Sunday, February 08, 2015

`A Kind of Disease'

Some years ago I knew a poet whose tastes almost never overlapped with mine except negatively: we agreed that Wordsworth was pretty dreary. Not awful, like Pound or Ashbery, just tiresome and droning, like Jimmy Carter. Two readers on Saturday wrote to me about Wordsworth, whom I almost never read. The first sent me a copy of Lionel Trilling’s “Wordsworth and the Rabbis,” collected in The Opposing Self (1955). Trilling’s treatment is nuanced and attuned to Wordsworth’s moral sense and its kinship with the Judaic tradition:

“What I am trying to suggest is that, different as the immediately present objects were in each case, Torah for the Rabbis, Nature for Wordsworth, there existed for the Rabbis and for Wordsworth a great object, which is from God and might be said to represent him as a sort of surrogate, a divine object to which one can be in an intimate passionate relationship, which one can, as it were, handle, and in a sense create, drawing from it inexhaustible meaning by desire, intuition, and attention.”

Trilling treats Wordsworth less as a poet than a moral teacher, a sort of rabbi. His argument is compelling and admirably serious but doesn’t change my fundamental understanding of Wordsworth as a poet. One either hears the music, or not, and I’m mostly deaf. My other reader has been browsing in The Vagabond Path, Iris Origo’s anthology of poetry and prose published in 1972. He contrasts three lines from a poem by Praxilla, a Greek poet of the fifth century B. C. selected by Origo–

“I lose the sunlight, lovely above all else;
Bright stars I loved the next, and the moon’s face,
Ripe gourds, and fruit of apple-tree and pear.”

--and four lines from Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “Inversnaid”:

"What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and of wilderness? Let them be left,
O let them be left, wildness and wet;
Love live the weeds and the wilderness yet.”

Origo says: “These two quotations are as good an illustration as I know of the difference between the classical and the romantic visions of nature.” My reader and I concur, but he takes the next step and concludes:

“I much prefer the first selection. I have come to think of romanticism as a kind of disease. I find little to admire in the weeds and the wilderness.  I don’t think Stevens did either: why else would he place a jar on that hill? It’s heresy, I suppose, but I’d much rather read Pope than Wordsworth.”

Here we’ve entered the bailiwick of Yvor Winters, the arch-enemy of self-indulgent murk of any sort. His dismissal of Romanticism in the foreword to In Defense of Reason (1947) is definitive:

“The Romantic theory assumes that literature is mainly or even purely an emotional experience, that man is naturally good, that man’s impulses are trustworthy, that the rational faculty is unreliable to the point of being dangerous or possibly evil. The Romantic theory of human nature teaches that if man will rely upon his impulses, he will achieve the good life.”

Whereas, we know that among the things achieved by reliance on our impulses are videotaped beheadings and burnings.

1 comment:

Subbuteo said...

I must agree, Mr Kurp. It seems that these days making sense and writing content in poetry that is actually of consequence, as opposed to being slight and tangential or merely whimsical is, in itself, a kind of disqualification from publication. Poetry has disowned itself. The world could not tolerate a Pope, however brilliant, it seems. His very virtues would disqualify him.