154. (William Wordsworth)

For Wordsworth, the greater existential, ontological unity of which humankind forms a part at times coincides with the longing for division, and at times coincides with the helplessness of isolation and alienation; the failure of human society and actions exacerbates both the longing and the helplessness, which are to some extent inevitable, but it is also the secret strength of the sympathetic imagination and the world more generally to reconcile humankind to reconcile the longing or the alienation, and maybe to overcome either.

It is a problem that turns back on the poet in his own work, because poetry is just such an act of sympathetic imagination, and a means of bringing the world into the right light; but it cannot escape, any more than people in the world, the alternatives of longing for division and alienation from existence.  It too must proceed from those foundations, which is why Wordsworth, far from being drawn to the self as a narcissist or egoist, is drawn there because he cannot claim to be exempt; and his own encounters with longing and alienation, his self-accusations, his self-doubts, and the doubts he feels about the world, are generalizable, even without his having to say so, because he has located the movements of theology within himself. Terms like “longing for division” and “alienation,” and even grace, are not exclusively religious, but religion sorted them out first and they are tools that permit for such breadth of illumination to proceed from an account of a single self.

In the twentieth century and the early part of the twenty-first too, the late poetry of Geoffrey Hill attempts the same (and with success). Wordsworth finds most of what he needs in Milton; Adam’s self-reproach in Book 10 of Paradise Lost is the first Romantic lyric. I don’t agree with Harold Bloom that Milton casts a shadow on all later poets, but I believe that Milton-in-Wordsworth does, because of how Wordsworth adapts for so many new contexts what Milton had mastered in another.  Reading Milton’s Paradise Lost with Wordsworth in the front of one’s memory, it is hard not to feel that the epic is not already an epic of a self: choice is one of its great themes; responsibility is another; and creation another still.

In Milton, Wordsworth found the resources to account for the self so that he was also accounting for the world. The former was not mere predilection, but a belief that any account of the world must be defined by, arbitrated through, the self. At the same time, the threat was apparent to Wordsworth: a poetry defined and arbitrated by the self might be too narrow, too particular to offer a persuasive account of the world, might fail to hold anything beyond personal foibles and failings to account.

 

 

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