Is reading poetry therapeutic? Does it – or can it – salve psychic wounds, ameliorate pain, nurture the soul, provide wisdom? Given that poets are at least as screwed up as everybody else, that might seem to be asking a bit much. But if you’ve read enough of it, you might find, surprisingly, that the answer to those questions is: Yes, poetry is and does all of those things.
I’ve generally tried to make a special place for poetry in my reading. I turn to it, sometimes in dire emotional circumstances, in the midst of a workaday life, with all the usual obligations of friends and family and the crap that fills up our days. I’m not an academic; analyzing poetry is not in my job description. Nor do I believe that the non-poetry-reading majority of the human race is lost in ignorance or insensible to all intensities of mind and soul. Near equivalents to the pleasures of poetry are readily found in other arts and avocations and even in the ordinary experiences of life. Nevertheless, I’m always surprised by the number of serious readers I encounter who flatly declare, “I don’t read poetry.” (“Neither do cows,” as Wilfred Sheed once unkindly remarked). Now they really are missing something, and if they could be persuaded to pick up Langston Hughes or Charles Baudelaire they might find they’ve been cheating themselves of a readerly delight. For those already persuaded, I want to speak about poetry in a way that’s true to how most of us actually experience it: not as scholars analyzing it in the context of critical tradition or according to the dictates of Theory but as ordinary intelligent readers more or less indifferent to scholarly debates and eager to grasp whatever truth and beauty might be there for the taking. And if truth and beauty are what you’re after, William Wordsworth, the eminent and all too respectable spokesman of High Romantic seriousness, is a good place to start.
Yes, he can be a bit humorless. However, one way to rescue Wordsworth from his proto-Victorian platidudiousness is to claim him – or at least to claim the young and fervent Wordsworth as opposed to the old and stodgy one – as an insurrectionary, a revolutionary, a radical innovator in psychological representation and poetic diction. These claims happen to be true, for the most part, yet we’re still left not only with the reams of arid verse that he spent most of his life writing after his creativity failed him in early middle age, but with a portentousness even in the great poetry of 1798 to 1808. So another way of rescuing Wordsworth is to take him seriously as a moralist and to keep faith even if he turns out to be – disappointing to modern tastes — not subversive.
The poem I’d like to consider is not Wordsworth’s greatest or most influential but merely my favorite, “Resolution and Independence,” originally titled “The Leech Gatherer.” It’s all too characteristic of Wordsworth that he abandoned a solid here-and-now title for a pair of abstractions. What’s more, the poem sets out to illustrate – determinedly if ambivalently – exactly those abstractions. But if, as Wallace Stevens said, “The poem must resist the intelligence / Almost successfully,” “Resolution and Independence” never declines into a versified thesis. For example: When I get to the last stanza and in particular the lines “I could have laughed myself to scorn to find / In that decrepit Man so firm a mind,” I tend to find myself choking back tears.
Written in Grasmere in 1802, “Resolution and Independence” is one of several poems that describe Wordsworth’s encounters with suffering indigents of the Lake District. In this case it’s an old man who ekes out an ever-diminishing living gathering leeches “from pond to pond” and “moor to moor.” (Would just such leeches have bled the dying Keats a few years later? Let us hope not.) Notoriously, the poem has more to do with the drama of Wordsworth’s consciousness than with the social fact of the old man’s poverty, which is, oddly, one of its strengths. One of the many, many functions of poetry is to bear witness to injustice and oppression, and this the poem does feelingly, if not with quite the sustained fascination that Wordsworth devotes to his own musings. (“His body was bent double . . . / As if some dire constraint of pain, or rage / Of sickness felt by him in times long past / A more than human weight upon his frame had cast.”) Yet it’s the facticity, the sheer thereness of the leech gatherer that makes the implied social criticism so forceful. There really was a palsied old man collecting leeches at a pool in Cumberland in 1800 or thereabouts, too humble and courteous to think to complain about the staggering hardships of his life. The leech gatherer owes his deserved immortality to Wordsworth alone, and that immortality is strengthened by our sense of dignity in the face of injustice. How could we not be moved by the depiction of such adversity? But as monumental as the old man is, we read “Resolution and Independence,” as we read much of Wordsworth, for the dramatization of the poet’s – that is to say, our – consciousness.
