, at least for Wordsworth, and within that time he may have a different perception of his surroundings. It is also especially important to mention that the lines were written "above" Tintern Abbey, rather than actually at that location, once again creating a distance between himself and something else. While the title of the poem sets up a spatial separation between the poet and his subject, he places the main emphasis on the temporal separation. Although he has technically returned to the scene of his original experience it is still that original experience with the landscape that he is describing. The actual landscape is only subtly present in its conjuring of memory in the mind of the speaker. He repeats just with the number five, the phrase "Once again" emphasizing that his presence at this place is a return journey. The descriptions he sets up in the first stanza of the poem are a second impression that reminds him of his first. For him to experience all these impressions "again" supposes that they are quite similar to his first ones, meaning he must remember his original experience quite vividly. However, it is only now that he is describing the scene within a poem.

He calls what he sees "beauteous forms" stating that they "have not been to me/As is a landscape to a blind man's eye". So although he has not visited the banks of the Wye in sometime their vision never left him. If this vision never left him and the initial description of the scene is what was remembered then it can be inferred that what is being described is, in fact, his memory projected onto the scene. What is being recollected and composed is his initial impression of the scene through memory rather than the actual scene itself. There is a marked distance between the poet and his subject in his description of the scene. What he is describing isn't actually what he is experiencing at that moment but the scene as a memory when compared with the present. He not only sets up a distance between himself and the subject but between the two impressions of the landscape, one being culled from memory and the other being his revisitation of the scene that inspired the comparison. So while the return to the banks of the Wye was the inspiration for the remembering it was not the actual subject of the poem. Later on in the poem, Wordsworth compares these experiences with each other, claiming that in his youth he was more like an animal than he was a thinking person. He claims that those experience he had when younger were "coarser pleasures" subsumed in emotion rather than contemplation. He went wherever "nature led", a "thoughtless youth" experiencing the landscape more primitively than he does now. Yet, while he prefers his perception now as an intellectual being capable of contemplating his surroundings, he still respects and looks upon fondly those times of "aching joys" and "dizzying raptures" without regret for having lost them. His days of youth did not require anything "unborrowed from the eye" or of any "remoter charm", both of which are things that change as he grows old. He distances contemplation as a remoter charm, separating the two states of mind from each other. His emotionally charged days of youth and his contemplative adulthood are both equally important to his project, for the days of his youth are the "food for future years" for which his poems subsist. He does not regret losing those days because it is those very days that he is able to abstract from his experience into an idea that can then be turned into a poem.

What he experienced as a child became a "sensation sweet/Felt in blood, and felt along the heart" that ultimately passed into his "purer mind/With tranquil restoration". Through contemplation, they were restored, but not necessarily as a carbon copy of the original experience. He does not recall nature as he original experienced but "the idea of nature" which can be "processed into something greater" (2). Some of what he is still able to feel are "unremembered pleasures" still acknowledging even that it is of "no ... trivial importance" since he can still know the feeling even if the original experience is gone. The acts of "kindness and of love" stay with him for good as inspiration for his later work. His memories are "gleams of half-extinguished thought" and his "recognitions dim and faint" but the picture still "revives again" to inspire him to write. It is the experiences of his youth that he contemplates that gave him that very same ability to which the "burthen of the mystery/In which the heavy and weary weight/of all this unintelligible world,/Is lightened". It is the same memories of his youth that inform his ability to contemplate them and turn them into poems. The are dialectically bonded and thus equally important.

He becomes aware of the ability to "transformed the original memory with thought" (2) and instead of reproducing nature creates new ideas. He has learned to "look upon nature" and hear the "sad music of humanity" seeing into the "life of things" and the "eye made quiet by the power of harmony". He no longer requires the empirical experience of the sense, but the power of the mind that allows him to see ideas that exist within what he perceives. These ideas are bound up in both kinds of experience while technically remaining separate. Through his acceptance that the time of his youth can never be regained he distances it and thus maintains the integrity of the natural world he looks back upon. For Wordsworth, the original memory can never be regained, but he is able to discover something more "deeply interfused". Through nature, he discovers things which become poems that transmit ideas that bind the poet with nature. Nature is universalized through a set of ideas that exist inherently there, but are only revealed by the poet.

