Saturday, April 20, 2019

a news service

Poet and Son: Hartley Coleridge (2)

Both Samuel Taylor Coleridge (STC) and Wordsworth were to identify or at least hint at glitches in their theory of education. These were few and far between, at first, but still they foreshadowed possible problems for STC’s son, Hartley. STC found the glitches mainly in his metaphysical (as Byron had it) studies, and only secondarily in his actual case histories, of which there were only a couple in the Lyrical Ballads, Hartley being the main one. With Wordsworth it was the other way around. He studied a wide range of case histories, and left the study of theory mainly to his friend. Of the two, STC is slightly more worried than Wordsworth about promoting rustic life.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

 

In “The Nightingale,” about and for Hartley and written two months after “Frost,” an incident is mentioned wherein Hartley awakens distressed due to “some inward pain,” and STC takes him out to see the moon, which calms him. While outside, Hartley also is delighted by the song of the nightingale. STC reaffirms his promise to bring him up in nature.

But STC notes that what works for the child Hartley doesn’t work for some adults. The poem speculates that, if people are troubled by illness or unrequited love, they can become self-absorbed and so closed off from nature. This problem is augmented by poets who thoughtlessly “echo the conceit” of previous sick or love-sick poets that nature, specifically here the song of the nightingale, is melancholy.

Hartley was to become one of those poets. He found nothing but melancholy in nature. In a note to his own nightingale poem, “Song: ‘Tis Sweet,” published in 1833 shortly before his father’s death, Hartley says that STC, “who has spoken so decisively of the ‘merry Nightingale,’ must forgive my somewhat unfilial inclination towards the elder and more common opinion.” That opinion was voiced most famously in Milton’s “Il Penseroso,” and it is an opinion specifically acknowledged but rejected by STC in “The Nightingale.” Hartley seemed to enjoy having on his side the authority of an even greater poet than his father.

There’s also “The Foster-Mother’s Tale,” which expresses misgivings about the ministrations of free-thinking people who raise a child with minimal restrictions. STC obviously admires the “youth” in the poem, the foster son, describing him not just as a deeply moral and sensitive person but also as an inspired poet (poetry being a sure sign, for STC, of creative engagement with the world). It is society that is at fault for rejecting the youth, a society that will be improved only as individuals are. But it seems that, if some of those individuals are too far ahead of others, too free in expressing and pursuing their thoughts and desires, they could go to prison, die, or be forced to flee to the wildernesses of America.

 

Hartley Coleridge.

Hartley Coleridge.

When Hartley got to be around four years old, this was to become a major concern, for both STC and Wordsworth, and Hartley ended up aware enough of their concern to refer to it jokingly. When he applied for entrance to Oriel College in Oxford, he felt that his only other option was going to Brazil — no other options, the pulpit or the podium being the two obvious ones, being in any way attractive to him. When a year later he was expelled from Oriel (for drunkenness, mainly, but also for a tendency to express and argue, like the foster son, his opinions vehemently), he heard that one of his professors had suggested that he might do better in Canada.

Wordsworth explored glitches in natural education in one poem only, “Lines Left upon a Seat in a Yew-Tree.” Here, pride is seen as an obstruction to love of nature leading to love of man — an obstruction not easily removed by contact with nature. This poem is an early one, written before STC and Wordsworth met, and it is the only early poem that Wordsworth saw fit to include in Lyrical Ballads, indicating that it connected to his new insights into nature. It was later taken out of the second edition of the book, indicating that Wordsworth didn’t know how to illustrate the connection or figured that the case described in the poem was not after all relevant.

The case is that of a man of genius, “pure of heart” like Dorothy, raised in nature, who “to the world went forth” where he is proof against everything but neglect. Neglected, in the sense that no one reinforces his principles and instincts, he eventually turns away from society, nourishing himself “with the food of pride.” He retreats to the countryside and builds a seat in a place with a good view. Here he finds some comfort in the scenery, but is unable to escape his disappointment and return to empathetic thoughts about people. The problem, Wordsworth reiterates, is only partly society’s ignorance. It is also personal pride:

Stranger! Henceforth be warned; and know, that pride,
Howe’er disguised in its own majesty,
Is littleness; that he, who feels contempt
For any living thing, hath faculties
Which he has never used . . . . Be wiser thou!
Instructed that true knowledge leads to love . . . .

