398. (William Wordsworth)

In this series of posts, I proposed to myself to read the best short narrative poems from the nineteenth century. So far I’ve taken up “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” “The Eve of St. Agnes,” and “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came.” Missing from that list is a poem by Wordsworth—the perfect narrative poem by Wordsworth is probably “Michael,” but the best Romance by Wordsworth, and it is, I’ve realized, not just short narratives, but short narratives in the spirit of the revival of Romances, is “Resolution and Independence.” I’ve written about the poem here and elsewhere before, and I don’t know what there is that I feel I need to sort out in my mind, despite its being so powerful and memorable a poem; like the best of Wordsworth, it feels as inevitable as nature, as Arnold says.

But the least memorable part of the poem, to me at least, is the start. The first three stanzas risk flatness that would be felt as a sore disappointment elsewhere in it. Famously, the end of the poem courts the reader’s disappointment; how could Wordsworth claim to find steadiness in the mundane answer the leech-gatherer gives in response to his question? But that puzzle feels imperative, a disappointment that inspires reflection. The first stanzas do something else:

There was a roaring in the wind all night;

The rain came heavily and fell in floods;

But now the sun is rising calm and bright;

The birds are singing in the distant woods;

Over his own sweet voice the Stock-dove broods;

The Jay makes answer as the Magpie chatters;

And all the air is filled with pleasant noise of waters.

The stanza form has not settled into itself. “Floods,” “woods,” and “broods” do not neatly rhyme; neither do “chatters” and “waters.”  Wordsworth has not settled into himself either. The poem opens with a new morning, after what we can assume to be a restless night, during which Wordsworth could hear the “roaring in the wind.” In what follows the leech gatherer will be compared to “one I had met with in a dream” and will be described as  “Not all alive nor dead | nor all asleep” and Chatterton on the other hand who will be called that “sleepless Soul,” bringing him near to Wordsworth. When Wordsworth says that morning “fears and fancies thick upon me came,” he is returning to the night thoughts that preceded the opening of the poem. The misaligned rhymes are a remnant of the distressed mind, and the key to the opening is that the poet is already, from the start, set on edge. What might seem a somewhat tired and tritely train of declarations by Wordsworth is a steadying that has not found its footing in rhyme or mind. When he says that “over his own sweet voice the Stock-dove broods,” something has shifted, and we get a glimpse of what the poem will be about: poetry that is the consolation for its own condition; the “roaring” of the wind was the roaring madness of inspiration, and the word “in” comes to seem stranger and stranger the more it is before the eye: characteristically, the preposition lends depth to that seems to have none, the wind being diffuse, of a nature that has neither surface nor depth, but that we are told, by that preposition, Wordsworth read or heard into: the roaring itself was inside of it, at the heart of the correspondent breeze.  

Even “the rain came heavily” does something stranger than it might first, displacing the “heavily” onto the verb; but the real weight of that line depends on what happens later in the poem, since it finds an echo in “fears and fancies thick upon me came” and then later, “his words came feebly, from a feeble chest.” It is not only the succession of modifiers, heavily, thick, and feebly, that brings these togethers, registering as they do weight, perplexity, and weakness, in world, pilgrim, and solitary figure, but it is also the implication of the verb “came,” which announces an arrival, but not a point of origin. This is a poem that gives us the phrase “a something given,” where the indeterminacy of “something” is no greater than the indeterminacy of the giver, and where the leech gatherer, an icon of endurance, has no origin, or even home, to speak of, “Housing, with God’s good help, by choice or chance.” So the phrase, “the rain came heavily,” which catches the accent of a colloquial phrase, also catches at the first arrival in a poem of sudden arrivals, and a poem that fears what might arrive, abruptly, in the form of madness or a change of fortunes. It is a poem very much about chance and fortune, which is one reason that it rhymes, and why there is such relief in the arrival of a clear day. “But now the sun is rising calm and bright” exhales its dull declaration, finding steadiness  and the prospect of calm in the matter of fact, no less than “The birds are singing in the distant wood” finds orientation in the word “distant.” He knows, at last, where is it at. And as the stanza progresses, the poet slowly thaws to the world: the woods are distant; like the poet himself, the stock-dove is brooding over his own voice, but also the stock-dove is capable of self-noticing, self-receptivity; and then, following that, the dialogue can be imagined, the yay that “makes answer as the Magpie chatters.” “Makes” and not “gives” or “answers” because this is the first glimpse of the shaping power that the poet will indulge when he encounters the solitary who will likewise “make answer” though not exactly answer or give the answer desired to the chatter of Wordsworth, whose question means more than the solitary knows. When the stanza ends, the flood has been transformed, “And all the air is filled with pleasant noise of waters,” with “filled” taking up the sounds of “fell in floods,” and transforming it from the heaviness of matter to the sounds in the air. “Noise” is not cacophonous but it is raw, less refined or processed than the alternatives, and that is what is pleasant about it: that it is something outside of the poet’s mind. It is also the first instance of the word “all” in the poem, a word that is repeated in the line immediately following, and in the final line of four more stanzas; the poet is drawn to the word, to how the word rounds out a thought, moving towards an absolute that he seeks in the leech-gatherer, in his own experience, in his hopes and fears.

