Had he lived William Wordsworth would have been 250 years old this April (April 7th.,). Celebrations were planned, particularly in Grasmere, Cumbria, home of the excellent Wordsworth Trust. I’m thinking that actual celebrations will not now take place, so here is a digital one.
‘In my youth’ (said the sage) it wasn’t cool to like William’s poetry, but as a hungry reader, I read. And, secretly, couldn’t understand why my peers were not as excited by ‘Tintern Abbey’ and the ‘Intimations Ode’ as I was. I was a bit mystified by much of the Lyrical Ballads, particularly ‘Now We Are Seven’, but I read the Preface and began to understand the endeavour of the man (and his chum Coleridge).
It might be some kind of comment on the late fifties/early sixties but it was not until after I’d finished an MA and began to teach that my current admiration for Wordsworth and his poetry emerged. Allowing myself to read Mary Moorman’s biography of William’s early life (rather than relying as I usually do on a close reading of poetry texts) was a considerable gift. I found a solitary observant boy wandering about the countryside, a man who, in his summer holiday from Uni, walked across France to see the Alps, and who, as a political radical, went in 1791 to revolutionary France, fell in love and fathered a child. I came to see the Lyrical Ballads (1798) in a political context, a determined attempt to bring poetry out of the context of an educated readership and into the world of audience.
Among the poems that Wordsworth wrote in the 1790s are the group now known as the ‘Lucy poems’ (four of which appeared in the second edition of Lyrical Ballads). He spent the very cold winter of 1798 living in Germany with his beloved sister Dorothy – the Lucy poems date from then. Here’s one of them.
She Dwelt Among the Untrodden Ways
She dwelt among the untrodden ways
Beside the springs of Dove,
A Maid whom there were none to praise
And very few to love:
A violet by a mossy stone
Half hidden from the eye!
– Fair as a star, when only one
Is shining in the sky.
She lived unknown, and few could know
When Lucy ceased to be;
But she is in her grave, and, oh,
The difference to me!
Sardonic readers will like to read Hartley Coleridge’s parody of these lines (which includes ‘A Bard whom there were none to praise, / And very few to read’). William does saunter blithely along the precipice brink of bathos. Nevertheless this poem has held my attention for many years. I like the measured pace of it, almost walking, the three short stanzas, the alternation of long and short lines, the basic rhyme scheme (abab, cdcd, efef), the wholly pared down vocabulary, the directness of the syntax. I think the middle stanza is extraordinary, the juxtaposition of the half hidden flower, the smallness, with the panorama of the morning or evening sky and that singularly bright star. (Actually more usually either Venus or Jupiter but still one of the necessary things to see on your visit to this planet, particularly when close to a crescent moon). There are clever things: the long dash at the start of line 3 stanza two, giving breath to the missing syllable, the lovely softness of sound in ‘Lucy ceased’ (cy ceas), the way the reader’s breathing has to change at the end of the penultimate line ‘grave, and, oh, / The.’ (My full stop)
The UK population in 1790 was about 8 million, so, although most of these lived in the countryside, there was plenty of space for ‘untrodden ways’. William is a great advocate for open spaces and solitude, the singular figure in an open landscape (‘the lonely leech gatherer on the moor’). The singularity extends into the specificity in this poem – ‘A Maid’, ‘A violet’, ‘a star’. The ‘springs of Dove’ is also a specific location – this is the Dove in Cumbria, not the more famous one in Derbyshire.
What’s it all about? Love and death, maybe? I experience this as a poem with a lot of feeling packed into it. And loss, the experience of it, the processing of it, is one of the essential tempers for the ‘still, sad music of humanity’. Nobody knows who Lucy was, or if indeed there was any actual Lucy, but it is an interesting choice of name, the root comes from the Latin for light and the martyred St Lucy is associated with eyesight (frequently portrayed with her eyes on a plate, she’s also a patron saint of authors). Lucifer was for a long time a name for the morning star (the ‘one’ star of the poem). As with all short and deliberate poems the meaning charge of every word signifies – am I alone in finding an eroticism in the ‘half hidden’ violet?
After I’d used quite a chunk of time, back in the day, studying the Lucy poems I discovered a new respect for the famous daffodil poem.
I Wandered Lonely As A Cloud
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, I suspect, is what persons of my generation think of as the nature poem. Younger poets, in particular, probably have more of a connection with John Clare’s poems. But anyway there are relationships between ‘She Dwelt’ and ‘I wandered’: the outdoor setting, the emphasis on loneliness and isolation, the flower (daffodil instead of violet), the stars (‘milky way’ instead of only ‘one’). Also the walking pace of the verse and how it fits the subject matter (plus, of course, the accessible vocabulary and the unsophisticated rhyme scheme). And both poems are celebrations of feeling. (I think I remember from Mary Moorman that Wordsworth was in the habit of writing his poems in his head as he walked and then coming back to Dove Cottage, or wherever of their many residences, and dictating them to Dorothy).
