The Operating System

3rd ANNUAL NAPOMO 30/30/30 :: DAY 22 :: MC HYLAND on WILLIAM WORDSWORTH

800px-Sir_George_Howland_Beaumont_-_Peele_Castle_in_a_Strorm

Sir George Howland Beaumont, “Peele Castle in a Storm,” 1806. {{PD-1944}}

So much of the uninteresting poetry that followed him can be blamed on Wordsworth. In the introduction to Lyrical Ballads alone, his insistence on using “a selection of the language really spoken by men” paved the way for a thousand linguistically dull poems to follow, while his idea of poetry as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” may have set a standard for at least as many poems of adolescent melodrama (including, I’m sure, my own). His claim that the poet is “endowed with more lively sensibility, more enthusiasm and tenderness… has a greater knowledge of human nature, and a more comprehensive soul, than are supposed to be common among mankind” suggests a strange sort of (spiritual? emotional?) elitism, and his tendency to moments of “transport” in the presence of capital-N Nature may be the direct antecedent to two centuries of poems of all-to-easy epiphany.

And yet. Wordsworth is always moving. His eye, his body, his brain. Walking across sweeping literal and literary landscapes. Doubling back. Reassessing. Making and losing contact with forces outside himself. His epiphanies come at the wrong moments: not at the sight of the summit of Mont Blanc (a disappointment, “a soulless image on the eye”), but walking home from an all-night party (“I made no vows, but vows/ Were then made for me…/…that I should be—else sinning greatly—a dedicated spirit”). His epiphanies slip out of his poems, sideways: what does it mean for a schoolboy to vow to become a “dedicated spirit”?

I read Wordsworth for the first time in two decades last year, and ever since, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about him. It’s not just the poems themselves, so much stranger than I’d imagined, swinging wildly from the adamantly middlebrow to the sublime and back—but also the astonishing contortions of thought he extracts from later writers as they attempt to assimilate his oddities. Take, for example, this stunning passage in Marjorie Levinson’s essay, “Of Being Numerous,” which deals with the sonnet “I wandered lonely as a cloud”:

Not only do we watch as the ephemeral yellow of the flowers passes over into the solid gold of print circulation (“what wealth the shew to me had brought”), but we who read are gifted with the material overflow of that lovely redundancy: i.e., the symbol—a kind of keepsake—which unites the ephemeral flowers with the enduring stars. [David] Simpson’s Marxian version of this reading discerns in the daffodils the classic features of the commodity form (interchangeability, spontaneous self-equilibration, constant motion without movement) all the while projecting the dream of unalienated labor in the person of the poet who consumes the products of his own labor, mobilizing his enjoyment of that process into fuel for further acts of production in a seemingly endless loop.

Wordsworth stands at a historic crossroad: the French Revolution, the English Acts of Enclosure, the Industrial Revolution and the rise of commodity capitalism. He stands there, watching human history undergo a set of profound shifts—and he comments, to the best of his ability, on all of it. Even when he knows he doesn’t understand the historic moment, he registers his perplexity: arriving in France in 1791, he “saw the revolutionary power/ Toss like a ship at anchor, rocked by storms,” but admitted that his reading of “the master pamphlets of the day” had not prepared him to understand the famous revolutionary sites he visited, so that “I looked for something which I could not find,/ Affecting more emotion than I felt.”

While The Prelude, the great poetic autobiography addressed to Coleridge, is the Wordsworth that has marked me most profoundly (every passage quoted from Wordsworth in the above three paragraphs is taken from The Prelude), I also love many of his shorter lyric poems, marked by his restless, searching intelligence. I recently read his “Elegiac Stanzas,” which I include below—it’s long, but grows stranger and more wonderful and sadder as it goes. Written about a year and a half after Wordsworth’s brother John died in a shipwreck, the poem considers, in a roundabout way, Beaumont’s painting of a ship on a stormy sea.

Elegiac Stanzas Suggested by a Picture of Peele Castle in a Storm, Painted by Sir George Beaumont

I was thy neighbour once, thou rugged Pile!
Four summer weeks I dwelt in sight of thee:
I saw thee every day; and all the while
Thy Form was sleeping on a glassy sea.

So pure the sky, so quiet was the air!
So like, so very like, was day to day!
Whene’er I looked, thy Image still was there;
It trembled, but it never passed away.

How perfect was the calm! it seemed no sleep;
No mood, which season takes away, or brings:
I could have fancied that the mighty Deep
Was even the gentlest of all gentle things.

Ah! then, if mine had been the Painter’s hand,
To express what then I saw; and add the gleam,
The light that never was, on sea or land,
The consecration, and the Poet’s dream;

I would have planted thee, thou hoary Pile
Amid a world how different from this!
Beside a sea that could not cease to smile;
On tranquil land, beneath a sky of bliss.

Thou shouldst have seemed a treasure-house divine
Of peaceful years; a chronicle of heaven;—
Of all the sunbeams that did ever shine
The very sweetest had to thee been given.

A Picture had it been of lasting ease,
Elysian quiet, without toil or strife;
No motion but the moving tide, a breeze,
Or merely silent Nature’s breathing life.