John Stuart Mill doesn’t mention “Resolution and Independence” in “A Crisis in My Mental State,” the chapter in his Autobiography in which he discusses his discovery of Wordsworth in the midst of a nervous breakdown. In fact, apart from a brief reference to the “Intimations Ode,” he’s entirely unconcerned with distinguishing one poem from another. Yet he does make it clear that the numbing lethargy and purposelessness that suddenly overwhelmed him as a young man would have dragged on indefinitely without the agency of Wordsworth’s poetry. (If James Mill had been your father, you might have been depressed too.) Mill doesn’t say that only Wordsworth’s poetry could have saved him or that Wordsworth’s poetry alone saved him. In fact, he’s rather sharp about Wordsworth’s perceived limitations. (“There have certainly been, even in our own age, greater poets than Wordsworth; but poetry of deeper and loftier feeling could not have done for me at that time what his did.”) Yet Mill was one of the first to describe the salvific character that generations of readers have found in Wordsworth more than in any other poet:
What made Wordsworth’s poems a medicine for my state of mind, was that they expressed, not mere outward beauty, but states of feeling, and of thought coloured by feeling, under the excitement of beauty. They seemed to be the very culture of the feelings, which I was in quest of. In them I seemed to draw from a source of inward joy, of sympathetic and imaginative pleasure, which could be shared in by all human beings.
So what is it about Wordsworth? Why does his poetry affect so many readers in this intensely and almost uniquely personal way? How did it, to exaggerate only slightly, save John Stuart Mill’s life? In addition to the qualities of intellect, imagination, and craft that we expect of any great poet, I’m going to suggest an unexpected one that Wordsworth possessed in disproportionate measure: decency. But before I explain why I think William Wordsworth was such a swell guy (and why it matters), I’d like to relive my own John Stuart Mill moment with Wordsworth’s poetry.
As a lost and lonely English major at the University of Connecticut in 1977, I was about the same age as Mill during his time of crisis, and suffering from a similar sort of depression – without, needless to say, having attained anything like his intellectual distinction. (Mill knew Latin and Greek by the age of seven; I was still struggling with irregular verbs in Spanish.) This misery had been going on for four years. Everything that could go wrong at college had gone wrong. Although I knew I loved literature, that was the only thing I did know – except maybe that I would have given up literature forever to have a girlfriend for twenty minutes. In this free and fancy mood I chose more or less at random to write about “Resolution and Independence” as my paper for a course in Romantic poetry. (Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, Keats: in those days of innocence the dead white males still reigned). Beautiful and affecting poetry was not by then a novelty to me, but as I moved through the poem taking notes, I began to sense something at work larger than the paradoxes and ambiguities I had been trained to recognize and that I dutifully analyzed in the paper. This strange narrative poem, though I was careful not to say so, was the story of my inner life. Maybe most of the literary works we respond to in our early twenties seem like letters addressed directly to us, but the worry, the anxiety, the fretfulness that assail Wordsworth throughout the poem, even his characteristic love of nature, which I was just then beginning to share in the woods and fields beyond campus – all these things spoke to me with uncanny intimacy. True, I hadn’t yet encountered any heroic old leech gatherers or solitary reapers to impart their wisdom and fortitude to me, but I could read those figures as projections of certain of my own aspirations, which, come to think of it, is pretty much what Wordsworth does with them. Apparently the leech gatherer had more cause for complaint than I yet declined to sulk, contemplate suicide, or fill his diaries with morbid reflections on the Void – my preferred methods of resistance. Wordsworth wasn’t the only one who could have laughed himself to scorn.
It was gratifying to enter so thoroughly into the workings of a great poem and to earn for my efforts the grudging respect of my somewhat jaundiced professor. (“Nature doesn’t bring despondency & madness to rabbits,” he helpfully pointed out in one of his notes.) And yet the resolution and independence I derived from “Resolution and Independence” was fleeting. It cheered me, it abashed me, it even shamed me, but if the poem described an incomplete progression from solipsism to a recognition of others, so did my life. For all his amazement with the leech gatherer, Wordsworth’s mind keeps wandering back to his own worries about “solitude, pain of heart, distress, and poverty,” so that he has to ask the old man several times to repeat himself – a comedy of miscommunication wickedly parodied by Lewis Carroll in Through the Looking Glass. Similarly, I had come, partly through the help of the poem and partly through a fitful process of maturation, to an almost embarrassed cognizance of the pain of others. Although nothing could quite compete with the seething drama of my particular turmoil, “Resolution and Independence” was for me something like what the leech gatherer was for Wordsworth. My God, there were other people in the world! They suffered! They sacrificed! They endured! Oh well, some lessons are better leaned late than not at all.
