Swerving Neo-Platonists

By Quinney, Laura | Wordsworth Circle, Winter 2006 | Go to article overview
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Swerving Neo-Platonists


Quinney, Laura, Wordsworth Circle


The Wordsworth of Wordsworth's Poetry seeks to "avoid" the "apocalyptic" emergence of independent Imagination. The feared event is imaged once in the climactic passage from Prelude VI, in which the Imagination is described as having risen up with blinding force and "halted" the poet in the process of composition. Wordsworth is impressed by the mind's "strength of usurpation." It causes him to say to his "conscious soul," "I recognize thy glory," because its autonomy testifies to its transcendent provenance:

  When the light of sense
  Goes out, but with a flash that has revealed
  The invisible world, doth greatness make abode,
  There harbours, whether we be young or old.
  Our destiny, our being's heart and home,
  Is with infinitude, and only there. (1850, 6.600-5)

According to Hartman, this is the one moment in which Wordsworth "sounds the depth of the disparity between Nature and Imagination" (59). Characteristically, Wordsworth chooses instead to ease the discontinuity and bring the mind around again to an interchange with the natural world. Why do this? The motive is psychological, Hartman suggests: Wordsworth wards off enclosure in the "solitary self," for the "self-consciousness" that experiences of nature induce in him could be carried to the extreme of isolation. There is the prospect, in Hartman's words, "of an apocalyptic moment in which past and future overtake the present, and the poet, cut off from nature by imagination, is, in an absolute sense, lonely" (46). Wordsworth in his poetry touches on the dread of the soul's loneliness.

I'd like to expand on the Romantic treatment of the loneliness of the soul. We can distinguish between the everyday loneliness of someone who misses people, and the intuition of the soul, or subject, that as a subject it is alone in the world. Hartman shows that the soul's solitude is a central theme in Wordsworth, and it turns out to be central to Blake as well, and to the one-sided debate between them. Blake recognized that Wordsworth was haunted by apprehension of the soul's solitude. In his characteristic way, he gives a polemical analysis of where this apprehension came from, and how it might be surmounted. He seems to have had the opposite intuition from Wordsworth: namely that loneliness comes from naturalism, rather than transcendentalism. To overcome loneliness, Blake said, one must accept the transcendent provenance or what the Gnostics called the "acosmicism of the soul." Blake never saw the sixth book of The Prelude, but he thought that Wordsworth had finally come around in the Intimations Ode, where he takes the Gnostic and Neo-Platonic view that the soul is not at home in the world. Here they agree, in spirit, on the philosophical concept of the "soul in exile," which appeals to them deeply in its psychological resonance, its concentration on the experience of the lonely soul--without quickly resolving it, as orthodox Christianity does, into loneliness for God. The Gnostics say the life of the soul in the world is characterized by "forlorness, homesickness, [and] dread" (to borrow the words of Hans Jonas, in The Gnostic Religion.) For Blake and Wordsworth, this picture captures the feature of phenomenal selfhood that their own poetry dwells on--its sense of itself as solitary and anomalous. Despite their great differences, they share the one essential topic: the uneasiness of the subject within its own subjectivity.

This unhappiness is often expressed in dualism, either of mind-body or of subject-object, both suggesting that subjectivity is anomalous in a material world, and that each subject is isolated from others. Blake seeks to repair this deep ontological wound. He starts from the premise that loneliness is an intrinsic experience of consciousness, or at least of consciousness in what he would have called the "six thousand years" of Western history. The major religious and philosophical movements of the West have built upon the feeling, and also strengthened it.

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