Such, in the fond illusion of my heart,
Such Picture would I at that time have made:
And seen the soul of truth in every part,
A steadfast peace that might not be betrayed.

So once it would have been,—’tis so no more;
I have submitted to a new control:
A power is gone, which nothing can restore;
A deep distress hath humanised my Soul.

Not for a moment could I now behold
A smiling sea, and be what I have been:
The feeling of my loss will ne’er be old;
This, which I know, I speak with mind serene.

Then, Beaumont, Friend! who would have been the Friend,
If he had lived, of Him whom I deplore,
This work of thine I blame not, but commend;
This sea in anger, and that dismal shore.

O ’tis a passionate Work!—yet wise and well,
Well chosen is the spirit that is here;
That Hulk which labours in the deadly swell,
This rueful sky, this pageantry of fear!

And this huge Castle, standing here sublime,
I love to see the look with which it braves,
Cased in the unfeeling armour of old time,
The lightning, the fierce wind, the trampling waves.

Farewell, farewell the heart that lives alone,
Housed in a dream, at distance from the Kind!
Such happiness, wherever it be known,
Is to be pitied; for ’tis surely blind.

But welcome fortitude, and patient cheer,
And frequent sights of what is to be borne!
Such sights, or worse, as are before me here.—
Not without hope we suffer and we mourn.

What I love most about this poem is its sheer proliferation: not stopping at the “doubling” of the castle in the form of its painted double, Wordsworth posits, in the first eight stanzas, as many as five distinct Peele Castles:

  1.  the image of the castle in Beaumont’s painting
  2.  the castle as he saw it in those “four summer weeks” in his past
  3.  the castle’s reflection “sleeping on a glassy sea,” which “trembled, but it never passed away”
  4.  the castle in a fictional painting such as Wordsworth would “at that time have made”
  5.  (presumably) the castle’s reflection on the water in Wordsworth’s nonexistent painting

And it’s not just the castle that’s lost in a house of mirrors: Wordsworth remembers time itself, in the period when he first saw the castle, as a self-contained chain of reflections, “So like, so very like, was day to day!” The painting he imagines having created would have contained its own multitudes, of “peaceful years” and “all the sunbeams that did ever shine.” The past seems to be teeming, self-regenerating, with (in its idealized representation) “the soul of truth in every part.” Each representation is not just a reflection, but a promise: the castle’s image “trembling” on the water vouchsafes the ocean’s “gentleness”; the imaginary painting seems to promise a future “of lasting ease,/ Elysian quiet, without toil or strife.”

If the past is a hall of mirrors, however, it’s the one in The Lady from Shanghai: a gun is about to go off. Each seeming reflection is fractured, incomplete, poorly mirrored. The poem itself forms a busted mirror: divided nearly at the center into a “before” (stanzas 1-8) and an “after” (stanzas 9-15), with the second half of the poem a stanza too short to fully reflect its hopeful start. It is as though the poem’s speaker breaks off early, silenced by the “sights of what is to be borne.”

The poem suggests that only once Wordsworth’s soul has been “humanised” by the pain of his brother’s death can he correctly perceive the world: not naïvely, as filled with glinting, multifaceted promise, but as a domain of failed reflections. Wordsworth’s brother John, who would, like Wordsworth, have stood in front of the painting to admire it as Beaumont’s friend, is instead trapped inside the picture, in the “Hulk which labours in the deadly swell.” Beaumont’s painting shows a moment in which the ship, imagined as John’s, could either stay afloat or sink, and the poem’s two “movements” play out each of these possibilities in turn. This is, maybe, the source of the poem’s interest in doubling and representation: by imagining the painting as a “double” of John’s last moments, Wordsworth can stop time at a point when his brother still lives.

But there’s something disconcerting about the way the poem turns from the past to the present. Wordsworth writes: “The feeling of my loss will ne’er be old; / This, which I know, I speak with mind serene.” If the first half of the poem is an almost playful (or, at least, playful by Wordsworthian standards) kaleidoscope of representation, the second half reveals the desperation behind which that play occurs. The “serenity” Wordsworth claims rings false—this is not the poem of someone who has made peace with his brother’s death, but of someone determinedly tying himself up in a string of counterfactuals, the thousand if/then scenarios which might bring John Wordsworth back to life. The poem moves me most where the voice is the most cracked, disingenuous, stiff-upper-lipped. “Farewell, farewell the heart that lives alone,/ Housed in a dream, at distance from the Kind!/ Such happiness, wherever it be known,/ Is to be pitied; for ’tis surely blind.”

Can Wordsworth really pity his younger self, who still shares a world with his brother? Can he really welcome “frequent sights of what is to be borne”? Maybe this just the poem of a man with nothing left to comfort him but his own brilliance.

MC Hyland is the author of Neveragainland (Lowbrow Press) and several chapbooks including TOOTHLESS ALTAR (Shirt Pocket Press), Every Night in Magic City (H_NGM_N), and Residential, As In (Blue Hour Press). She runs DoubleCross Press with Jeff Peterson, and is a PhD student at NYU, where she currently studies walking, typewriters, Romanticism, and poetics. She tumbls at http://flameshapedabode.tumblr.com/ 

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