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Sunset on Barmouth Bay

" ... and the sky,
Never before so beautiful, sank down
Into my heart, and held me like a dream!"

William Wordsworth

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Introduction

This page is for those who have an affinity for words well written and thoughts well expressed.

In today's babble of jargon, technospeak, "one liners" and "sound bites", it is a joy to read words well written in calm contemplation of a subject to which the author has devoted much attention and considered thought.

This page contains examples of poetry and prose which I find inspiring, moving and which give real pleasure - I hope that you will also derive a similar pleasure from them. If you can pass on others in return, they would be most welcome.

The selections are purely personal. Also, even though I may not agree with all of the ideas behind the words, articles may be included purely for their compostion, well formed argument, or pure descriptive power.

Without further labouring the introduction, an example of the sort of work to be presented in these pages is provided below.


This particular piece comes from a book I picked up over 25 years ago, and have dipped into on numerous occasions as time and mood have permitted. I will come back to the details of the book in due course. The piece takes up one of a number of themes in the book relating to the author's view of how the English poet Wordsworth demonstrates through his work a distinction between the "life" in Nature and the "life" in Man - it was written in 1872.......

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letter Article 1 :
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letter In my last lecture I spoke of the meaning Wordsworth had for the term "Nature," of his conception of Nature as having a life of her own and of the characteristics of that life, its endless joy, central peace, and how all its forms, each having their own life, were knit together by unselfish love. But these are terms which are true of humanity also; we can say that human nature is capable of joy and peace and love, and Wordsworth does say that we see in Nature similar passions to our own. But though he thought them similar, he did not think them identical; he drew a clear distinction between them, between the life in Nature and that in Man. On this distinction I must now enlarge, in order that I may come to that part of my subject which treats of the education that Nature gives to man; a thought that pervades the whole of Wordsworth's poetry.

There are poets who impute to Nature their own moods and feelings, as when Tennyson makes the larkspur listen for Maud's footstep, or when Coleridge, giving to natural things the power of man, makes the Wind an actor or a poet. See "Maud - A Monodrama" by Tennyson.
This is what Ruskin calls the "pathetic fallacy" and a few instances, such as the phrase "forlorn cascades", where the lonely water-fall seems to him abandoned by the world because he feels himself forlorn, exist in Wordsworth; but he always means to distinguish clearly between his own feelings and those which he believes belong to things outside himself. The Me and the not-Me are not the same. It is not the poet who makes Nature this or that by giving himself to her; it is she who builds up part of his being by communicating herself to him. It is not that the sea is in this or that special mood, because he is in it, or that the birds sing of certain things of which he is thinking, but that the sea has its own moods, and that the birds sing their own emotions :

    The birds around me hopped and played
    Their thoughts I cannot measure
From "Lines Written in Early Spring", composed in 1798.
He does not define their thoughts: he is only certain that they do think, and have pleasure and pain of their own:
    But the least motion that they made
    It seemed a thrill of pleasure.
It is the same thing with flowers and rocks and clouds; he could not express their kind of existence, but he was certain of its being a feeling existence :
    And 'tis my faith that every flower
    Enjoys the air it breathes.
He is, of course, obliged to use the same terms as we use about our thinking and feeling, when he speaks of the life which natural things live, but he does not identify their thoughts and feelings with ours. They are similar to ours but they differ from ours, being conditioned by the different material through which they work, in a much greater degree, though in the same way as the thoughts and feelings of a man differ from those of a woman.

It is important in reading Wordsworth to understand this clearly - this separate life of Nature and Man, this distinctness which enables a dramatic action to take place between them. We have wholly got rid of the thought of Coleridge that Nature lives by the projection of our self upon it: we do not receive what we give, we give and receive back something wholly different. It is not the reflection of ourselves which we have from Nature, it is the friendship of another than ourselves.

It is this which makes Wordsworth's poetry so fresh, so healthy, and of such a morning quality. He forgets himself in the beauty, joy, and life of things; he will not spoil Nature by tracing in her any likeness to his own moods; he would not willingly have written that stanza in "In Memoriam" beginning with these lines :


    Calm is the morn without a sound,
    Calm as to suit a calmer grief :
they would have contradicted his philosophy - nor traced in the gathering storm and looming cloud the "wild despair" of grief which filled Tennyson's heart for the loss of his friend. Nor would he, even by permitting human associations to cluster thickly in certain places, prevent these places from making their own natural impression upon him - a thing which Tennyson does frequently. The whole of the descriptions of Nature in "In Memoriam" are tinged with one or the other of these faults: skies, flowers, clouds, and trees, are full of the self of the poet, or of recollections of his friend; and the result is that a partly morbid impression is left on the reader, even in the triumphant passages at the end - an impression of the tyranny of Human Nature over Nature, of ourselves as being the only thing in the universe - which is a depressing element in the poem. It is painful to be deprived by this imposition of Man on Nature of the only chance we have of getting rid of ourselves, or of feeling another life than human life. It is the first excellence of Wordsworth that though he does not pass by this "pathetic fallacy" altogether, he only treats it as a transient and unhealthy phase.

