336. (William Wordsworth)

O blithe New-comer! I have heard,
I hear thee and rejoice.
O Cuckoo! shall I call thee Bird,
Or but a wandering Voice?

While I am lying on the grass
Thy twofold shout I hear;
From hill to hill it seems to pass,
At once far off, and near.

Though babbling only to the Vale
Of sunshine and of flowers,
Thou bringest unto me a tale
Of visionary hours.

Thrice welcome, darling of the Spring!
Even yet thou art to me
No bird, but an invisible thing,
A voice, a mystery;

The same whom in my school-boy days
I listened to; that Cry
Which made me look a thousand ways
In bush, and tree, and sky.

To seek thee did I often rove
Through woods and on the green;
And thou wert still a hope, a love;
Still longed for, never seen.

And I can listen to thee yet;
Can lie upon the plain
And listen, till I do beget
That golden time again.

O blessèd Bird! the earth we pace
Again appears to be
An unsubstantial, faery place;
That is fit home for Thee!

It’s characteristic in suggesting not just more than it says, but more than it could say, or than anyone (it suggests) could say; behind almost any of the words, that is, there is an argument for what the world is like, for an entire experience of life, that is not pursued by the poem itself. Take even the recurring puzzle of whether Wordsworth responds to the bird itself or the voice; that contains itself the question of whether the voice has a life and spirit independent of the bird (bearing on the poem itself), as well as the question of whether it is the invisibility of the bird that lends the voice its power, and finally the question of whether the power of naming (“shall I call thee?”) is itself the supreme power, the object being transcended by what the poet makes of it; and there are no doubt more. But the questions are latent, with only the opening stanza opening into a question, which itself gives rise to still more: why the V of voice is capitalized, why it would, given the spiritual freight of that capitalized Voice, be merely, “but” a wandering Voice, as if it were less than the bird itself (Wordsworth is quietly arguing against the impulse to value the transcendent over the concrete and particular). Even words that, at first reading, seem to carry little burden–like “blithe”–do a real work, albeit blithely, since that word itself yields several possibilities: that the bird is blithe because unaware of its powers; it is blithe because of a heavenly innocence that has no cares, that does not feel the burdens of the word; it is blithe as a consequence of its physical presence, here and there, hither and thither, detached from any one place; it is blithe because rejoicing in what it accomplishes. But just as strange is the word “New-comer”: it firmly situates the poem in an occasion; Wordsworth is somewhere (anywhere, as a commenter has noted) and the bird’s voice suddenly is noticed, a novelty to his senses, after (once again, I’m indebted to a comment) its seasonal absence . Arriving newly, the Voice carries Wordsworth on a path of reverie, backwards and upwards from the plain where he lies. Behind that word there is an argument that even commonplace, recurrent events of the natural world are to be felt as interruptions and alterations to time and experience. “New-comer” establishes Wordsworth as the fixed point, the old estate, and the inhabitants and elements of the world as visitants; “wandering” in the last line of the stanza finds its echo in “pace” of the final stanza, where pace is less blithe, more regular and regulated.

In the second stanza, the poet and poem are situated, lying on the grass, a scene of pastoral simplicity, a communion with the grass of the Psalms, an idle receptivity to what the world will bring, a characteristic mode of sanctified, earthly contemplation in Wordsworth. The twofold shout is double because of the falling, double-note of the cuckoo call (a higher pitch followed by a lower), and perhaps redoubled here echoed between the hills; “at once far off and near” is akin to a statement of spiritual faith, the simultaneous nearness and distance held in suspension, so that even as “it seems to pass” from hill to hill it is both near and far; one implication is that the hills themselves, and everything in the natural world, is suddenly now both near and far, and more than that, both nearer and further than it was before. The word “seems,” always telling and carefully oriented in Wordsworth’s poetry, recalls “appears” in the final stanza, so that the earth we pace, when made insubstantial, is both more and less itself, nearer and further from Wordsworth, than it would be without the word. “Seems” introduces also, as always, the play of Wordsworth’s own mind in the act of perception; it serves as an acknowledgment of his creative powers acting not upon, but in harmony with, the world around him. “Far off and near” is not only spatial though; Empson points out that the hills in Wordsworth come to serve as a maternal presence, and here the “far off” is that of the past, the scenes of childhood he will recall, and “near” is the present that will be transformed by memory. The entire Wordsworth machine is kicking into gear, churning away beneath the blithe stanzas.

