“His Muse (it cannot be denied, and without this we cannot explain its character at all) is a levelling one. It proceeds on a principle of equality and strives to reduce all things to the same standard.” William Hazlitt’s insight into Wordsworth’s poetry has endured and been frequently repeated. But readers and critics of Wordsworth have been far from leveling in their appraisal of and attention to Wordsworth’s poetry, finding it of greatly uneven quality and worth; seeing it as a series of mighty peaks and forgettable dales. Wordsworth was, as a poet and person, more comfortable in the latter than in the former, and in the poems that are lesser and minor, the penetration and shock of Wordsworth’s judgement, in service to his leveling Muse, reveal something that the pinnacles of the verse cannot: the leveling pressure that he is able to exert upon some of the loftiest words in the language.
Though Lyrical Ballads revealed Wordsworth’s ambition, Poems, in Two Volumes, published in 1807, represent the culmination of the ambition in lyric form, with “Resolution and Independence” and “Ode” (intimations of immortality) most obvious in their claims for greatness. The introduction by Alun Jones opens by claiming “the most obvious characteristic of Poems, in Two Volumes is its variety of subject matter, form and versification.” That seems a perverse statement: to me, the most obvious characteristic is the narrowness of its subject matter, despite the variety of occasions for the poems themselves. And though the forms and versification are varied, what is most varied is the cadence, even within, say, the recurrent octosyllabic line.
It is possible to suppose the subject matter varied in Toussaint L’Ouverture, a daisy, daffodils, a Linnet, and Old Man gathering leeches, a Blind Highland Boy, and Medieval Tales are taken as the subject matters; but these are not properly the subject matter of the verse at all. Instead, the subject matter is the set of words that revolve through the poetry, words including and attaching to kindness and kindred, to spirit and heart, to love and hope, to bliss and blessedness, to power and fortitude, melancholy and joy. Behind these, the words including and attaching to self, recompense, giving and receiving, restraint and denial, sufficiency and insufficiency, and freedom and servitude. That might seem in itself a bewildering variety of subject matters, but they are insistently related to one another, different sides of the same elephant. The tightly limited and closed lexicon of spiritual and ethical value, inspired by so many occasions, binds the poems together. Viewed as a whole, they are about sufficiency and the self, and about a self made free to find sufficiency for joy and strength, and about those circumstances–in the political poems, above all–where freedom and joy are denied, or lost. Patient reading of the “lesser” or smaller (the “lesser” poems are not always short; some are brief narratives) poems in the collection suggests an intention by Wordsworth to create a sustained argument for finding the world enough, if only we learn how to let it.
Here are three poems to read for orientation. They are of varying degrees of fame.
“The Sun has long been set”
The sun has long been set,
The stars are out by twos and threes,
The little birds are piping yet
Among the bushes and trees;
There’s a cuckoo, and one or two thrushes,
And a far-off wind that rushes,
And a sound of water that gushes,
And the cuckoo’s sovereign cry
Fills all the hollow of the sky.
Who would “go parading”
In London, “and masquerading,”
On such a night of June
With that beautiful soft half-moon,
And all these innocent blisses?
On such a night as this is!
“The Green Linnet”
Beneath these fruit-tree boughs that shed
Their snow-white blossoms on my head,
With brightest sunshine round me spread
Of spring’s unclouded weather,
In this sequestered nook how sweet
To sit upon my orchard-seat!
And birds and flowers once more to greet,
My last year’s friends together.
One have I marked, the happiest guest
In all this covert of the blest:
Hail to Thee, far above the rest
In joy of voice and pinion!
Thou, Linnet! in thy green array,
Presiding Spirit here to-day,
Dost lead the revels of the May;
And this is thy dominion.
While birds, and butterflies, and flowers,
Make all one band of paramours,
Thou, ranging up and down the bowers,
Art sole in thy employment:
A Life, a Presence like the Air,
Scattering thy gladness without care,
Too blest with any one to pair;
Thyself thy own enjoyment.
Amid yon tuft of hazel trees,
That twinkle to the gusty breeze,
Behold him perched in ecstasies,
Yet seeming still to hover;
There! where the flutter of his wings
Upon his back and body flings
Shadows and sunny glimmerings,
That cover him all over.
My dazzled sight he oft deceives,
A brother of the dancing leaves;
Then flits, and from the cottage-eaves
Pours forth his song in gushes;
As if by that exulting strain
He mocked and treated with disdain
The voiceless Form he chose to feign,
While fluttering in the bushes.
“By Their Floating Mill”
By their floating Mill,
Which lies dead and still,
Behold yon Prisoners three!
The Miller with two Dames, on the breast of the Thames;
The Platform is small, but there’s room for them all;
And they’re dancing merrily.
From the shore come the notes
To their Mill where it floats,
To their House and their Mill tethered fast;
To the small wooden Isle where their work to beguile
They from morning to even take whatever is given;—
And many a blithe day they have past.
In sight of the Spires
All alive with the fires
Of the Sun going down to his rest,
In the broad open eye of the solitary sky,
They dance,—there are three, as jocund as free,
While they dance on the calm river’s breast.
Man and Maidens wheel,
They themselves make the Reel,
And their Music’s a prey which they seize;
It plays not for them,—what matter! ’tis theirs;
And if they had care it has scattered their cares,
While they dance, crying, “Long as ye please!”