Wordsworth’s solution is the old-fashioned one of an act of will — of faith. You, he says, should remember that if you have negative feelings about people, that’s a sign that you have misled yourself. This advice is similar to conventional doctrine (St. Augustine) about how you go about understanding the Bible. If you don’t see Christ’s message of love or charity in what you’re reading, if you see in fact the opposite (for example when God asks Abraham to kill his son), you have misunderstood and need guidance or you are reading literally what is meant metaphorically. You need to stay loyal to the experiment.

Later, Hartley felt that he suffered neglect, or suffered lack of confirmation of his abilities, specifically those pertaining to poetry. From the time he started writing poetry (age 13, according to his brother Derwent), he harbored great hopes for it. Poetry came to seem the one thing he could do right, his only chance to achieve any success in life. He attributed the passions of his “sadder years,” which started with his expulsion from Oxford, to his failure to be accepted as a poet there. He failed to win three major poetry contests. These contests were considered important; the winning poems were read at commencements and special occasions. Hartley was devastated: “I foresaw that all my hopes could prove frustrate and abortive and from that time I date my downward declension, my impotence of will, and melancholy recklessness. It was the first time I sought relief from wine, which, as usual in such cases, produced not so much intoxication as madness.”

It was not enough madness to drive Hartley away from poetry, however. He never, like Wordsworth’s character, cultivated bitterness. Hartley wrote steadily, and published frequently in the major periodicals, for the rest of his life. He acknowledged that he was one of the “small” poets, but he seemed comfortable with this. Pride was not one of his notable vices.

Lines Left” is the only example, in Wordsworth’s contributions to the Lyrical Ballads, of human failings overcoming the benign influence of nature. The bulk of Wordsworth’s case histories are favorable. First there are the children, all of whom recount or are involved in “artless tales” exhibiting a childlike depth of feeling and sensitivity (“We Are Seven”) or a precocious wisdom (similar to the wisdom soon to be spouted by Hartley and made much of by STC and Wordsworth). Second, there are the dispossessed and the poor, who survive even traumatic events like being kicked off their ancestral property by an evil landlord (“The Female Vagrant”). Third, there is the naysayer, “Matthew,” who advises the author to quit mooning around in nature and attend to his studies; Matthew is taught a lesson about receptivity and the limited value of formal education and books. Fourth, there is Wordsworth’s sister Dorothy, featured in “Tintern Abbey,” the concluding poem in the book. Dorothy is only a year younger than her brother but unspoiled by contact with urban society and formal education. Because of that, she is the epitome of empathy. There is a convict to whom society has taught and is continuing to teach the wrong message, and the Rousseauian “noble savage” who sacrifices herself for the tribe. Finally there is Wordsworth himself, born and raised in Cockermouth near the Scottish border in what’s called the “Lake District,” a son of nature certified by birthplace to identify, expound and illustrate the values communicated by free interaction with landscape.

William Wordsworth.

William Wordsworth.

 

Tintern Abbey” made Wordsworth famous. It’s a conversation poem that expanded into something more, an ode to nature. It’s a kind of theoretical summing up of the behavioral process by which the benefits Wordsworth got from his “glad animal movements” in nature are accrued. First, there are the sweet “sensations:”

Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart,
And passing even into my purer mind
With tranquil restoration . . . .

Second there are “feelings” that lead to empathetic or charitable acts:

feelings too
Of unremembered pleasure; such, perhaps,
As may have had no trivial influence
On that best portion of a good man’s life;
His little, nameless, unremembered acts
Of kindness and of love.