It is also important to mention the note at the back of the selected works where Wordsworth claims that he "started it upon leaving Tintern, after crossing the Wye and concluded it just as I was entering Bristol ... Bit a line of it was altered, and not any part of written down till I reached Bristol." (3, p. 229) Composition for Wordsworth did not necessarily mean writing it down and so he contemplated the poem while returning to his home. Not only was his writing of the poem separated temporally by his difference in experiences, but the act of writing itself was distanced from his return to the landscape. He was still separating the emotion of inspiration associated with a primal experience of nature with the impression of the mind upon that experience. So at the same time that he separates emotion and contemplation he is also separating nature and the artifice of writing. They are both different forms and it is writing that merely uses nature as "raw material" that is manipulated into an "imitation version of nature" (2). Neither nature and memory can be recreated as can nothing naturally occurring in the real world so Wordsworth creates poems that "see into the life of things" binding people with nature. He builds poems from "shapes" and "forms" given to him that become things filled with ideas and the "sad music of humanity" The pleasures he feels from nature are too immaterial for writing and can only be transmitted through thought. Nature "impels" all thinking things and it is a "sense sublime" that is later transmuted into writing. Poems are things, as opposed to natural experiences, made from skilled thought.

The importance of this fact is that as a thing made out of raw materials a poem cannot recreate nature nor anything occurring in the natural world. It is a thing that symbolically represents an idea or belief. It takes as an abstraction the experience of nature and processes it through thought. Since the abstraction is impermanent due to its inherent temporality it is made into a thing that lasts, which is, of course, the poem. The poem is an object that makes what was originally merely an idea into a thing. Wordsworth never truly uses nature itself, but the shapes and forms provide by nature as a means of representation. As a counterexample to Tintern Abbey, one can look at the poem "Surprised by Joy" wherein the poet attempts to recapture the actual death of a person. The person cannot be forgotten and "neither in present time, nor years unborn/Could to my sight that heavenly face restore". No "vicissitude can find" this person he has lost meaning that no change can come upon her to give her a new form. Poetry cannot restore what has naturally left the world, it can only breathe life into an abstraction.

"Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey" is the full realization of Wordsworth's project to separate emotion from thought and nature from writing. By juxtaposing his past experience with his new one he reinforces the difference between the two types of experiences. Neither experience is more or less than the other and each places a particular role in the writing of his poetry. He does not lament or regret the loss of his emotionally charged days of youth since he has discovered a new way of looking at and contemplating the world. Rather than regret the loss he finds something beneficial in his contemplation of them. By looking back upon his experience he is able to reformulate it through contemplation and use it as a vehicle for his poetry. His overflowing feeling of youth has been tempered by the intellect of old age for the sake of writing poetry. Similarly, Wordsworth distances the actual act of writing from nature keeping them separate but acknowledging the importance of each. Nature is channeled through his contemplation into a set of forms and shapes that he then uses to craft into things that express ideas. It is a way of stabilizing and solidifying his impermanent experiences into a thing that is timeless.

1. Bennet, Andrew. "Wordsworth Writing." Wordsworth Circle. (2003): Literature Resource Center. Rutgers Research Resources. 2 July 2008.

2. Kelly, David. "An overview of "Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey." Poetry for Students, Gale, (1997): Literature Resource Center. Rutgers Research Resources. 2 July 2008.

3. Wordsworth, William. Oxford World's Classics: William Wordsworth Selected Poetry. Ed. Stephen Gill & Duncan Wu. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

4. Wordsworth, William. Preface to the Lyrical Ballads. 1800. Prefaces and Prologues. Vol. XXXIX. The Harvard Classics. New York: P.F. Collier & Son, 1909–14;, 2001. .

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