            What we see Wordsworth doing in this first stanza is analogous to what he will celebrate the leech gatherer for doing at the end of the poem: continuing on, making something of what he can find. The leech gatherer, a solitary, represents an ideal of patience, active in his passivity, passive in his activity, sacred and bestial in his endurance, monstrous and essentially natural at once. Wordsworth’s momentous question, “how is it that you live, and what is it you do?” cannot receive an answer commensurate to its import because no answer is available; it is beyond language. The reader’s disappointment comes in Wordsworth’s apparent satisfaction at what he does hear, about perseverance, as if the moral were simply, “if he can do it, so can I”—but the opening of the poem at least gives some reason for Wordsworth’s satisfaction: getting out of bed, and “out of doors,” as he says in a potentially vacuous line in the second stanza (“All things that love the sun are out of doors”—but why would they be indoors, being birds, rabbits, etc?), and making his way through the world requires patience. It’s the patience that is the achievement and Wordsworth’s opening stanzas are themselves an exercise in patience. He is waiting for something to happen, and the simple words and declarations he lays down do take hold. They are present tense not because Wordsworth was writing in a lyric present, but because the poem took shape in that moment, in those utterances that contained the seed of the language that he would later recollect in the stanzas that begin in the past tense, “I was a Traveller then upon the moor,” a line that repeats the “door,” “moors” rhyme of the earlier stanza, replacing “moors” with “distant waters roar,” which brings together three of the words from the first stanza in a new setting and combination. He is making something of his first utterance; this is the growth of the poet’s mind as he writes the poem, and it comes out of something mundane. Though the poem’s perspective diverges from the perspective of Wordsworth that morning, the start of the poem insists that they began in the same place, that the poem began in what Wordsworth told himself he saw that morning, so that the culmination of the poem is not properly the end of the narrative of the leech gatherer in the poem’s last line, but is instead the writing of poem itself; we are invited, even after the leech gatherer ends, to return to the start, to the present tense that, situated in the past that the poem recounts, also rises above the past tense of the poem’s narration to declare itself as the circumstance of the poem’s composition. The present tense of the opening stanzas is both anterior to the leech gatherer and a present renewed with each writing of the poem, the poet speaking in the present of the poem’s composition, after the fact of having met the leech-gatherer. We are led back to it by a natural temporal succession. “I was a Traveller then upon the moor” inverts the “now” of the poem’s third line, turns us around in time, and the declaration, “I saw the hare that raced about with joy” has an effect akin to Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim watching himself and saying “that was me.” Wordsworth is somehow unstuck in time, both pilgrim and poet, but also confusing the two. The present tense narration emerges in the fifth stanza, in what are presumably invisible quotation marks, in the lines following a colon:

I heard the sky-lark warbling in the sky;

And I bethought me of the playful hare:

Even such a happy Child of earth am I;

Even as these blissful creatures do I fare;

Far from the world I walk, and from all care;

But there may come another day to me—

Solitude, pain of heart, distress, and poverty.

But the words here are not decidedly the words that he spoke in the past; there is something here that trembles again into the present, into the time of writing the poem, after the encounter with the leech gatherer has ended. Wordsworth trembles still in the uncertainty of where he might fall, and we feel that his sudden decision to tell the story of the encounter with the leech gatherer is in response to this present doubt, the doubt that has not been transcended but that still intrudes on the poem and its composition. The poet remains a pilgrim. It is a subtle but decided dramatization of the past that lives in the present, though it is grammatically formed as a present that lives in the past. The encounter with the leech gatherer could distract, could momentarily assuage, could testify to Wordsworth’s capacity to imagine, and perceive, and to speak to another, but it cannot dislodge the anxieties that unsettle him in these words, originating in poet and pilgrim alike. The word “came,” like “something given,” and like the leech gatherer himself, baffles the identification of origins. The poem does the same, with its own narration.

            Against all of this, it might be said that the present tense rises not by its own accord, not, that is, against the will of the poet but as a demonstration of his strength: he can shift into and out of the historical present at ease. This possibility, which I suspect is more plausible as a first understanding, must not be excluded, any more than the other which I’ve raised. The poem keeps alive, and could even be said to live by, the question of whether Wordsworth has mastered the circumstances of the poem’s making or whether he remains, if not at their mercy, then at least vulnerable to them, a part of them. It entirely characteristic of Wordsworth’s poetry, in which reflection upon experience is itself an experience, the poet is himself a pilgrim in recalling the past pilgrimage, and the realization of the poem arises inseparably from the disappointment it occasions; for such a poet, the narrative of the past lives in the present telling, and the past remains a presence that cannot be left behind at the end of a narrative, but that returns us to its beginning, anew.

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