Wordsworth is one of the revolutionaries of English literary history, and not just because, as critics since Coleridge have observed, his poetry bristles with the unresolved metaphysical tensions between the accidental and the necessary, the unity of being and the fragmentations of memory and feeling, or the fissures between the history of the imagination and the imagination of history; he is a revolutionary because of his implicit assertion that the poems themselves might stand in a new relation to the life they present.
Wasted life is one of Wordsworth’s great subjects; but the waste of life preoccupies poets before Wordsworth; it is a perennial problem in all societies. Wordsworth differs from earlier poets and authors in his apparent faith in his poetry to redeem the waste it records; in Wordsworth’s hands, the poetic machine serves a new function.
Nowhere is the faith stated explicitly, but its guiding presence is evident if we compare “The Old Cumberland Beggar” to “Resolution and Independence” or the episode of the discharged soldier in The Prelude. In “The Old Cumberland Beggar,” the intervention on behalf of the beggar’s wasted life comes in the form of didactic argument:
But deem not this Man useless.–Statesmen! ye
Who are so restless in your wisdom, ye
Who have a broom still ready in your hands
To rid the world of nuisances; ye proud, 70
Heart-swoln, while in your pride ye contemplate
Your talents, power, or wisdom, deem him not
A burthen of the earth! ‘Tis Nature’s law
That none, the meanest of created things,
Or forms created the most vile and brute,
The dullest or most noxious, should exist
Divorced from good–a spirit and pulse of good,
A life and soul, to every mode of being
Critics are uneasy with Wordsworth’s plea: he argues, ultimately, the beggar is to be valued as a beggar because of the work he does in reinforcing the bonds of a community, its common memories, its history; he goes on to argue that the beggar is valuable for providing the opportunity to provide charity to the poor villagers, who otherwise would have no chance to extend themselves in sympathy to another human heart. The line of argument smacks of condescension and an insensitive conservatism, wherein the individual is sacrificed to a hazy notion of continuity, tradition, and the power of charitable giving.
The poem contains lines and movements that herald something else entirely:
The mild necessity of use compels | To acts of love.
Reverence the hope whose vital anxiousness | Gives the last human interest to his heart.
Here compulsion and necessity, the inhumanly universal and the commonly human, are braced, as they will be in Wordsworth’s mature poetry elsewhere in the great decade. But the didactic mode at the poem’s center predominates. Wordsworth does not often return to that mode, especially not when encountering the lives wasted in their isolation from society; it represents an early and clumsy attempt at rescuing those lives from the trash-heap into which others had imagined them.
Wordsworth’s breakthrough arrives with the discovery that the poetry does not need to plead to the imagination of others to prevent the waste; that it can instead make good on what has been wasted by compelling imaginative assent, on its own terms, by the strength and quality of attention it affords to the waste of life. The didactic mode is abandoned because it establishes a relation of the wrong sort: between poem and public and object, diluting the intensity of attention.
With the breakthrough comes a new conflict, not between Wordsworth and the world that he must convince, but between Wordsworth and the attention (his own) that he must properly direct. Because it is the mark of the wasted individual to evade or repel social attention, because the nature of stigma (and Wordsworth’s wasted individuals are, as I’ve written elsewhere, stigmatized), as Erving Goffman has written is to interrupt and redirect the normal rituals of shared attention, Wordsworth’s attention cannot be offered as some human equivalent of divine grace.
The struggle of attending properly is most extensively dramatized in “Resolution and Independence,” where the sight of the leech-gatherer distracts Wordsworth from the (disappointingly mundane) words that he speaks:
The old Man still stood talking by my side;
But now his voice to me was like a stream
Scarce heard; nor word from word could I divide;
And the whole body of the Man did seem
Like one whom I had met with in a dream;
Or like a man from some far region sent,
To give me human strength, by apt admonishment.
Wordsworth would see the man as more than man, but he cannot help also seeing him as other than a man, as a beast or elemental object in the landscape; he continually evades his imagination’s grasp.