Third, the sensations and feelings bring about a “blessed mood” (and memories of being in that mood) that lifts the spirits until a sense of the divine is felt:

We are laid asleep
In body, and become a living soul;
While, with an eye made quiet by the power
Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,
We see into the life of things.

This sense of the unity of things enhances and validates the feeling of love of mankind:

            For I have learned
To look on nature, not as in the hour
Of thoughtless youth, but hearing oftentimes
The still, sad music of humanity.

In the conclusion of “Tintern Abbey,” Wordsworth sees the same process working in his sister Dorothy, “one whose heart the holy forms/Of young imagination have kept pure.” That purity, once attained, is likely to be permanent:

            Oh! Yet a little while
May I behold in thee what I was once,
My dear, dear Sister! and this prayer I make
Knowing that Nature never did betray
The heart that loved her; ‘tis her privilege
Through all the years of this our life, to lead
From joy to joy: for she can so inform
The mind that is within us, so impress
With quietness and beauty, and so feed
With lofty thoughts, that neither evil tongues,
Rash judgments, nor the sneers of selfish men,
Nor greetings where no kindness is, nor all
The dreary intercourse of daily life,
Shall e’er prevail against us, or disturb
Our cheerful faith, that all which we behold
Is full of blessings.

Tintern Abbey” details the process that STC and Wordsworth hoped Hartley would pass through in his youth. The fact that things like the dreary intercourse of daily life and the sneers of selfish men, etc., might actually prevail to some extent against any significant number of people, including Hartley, is not contemplated in the Lyrical Ballads. There is one poem, however, by STC, “The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner,” that does present a case history that seems to call in question the whole idea that people can be conditioned, by anything but religion, to find love and happiness. In “Mariner” the main character is driven by remorse and fear to reactivate his instinctive Christianity, the faith he was raised with.

This seems retrogressive in terms of the other poems in the Lyrical Ballads, especially “Tintern Abbey,” and Wordsworth was soon to regard the poem as a pariah. Two years later, when a second edition of the Lyrical Ballads was approaching completion, Wordsworth wanted the poem out, just as he wanted his own “Lines Left” out. “Mariner,” like “Lines Left,” seems to affirm that, when it comes to pride, guilt, fear, hatred and other emotions less amenable to rational control, conventional religion and conventional religious institutions are the only means of control.

STC wouldn’t have been surprised by the story in Wordsworth’s “Lines Left” or by Wordsworth’s admonitions at the end of it concerning pride. He would’ve agreed easily to its inclusion in the Lyrical Ballads. He would’ve recognized and accepted, in part at least, the Christian lore that sees pride as corrosive of charity and not necessarily to be overcome by charity even when charity is reinforced by experiences in nature. God is as prominent in STC’s early poems as He is absent in Wordsworth’s, and even as early as the “Eolian Harp,” for example, STC discards his Hartleian musings when a glance from his wife, “meek Daughter in the family of Christ,” seems to contain “a mild reproof.” He states that he, “a sinful and most miserable man,” should “walk humbly with [his] God.”

STC did often speak about “Mariner” as if it were a throwback, an imitation of something primitive not just in its style and setting (the mariner kills the albatross with a crossbow) but also in its theme. The poem features not the language of rustics but the archaic English of the early ballads as well as a somewhat Dante-esque empyrean of angels, saints and allegorical figures (Death and Life-in-Death) presided over by God. This heavenly bureaucracy, with some assistance from a few pantheistic “spirits,” leads the Mariner, through an intense but well-programmed agony of guilt and regret, to joy and empathy. The trouble for Wordsworth was that all of the progression to joy takes place in the unconscious mind.

The mariner and crew are all Christians, at least nominally, and they greet the albatross as they would greet “a Christian soul.” The mariner prays to Christ, sometimes more in the sense that we use the name in cursing, sometimes more in a religious sense. There is also a heaven and hell, the latter accessed through carelessness in connection with life, the former accessed through love. The world is “sweet,” not especially when you wander like a cloud in a rustic setting, but when you gather in communion in church to pray to God. Your prayers are “best” (are answered) when you love the entire living world, including the slimy snakes:”

Oh sweeter than the marriage feast,
Tis sweeter far to me,
To walk together to the kirk
With goodly company! —

To walk together to the kirk,
And all together pray,
While each to his great Father bends,
Old men, and babes, and loving friends
And youths and maidens gay!

