Poetry consoles the feelings of betrayal and disappointment as it does no other feelings because poetry is inherently awakened by anxieties and realities of both: why else deviate into meter, novelties of metaphor, and disorienting patterns of language unless motivated somewhat by the sense that language, as it appears in various other, more normal combinations and arrangements, would betray and disappoint?
In the past week, feeling both disappointed and betrayed, I was surprised to find myself thinking most often–most often wanting to be able to write like, think through–Wordsworth’s poetry. It was not the passages of The Prelude describing the events in France during and after the revolution, and not even the political sonnets, that I thought of; instead, it was the poems in quatrains, such as the Matthew poems, that came to my mind.
Tonight, I went to look through them again. Here is “Lines: Written in Early Spring”:
I heard a thousand blended notes,
While in a grove I sat reclined,
In that sweet mood when pleasant thoughts
Bring sad thoughts to the mind.
To her fair works did nature link
The human soul that through me ran;
And much it grieved my heart to think
What man has made of man.
Through primrose-tufts, in that sweet bower,
The periwinkle trailed its wreathes;
And ’tis my faith that every flower
Enjoys the air it breathes.
The birds around me hopped and played:
Their thoughts I cannot measure,
But the least motion which they made,
It seemed a thrill of pleasure.
The budding twigs spread out their fan
To catch the breezy air;
And I must think, do all I can,
That there was pleasure there.
If I these thoughts may not prevent,
If such be of my creed the plan,
Have I not reason to lament
What man has made of man?
The end of the poem can be paraphrased: “If I can’t help but seek out solace in nature; if I believe in nature this much; is it not proof that I have reason to lament what man thinks of, and has done to, man?” The poem, then, fits the old story of Wordsworth, betrayed by youthful idealism, disappointed in the political hopes of his youth, turning instead to a faith in nature, which might be apolitical.
Of course it is not so simple: “must think, do all I can” because he is still committed to idealism and hope of a sort; because he cannot disappoint himself further by denying the world a capacity for fulfillment and pleasure, equitable across nature, that mankind has denied itself.
And yet that would make it seem as if his pantheistic vision of the natural world were a consolatory fantasy, enlisted to nurture what small glow of political life remains; if man is part of that natural world, some improvement might be possible at some future time.
Consolatory though it might be, however, the source of consolation in the poems is not in their faith in nature’s restorative powers. Only in the worst poems does Wordsworth swoon into nature like a child into an afternoon nap, exhausted by the morning’s activities.
Instead, Wordsworth’s poems are aware that nature, though it might console might also, obviously betray; more to the point, they are tense with the sense that it is possible for man to disappoint man, despite all that nature offers, and even because of it. The closing question of “Lines: Written in Early Spring” is simultaneously self-accusing and self-pleading; he is aware that it may have been wrong for his imagination to take the turns that it has taken, aware that the creed might be a betrayal of man in itself, as if he were saying, “if even I am capable of such, what hope is there for others?” His own yearnings to see something in nature might be a symptom of the problem that has driven him to the natural world in the first place. Or, with less self-censure: “these thoughts are not healthy, but my own failure in thinking them is owing to the failure of others in how they conceive of one another.”
But it remains a question, open and begging consideration: is it a betrayal to think such thoughts, even granting whatever it is that “man has made of man”? and would such thoughts constitute a reason to lament what man has made of man, even if we agree that it is something terrible? Those are not to be pushed aside.
The poem’s lines of thought, faith, and reason catch in them the past, present, and prospect of disappointment and betrayal in a world of continuous, common animation; Wordsworth opens his mind onto the natural world, and onto the possibility of some sort of pantheism, not in order to break from politics, but in order to recognize that what is essential to politics, the adjudication of claims made between persons and between persons and objects, entails the same sort of disappointments and betrayals that are found beyond the political reach. One person exercises a claim over another; it is denied, or it is enforced, and there is satisfaction or not. Wordsworth exercises an imaginative claim over the natural world, perhaps unjustifiably, and in so doing may be betraying the claims that other people make on his imagination.
The consolation of the poetry lies here: it is not a conservative ointment, reminding readers of all that the political realm does not reach, though it may resemble that; instead it is a reminder that poetry is a place for redressing the betrayals and disappointments that follow on from the claims we make on one another, and on the world we inhabit and are part of, every day; it redresses by striving for a better way of imagining, a better way of conceiving how we can make claims on others and on the world–or at the very least, for becoming aware of what claims we cannot or should not make. The claims of the imagination are not ancillary or even prior to those of the political realm; but they are necessary to it, and Wordsworth, after his French experience, did not abandon politics, but devoted himself to one aspect of it.
I think of “Resolution and Independence,” of “Michael,” of “The Old Cumberland Beggar,” of many more of the most famous of Wordsworth’s poems.
But I also think of the Matthew poems, and especially of “The Two April Mornings.” Matthew, the young poet’s older friend, speaks to the young poet, a character in the poem. He [Matthew] recalls a day thirty years before when he comes across his daughter’s grave; she was just nine years old when she died:
‘Six feet in earth my Emma lay,
And yet I loved her more,
For so it seemed, than till that day
I e’er had loved before.
And, turning from her grave, I met
Beside the church-yard yew
A blooming girl, whose hair was wet
With points of morning dew.
A basket on her head she bare,
Her brow was smooth and white;
To see a child so very fair,
It was a pure delight!
No fountain from tis rocky cave
E’er tripped with foot so free;
She seemed as happy as a wave
That dances on the sea.
There came from me a sigh of pain
Which I could ill confine;
I looked at her and looked again,
And did not wish her mine.’
Matthew is in his grave, yet now
Methinks I see him stand,
As at that moment, with his bough
Of wilding in his hand.
“And did not wish her mine” is the astonishing turn: spoken because, presumably, he could have wished her his, and had either entertained the thought and resolved that he did not so wish her, or else because he felt that there was some duty on him to wish her his, to which he failed to respond; it is a moment in which the presence of another cannot elicit the strongest claim at all, to stand in as an object of paternal love–and it is powerful however we read it: either because it constituted a disappointment because the claim could not be made, or because it constitute a betrayal that he had thought to wish it at all, or because it constituted a disappointment because she did not elicit the wish from his heart even though he recognized her as being worthy of it, or else, finally, because it constituted a betrayal because he ought to have wished it.
Then the poem ends without Wordsworth making any claim to understand or think on what Matthew has said; instead, he possesses him as an image in his memory, standing with his bough of wilding in his hand.
For all of the uncertainty about what can be claimed, and for all of the cautioning, dramatized or implicit or explicit, about what can be claimed by one person of another, and about the betrayals and disappointments that ensue, the poetry is assured in its grasp–it takes hold and claims the problem without hesitation. That the problem can be held, that it is not in itself a betrayal by the poet or the world, or a disappointment to the poet or the world, that the problem exists, is itself some consolation.