Pathetic fallacy is ‘a literary device wherein the author attributes human emotions and traits to nature or inanimate objects.’ When I was a young critic this was not thought to be a good thing. You could undermine the life of this poem by pointing out the importance of ‘dancing’, ‘dance’, ‘danced’ and ‘dances.’ And then arguing the inappropriateness of using this to picture the involuntary movement of the flowers. Or the outrageousness of assuming that a cloud could experience loneliness. But I don’t think like that anymore. I am inclined to believe that a cloud might contain sensation, that the daffodils might have constructed the pliability of their stems for more than one reason. And then again my parents explained to me the meaning of ‘poetic licence’ long before I went to school. I think it’s great that William constructed a poem which so clearly celebrates what poetry can do. Namely re-connect the reader with the energy of their own emotional courage. ‘Poetry’ he famously wrote, ‘is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.’ These two poems certainly do what it says on the tin.
COVID-19 NEWS FROM THE RIALTO
Chaucer opens his Canterbury Tales with the line,
‘Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote’
and goes on for ten more lines to describe the awakening spring (lines which I still can’t read without getting spine shivers) until,‘Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages…’
We can’t be doing that this April, and it’s not going to be easy looking for the signals of spring if you are halfway up a crowded tower block in any city any where. Nevertheless, given that one way out of anxiety is to focus thoroughly on something outside of yourself, be it tracing the lines on the palm of your hand, (looking for lines you have never seen before), or, say, recalling every step of a walk with your beloved, we’d like you to write poems.
Poems for us to read and think about for the next issue of the magazine (94), poems that you’d like to be considered for the Nature and Place Poetry Competition (with its useful cash prizes in this cash flow crisis time), poems that gather together in a pamphlet sized group – eschewing social distancing – for our Pamphlet Competition. Details of all these potential routes for your creativity can be found on our website.
The judge for the Nature competition is Pascale Petit, the judge for the Pamphlet competition is Will Harris. They are both eager to find new poets and new poetry.
Our online shop is still functioning, but there will be delays as I’m isolating away from the stock cupboard. However our packers and dispatchers, Interpac of Norwich, are working through the crisis and they will be able to send off to you The Rialto 93, either as single copy orders or as your free first copy for a new subscription. We can also post out copies of our best sellers, Matt Howard’s Gall, Anita Pati’s Dodo Provocateur and The Rialto 92. These orders via the website we can fulfil fairly quickly – others may take up to a week.
In common with many other arts organisations our current application for Lottery Funding has been suspended. ACE is going to use the money to support artists and organisations in crisis. We don’t know that The Rialto will qualify for any of this support. We’ll ask, of course. But it has always been my ambition that the magazine should be self supporting. We wouldn’t need many more subscribers to make this possible. A couple of hundred would be a great start. I guess a part of the problem is that I’ve always paid more attention to the poetry than to the marketing. So we do have a magazine where you are more likely to find something surprising than you will in others. And we don’t yet have enough customers… Interesting blog from Helena at HappenStance and also News from Bloodaxe both talking about the importance of buying poetry in these very difficult times.
And, as a self-employed person, I am very aware that uncertainty about income has become even more uncertain as a result of the various virus impelled shutdowns. But please buy if you can, renew your subscription if you can, enter the competitions if you can. Thank you.
As someone in the vulnerable persons category, by virtue of my galloping years, I am aware that my developing pre-occupation with death (my death and it’s inevitability) has been accelerated by the publicity around Covid-19. Yes there are many very seriously unwell people in the community: at the same time once you pass certain ageing markers it becomes difficult not to have ‘underlying health issues’ and for the more self-aware of us there’s the ever present probability that the ‘issues’ can be lurking out of our knowledge. Though I am a gloomy and sardonic person I do have a certain naive optimism, a sense that ‘it won’t happen to me’ – after all I wasn’t looking forward to doing my National Service in the fifties and lo! they abolished it before my time came. And one of the strands of procrastination, to which I am addicted, is the belief that death won’t come so long as you still have tasks to do. So far, though I’ve written many poems, I haven’t written THE poem.
Ah well, let us go on day by day, testing the feasibility of that famous ‘as if your last’ nostrum. At least this world-wide phenomenon is good practice for the measures that will be needed if we are to stop global warming.