Farewell, farewell! But this I tell
To thee, thou wedding guest
He prayeth well, who loveth well
Both man and bird and beast.

He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.

STC’s attachment to a more conventional Christianity, that features thoughts and evocations of God within the community of a church, was probably a result of those insecurities of childhood that are hinted at in “Frost,” where STC describes his own experiences in the city as a schoolboy lonely for his family and neighbors and for the rural landscape of his youth. The implication is that he will do better by Hartley. STC’s attachment to conventional Christianity might also have been a result of his addiction to opium, which had been prescribed for him at his school when he was diagnosed with rheumatic fever. By the time he was in university he was an addict. It was his addiction that was to result in that fact that Southey and Sara raised Hartley. STC needed help, was too often out of control, and was not able to be a self-sufficient loner like Wordsworth. Thus, the attraction of religion and of established religious institutions and the people who frequent them, first the Unitarian and then the Anglican Church.

How deeply addicted was STC? Around the time he wrote “Frost,” STC went to the doctor for help with his addiction. He was sick and hallucinating. He told his doctor that he was taking a pint of laudanum per day “besides great quantities of liquor.” Cottle later said STC was often up to two pints, but this was certainly an exaggeration. A pint of the usual laudanum mix contained three grams of morphine, an alkaloid of opium. Two pints or six grams a day would kill you. In his letters and notebooks, STC sometimes mentions dosages along with prices and even brand names. The usual clinical dosage was a tablespoon or two per day. It seems that STC vacillated often from that dosage right up to over a pint, close to overdose. He never in his life went off opium.

Thomas De Quincey, soon to become a friend of STC’s (and favorite of Hartley’s), was an addict. In 1822 he became famous for Confessions of an English Opium Eater, which names STC as a sort of philosopher-addict’s guru. Later, De Quincey wrote an article specifically about STC’s habit. Using opium as STC (and De Quincey himself) did, “defeats the steady habit of exertion; but creates spasms of irregular exertion. It ruins the natural powers of life; but it develops preternatural paroxysms of intermitting power.” In sum, neither De Quincey nor STC could function normally for long, and only with a great effort of self-control. Both suffered hallucinations, nightmares, insomnia, fevers, illnesses, constipation and depression along with periods of manic energy. Both had the junkie’s habits of procrastination, lying and disappearing.

At the same time, both were aware that opium could project them into spasms of great mental exertion, creativity and what might be called “vision.” Opium was addictive in more ways than one. STC always denied that he needed opium to write good poetry, and obviously he didn’t. But he may have needed it to write the kind of poetry he really became famous for, his dream poems including “Mariner” and another poem started at this time, “Christabel.” Later he himself, in his introduction to his third dream poem, “Kubla Khan,” alluded to taking an “anodyne” (everyone then would know what that would be), falling asleep, having a vivid dream, and awakening to write the experience down while it was fresh in his memory. The reference in the poem to the inspired poet having “drunk the milk of paradise” is taken by many to be a reference to opium. In sum, addiction had certain literary advantages.

Prayer assuaged the guilt that continued indulgence in the drug, with the accompanying disasters it caused for family and friends, brought. The prejudice, the ritualistic morality that functions when rational consciousness is obliterated by fear and guilt, that causes the mariner to pray and bless the snakes “unaware,” was as comforting for STC as it was frightening to Wordsworth, who thought that good counsel (as in “Lines Left”) was the antidote to negativity. And Christianity’s message of charity and tangible ministrations thereof increased the possibility that STC could count on his friends to provide loans, to rescue him from hotel rooms and nurse him back to health, to look after his family for him. They were his congregation. Whenever they failed him he was hurt to the point of despair.