“Babbling only” makes the Cuckoo’s voice itself the voice of a childhood, making sounds without sense, or speaking without direction, or flowing like a stream of sound, and “only” could mean that the voice is nothing but a babble, or else that the babble is directed only at the Vale; it may be that he considers himself a part of the Vale, so that he is privy to the special visitation of the bird, the Vale becoming a holy site, or it might be that he considers himself a human interloper, overhearing what is not for him, and what must be, to one level of his understanding, mere “babbling,” though he discerns in it, with the part of his understanding formed when he himself was a child capable only of babbling, something more. “Babbling” does not transport the poem to the far past, but it brings a whiff of the past into the air. It may be that the Vale is a vale consisting of sunshine and flowers, paradisal and pastoral, to which the bird sings, or it may be that Wordsworth presumes the bird only to babble of Sunshine and Flowers to the vale, since there could be nothing else that could concern the bird. Here the full pastoral symbolism (as Empson understands it) of the bird is expressed: the discovery and apprehension of complexity within, and by means of, the simple. The bird perhaps, to its own mind, babbles mindlessly of flowers and sunshine, but to Wordsworth it means more; this might be owing to his special visionary powers, or it might be owing to his being a part of the humanity, whose fortune it is to discern the promise in the natural world; or else it might be that the bird apprehends unconsciously because it only babbles without language what it is the poet’s gift and deprivation (and humanity’s gift and deprivation) to approach, without full statement, in words; it is a deprivation because the gain of language coincided with a loss of more perfect harmony. In Some Versions of Pastoral, in the chapter on “The Garden,” Empson remarks:

Dr Richards’ account of romantic nature poetry in Coleridge on Imagination is a very good example; the personalized Nature is treated both as external to man and as created by an instinct of the mind, and by tricks of language these are made to seem the same. But if they were simply called the same we would not be so easily satisfied by the tricks. What we feel is that though they essentially unlike they are practically unlike in different degrees at different times; a supreme condition can therefore be imagined, though not attained, in which they are essentially like. (To put it like this is no doubt to evade a philosophical issue). A hint of the supreme condition is thus found in the actual one (this makes the actual one include everything in itself), but this apparently exalted claim is essentially joined to humility; it is effective only through the admission that it is only a hint. Something of the tone of pastoral is therefore inherent in the claim; the fault of the Wordworthian method seems to be that it does not show this.

But I believe that in “To the Cuckoo,” humility is the main trick, and that the method, entirely characteristic of Wordsworth, does very much what Empson says it does not, even if is not as magnificent and broad a poem as Marvell’s “The Garden.”

In the word “bringest,” that humility might seem to be challenged; here is Wordworth reclining, and the bird bringing him a tale, as if his servant. But that image is at least balanced by Wordsworth as idle beggar, taking what he will receive. He is both sovereign and servant, and the bird is also both. The word “unto” strikes my ears as loftier than “to,” though that is perhaps historically wrong; the main difference is “unto” carries with it a suggestion of giving, which fits the occasion here. But elsewhere, Wordsworth does something else more it:” “and temples lie | Open unto the fields, and to the sky” (“Composed upon Westminster Bridge”); “and unto this he frames his song” (“Ode on Intimations of Immortality”); Wordsworth wants the word to suggest commerce and receptivity and harmony of one with another. Where he has “unto the fields” and “to the sky” in the same line, the following line (after a semi-colon) is “all bright and glittering in the smokeless air,” so that they present themselves visibly to the sky, in their orientation, but they open onto, and permit movement to and fro the fields. “Unto me” contains the thought of the tale being brought “into” him, by way of his ears and imagination. The “tale” might be the babbling itself, Wordsworth knowing it to be a narrative though he cannot understand it, or Wordsworth recognizing it as a story of something greater than him; but it is also and chiefly to be thought that the bird brings unto Wordsworth a tale that he already possessed, a memory of the visionary hours of his childhood; though here too, the tale of visionary hours might be contained in the bird’s babbling, unconscious, untranslatable even, rather than associated with the same sound heard in Wordsworth’s past.

