Poetry and Poets: June 2005 Archives

For those interested in what exactly contemplation is or does, you could have no better description than this passage from the first book of The Prelude.

from The Prelude
William Wordsworth

Content and not unwilling now to give
A respite to this passion, I paced on
With brisk and eager steps; and came, at length,
To a green shady place, where down I sate
Beneath a tree, slackening my thoughts by choice
And settling into gentler happiness.
'Twas autumn, and a clear and placid day,
With warmth, as much as needed, from a sun
Two hours declined towards the west; a day
With silver clouds, and sunshine on the grass,
And in the sheltered and the sheltering grove
A perfect stillness. Many were the thoughts
Encouraged and dismissed, till choice was made
Of a known Vale, whither my feet should turn,
Nor rest till they had reached the very door
Of the one cottage which methought I saw.
No picture of mere memory ever looked
So fair; and while upon the fancied scene
I gazed with growing love, a higher power
Than Fancy gave assurance of some work
Of glory there forthwith to be begun,
Perhaps too there performed. Thus long I mused,
Nor e'er lost sight of what I mused upon,
Save when, amid the stately grove of oaks,
Now here, now there, an acorn, from its cup
Dislodged, through sere leaves rustled, or at once
To the bare earth dropped with a startling sound.

We have the poet clearing his mind to focus it, and then focusing it upon such things that the imagination leaves off and

"a higher power
Than Fancy gave assurance of some work
Of glory there forthwith to be begun,
Perhaps too there performed."

This becomes the perfect metaphor for the entry into the state of acquired contemplation. One exercises the imaginative faculty and the will in the course of meditation, until suddenly meditation leaves off and a conversation begins. We start to speak with God almost unknowingly. He has entered quietly through the door we have left open by asking His presence. He sits down and when we are focused enough, we see Him and begin to treat Him as the honored guest He is.

For Wordsworth (and for St. John of the Cross, and though I'm less well versed, for St. Francis of Assisi, as well) nature gave entry into this place. Nature is not the end, but it is in reading the book of nature and accepting its welcome that some can enter the realm of meditation and contemplation.

Add to that vision this:

From that soft couch I rose not, till the sun
Had almost touched the horizon; casting then
A backward glance upon the curling cloud
Of city smoke, by distance ruralised;
Keen as a Truant or a Fugitive,
But as a Pilgrim resolute, I took,
Even with the chance equipment of that hour,
The road that pointed toward the chosen Vale.
It was a splendid evening, and my soul
Once more made trial of her strength, nor lacked
Aeolian visitations; but the harp
Was soon defrauded, and the banded host
Of harmony dispersed in straggling sounds,
And lastly utter silence! "Be it so;
Why think of anything but present good?" 100
So, like a home-bound labourer, I pursued
My way beneath the mellowing sun, that shed
Mild influence; nor left in me one wish
Again to bend the Sabbath of that time
To a servile yoke. What need of many words?

Makes a pretty convincing picture of some of the solace captured in contemplation and some of the trial of emerging from it. And then "of harmony dispersed in straggling sounds,/ and lastly utter silence!" This seems to speak of the time that we leave the consolation of acquired contemplation and move into the realm of infused contemplation and spiritual dryness where we no longer "feel" the consolations and yet we are not deprived of peace. We come to undersand "What need of many words?"

God speaks in so many places. When I first read these words, I had no idea of their weight or their meaning. Now I do, although I am not so close as I would like to be to the experience. I understand more fully what Wordsworth speaks of, and it sounds as if he were a "natural mystic" something akin to an Emerson--which to be speaks profoundly of God's grace and His constant reaching out to us to correct our error and lead us to Him.

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Oblivion Only Seems Romantic


. . . pardon the pun. But Keats's poem, which follows, is truly one of the gems of the English Language and perhaps the high point of the Romantic Movement. I choose it today because there are strains and notes of it that speak to my present situation. And I lovingly dedicate it to Linda and Samuel--my heart away from home.

"Ode to a Nightingale"
John Keats

MY heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains
My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,
Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains
One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk:
'Tis not through envy of thy happy lot,
But being too happy in thine happiness,
That thou, light-wingèd Dryad of the trees,
In some melodious plot
Of beechen green, and shadows numberless,
Singest of summer in full-throated ease.

