Storing up precious seeds
The February thaw made me think of spring, and spring made me think of Wordsworth, whom I love, and loving Wordsworth made me realize that I was changing generations.
Lionel Trilling, my former teacher, told me such associations would happen, but he told me that long ago, when I was green. Not green in the Wordsworthian sense of nature as peace and harmony, but green in the Dylan Thomas sense of a force driving through the "green fuse" of passionate youth. And Trilling told me that I would not really come to love Wordsworth or truly understand his poetry until I was much older.
His judgment then seemed odd. After all, I was a graduate student, working on Wordsworth, analyzing the great poetry, and recognizing Wordsworth's distinction between days of "wild animal movement" -- the days of youth -- and days when bright lights fade and we hear, if we are sensitive, the "still sad music of humanity." I felt then, in my youth, that my own affections had led me on to Wordsworth's. But it wasn't literary interpretation Trilling had in mind. It was, rather, feeling the truth of Wordsworth's utterances, feeling them, as Wordsworth might say, in the blood. Trilling was saying, in effect, that Wordsworth's great poetry, with its consolations of "the philosophic mind," were wasted on the young. I understand that now. But then, I had affected a critic's stance. I wrote with arrogance about the "joy in our embers," while burning with the fire of brittle analysis. I had intimations of my own immortality. I did not perceive that the intimations Wordsworth had in mind were of the very opposite. I say, but did not feel, what he was saying. His thoughts then were too deep for my fears.
I was also affecting a literary style, quite unlike Wordsworth's, which Trilling also tolerated as inevitable. "Who do you think you are, writing this way?" he one day queried. He seemed remote but smiling. I had a volume of C. S. Lewis with me that day. So I answered: "C. S. Lewis?" I was 21, in Wordsworth's hotblood stage, more a matter of emotional disposition than chronology. I was racing to finish a dissertation, angling to get a PhD. Trilling was startled, then caught himself, paternally. His own sharp features (dare I say they seemed Wordsworthian?) were outlined sharply against a window that looked out on a leaden winter sky. "That's all right," he murmured."Quite all right. But wait until you're 52."
At that time, I didn't understand that one, either.
In fact, for all my professed adoration of Wordsworth, I would meet often with fellow students at a nearby cafe where we made delicious moans over Keats and his nightingale, and went shrieking in imitation of Coleridge's screams in "Dejection, An Ode." We wore Wordsworth's "wise passiveness" with an academic habit.
And now, 20 years later, in spring, I am surprised and saddened by the truth of Wordsworth's poetry and by the prescience of Trilling's words. Wordsworth's sentiments are indeed lavished on the young who may reject them.
Wordsworth saw what T. S. Eliot expressed ironically: that spring, or April, was the cruelest time. It is April lilacs and daffodils, not winter snows, that mock those less up to renewal than others. Wordsworth knew that spring was the hard time. He must have known why Coleridge, his best friend and soul companion , chose April (and Wordsworth's wedding day) to send along a poem about misery, madness, and despair. But whereas Coleridge capitulated to the season and Eliot dissected it with cunning, Wordsworth looked hard, within. He saw that times of dejection were also "seed time" for the soul, and that if once the heart could conquer, it would remember that once it had been strong. His belief in the advantages of willed memory in times of need, of times we have been strong, was probably what Trilling had in mind when he told me that Wordsworth was one of the strongest men in literature, and one of the most "masculine."
I found that last word, then, difficult to fathom. Masculine? This poet who went into ecstasies over cuckoos and daffodils? Who hung around old men, outcasts, his sister and idiot boys? Who seemed to see nature as always benign? Only later did I realize what Wordsworth meant by writing poems about "resolution" and "independence." He understood that in tough times, we must turn to "those points within our soul where we all stand single." Then, finally, did I begin to understand what Trilling meant by the difference between analyzing literature and testing it out on the pulse. Most of us are egotistical. Wordsworth was what Keats called him, "egotistical sublime." The distinction is instructive.
But what would all this mean to my own children and students, still in that youthful stage of militant disposition and extravagant ego? What can a nature poet say to the urban child? If wordsworth's world is "so much with us" what about our own? "Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers" he said. Haven't we greater commerce now with all that Wordsworth held unholy? Isn't Wordsworth almost impossible for young people today? As some have suggested, should not the old Lake poet simply be forgot?
The other day, a colleague, an intelligent man, a chemistry professor, a dean and friend, stopped to show me a poem by a mutual acquaintance. He was, he confessed, not a literary man; he wanted to know: "was this poetry?" I read what he offered me.It was a poem about the vicious act, in an ugly town, in a hard tone. It sounded like prose. It had sharp edges, bleak rhythms, and no pictures. It didn't vex the world, but it hardly soothed it -- Keats's old dilemma: it didn't seen to care either way. It "expressed itself." In asking whether or not it was poetry, the chemistry professor was not saying he didn't like it primarily (he didn't), but that he wasn't moved. In a way he was saying that poetry should "do" something, "be" something other than prose. He saw "ego" but not the "egotistical sublime," perhaps.
I couldn't answer him directly, but I did suggest the following: the poem would most certainly be read (I had just done so, so had he), but it would not likely be reread, whereas Wordsworth's poetry would be learned instinctively by heart, without even trying. Wordsworth's lines come back unbidden, haunting us, brooding (this imagery is itself inescapably Wordsworthian). Good poetry reads us, possesses us, takes our soul. Calls to us from days gone by, whether or not it rhymes.
And so I dare to hope that this spring, amid the "mad endeavor," my students and my children may pause and in that silence begin to store up "seed time" of the soul.