Wordsworth and the worth of words

“It is the nature of man’s mind to delight in the spacious liberty of generalities, rather than in the enclosures of particularities…”

– Francis Bacon, The Advancement of Learning, 1605

WW post image

My face (and hair) when I hear people hate on the Romantics

Bacon is right. The human mind can be a lazy piece of shit. And often, it’s quite happy being a lazy piece of shit. Sure, the Renaissance man was talking about Aristotelian deduction (bad) vs inductive reasoning (good), but his observation has played out in sundry forms since time immemorial: Catholicism vs Protestantism; Liberals vs Conservatives; Formalists vs Marxists; white vs black; them vs us etc etc.

It can be comforting, I guess, to think that you have someone all figured out because they are a (insert identity category), and therefore must be (insert assumptions about said identity category). Sure, first principles can be illuminating, but take them too far, and they become anti-humanistic and reductive.

This is why I really like Wordsworth*. If Bacon thinks that detailed observation of the particular is what leads to general truths, then WW does exactly that in his verse, marrying a scientific method to poetic feeling. As he describes in ‘The Old Cumberland Beggar‘, the aged solitary man –

                                          from day to day,
Browbent, his eyes for ever on the ground,
He plies his weary journey, seeing still,
And never knowing that he sees, some straw,
Some scatter’d leaf, or marks which, in one track,
The nails of cart or chariot wheel have left
Impress’d on the white road, in the same line,
At distance still the same.

There’s not much actually going on here, but the beggar’s eyes, seeing the historical imprints of a “cart or chariot wheel”, realise in the most mundane particulars the truth of an eternal present. The road once travelled has been and shall be travelled again, and the souls, at once individual and alike, now coalesce “in the same line”.

Topography, in an instant, has won over time. And to me, this is the best kind of sublime. Not the Burkean sublime of terror and vastness, nor Keats’ ungainly characterisation of the ‘Wordsworthian/egotistical sublime’ in his 1817 ‘Letter to Richard Woodhouse’, which he thinks is –

a thing per se and stands alone. It is not itself – it has no self – it is every thing and nothing – It has no character – it enjoys light and shade; it lives in gusto, be it foul or fair, high or low, rich or poor, mean or elevated – It has as much delight in conceiving an Iago as an Imogen.

For all the verdant Shakespeareanisms here, Keats speaks in binaries, and as such misappropriates the Bard, misunderstands Wordsworth and vindicates Bacon’s claim. As Iago is more than just the Devil reincarnate of “motiveless malignity” (A. C. Bradley’s Shakespearean Tragedy is so yesterday), so Wordsworth’s ‘self’ is not so much a plastic agent as it is an interconnecting pulse. It seeks not to fill up whatever it latches itself upon, but to give ear to the unattended and the unearthed, ultimately re-lodging pieces of “what remains behind” (‘Immortality’ ode, l.183) right back at the heart of human experience.

Poetry is happiness. This much I know to be true.

*A defiant shout-out to one of my Eng lit/finals comrade-in-arms, who thinks (as I understand it) that Wordsworth is mostly self-obsessed and second-rate. I will miss arguing with her about who understands WW better, but as of now I’d say we’ve reached a modus vivendi on this. 

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One thought on “Wordsworth and the worth of words

  1. Pingback: ‘These are my confessions’ | Classic Jenisms

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