O for a draught of vintage! that hath been
Cool'd a long age in the deep-delvèd earth,
Tasting of Flora and the country-green,
Dance, and Provençal song, and sunburnt mirth!
O for a beaker full of the warm South!
Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene,
With beaded bubbles winking at the brim,
And purple-stainèd mouth;
That I might drink, and leave the world unseen,
And with thee fade away into the forest dim:

With my penchant for reading into rather than merely reading, and keeping in mind that Keats was not a known Christian adherent (to say the least), I still can see some wonderful Christian sentiment in the poem. If we take for the Nightingale, God himself, then, in at least these two stanzas we come to an understanding of the longing of the contemplative. In fact, it would not be an exaggeration to suggest that the poetry of the Romantic Era is really about contemplation. Often it is a pantheistic contemplation that is suggested. In Shelley's case it may be more an introspection than a contemplation. But much of what they write is about being transported out of self by engagement with the Other--usually in the form of Nature. And it is an odd zeitgeist that gives us the Romantics in England approximately cotemporaneous with Emerson and his lot of transcendentalists here in the U.S. The Enlightenment provided us with a watchmaker God who did not interfere in His creation, and the Romantic Rebellion found in nature itself an object of contemplation to replace God. Obviously this is not a salutary move, nevertheless, that they still sought to find Him when they were told that He would not be found, or if found could not be moved, is characteristic of the longing of the human heart.

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A Prediction from Wordsworth


From one of the great long poems of modern times by a poet for whom I cared little in my college years, but whose attraction grows with each passing year. I am not at the place described below yet, not quite yet dug out from the avalanche that consumes me, however, soon. . .

from The Prelude "Book First--Introduction--Childhood and School-time"
William Wordsworth

OH there is blessing in this gentle breeze,
A visitant that while it fans my cheek
Doth seem half-conscious of the joy it brings
From the green fields, and from yon azure sky.
Whate'er its mission, the soft breeze can come
To none more grateful than to me; escaped
From the vast city, where I long had pined
A discontented sojourner: now free,
Free as a bird to settle where I will.
What dwelling shall receive me? in what vale
Shall be my harbour? underneath what grove
Shall I take up my home? and what clear stream
Shall with its murmur lull me into rest?
The earth is all before me. With a heart
Joyous, nor scared at its own liberty,
I look about; and should the chosen guide
Be nothing better than a wandering cloud,
I cannot miss my way. I breathe again!

It is times like what I am enduring now that I turn to God and to poetry to be sustained. Nothing earthly lasts forever and so this too shall pass. And in this particular instance, it is rather like a kidney stone, once passed it will not be missed.

The Prelude is a poem some 200 pages in length. So far as I know it is the only book-length autobiography in poetry. (One could make arguments for La Vita Nuova but I think that is a different category of things.) When I had to read this in college I thought I would die. I didn't care for Wordworth--to my mind the blandest of the Romantic Poets. But the riches of his thought and poetry become all the more clear as time passes. Wordsworth, unlike Keats, Byron, and Shelley (Coleridge falls into a different class) is not a poet for youth. He is a poet for maturity. The attractions of his poetry are likely to be lost on those who rush from day to day crowding in all that can be done in a day. He is a poet of leisurely, deep thought--a poet who rewards close reading and careful attention. One might wish to start with shorter lyrics--"Tintern Abbey" "Ode on the Intimations of Immortality Recollected from Early Childhood," "Daffodils," and the Lucy poems. But eventually The Prelude looms, like Browning's The Ring and the Book a magnificent epic. Whereas the latter is a chronicle of another life, the former is the chronicle of the poet's life commited to poetry and thus all the stronger a representation of the man.

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At the library the other day I chanced upon a volume compile by the prolific Harold Bloom of the world's greatest poetry. Of course, Bloom, as usual quite full of himself, pontificates and expostulates on each of the selections he has made. In the process, he takes quick jabs at those people he does not like and seeks to make his vision of High Poetry the only vision of poetry.

Problem is, Bloom doesn't appear to really understand poetry all that well. He seems to think that any reading of a poem outside of his own is completely incorrect. Needless to say, it is attitudes like this that made reading poetry a chore for the vast majority of us.

However, in the course of all of his comment Bloom does say emphatically that EAR is one of his very favorite poets and he cannot understand why he is not more popular today. He then goes on to relate some of the strengths of Robinson's verse--and when he is in this mode he is usually quite acute as a critic and as a poetic ear.

So, while I can't say much for his opinion of Poe, T.S. Eliot (as a critic), or his selection of Alan Tate's poetry, I do admire the strength of his vision and opinion when it comes to the poets he happens to like. And, commendably for him, he does not stint on poetry by those he does not care for as people.

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About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Poetry and Poets category from June 2005.

Poetry and Poets: May 2005 is the previous archive.

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