The poem on the picture of Peele Castle in a storm has been so explained as to be an example of this pathetic fallacy, but Wordsworth is true in it to his philosophy.

He sees in it the Sea at peace, but he does not see it as the image of his own peace. It has its own quiet from its own nature, not from his. Being thus distinct, it sends its impression of calm to influence his heart. That being received, the powers of his mind take it up, and add their own work to it, "the consecration and the Poet's dream". From both these things - from the impression passively received, and the active energy of thought upon it - another thing arises, the poetic picture, the work of Art.
    Ah ! then, if mine had been the Painter's hand,
    To express what then I saw; and add the gleam,
    The light that never was, on sea or land,
    The consecration, and the Poet's dream ;

    1 would have planted thee, thou hoary Pile,
    Amid a world how different from this !
    Beside a sea that could not cease to smile ;
    On tranquil land, beneath a sky of bliss.

    Thou shouldst have seemed a treasure-house divine
    Of peaceful years; a chronicle of heaven ;
    Of all the sunbeams that did ever shine
    The very sweetest had to thee been given.

    A Picture had it been of lasting ease,
    Elysian quiet, without toil or strife;
    No motion but the moving tide, a breeze,
    Or merely silent Nature's breathing life.

    Such, in the fond illusion of my heart,
    Such Picture would I at that time have made
    And seen the soul of truth in every part,
    A steadfast peace that might not be betrayed.
From "Lines suggested by a Picture of Peele Castle in a Storm"

It is an illustration, in a small way, of what he means in the lines soon to be quoted, when he says that the individual mind and the external universe are fitted, in difference, to each other, and when wedded together accomplish a creation - something different from both - with blended might.

The latter part of the Poem is another side of the same thought, only the Art work which he wished to do for the calm, is done by Beaumont for the storm. He can no longer look on a calm sea and find the impression of calm. Something has happened which forbids it; the sea has engulphed his brother. But he neither imposes the storm in his own heart on the calm, nor sees the sea in the storm as in sorrow for his loss. The sea has its own anger and fury. But Beaumont has seen it in storm, and receiving from it an impression of anger, has added to that impression, by imagination, correlative human emotion, and composed both into one creation by Art. And on this creation Wordsworth loves to look. It, the human work, the artistic result of the blended might of Nature and of the human mind, consoles him by its sympathy with his sorrow. The conclusion follows easily from this analysis.

Nothing can be more remote than all this from the faded sentiment which we found in Warton and the other poets of his class. To sit in the shade of yew trees, and feel a charm in their gloom reflecting our own - as was the case with the youth on whom Wordsworth wrote his "Lines near Esthwaite" - to trace in the barren landscape an emblem of our own unfruitful life, is the most sickly of all pleasures :
    The man whose eye
    Is ever on himself, doth look on one
    The least of Nature's works, one who might move
    The wise man to that scorn which wisdom holds
    Unlawful, ever.
And he went further still: not only were we bound to resist this tendency, but Nature herself had against it a sad resentment. Against it she continually fought, her one effort being to redeem us from this self-consideration, to lead us to lose our stormy passions in her quiet, our consuming sadness in her joy. An instance of this in his own experience occurs in the Ode on the Intimations of Immortality. He begins by feeling that a glory has passed from the earth since he was young: grief falls on him, and in the shade of disenchantment the splendour leaves the grass, and the freshness the sunlight. But with the very utterance of the thought he springs away from this diseased condition. Nature speaking to him, he hears her voice; and joy returns, not the joy of early life, but a stiller, more grave delight. " No more shall grief of mine the season wrong," he cries; it would indeed be an evil day if he were sullen,

    While earth herself is adorning
    This sweet May morning.
There shall be no severing of his love from fountains, meadows, hills, and groves:
    Yet in my heart of hearts I feel your might ;
    I only have relinquished one delight
    To live beneath your more habitual sway;
    I love the Brooks which down their channels fret
    Even more than when I tripp'd lightly as they;
    The innocent brightness of a new-born Day
    Is lovely yet ;
The lines have their own special connection, but through them also runs the thought of which we speak - of the distinctness of the being of Nature from the being of Human Nature, and of the work which Nature, as distinct, does on Man. His own mood of morbid melancholy which he tried to lay on Nature, she had refused to receive; she sent him back, on the contrary, her mood of joy. When he had opened his heart to that influence, though the melancholy did not wholly depart, it was freed from weakness and selfishness. His heart was opened, his sadness was filled with strength and the hope which comes of delight in other things than our own emotions.