Hartley was to experience the world described in “Mariner.” In poem after poem he speaks about guilt and nightmare:

I must seek a couch
Lonely, and haunted much by visions strange
And sore perplexity of roving dreams
The specters manifold of murdered hours.

But Hartley never revealed his strange visions, never presented them as STC did in “Mariner.” He merely told about them and analyzed them. Analysis without presentation can’t be convincing. As a result, Hartley’s concerns, his worrying of his “condition,” seem self-indulgent. He himself recognized this, commenting near the end of his life that “introverted self-watchfulness, thinking about ones thoughts, is a morbid state.” He was to do much better with “occasional” poetry — light-hearted tributes to others (especially women), poems on special occasions (Christmas, New Year’s, birthdays etc) and self-deprecating descriptions of himself. Hartley seems really to have been, unlike his father, an essentially secure and untroubled man, despite appearances. He seems to have found his place in life.

Hartley’s next prolonged separation from his father, after the months when STC and Wordsworth were working on Lyrical Ballads, started just after that book and the “Frost” pamphlet were being released. In September 1798, STC and the Wordsworths went to Germany. STC’s family was watched over by Poole, Southey, and Cottle, and supported by the Wedgwood annuity. Wordsworth had a bequest from a friend who had passed away, and Cottle, who was publishing the Lyrical Ballads, provided an advance on royalties of £80. Their purposes were quite different: STC wanted to learn German, travel and meet writers, Wordsworth to settle somewhere and write. STC was exploring his ideas; Wordsworth, having been handed the golden behaviorist key by STC, was obsessed with expressing them. STC planned three months but stayed ten, until July 1799. During that time his second child, Berkeley, was born and died.

STC’s apparent reluctance to get home or even to regularly correspond with his wife was the first shock to his marriage, an illustration to Sara that her husband had priorities that were at least as important as family. One of these, she already suspected, was opium. STC agreed, though he never said so except in his notebooks; in letters to others it was always his nerves or his heart that caused problems. He felt guilty about not being with Sara, and the death of Berkeley made that guilt irredeemable. Her anxiety about both Berkeley and STC were said to have caused her to lose her hair, so she forever after had to wear a wig. STC always ran away from whatever made him feel guilty, and he started running away from his wife. Hartley was to see his father only sporadically after the trip to Germany.

In fact, STC no sooner got back from Germany than he set off, in mid-October, with Cottle, to see the Wordsworths in the north. They meant to settle there, somewhere near where they’d been raised. STC told Sara that he was off to Bristol and maybe then London to find his suitcase, lost on his return to England, but actually he met the Wordsworths far to the northeast, in Sockburn. They were visiting with childhood friends, the Hutchinsons, because Wordsworth intended to marry Mary Hutchinson as soon as his family inheritance was settled. After Sockburn STC, Cottle and Wordsworth set off in a westerly direction on a walking tour. Cottle soon dumped out and STC and Wordsworth carried on. STC left Wordsworth in Grasmere, where he would look for a house to rent, and returned to the Hutchinson’s. A notebook entry for 24 November 1799 indicates that during the visit in Sockburn he had fallen in love with Sara Hutchinson, known as Asra in subsequent notes. By the end of November he is in London, writing to Cottle to find out where Sara (his wife) is.

Motivated by the desire to live near Wordsworth and Asra, STC brought his family north to the Lake Country after he’d put in five months of opium-addled but productive work in London as a journalist. Sara was pregnant when they moved and a third son, Derwent, was born in September 1800 just after they’d settled into a giant, three-storey house in Keswick, fifteen miles to the north of Grasmere. The house was owned by William Jackson, a man who, as STC saw it, had acquired a thoughtful, interesting and charitable personality through reading rather than communing with nature. In a letter of April 1801 STC explains to a friend that Jackson shows “the salutary effects of a love of knowledge. He was from a boy fond of learning.” For a relatively uneducated man, Jackson had a large library and liked to talk about books. The Jacksons were to become vice-parents to Hartley, and the library that accrued when Jackson and STC combined their books in the same room (soon it would be augmented by Southey’s massive collection) was where Hartley spent many childhood hours — more hours, doubtless, than he spent wandering like a breeze. STC encouraged this, not being prejudiced, like Wordsworth at first, against books.

