Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Some Wordsworth

Selections of poetry by William Wordsworth

I thought I would read some poetry by one of the quintessential Romantic poets, so I broke out my trusty Norton and chose a few pieces by Wordsworth, whose name is synonymous with Romanticism and sentiment.  I think he's the only one who lived long enough to make everybody tired of him while he was still around.  I tried to pick poems I've never read before, or at least ones that weren't all marked up in my book.

Tintern Abbey, certainly a place to visit
Lines Composed Above Tintern Abbey has Wordsworth re-visiting the spot after a five years' absence.  He falls into a meditation on how often he has refreshed himself with memories of this spot, and how he has changed from a boy to a young man, and how now, in maturity, he does not just take in the scene with his senses, but adds his reason to his feelings.  Now, he not only loves what he sees, but uses it as his spiritual and moral anchor.
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.
The "Lucy poems" are a series of short lyrics about Lucy (or, once, an unnamed 'she').  My book says this is not the same Lucy as in "Lucy Gray," which is a poetic account of a real incident in Germany.  In these poems, Lucy is a lovely innocent country girl who lives in some secluded spot, and dies young.  They are all mourning lyrics.  The most famous you will recognize:
She lived unknown, and few could know
   When Lucy ceased to be;
But she is in her grave, and, oh,
   The difference to me!
The Ruined Cottage was written in 1797 and revised a few times after that.  Eventually it became Book I of The Excursion, but I don't have the whole thing; I just have a version of the Ruined Cottage dating from 1799, before it was expanded and put into the longer work.  This is supposed to be one of Wordsworth's very best pastoral poems, but it is a little different than the usual--it's melancholy, and forms a protest against undeserved suffering.  What do we do with the fact that so many people endure so much through no fault of their own?

The story is that the poet is traveling on foot and meets a fellow walker near an empty and ruined cottage.  His companion is older and once knew the inhabitants of the cottage.  He tells the story of Margaret and her husband, cheerful hard workers with two pretty children--until there were two bad seasons and a war together.  One piece of bad fortune followed another and the whole poem is a litany of good people brought low despite all their efforts.
O Sir! the good die first,
And they whose hearts are dry as summer dust
Burn to the socket. Many a passenger
Has blessed poor Margaret for her gentle looks
When she upheld the cool refreshment drawn
From the forsaken spring, and no one came
But he was welcome, no one went away
But that it seemed she loved him. She is dead,
The worm is on her cheek, and this poor hut,
Stripp'd of its outward garb of houshold flowers,
Of rose and sweet-briar, offers to the wind
A cold bare wall whose earthy top is tricked
With weeds and the rank spear-grass. She is dead,
And nettles rot and adders sun themselves
Where we have sate together while she nurs'd
Her infant at her breast.

The only time I studied Wordsworth in school was in a class that surveyed, I think, late 17th to early 19th century English literature.  The professor was, as he put it, "a Marxist, of course," which was pretty funny considering it was about 1993 and Marxism had never been less popular.  For some reason he preferred us to read prose, so we had to read all these essays by Shelley, Coleridge, and Wordsworth, and only a few of the most famous poems.  As a result, I am familiar with something like two poems each, but I've read Shelley on the necessity of atheism, Coleridge's Biographia Literaria (ugh), and Wordsworth's long Preface to Lyrical Ballads (but not most of the actual ballads).  I am grateful to Byron and Keats for not producing any boring prose on the superior sensibility and sensitivity of the poet...but I did have to read John Stuart Mill on What is Poetry?  if you can believe it.

Wordsworth is most famously associated with the Lake District, where he was born and where he lived from 1799 on.  That's in Cumberland.

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