Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

"Unrememberable" Sound in Wordsworth's 1799 Prelude

Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

"Unrememberable" Sound in Wordsworth's 1799 Prelude

Article excerpt

I. Quietude

WORDSWORTH IS THE POET OF "THE GRAND ELEMENTARY PRINCIPLE OF pleasure," but also of stark pictures of suffering. Not just a contradiction to be contained, the seeming antagonism of pleasure and pain takes us to the heart of Wordsworth's poetic practice. What pleasure and pain have in common is that both are suffered--they cannot be willed. One can suffer pleasure (or pain), but one cannot experience it by an act of will. And this is the character of all feeling, all sensation; it is visited upon us, it is involuntary.

And yet it is by this suffering of feelings--of pleasure especially, according to Wordsworth--that we develop as individuals. How can this be? The celebrated "Boy of Winander" passage (written in the late 1790s and included in the 1805 Prelude) offers the reader a very perplexing model of development. As Lionel Trilling noted, "what baffles us [about the Boy], what makes us wonder what the poem has to do with education and the development of personality, is that the Boy exercises no will, or at least, when his playful will is frustrated, is at once content with the pleasures that follow upon the suspended will.... " The moment Trilling refers to, of course, is when the owls across Windermere get tired of answering the boy's calls, and he waits, taking in only the "voice of mountain torrents" and the "visible scene." Trilling found that the poem exemplified a "mystical" quality of thought, and he identified two elements in Wordsworth's "mysticism": "his conception of the world as being semantic, and his capacity for intense pleasure." Most puzzling of all, Trilling added, is the surprising (even "incomprehensible") relation between these elements and this poet's formidable will: "When we speak of him as a mystic in any other sense, we are pretty sure to be expressing our incomprehension of the intensity with which he experienced his own being, and our incomprehension of the relation which his sentiment of being bore to his will." (1)

Considered through this lens, the 1799 Prelude tells of experiences that for the most part were not and could never be willed. There is an element of deliberation ("thought and wish") and even action ("the deed was done") in many of the episodes, though play is somehow much less deliberate than work (the "playful will," Trilling calls it). The childhood pursuits are "intentional," in the phenomenological sense that they are directed to certain objects and ends. The poet, however, is retrospectively interested only in what was collateral to such intention. Again, in what cannot be willed.

Many readers of the last two centuries have thought that Wordsworth, at his best, provides something like instruction in how to have an emotional life. This in the poet who had, as Trilling noted, such a strange view of what counts as an education.

Since emotions, feelings, can never be willed, Wordsworth's poetry teaches the reader, you might say, how to suffer. But does anyone need to learn such a thing? We move mainly in the "aftervacancy" of act; and suffering, as Marmaduke of The Borderers puts it, is what is "permanent, obscure and dark." (2) The sense of "suffering" here is, of course, not the narrowest one--to be in pain--but the opposite of "action." We suffer experience, and perhaps there is not much more to say about it. Is there then something interesting about suffering? Wordsworth thought so. And when he wrote (in the Preface to Lyrical Ballads) of an aspiration to produce poems of "permanent interest" to humankind, it must matter that he settled on the adjective he had used in that other context. Suffering is permanent, Marmaduke claims, and the best poetry is of permanent interest too. That's not quite the same as saying that the poetry is itself permanent (a most unlikely cosmic outcome). What a certain kind of poem does is give its reader permanent access to suffering--not by making one perpetually able to sympathize with other human beings in pain, but by making temporarily visible the perpetual openness of experience. …

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