STC’s plan now was to contribute to a new two-volume edition of Lyrical Ballads, the old edition having sold out and made him and Wordsworth notorious if not yet famous. History repeated itself, with the two poets walking the hills of the Lake District and composing poems. Inspired by his return to the Lake Country, Wordsworth had been busy making further studies of children, rustics and his own childhood memories, all destined for the new edition. Also he was working on The Prelude, in which he was the sole case history and which dealt with behavioristic theory. He completed this in essence in 1805 but continued to work on it until his death in 1850. It was published posthumously in that year. STC added new stanzas to the “Ancient Mariner” and worked on “Christabel,” trying to find an ending to the story so it could be a part of the new second volume of Lyrical Ballads.

And Sara stayed at home again, mostly alone with Hartley since STC often just bedded down at Wordsworth’s place. Her resentment of the Wordsworths grew, compounded now by her awareness of STC’s affection for Asra.

But the arrangement with Wordsworth was, this time, not to go as well for STC. He was working on the assumption that he and Wordsworth had a deal. He explained that deal clearly in the Biographia, chapter 14:

During the first year that Mr. Wordsworth and I were neighbors . . . the thought suggested itself . . . that a series of poems might be composed of two sorts. In the one, the incidents and agents were to be in part at least, supernatural; and the excellence aimed at was to consist in the interesting of the affections by the dramatic truth of such emotions, as would naturally accompany such situations, supposing them real. For the second class, subjects were to be chosen from ordinary life; the characters and incidents were to be such, as will be found in every village and its vicinity.

The neatness of this is suspect; it sounds like a plan devised in retrospect. And Wordsworth could not at the time have been thinking on this matter in the same way as STC. Wordsworth had made up his mind. The dream poems were not, after all, “natural” depictions of human passions etc. This is indicated in Wordsworth’s specific complaints, which were listed in an “apology” to “Mariner” that was actually printed with the poem in the second Lyrical Ballads, an apology that STC saw only when it appeared in print:

The Author [STC] was himself very desirous that the poem should be suppressed. This wish had arisen from a consciousness of the defects of the Poem, and from a knowledge that many persons had been much displeased with it. The Poem of my Friend has indeed great defects; first, that the principal person has no distinct character, either in his profession of Mariner, or as a human being . . . : second that he does not act, but is continually acted upon: thirdly, that the events having no necessary connection do not produce each other; and lastly, that the imagery is somewhat too laboriously accumulated.

It was a lie that STC wanted the poem suppressed; he was busy improving it. But STC was usually deferential to Wordsworth, and so might have had this confession drawn out of him, which is why Wordsworth felt free to publicize it. STC subtitled the poem “a Poet’s Reverie,” in this way detaching the poem from all the other poems in the book by implying that there was nothing of interest in it psychologically. He also took his name off the book.

When he saw the second Lyrical Ballads, Lamb was enraged. He’d expressed his enthusiasm for “Mariner” when it first appeared, and had defended it against Southey, who had written a negative review the first Lyrical Ballads, describing Mariner itself as “a Dutch [ie., drunken] attempt at German sublimity.” Now Lamb wrote an angry letter to Wordsworth:

“I am sorry that Coleridge has christened his “Ancient Marinere,” a “Poet’s Reverie;” it is as bad as Bottom the Weaver’s declaration that he is not a lion, but only the scenical representation of a lion. What new idea is gained by this title but one subversive of all credit — which the tale should force upon us — of its truth! For me, I was never so affected with any human tale. After first reading it, I was totally possessed with it for many days. I dislike all the miraculous part of it; but the feelings of the man under the operation of such scenery, dragged me along like Tom Pipe’s magic whistle. I totally differ from your idea that the Mariner should have had a character and a profession . . . . The Ancient Mariner undergoes such trials as overwhelm and bury all individuality or memory of what he was — like the state of a man in a bad dream, one terrible peculiarity of which is, that all consciousness of personality is gone.”