The doubled voice is “Thrice welcome,” not chiefly because Wordsworth says “welcome” three times, but because the bird, or its voice, is itself three-fold, a natural trinity: “an invisible thing/a voice, a mystery.” Even the plainness of “thing” comes alive, with the word poised on an axis between tangible and intangible, but invisible in either case; it is itself a mystery; the mystery is what it’s true identity is, but also, more profound in Wordsworth’s cosmology, the voice is itself identified with mystery itself, which he would be wrong to subsume under a concept. “Even yet” acknowledges what more fully what has remained tacit in the poem so far: that once upon a time, in the past, the bird was “an invisible thing/a voice, a mystery.” But the poem has not recalled that past yet, and so we are told that the past persists before we are properly told what the past was, in itself. The effect is to insist that the present contains past and future within itself, rather than to retreat into memory as something apart; the bird is near and far, the past is near and far, the present is near and far. (“Thrice welcome” perhaps is the welcome of past, present, and future).

Though it has been called a “a mystery” and “thing” in the fifth stanza, the pronoun is “whom,” and the bird is given personhood again, without fanfare; that too is its mystery. School-boy days takes us to his childhood, at last, but not to the days of summer, wandering in the fields; the school-boy is institutionalized, and already thick with the frost of habit, to which the Cuckoo is opposed. In the second stanza, Wordsworth has called the Cuckoo’s song a “shout,” which feels a far greater leap of the imagination than “cry,” but startles, interrupts, and breaks free. “Shout” also recalls Psalms and some of the Prophetic books where people shout for joy. “Cry” is potentially plaintive (sympathizing for the school-boy?) but also summons, reaches out as shout does not. The fifth stanza also contains what is, up to now, the most abrupt movement of the poem. “The same whom” becomes, in the passage of the semi-colon, equivalent to “that Cry,” so that the division of person and voice, body and sound, is repeated here. Wordsworth does not need to decide, and refuses to do so, but the poem itself is jostled by the dualism that holds doubly true (the poet being the third term, if we want to think in terms of unity, dichotomy, and trinity). In a poem that has counted in two and three, “thousand” is not just a mounting of terms, but it is a quantity beyond reckoning; it speaks to an immensity, without proclaiming infinity, where infinity would push the poem too far into the sublime, too far from earth where, however earth is transfigured, it dwells: “in bush, and tree, and sky” moves upward, but does not lose sight of what is present to the senses, and the argument implicit is that there are thousands of places to look, a thousand ways of seeing the Cuckoo.

In a poem the entirety of which is something of a naturalized Psalm, that character is nowhere as fully realized and embraced as in the sixth stanza, where “thee” could be capitalized into God or a deity, and where the inversion of the first line gives pride of place (without pride) to “To seek,” the animating impulse and activity of the poet contrasting with the passive receptivity of his adulthood. The seeking that opens the stanza contains a seeing that is impossible, and the stanza closes with echoing sound of “never seen,” but the movement from “to seek” to “never seen” is not one of disappointment, but instead one of self-renewing desire, satisfying in itself, at one with “hope” and “love.” The young Wordsworth, then, seeking the Cuckoo, roved in hope, and roving in hope, came to rest in hope as a state of being sustained by not seeing what was always heard; invisible, but nonetheless persistently known and present enough to kindle a longing that sight would extinguish. “Hope” is perhaps not surprising, arriving where it does, and with the background thought that faith is the substance of things hoped for, here alloyed with the thought that the Cuckoo and its voice are themselves identified with (“wert”) a hope, the substance of hope being their own substance, the poet’s hope making them what they are. More surprising, though, is “a love,” all the more since the comma between “a hope” and “a love” suggests a further equation, so that we can read it as being that the Cuckoo is both a hope and a love, or that Wordsworth revises the equation, first calling the bird a hope and then going further and saying it is a love (encompassing but more than hope), or else we can read it as saying that Cuckoo is a hope, which is also equivalent to a love. The last possibility is most beguiling, raising further questions as to what sort of love this is (agape? eros? neither? both?). But whatever the equation, to call something “a love” is grammatically quite different from calling something “a hope.” “Ah, I see you have plans to go to the beach this summer?,” says one friend to another. “Well, it remains something of a hope for now,” the latter replies, suggesting that it is is removed from reality, suspended in possibility (like the voice of a bird). “You listen to lots of Beethoven’s music, I notice,” says one friend to another, “it is something you enjoy?” To which the latter replies, “it is a love of mine.” Calling something a love is to insist on its reality, on the profoundly animating presence it has in one’s life, something to which one returns. In the poem, the thought seems to be that hope itself is a love, or was, for a young Wordsworth. But there is also the possibility that “a love” is a person one desires, and that the pursuit is not yet satisfied; here the animation is the hope of satisfaction, and the relation of the words is different, with something more akin to eros and lack and the absence of the bird propelling Wordsworth onward, restlessly. “Still” it should be noted means “always” or “persistently,” and not “up until this time,” but that wonderful word also sets itself against “rove” and the movement implicit in both “a hope” (the mind returning to what is not yet actual) and “a love” (especially if the latter implies desire), not only with persistence and endurance, but with rest and poise, something unchanging and fixed, as the voice of the bird, and the object of desire, is in the mind that pursues its ever-changing course.