They dance not for me,
Yet mine is their glee!
Thus pleasure is spread through the earth
In stray gifts to be claimed by whoever shall find;
Thus a rich loving-kindness, redundantly kind,
Moves all nature to gladness and mirth.
The Showers of the Spring
Rouze the Birds, and they sing;
If the Wind do but stir for his proper delight,
Each Leaf, that and this, his neighbour will kiss;
Each Wave, one and t’other, speeds after his Brother;
They are happy, for that is their right!
I should also quote an excerpt from a longer quasi-narrative poem, where the shift to the sort of language I’m discussing is a chief event. This from “The Matron of Jedborough and her Husband”:
Her buoyant Spirit can prevail
Where common cheerfulness would fail:
She strikes upon hi with the heat
Of July Suns; he feels it sweet
An animal delight thought dim’
Tis all that now remains to him.
In these shorter and “lesser” poems, where the subject matter is allowed, like the poetry itself, to court the charge of triviality (the most famous would be “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud”), the argumentative presence of the collection’s key-words, its genuine subject matter, is most evident because they would seem to pull upwards and against the nugatory. But they do not. Instead, in poems that are frequently about taking what is granted and given, and allowing objects to rest on their own terms, Wordsworth exerts himself and imposes his will on words that, like “bliss” or even “heart,” potentially bring too much loft, too many claims of self-importance; he beats the words down, levels them with the rest of a poem so that, rather than insist on the value of the trivial occasion or minor scene (which would be portentous), they emerge from the experience of it, their significance redefined. He cannot, of course, abrogate the meanings of words like “bliss” or “joy” or “kind,” and re-invent them afresh; but he would not want to, because his effect would then be destroyed. Instead, he wants for us to notice the gap between the words as we know them in their most over-used, over-wrought, under-deserved occasions, and the words as he sets them in the poetry, restored, partially emptied, but also newly full. Or, in the terms of his own poetry, he wants for us to notice the gap between the words as they applied to flights of childhood inspiration, to enthusiasm that, in age, no longer be captured or sustained, and as they apply to those moments when earth’s redundant kindness is encountered. The language is leveled against both the inflation of false poesy and as a means of recovering and conserving joy against the losses and disappointments of time.
“Levelling” has Hazlitt means it suggests equality of status and wealth alike. But Wordsworth’s first is animated, motivated even, by a tension between the sufficiency of the world, its being not just “kind,” but “redundantly kind,” and the inability of most to grasp what is given, either because of timing, or chance and change, or habit or, in the sonnets especially, political misfortune. The world is enough for us; we are not often enough, then, enough for it. Hence the melancholy sadness of many cadences in the verses, running beneath the hope they announce.
In the short lyric, “To a Butterfly,” the lines quicken strangely with the possessives (“ours,” “my”) because this is very much a poem about taking hold of, and appropriating to self, as an extension and anchor of self, that “something given” (“Resolution and Independence”) that is the alighting of a butterfly:
I’ve watched you now a full half-hour;
Self-poised upon that yellow flower
And, little Butterfly! indeed
I know not if you sleep or feed.
How motionless!–not frozen seas
More motionless! and then
What joy awaits you, when the breeze
Hath found you out among the trees,
And calls you forth again!
This plot of orchard-ground is ours;
My trees they are, my Sister’s flowers;
Here rest your wings when they are weary;
Here lodge as in a sanctuary!
Come often to us, fear no wrong;
Sit near us on the bough!
We’ll talk of sunshine and of song,
And summer days, when we were young;
Sweet childish days, that were as long
As twenty days are now.
There at the end is the dying cadence, a cadence that falls with the thought of death; the butterfly’s life being so short that one of their days is a span of days for it; he and his sister realizing their days are shortened in experience from what they once were; the need felt to know themselves as selves while they can, not only by acknowledging the plot of land that is theirs, but the time that is theirs, suspended by and in their apprehension of the butterfly, “self-poised” on a leaf for a half-hour as they are self-poised in knowing it, and imagining its “joy” when it will be stirred, and they with it, by a breeze: the inspiration for the poem; the occasion of its departure from the “sanctuary.”
In this poem, too, the final and greatest power of Wordsworth’s muse is felt, as time itself is leveled: the half-hour of watching, the prospect of the rising breeze, the hope the butterfly will come often, and the memory of younger days which were, each one, as long “as twenty days are now.” From the final line an ambiguity flickers, a pronouncement braced against the thought that time is not as rich or long as once it was: that twenty days are “now,” that the present instant contains all of time within itself.
The three leveling impulses are united: the words made equal to the occasion of the verse, and made to grow from its trivial happenstance; the need to take possession and hold of the sufficiency the world offers; and the compression of time onto a single plane and moment, in the very wording of the lines. With the uniting comes a leveling of the ideas the poetry expresses: beauty and sublimity, fancy and imagination, perplexity and calm, yearning and detachment, the arcane and the open, and elegance and severity. The union in the smaller poems is not always sustained or complete, but its presence justifies Wordsworth’s thought that they be understood as side-chapels surrounding the masterwork he did not write, of which The Prelude forms the sole part. In that failure too, the leveling Muse maybe played some part, uniting completion with incompletion, wholeness with ruin.