STC continued to assist Wordsworth with editing and with ideas for a new preface for the Lyrical Ballads. It seems that one of Wordsworth’s most famous ideas, of poetry being emotion recollected in tranquility, was based on an observation that STC made of Hartley, now three years old:

A child scolding a flower in the words in which he had himself been scolded & whipt, is poetry / past passion with pleasure . . . so poetry . . . recalling of passion in tranquility.

As an observation about poetry, it is good. It’s also good as a description of deflected anger — of a child who cannot accept that the parent’s anger is directed at him, and so passes it on to something else. It shows that STC was acutely sensitive to the fact that people (like the Mariner) are indeed “continually acted upon” by forces that they do not totally control: their emotions. And of course it gives some details about Hartley’s “nature-boy” upbringing and how “free” it actually was. Whipping was not recommended, by Rousseau, as a teaching device. David Hartley would say that, while it might teach obedience, and show a child something of what to expect in life, it would not teach empathy.

Wordsworth’s assuming total control of the Lyrical Ballads indicates the extent to which he was possessed by the vision that STC had passed on to him. In that way he can’t be blamed; the new poems that he added to the book are among the great poems of English literature. “Michael,” a long poem that occupied the place originally reserved for “Christabel,” is brilliant, though not nearly as famous as “Christabel,” which influenced Walter Scott and Byron and was finally published in 1816 at their instigation and with their help. Wordsworth’s poems feature characters and incidents that were drawn from “ordinary life” as STC put it, and are highly detailed, including even verbal or historical testimony. Many again feature stalwart rustic subjects, the most famous being Michael and Ruth.

There are also poems that further testify to glitches in the theory of moral conditioning in nature. Wordsworth’s confidence was getting shaky. The famous “Lucy” poems, ostensibly tributes to a lover who has passed away, were really, as STC suggested, expressions of Wordsworth’s fear that he would lose his sister, an experience that would surely alter his feelings for nature. “The difference” that Wordsworth imagines he would experience in nature should Dorothy die, is a vision of nature as nothing but “rocks, and stones, and trees.” As it happened, it didn’t take his sister’s death to start the process. It was already, as he soon noticed, happening, and for reasons that he didn’t understand and that went against what he did understand of David Hartley. And the process actually was eventually culminated by a death — not Dorothy’s but Wordsworth’s brother John’s.

Other poems written by Wordsworth at the time, outside those included in the second Lyrical Ballads, show him adapting David Hartley’s ideas to nature poetry and vice-versa. These more theoretical poems, building on “Tintern Abbey,” found their way into The Prelude. Here’s a passage composed in 1798 -9 and originally given the rather technical title of “Influence of Natural Objects in calling forth and strengthening the imagination in Boyhood and early Youth:”

Wisdom and Spirit of the universe!
Thou Soul, that art the Eternity of thought!
And giv’st to forms and images a breath
And everlasting motion! Not in vain,
By day or starlight, thus from my first dawn
Of childhood didst thou intertwine for me
The passions that build up our human soul;
Not with the mean and vulgar works of Man;
But with high objects, with enduring things,
With life and nature; purifying thus
The elements of feeling and of thought,
And sanctifying by such discipline
Both pain and fear, — until we recognize
A grandeur in the beatings of the heart.

Note that Wordsworth continues to leave God out of the equation. Instead there’s the more Deistic “Wisdom and Spirit” or “Soul” (with the evolution of transcendental thought in the US this became “Oversoul”). Through the very impressive rhetoric we can see his conditioning taking place. Nature induces experiences of rhapsody (here, the joy of speed-skating on a frozen lake) and fear (here, of the “alien melancholy” of isolation and absolute silence). These experiences are presented by Wordsworth in much more graphic detail than those in “Tintern Abbey” and are therefore more convincing. And they show Wordsworth grappling with the issue of pain, fear and melancholy. Engagement with landscape is not, as it is in “Tintern Abbey” and STC’s “conversation poems,” entirely a matter of joy.

