Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Our Heroine Admits There May Be Something In What Old Wordsworth Had To Say

When I was in college I studied the English Romantics for one whole semester. All these years later, I don't remember much except Samuel Taylor Coleridge was my all-around favorite, John Keats was tragic, Lord Byron was dreamy and I didn't much care for William Wordsworth.

To my mind at the time, Wordsworth's poems were narcissistic to the point of annoyance. He filtered everything through his imagination and then had to sing about it, and I was disgusted that he wrote an autobiographical poem, The Prelude, when (to me) poems ought to be many things, but your boring autobiography was not one of them. Forgive me, Wordsworth, I was only 18, and none too intelligent.

Anyhow, I hadn't really thought about him for years, until I saw this article in City Journal in which Andrew Klavan makes the case that Wordsworth was the first "hippie" who grew up.

As the century turned, the dream of French liberty finally died. The old tyranny gave way to a new one, as Burke had predicted. To Wordsworth’s disgust, Napoleon Bonaparte became emperor and “now, become oppressors in their turn, / Frenchmen had changed a war of self-defence / For one of conquest, losing sight of all / Which they had struggled for.”

It was, for Wordsworth, what the failure of Communism was for the radicals of a later day. He could no longer deny the error inherent in “speculative schemes— / That promised to abstract the hopes of Man.” He saw the Revolution as a dream that “flattered the young, pleased with extremes” and made “Reason’s naked self / The object of its fervour.” Confused by pure reason’s failure as a moral guide, he “lost / All feeling of conviction” and “yielded up moral questions in despair.” Slowly, he began to do the brave and difficult thing: to admit he had been wrong and change his mind.

This kind of article may or may not be your thing, but it really did fire in me a new respect for old Wordsworth, and I think I will brush off my Romantics anthology and read, if not The Prelude, than at least Lyrical Ballads again. Maybe you'll feel the same way, but if not, here's a short one in his honor: "The World Is Too Much With Us" (a favorite of mine even back then).

The World Is Too Much With Us

          THE world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
The Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not.--Great God! I'd rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn; 10
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.


BMT said...

You almost make me want to read Faulkner again, which when assigned it in high school, I rolled my eyes, sighed dramatically when the sentences were too long, and complained bitterly to my teacher about how there was no point. Almost. But probably not.

Our Heroine said...

I'm not sure anything could induce me to read Faulkner again. GROSS! Maybe if SLB stops by here she can drop some of her AmLit knowledge on us and change our minds, but I'd prefer to remain ig'nant and full of loathing.