...........................................

Having now spoken of Wordsworth's separation of Man from Nature, and its moral result on his poetry, I ask what philosophic conception he founded on it. I shall try to approach it by an analogy. We get a hint in the first chapter of Genesis that God conceived of Man and Woman as originally one being, as Man - who held in one person all the male and female qualities, and as such, was a perfect ideal of Human Nature; that afterwards He divided this one Being into two persons, having similar passions, volitions, and appetites, but differently conditioned by sex; that each of these was the complement of the other and fitted to unite with one another, in order that by the mutual play of the divers qualities of each on the other the education of both might take place; and that when both, through this mutual action on each other, became at one, Human Nature would be again, as it was at first, complete.

The conception of Wordsworth with regard to Man and Nature is much the same. The spirit which lives in each differs as Man differs from Woman, not indeed in the same, but in a similar manner, but - they differ for the purpose of union, and there is between them a pre-ordained fitness. Each educates the other, and in their final marriage is the consummation of the perfection of the human mind and Nature. Here are the lines in which Wordsworth sketches this conception. It lies at the root of his Philosophy:

    For the discerning intellect of Man,
    When wedded to this goodly universe
    In love and holy passion, shall find these -
that is, Beauty, Paradise, the Elysian Fields, all ideal dreams of men -
    A simple produce of the common day.
    - I, long before the blissful hour arrives,
    Would chant, in lonely peace, the spousal verse
    Of this great consummation - and by words
    Which speak of nothing more than what we are,
    Would I arouse the sensual from their sleep
    Of Death, and win the vacant and the vain
    To noble raptures; while my voice proclaims
    How exquisitely the individual Mind
    (And the progressive power, perhaps no less
    Of the whole species) to the external World
    Is fitted :- and how exquisitely, too -
    Theme this but little heard of among men -
    The external World is fitted to the Mind:
    And the creation (by no lower name
    Can it be called) which they with blended might
    Accomplish:- This is our high argument.
End of Article 1
---------- This is an opportune point to put a break in the article, since the last verse sums up the argument being developed by the original author.

As you may have guessed by now, the theme being pursued is theological, and it is refreshing to see the argument developing without a surfeit of religious zeal - which would probably have turned me away from the book in the first instance. This appears even more remarkable given that this lecture was being given over a hundred years ago by the Reverend Stopford A. Brooke, M.A., Chaplain in Ordinary to Her Majesty the Queen; Minister of St. James's Chapel, York Street, St. James's, London. The book in question is titled "Theology in the English Poets" - it is one I have grown very fond of over the years.

I do not consider myself to be a religious person, and am certainly not attracted to the institutional frameworks surrounding religion. However, neither do I believe I am so arrogant as to close my mind to all religious philosophies - the intellectual imaginings of quantum mechanics and the modern advances in theories of the universe repeatedly convince me of my humble position on the ladder of universal understanding.

So, although I may not agree with all Rev. Brooke's analogies and arguments, he is a pleasure to read and provides interesting and challenging viewpoints. Read his short Preface to the book of lectures from which the above extract on this page has been taken - it provides a real insight into his views and approach to the teaching of his religion. The book itself broadly covers a range of poets from Pope to Cowper, and then deals in more detail with Coleridge, Wordsworth and Burns. Extracts from these will be added to these pages in due course.

However, I must admit that it is the poetry that attracts me overall - where some compositions of words can transcend the normal conveyance of meaning and become almost spiritual. It is interesting to consider whether the images portrayed by such words define something univerally "good", or whether they merely reflect some "resonance" with an individual's psychology.

As an example, just take, from Wordsworth, the simple line and a half below:


    ___________________ ....the sky seems not a sky
    Of earth - and with what motion move the clouds!
Why do I find this so moving....?

Any views or comments you have on this page would be welcomed.

Further Articles are under development - some are listed below:


  • William Cowper
  • Matthew Arnold
  • Samuel Taylor Coleridge
  • Percy Bysshe Shelley
  • More on Wordsworth
  • John Keats
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