Not that I was ready to surrender my self-involvement completely; neither was Wordsworth. Acute introspection is one of the legacies of Romanticism, and “Resolution and Independence” would be diminished if it were less egocentric. Wordsworth traces the turnings of his psyche with almost clinical fascination (“And fears, and fancies, thick upon me came; / Dim sadness, and blind thoughts I knew not nor could name”), but the paradox is that the more he talks about himself, the more he tells us about ourselves. “It is an attractive thing about Wordsworth,” wrote Lionel Trilling in The Opposing Self, “and it should be a reassuring thing, that his acute sense of the being of others derives from, and serves to affirm and heighten, his acute sense of his own being.” For better or worse, we’re all Romantics; we can’t get enough of ourselves. And if self-knowledge sometimes passes into self-regard, well, that’s one of the things that “Resolution and Independence” illustrates so tellingly.
I’ve been speaking as if the man William Wordsworth and the first-person narrator of “Resolution and Independence” were one and the same; which they are, basically. No second year student of literature would dare make such a claim, and it’s undeniable that the unnamed narrator of “Resolution and Independence” is a “persona” who shares with the author certain accidental characteristics deployed for thematic effect and not to be taken literally. As long as literature consists of words and words consist of letters and letters consist of signs, the reality that literature represents will remain just that: a representation, never – however achingly close or deliberately distant – the thing itself. Yet Wordsworth doesn’t agonize, as we do, over the distinction between the man who suffers and the mind that creates. “What is a poet?” he asks in “Preface to Lyrical Ballads.” “He is a man speaking to men,” he replies. It was never quite that simple, which is why he immediately qualifies the claim: “a man, it is true, endued with more lively sensibility, more enthusiasm and tenderness, who has a greater knowledge of human nature, and a more comprehensive soul, than are supposed to be common among mankind.”
That, to me, sounds more like a God than a man; Wordsworth’s self-esteem was sometimes more to him than the sounding cataract. But this Poet that he keeps talking about in the Preface sure sounds like William Wordsworth. And the persona that he created for “Resolution and Independence” seems very close to what we know of the actual man: a nature-lover, a solitary walker, an egotist with a social conscience. Above all, what the persona and the person share is the avocation of poetry. If there’s any separation between William Wordsworth and the character he created to brood on the fates of his unlucky predecessors Chatterton and Burns, I can’t find it:
I thought of Chatterton, the marvellous Boy,
The sleepless Soul that perished in its pride;
Of Him who walked in glory and in joy
Behind his plough, upon the mountain-side:
By our own spirits are we deified;
We Poets in our youth begin in gladness;
But thereof comes in the end despondency and madness.
How would a young, idealistic, ambitious, and not yet established poet have thought about his prospects in 1802? Like that. Really, what Wordsworth did with his first-person narrators is pretty much what every memoirist does: he selected. The significant stuff went in, the trivia went out. If the significant stuff included not just intelligence, curiosity, and openness to experience but an introspectiveness bordering on mania and a conviction of his own importance, well, this is William Wordsworth we’re talking about. It’s not as if he was unaware of his self-involvement (contrary to Lewis Carroll), which is why there’s a touch of comedy in his wandering attention span:
The Old Man still stood talking by my side;
But now his voice to me was like a stream
Scarce heard; nor word from word could I divide;
And the whole Body of the man did seem
Like one whom I had met with in a dream;
Or like a Man from some far region sent;
To give me strength, by apt admonishment.
For all his confidence, Wordsworth’s self-portraiture admits confusion, depression, fear, affectation, laziness, and huge intellectual mistakes. In fact, all those things are essential to what he called in The Prelude the “growth of a poet’s mind.” There was, however, this much separation between Wordsworth the man and Wordsworth the literary character: the former could be a bit of a prig, as when he supposedly “complimented” Keats on the “pretty piece of paganism” that Keats recited at their first meeting. But that kind of excrescence belongs to the life, not to the poetry. Fortunately, I don’t have to live with William Wordsworth; I just read him.
Nor is the Wordsworth that I read necessarily the one that you read. But interpretation, though variable, is not quite a relativistic free-for-all. If you were to tell me, as an undergraduate told a bemused academic friend of mine, that Wordsworth’s major poetry “encodes” the poet’s secret longing to give and receive oral sex, I might suggest that Wordsworth’s characteristic preoccupations point to other concerns. Yet within reasonable limits, there are lots of Wordsworths to choose from, just as there are lots of Shelleys and Blakes and Nerudas. I happen to prefer the Wordsworth of spiritual brotherhood and moral philosophy, the one who exhorts us to a more intense imaginative apprehension of the world and our place in it, who helps us to live. It may be that my preference domesticates Wordsworth, diminishes his strangeness, and downplays his politics. But I’m speaking as the common reader that I am. In Natural Supernaturalism M. H. Abrams claimed that Wordsworth’s ambition was “to be a poet-prophet for his age.” Abrams was right. And some day I might finish Natural Supernaturalism. But I’m concerned less with reading Wordsworth in the context of his age than with reading Wordsworth in the context of my life.
