A common man marvels at uncommon things. A wise man marvels at the commonplace. CONFUCIUS

Thursday, 30 April 2009

The Inward Eye

William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge are my 2 favourite English Romantic poets. I've been reminded of Wordsworth this springtime by the lavish displays of daffodils in park, orchard and garden; and by the yellow-and-green woodland carpets of the shyer, more retiring lesser celandine. Wordsworth wrote poems about both flowers, though his 3 poems on the celandine are perhaps less memorable than his justly famous and much quoted poem about the 10,000 daffodils dancing in the breeze: I Wandered Lonely As A Cloud. This is as perfect a poem as you might ever wish for. It's very familiar, I know - but just read it again, as if for the first time, without any clouding thoughts or prejudice, and I think you'll find it a pure delight:

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the Milky Way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed - and gazed - but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

This was one of Wordsworth's poems (there were big chunks of other poems of his too) I had to learn by rote as a teenager at school in the 1960s. (I've written before about learning poems off by heart here.) I've loved his poetry ever since, even though you sometimes have to sift through reams of more uneven and pedestrian material to find the real thing. This can often be the case with prolific poets - for, even if they show a rare poetic genius, they can't be first-rate all the time. It's rather comforting to know that a genius is only human after all. But I digress.

Wordsworth penned some exquisite short poems (eg Song and Stepping Westward) and sonnets (eg The World Is Too much With Us and Composed Upon Westminster Bridge), and a variety of longer, more discursive poems which are nothing short of sublime (eg Ode and Lines Written A Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey). The best passages in his best poems remain unsurpassed by any poet - except Shakespeare (and no one can surpass Shakespeare). The magnificent, long, autobiographical poem The Prelude is his masterpiece, a poem I dip into for inspiration time and again.

You sense in many of his poems (eg The Solitary Reaper, The Ruined Cottage, The Old Cumberland Beggar) that Wordsworth identified strongly and sympathetically with pedlars, beggars, shepherds, poverty-stricken cottagers, and other solitaries and vagrants; I think he wrote somewhere that, if fate had turned out slightly differently, he could easily have been one of society's outsiders like them, poor in coin but not deprived in spirit, full of fortitude and a secret wisdom such as that shown by the leech-gatherer in the poem Resolution And Independence.

Finally, and returning again to I Wandered Lonely As A Cloud - if I had to point out one of Wordsworth's recurrent and major themes, it's encapsulated completely and unambiguously in this short, well known poem about daffodils. The theme concerns how you can have a direct, immediate, life-enhancing, joyful experience of nature (often when young and 'thoughtless'); and then how you might later recapture and relive the experience in comfortable solitude using one's imagination or 'inward eye'. This idea of the recollection and attempted recovery of past, quasi-mystical experiences (usually from one's childhood) is explored in many of Wordsworth's poems. But more of this in subsequent posts...

(Thanks to Riverdaze for being one of the inspirations behind this piece.)


The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Funny you should write of Wordsworth as I just quoted to Carolyn of "Roundtop Ruminations," who posted today on the lone violet beside her cabin's steps, WW's lines:

A violet by a mossy stone
Half hidden from the eye!
Fair as a star, when only one
Is shining in the sky.

Whenever someone of poetic turn mentions daffodils, and subsequently quotes the first stanza of Wordsworth's "I Wandered Lonely As A Cloud," I invariably remember the poem's last stanza…which, for perhaps more personal than literary reasons, I've always thought the finer lines.

Of course you've hit on the notion contained in this part precisely in this posting—and perhaps will explore in posts to come. The "inward eye" and recollection, the pleasure and solace to be derived from memory…

Wordsworth, I think, was at heart a simple countryman, in spite of his poetry and eye. No, that is wrong: because of his talent and eye. Thus he could easily identify with the most common of the common folk . I say this because even today, the poor, the outsiders, the castaways all tend to live just a bit more elemental, closer to the earth and sky; more "in nature."

This was certainly true in Wordsworth's day, anyway—though I believe that even in the largest modern city you'd find a heightened awareness of nature and the natural world among the less privileged; for example, without funds to pay for heat, you feel the cold and know in a way the warm and cozy never can, the weather that brings it.

I think the more basic, the more simple a life is led, the closer it always gets to nature and the natural world—and I'd suspect this was at least some part of Wordsworth's sympathy and identification.

Phoenix C. said...

I really identify with the theme of reliving 'quasi-mystical' experiences with the inward eye, SW. (I'm a close friend of Raph's ;)

I love the theme of dance in nature - what a lovely couple of lines:
'The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:'

Such an exuberant and yet blissfully solitude-sensitive poem!

am said...

Thanks so much for posting this today. The inward eye. Imagination.

When I was around 12, that was the poem I was given to memorize and recite at the front of the classroom.

At 12 I understood "lonely as a cloud," but only much later did I understand "the bliss of solitude."

gleaner said...

Learning poems at school, I wonder whether this still happens? I certainly wish I was introduced to more poetry and literature at school, however I suppose one can glean for the best later in life at one's own exploration...however I think it is why I cannot now learn poetry off by heart. I am envious of those who can recite poems.

The Solitary Walker said...

Grizzled - I take your point about feeling closer to the natural, the 'real' world, without all our material trappings and anaesthetizing comforts. However, it's dangerously easy to over-sentimentalize the lot of the less privileged. Wordsworth, I think, doesn't do this - for instance, in the'The Ruined Cottage' he portrays starkly the sad fate of Margaret, who, losing both husband and children, dies in abject poverty in her cold, damp cottage after a hard and miserable life.

Thanks, everyone, for all the other comments. Yes, it's certainly easier to memorize poetry when younger, Gleaner.