332. (William Wordsworth)

The strange and wondrous movement of Wordsworth’s blank verse can be felt with special force in a poem that is not in blank verse, but that is instead cast in heroic couplets: “Character of the Happy Warrior.” That poem is less than Wordsworth’s finest because other, and less perhaps because he brings to bear on its couplets and subject matter the technique of cadence that he had established in poems with very different subjects. For Wordsworth is most himself when discovering himself excluded from the depths of another or himself; he is similarly powerful when finding a commonality in individual isolation, allowing for the discovery of an interiority that transcends a single perspective. None of that is permitted him in “Character of the Happy Warrior.”   If you look at only one passage, consider the following:

Who, doomed to go in company with Pain,
And Fear, and Bloodshed, miserable train!
Turns his necessity to glorious gain;
In face of these doth exercise a power
Which is our human nature’s highest dower:
Controls them and subdues, transmutes, bereaves
Of their bad influence, and their good receives:
By objects, which might force the soul to abate
Her feeling, rendered more compassionate;
Is placable—because occasions rise
So often that demand such sacrifice;
More skilful in self-knowledge, even more pure,
As tempted more; more able to endure,
As more exposed to suffering and distress;
Thence, also, more alive to tenderness.

Look specifically the movement at the dash (“because occasions rise”) and then, most striking, the final line, after the semi-colon following “distress.”

The heroic couplets place the poem in an Augustan tradition of awe and respect, felt from without, and below; the poem takes in what is monumental, but does not enter into it. In a note affixed to the first appearance of the poem, Wordsworth explained that it was occasioned by the death of Nelson, but later he suggested that his brother John’s death was also in his mind; the poem accommodates either and is about neither, since it is about an ideal that Wordsworth wants to believe in—and stands back from, at a distance. It might seem therefore that the tentative, grasping, eddying cadences of Wordsworth’s heroic line—sometimes called iambic pentameter—is ill-suited to the poem’s ambition: as a vehicle for inward exploration, and the encounter with obstacles to understanding what resides in the dark passages of the heart, it is not called upon. But in “Character of the Happy Warrior,” the sometimes tentative, sometimes assured, alternately eddying and direct, cadences show themselves to be not only a means for carrying out an inward-search, but for suggesting inwardness in themselves. The inwardness of the poem is not the heroic subject, but instead is Wordsworth’s own. I wrote before that it is an ideal that Wordsworth wants to believe in, and the cadences of the blank verse communicate that desire; they show Wordsworth to be doing something other than admiring, though they bring him no nearer, sympathetically, to the object of admiration; instead, the movement of the verse suggests that his admiration is itself as sensitive as any sensory act of feeling towards, and feeling of; though the Happy Warrior might be anyone, and so feels divorced from any particular subject, the poem’s vantage point is established within a particular experience of apprehension and appreciation, which persists as long as the poem itself, and which is inseparable from a first-person consciousness coming into awareness of the world.

The question at the start of the poem is genuine; the poem’s heroic lines move it onwards in a process of imagining, and discovering, rather than surveying what has already been established. But the answer is also established in the form of the question itself: a heroic couplet. The performance is both a statement and—characteristic of Wordsworth—a dramatization of the process of making that statement in a form that is alien to Wordsworth’s powers; as such, it is also an instance of Wordsworth coming to terms with the distance from what he feels compelled (a matter of duty?) to write; something genuinely new emerges as a consequence, a formal development that Wordsworth, to my mind, never pursued.


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