If I needed “Resolution and Independence” as a confused and insecure college student, I need it even more now, after the expected disappointments of middle age have turned from tough to excruciating. I wish I could believe in some of Wordsworth’s more high-sounding nonsense about “How exquisitely the individual Mind / . . . to the external World / Is fitted.” It’s enough that he offers me for such loss “abundant recompense.” After all, he’s one of the supreme poets of “The still, sad music of humanity,” to quote again from “Tintern Abbey,” a poem that bears, like “Resolution and Independence,” the “Intimations Ode,” and most of his greatest work, an undersong of felt grief. If all I needed was cheering up I could read Deepak Chopra. The recompense means something in Wordsworth because the loss is pretty abundant too.
In an interview with the Observer, Philip Larkin, a man not known for his sentimental effusions, described how “Wordsworth was nearly the price of me once”:
Poetry can creep up on you unawares . . . I was driving down the M1 on a Saturday morning: they had this poetry slot on the radio, ‘Time for Verse’: it was a lovely summer morning, and someone suddenly started reading the Immortality Ode, and I couldn’t see for tears. And when you’re driving down the middle lane at seventy miles an hour . . . I don’t suppose I’d read that poem for twenty years, and it’s amazing how effective it was when one was totally unprepared for it.
Although the ability of a poet to reduce a reader to jelly is not the most reliable of aesthetic criteria, there’s something about Wordsworth that induces this kind of emotional surrender. In The Western Canon the mighty Harold Bloom, who used to talk about “clinamen” and “misprision” and the “anxiety of influence,” dispensed with all that hardware when discussing “The Old Cumberland Beggar,” “The Ruined Cottage,” and “Michael,” three poems rather like “Resolution and Independence” but without the “egotistical sublime” (Keats’s phrase) of Wordsworth’s obtruding presence:
As I go into old age, they move me more than virtually any other poems, by their exquisitely controlled pathos and their aesthetic dignity in representing human suffering. They have an aura that the early Wordsworth shares only with the later Tolstoy and with certain moments in Shakespeare, a universally common sorrow presented with stark simplicity and no taint of ideology of any kind.
The Prelude takes thirteen (or fourteen) books and about nine thousand lines to trace “the growth of a poet’s mind,” but in the end, notwithstanding Wordsworth’s elaborate and possibly even persuasive theories about the “ennobling interchange / Of action from within and from without,” we’ll never really know how he became the poet he did, the one who can wring tears not only out of me – that’s easy – but out of such tough minded readers as Larkin and Bloom. “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader,” cautioned Robert Frost. No doubt Wordsworth kept a firm grip on his emotions (“recollected in tranquility”) even when contemplating his most wrenching narratives and soaring meditations. But I can’t.
An overlooked biopic about Samuel Taylor Coleridge called Pandemonium offered an unusual take on Wordsworth’s character: he was evil. In the film we see him sabotaging Coleridge’s career, secretly plotting with government spies, and gradually transforming his free-spirited sister Dorothy into a madwoman in the attic. Well, you try being friends with Samuel Taylor Coleridge and tell me how easy it is. Personally, I think that William Wordsworth was an exemplary friend, brother, husband, and father, and though I regret his later Toryism, he never betrayed his deepest and best instincts. Well, almost never. The relation between the work and the life is endlessly problematic, but I can’t believe that the man who wrote of the “little, nameless, unremembered acts / Of kindness and of love” (“Tintern Abbey,” ll. 35-6) was a shit in real life.
I’ve been speaking of “Resolution and Independence” and Wordsworth’s other poems as if they were documents of my consciousness, which they are. But they are in fact poetry, and poetry is made out of language, and the language of “Resolution and Independence” is a source of aesthetic delight. This might seem an excessive claim for a poet capable of locutions like “Theme this but little noted” and “My drift I fear / Is scarcely obvious.” While not the most ravishingly sensuous of poets, Wordsworth was sufficiently master of his craft to exploit the possibilities of ode, sonnet, ballad, song, and blank verse while pushing diction in the direction of ordinary speech. Coleridge, George Saintsbury, and others considered his theory of the essential similarity of prose and verse flat nonsense, and maybe we’re lucky that Wordsworth’s verse was less prosaic than he thought it was. The leech gatherer talks rather like a poet, and not only because he speaks in rhymed iambics. Wordsworth emphasizes the old man’s “Choice word and measured phrase; above the reach / Of ordinary men.” But all of his shepherds, beggars, famers, abandoned mothers, and ex-sailors tend to sound pretty stately. Poetry in English would have to wait for Walt Whitman to unscrew the doors from the jambs. In the meantime, Wordsworth continued to use relatively conventional means to achieve unconventional ends.