The “discharged soldier” episode from Book IV of The Prelude (the poem on its own, as a draft, varies considerably from the version in the epic) follows a basic narrative arc (a meeting, an exchange of words, and the brief journey to lodging in a nearby village) that figures the work of the poem itself: by turning to the wasted, solitary soldier, by fixing his attention on him despite anxiety and even horror, Wordsworth can help to return him, if not to his “native home,” then at least into the fold of human society:
Slowly from his resting-place
He rose, and with a lean and wasted arm
In measured gesture lifted to his head
Returned my salutation; then resumed
His station as before; and when I asked
His history, the veteran, in reply,
Was neither slow nor eager; but, unmoved,
And with a quiet uncomplaining voice,
A stately air of mild indifference,
He told in few plain words a soldier’s tale–
That in the Tropic Islands he had served,
Whence he had landed scarcely three weeks past;
That on his landing he had been dismissed,
And now was travelling towards his native home.
This heard, I said, in pity, “Come with me.”
He stooped, and straightway from the ground took up
An oaken staff by me yet unobserved–
A staff which must have dropped from his slack hand
And lay till now neglected in the grass.
Though weak his step and cautious, he appeared
To travel without pain, and I beheld,
With an astonishment but ill suppressed,
His ghostly figure moving at my side;
Nor could I, while we journeyed thus, forbear
To turn from present hardships to the past,
And speak of war, battle, and pestilence,
Sprinkling this talk with questions, better spared,
On what he might himself have seen or felt.
He all the while was in demeanour calm,
Concise in answer; solemn and sublime
He might have seemed, but that in all he said
There was a strange half-absence, as of one
Knowing too well the importance of his theme,
But feeling it no longer.
Such lines are an example of Wordsworth’s new poetry machine, redeeming the waste of life in the world. Nowhere is so grand a plan announced, but it is effected by the absence of didacticism, even by the absence of appeal to the reader’s sympathy, which predominate elsewhere, in the poets contemporary to Wordsworth, in the precursors like Goldsmith (“The Deserted Village”) and Gray (“Elegy”); Wordsworth has truck with his subject and himself alone. The poem’s work is to see the wasted life aright, and by seeing it aright, to set it aright.
It’s extraordinarily ambitious metaphysical aim, and it will be taken up by others who absorb Wordsworth’s lesson: by George Eliot, by Proust, by Ruskin. For these authors, an intensive accounting of the world’s waste, by verbal attention, will yield the value of what remains, will draw it to the fore, and will consequently redeem it in part.
The long mythologized Romantic faith in the imagination has been now long-debunked; but it might hold true in one respect: that the fact of a poet’s having recollected, shaped, and given poetic form to a part of life means that, for Wordsworth and his heirs, that part of life has been altered; the poem that represents a wasted life is not only a representation of it, but an extension of it, which might recuperate its forgotten value.
Wordsworth revolutionizes poetry by inventing a new sort of metaphysical poetry–which has real consequences for form and the words on the page in so far as it abandons earlier modes of addressing the world.
It is a question worth asking of all major poets, and authors: what sort of metaphysical poet are you?
Any work of literature is, Henry James reminds us again and again in preface after preface, concerned with bounding and establishing relations, of setting out, apprehending, and placing the entities of life, be they persons, words, thoughts, feelings, or other essences and attributes, which bear on one another, which constitute a whole greater than any part, and which can only be understood by appeal to abstractions and universals that exceed the limits of particular examples.
The concerns are fundamentally metaphysical, accepting the premise that the core problem of metaphysics is the relation of the one and the many, instantiated as the timeless v. the temporal flux, the universal v. the particular, the determined v. the contingent, reality v. appearance(s), and the whole v. the part.
Metaphysics and literature alike reckon with how, on what, through what, the world hangs together. When a revolution in literature occurs, it is a revolution in a sense of how literature defines and is defined by the relation of the one v. the many in the world; perhaps the most dramatic revolutions occur when an author takes into account also the relation between the work of literature and the world it represents, and of which it is a part. Language is renewed to encounter the challenge and the consequences, not aridly removed from life, are instead renewals of an ethical imagination: when we ask how things are connected, problems of responsibility, blame, and intention follow suit soon after.
In returning to the dilemma of what in a life and world is wasted and what remains, Wordsworth set the world’s parts in new relation with one another, inventing a style that insists on the prospect of a conserving unity and connectedness to life that others would not see. And in the poems he wrote he set also poetry in a new relation to all of the other parts of the world, capable of effecting change not by demanding the world take action, but by extending and altering the world it represents.