Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

The Psycho-Aesthetics of Romantic Moonshine: Wordsworth's Profane Illumination

Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

The Psycho-Aesthetics of Romantic Moonshine: Wordsworth's Profane Illumination

Article excerpt

Wordsworth has been accused of averting his eyes from "half of human fate" (Matthew Arnold, "Stanzas in Memory of the Author of 'Obermann'" 53-4). It is true he does not portray scenes of terror and nightmare directly, or in gothic format. The exceptions are well-known: intense descriptions of moments of terror in the wake of what to others might have been ordinary sights. But what he mainly offers are vignettes of pathos from everyday, rural life; and, except for preachy admonitions, the very obliquity of his procedure paradoxically puts one on guard. We sense a psychic depth that has fused with a peculiarly weak sort of strength in his poetry.

At once simple and freakish, "Strange fits of passion I have known," from the second volume (1800) of Lyrical Ballads, continues to intrigue. Wordsworth's portrayal of the disproportionate emotional reflex that can arise from ordinary incidents suggests that world and imagination interact in mysterious ways. Encounters with local people or rural sights and sounds leave vibes that do not always grow "like harmony in music" (Prelude 1850 1. 341) toward a resolution, or palpable teleology. Among early readers, Coleridge as well as Francis Jeffrey noticed an imbalance between objective cause and subjective response. His famous formula that poetry takes its rise from emotion recollected in tranquillity hides as much as it reveals: (1) an emotion breaks through, overflows into poetry, but its intensity--even today, when we accept confessional verse almost for its own sake--may strike the reader as eccentric or insufficiently motivated.

  Strange fits of passion I have known
  And I will dare to tell,
  But in the lover's ear alone,
  What once to me befel.

  When she I lov'd, was strong and gay
  And like a rose in June,
  I to her cottage bent my way,
  Beneath the evening moon.

  Upon the moon I fix'd my eye,
  All over the wide lea;
  My horse trudg'd on, and we drew nigh
  Those paths so dear to me.

  And now we reach'd the orchard-plot,
  And, as we climb'd the hill,
  Towards the roof of Lucy's cot
  The moon descended still.

  In one of those sweet dreams I slept,
  Kind Nature's gentlest boon!
  And, all the while, my eyes I kept
  On the descending moon.

  My horse mov'd on; hoof after hoof
  He rais'd, and never stopp'd:
  When down behind the cottage roof
  At once the bright Moon dropped.

  What fond and wayward thoughts will slide
  Into a Lover's head--
  "O mercy!" to myself I cried,
  "If Lucy should be dead!"
  "Strange fits of passion," 1815 text

The plot line is straightforward: a lover rides by the light of the moon to the cottage of Lucy, his beloved. The poem is told in the first person and from a memorial perspective. "Lucy," the central figure, has died, which is clearer in the other lyrics of the overtly elegiac group usually grouped as the "Lucy poems." What is not straightforward is that the narrator's evening ride, or "walking cure," to cite Celeste Langan's witty concept (225-271), ends in the final cry of distress that places a special burden on interpretation. Is this apparent climax the fit of passion the first stanza signals? If not, does anything in the poem fit that fit?

We are not helped when Wordsworth's Pierrot lunaire intimates that he will be understood only by those initiated into love's mystery (2-4). Despite the simple plot, then, we are left with the following alternative: either there is a secret here (even should the secret be that there is no secret), or the poet is setting up his lyric as a parody of an older kind of ballad whose usual subject-matter was a chivalric daring-do or weird happening--the condensed equivalent of today's sci-fi and action-movie plots. In either case, the anti-dramatic character of Wordsworth's new type of "lyrical" ballad displaces the notion of action from heroic or supernatural to a more subtle, internal event.

The possibility of parody is increased by that slowest of horses. …

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