One of those means was rhyme royal, and it’s one of the chief delights of “Resolution and Independence.” Because Wordsworth generally used blank verse for his discursive poems, the stanzaic arrangement of “Resolution and Independence,” moving the narrative forward by units of thought, is an unexpected pleasure. Invented by Chaucer and used by everybody from Keats to Auden, rhyme royal is a seven-line stanza that rhymes ABABACC and has, like all the best architecture and music, a locking together of the parts with enough asymmetry to keep it interesting. In this instance Wordsworth added the variation of an Alexandrine, or twelve-syllable last line: very stately indeed.
All this sonorousness, however, is balanced by instances of plain, folkloric exposition: “There was a roaring in the wind last night”; “The oldest Man he seemed that ever wore grey hairs.” Furthermore, for all his aspirations to philosophy, Wordsworth thought like a poet, and poets think in images. The leech gatherer gently stirs the muddy water, “which he conned, / As if he had been reading in a book.” Shockingly, the poet initially likens his presence to a “huge Stone” which is “sometimes seen to lie / Couched on the bald top of an eminence” and then to “a Sea-beast crawled forth, which on a shelf / Of rock or sand reposeth, there to sun itself.” These images carry the poem’s underlying themes. That’s their job. Although I can’t find oral sex in there, they point to Otherness, sentience versus non-sentience, animal versus human, and lots of other interesting things. But images have a way of transcending their functionality. The best are at once necessary and gratuitous, like an extravagant anniversary gift. My favorite image in “Resolution and Independence” is not so much metaphoric as descriptive. It occurs in the second stanza, before the turn to anguished self-reflection:
On the moors
The Hare is running races in her mirth;
And with her feet she from the plashy earth
Raises a mist; which, glittering in the sun,
Runs with her all the way, wherever she doth run.
Was the hare really having such a good time or was she “running races” to avoid the unimaginably horrid death to be visited upon her by a murderous raptor if she dawdled? In the first place, I have no trouble believing that animals – in the running, leaping, swimming, and flying for which they are so perfectly adapted – experience something like existential fulfillment; a marsh rabbit running races might have served Hegel as an example of Being-as-such. Secondly, Wordsworth’s unembarrassed use of personification, where another poet might have tried – and failed – to be more “sophisticated,” shows once again that great art draws much of its power from the popular imagination. Joseph Conrad said that the task of the writer is “by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel – it is, above all, to make you see.” Whatever else the lines about the mirthful rabbit may mean in relation to themselves and to the rest of the poem, they sure make you see. Would you and I have noticed that little cloud of mist rising up after each footfall? Would we have seen that glitter? Chances are, I’ll never get to test the accuracy of Wordsworth’s imagery against my observations of a hare racing over a wet meadow on a morning in early spring in the English Lake District. But I’ll keep seeing that excitable rabbit trailing clouds of vaporous glory for as long as I live.
Which brings me to my final point. Like the grace notes in an early Beatles song, the extended image of the hare on the moor is more beautiful than it needs to be. Certainly the poem is more effective for those lines, but it would have worked almost as well and Wordsworth would have encountered his fateful leech gatherer even without the leaping rabbit of stanza two. Yes, those particular lines contribute to the whole, as does every line and every image in it. And the whole, as I’ve argued, is a piece of earned wisdom that disturbs but ultimately consoles – “A leading from above, a something given.” But we don’t need the poem, anymore than the poem needs the optical detail of tiny puffs of glittering moisture. In the long run John Stuart Mill probably would have pulled himself together even if he hadn’t discovered Wordsworth, and Philip Larkin’s congenital unhappiness was fundamentally unaltered by his chance encounter with the “Intimations Ode” on the car radio. Although “Resolution and Independence” has been talking to me on and off for over thirty years, this particular poem has never solved any of my life problems and it won’t solve yours. Is poetry more important than dentistry? I don’t know, really. But maybe that’s why we should read it: because we don’t need to.
Stephen Akey is the author of College, Library, and A Guide to My Record Collection. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.