“And I can listen to thee yet” propels us into the present, but it also violently yokes present to past. “Can” does not have the striving of “will,” but it insists on a capacity and in so doing speaks to fear that the past experience of the Cuckoo’s voice was itself lost; the past itself has become “a hope, a love.” The yoking is effected by the force of “And,” which conjoins temporally as well as grammatically, and also by “yet,” which meaning “even now,” suggests that the past has not passed away; that the “still” voice has persisted into the present, even though with “New-comer” at the start, we know full-well that the Cuckoo’s voice now marks a difference; by this point in the poem, though, the novelty is the recovered presence of what has been, and what had been lost. “Can lie” should not, one thinks, mean “can deceive,” but the possibility of self-delusion must have entered the poet’s mind: he can “listen” yet, but can he hear what he once heard? He can lie upon the plain, and he can lie to himself about what he hears; but in the power of feigning what he feins (desires), he can make it true and real (Empson makes the same point about poets feigning and poets feining in his chapter on “The Garden,” discussing Touchstone’s wordplay with Aubrey in As You Like It). Here, the wordplay is not a pun on feign and fein, but the unfurling of “lie” into “listen”: to listen one must lie (recline) to be receptive, and by lying (deceiving oneself), one can become receptive to the world (“listen”) as would otherwise not be possible. In the weave of the stanza itself, the pattern of sound as well as position in lines is “listen”–“lie”–“listen”–“time”: the first act of listening occasions a lie that permits the listening that begets the lie that is the golden time, the past come back to life, the visionary hour, a lie that is true, a truth that, like the thought of the “faery world” of the final stanza, is a lie. “Beget” gives substance to thought, the creation of time itself. In its regular cadence, its striving forward with determined assertion, the seventh stanza breaks apart, becomes sure of itself, even as it mentions lying; this is a lie that knows its own worth, and knows that it will beget a truth.

We might expect the poem to end there, at the end of the seventh stanza, with the visionary hours returned again, the golden time descended. But that conclusion would be self-satisfied, self-triumphant, and one lie too far. The final stanza is more ambivalent, though quiet in its ambivalence. It is a poem for the Cuckoo, a song of praise. Now it is a “blessed” bird, blessed because he has recovered, over the course of writing, a deeper sense of what the bird can do and mean, but also because he has, by writing the poem, blessed it. Not only the bird but the world is transformed, and the word “again” tells us that the “golden time” has endured beyond the seventh stanza, into the final. But whereas in the seventh stanza the “golden time again” referred to the hours of Wordsworth’s childhood, here it is the world that Wordworth imagines transformed around, and for, the Cuckoo; there is a difference between the two. On the one hand, he recovers, in the memory carried within the Cuckoo’s voice, the experience of the world that was once his; on the other hand, he remains one of those who pace the earth that appears a fit home for “Thee.” There’s a possibility that it is no longer a fit home for Wordsworth, either because the world that we envision as children, beautiful and glorious as it is, cannot sustain us in adulthood, or because the Cuckoo is not of the same stuff as Wordsworth, whether young or old, and so is served by a world different from that which serves him. We could imagine a sort of dusting-of of the hands, with a stress on “that:” “Now THAT is a fit world for thee” Or we could imagine the stress on “Thee,” contrasting with “me.” But in either case, the world that Wordsworth has made, in his imagination, for the Cuckoo, is a world that is somehow separate from him; it stands apart a created thing that is not his to inhabit. It is a poem, not a place, that Wordsworth has made.

1 Comment

  1. If you live in England, the arrival of the cuckoo is eagerly awaited and listened for, in April. The poet (like other people) has been listening for days. The cuckoo, the New-comer, can suddenly be heard to have arrived, not having been heard for months. It’s not that the poet is somewhere and the voice suddenly arrives. Everywhere he’s been, he’s been listening for it, and even not trusting a distant sound that might or mightn’t have been it.

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