The title of the fragment quoted above includes the word “imagination.” This faculty rather than reason is now seen as including the power of empathy or the faculty of conscience. It is the faculty that gets trained by experiences in nature:

There are in our existence spots of time
Which with distinct preeminence retain
A fructifying virtue whence, depressed
By trivial occupations and the round
Of ordinary intercourse, our minds —
Especially the imaginative power —
Are nourished and invisibly repaired;
Such moments chiefly seem to have their date
In our first childhood.

In yet another fragment Wordsworth specifies “spirits” working in nature. These spirits are somewhat like the pantheistic spirits of the “Ancient Mariner,” which is ironic considering Wordsworth’s disapproval of the spirits in that poem. There are two kinds of them, the quiet and severe, just as there are good cops and bad cops (both promoting justice) and parents who both reward and punish. Wordsworth, like the Mariner, found the severe cops more effective in putting him on the right path:

The mind of man is fashioned and built up
Even as a strain of music. I believe
That there are spirits which, when they would form
A favored being, from his very dawn
Of infancy do open out the clouds
As at the touch of lightning, seeking him
With gentle visitation — quiet powers,
Retired, and seldom recognized, yet kind,
And to the very meanest not unknown —
With me, though, rarely in my boyish days
They communed. Others too there are, who use,
Yet haply aiming at the self-same end,
Severer interventions, ministry
More palpable — and of their school was I.

The Prelude grew as a convincing behaviorist self-help book, its “retrospective” or summary sections dealing with “Love of Nature Leading to Love of Man” and (for two whole chapters) “Imagination and Taste, how Impaired and Restored.” There’s also a chapter on the influence of books (mocked in the Lyrical Ballads). Wordsworth’s life story was the case history and the poem itself, subtitled “Growth of a Poet’s Mind,” proof, in its overall quality and the merits of its argument, of Wordsworth’s ability to empathize or love. Wordsworth presented his poetry as proof of the truth of his message, claiming for poetry the highest status among human achievements, identifying himself as the prophetic voice of the “Wisdom and Spirit of the Universe.”

Hartley later came to admire Wordsworth for his presentation of “love of nature leading to love of man.” Wordsworth, as Hartley put it, is the priest of Nature’s “inner shrine,” the soul:

Tis thine to celebrate the thoughts that make
The life of souls, the truths for whose sweet sake
We to ourselves and to our God are dear.
Of Nature’s inner shrine thou art the priest,
Where most she works when we perceive her least.

There’s a vagueness here. Wordsworth celebrates “thoughts,” and indeed “perceives,” in childhood and maturity, nature’s workings. He “perceives” nature most when she is having the greatest impact in her work of intruding the spots of time that form “a favored being.” Hartley’s sonnets to Wordsworth indicate that, for Hartley, it’s not the overt message of Wordsworth’s great poems that impacts on readers so much as the impression that Wordsworth is interested in and concerned for all of them:

Yes, mighty Poet, we have read thy lines,
And felt our hearts the better for the reading.
A friendly spirit, from thy soul proceeding,
Unites our souls

Nature promotes friendliness, in other words, and it is best not to look too closely at how. Hartley never liked the pontificating Wordsworth; his nickname for him was “Axiologus.” And he never liked the changes that took place in Wordsworth’s poetry after the death of John Wordsworth. The pontificating switched focus from behaviorist theory to Christian doctrine. As Hartley put it (much to STC’s amusement), “the old man with the beard” finally popped up in Wordsworth’s poems.

 

John Harris

John Harris

John Harris is the author of 'Small Rain," "Other Art" and "Tungsten John." He lives in Prince George, B.C.

More from John Harris: