Arachne. No. 2
If Only Upon the most easily evident level, Wordsworth is a poet who should hold considerable attraction for New Zealanders, and especially New Zealand poets. He was partly, and perhaps most successfully, a poet of the natural world; I find it difficult to believe that people can write in New Zealand and avoid a certain concern for the characteristics of landscape. The greater number of New Zealand poets do, in fact, feel this attraction, though with great difference in emphasis. The relation of poets to landscape is complex. To say that some feel impelled to account for the impact of landscape, and that some others do not, does less than justice to the sheerly individual qualities of each poet's approach. Indeed, this sharp individualism is as important a feature as any. But if this caution is borne in mind it remains a valid generalisation to say that a good number of New Zealand poets are characteristically impelled to incorporate into their work the impact of landscape. Further, they do so in more or less complete isolation. This isolation extends to cover the whole of their writing, whether concerned with landscape or not, and is moreover, quite as notable a characteristic of those poets who in no way share this concern. Poets in New Zealand, even those most concerned with landscape, do not form a school, nor yet a number of groups; they have strikingly little effect upon each other. The generalisations of the thirties, and the direction then assumed, left many poets writing at the time quite untouched; most of those who have appeared since have implicitly repudiated any such hypothesis. A tension remains, but it is no longer expressed only in terms of geography and history.page 3
Given then, an occupation with landscape, and an isolation that accompanies it and extends beyond it, in what way can the situation of Wordsworth help to identify present problems? I suggest that once differences of talent and changes of circumstance are recognised, his situation can be seen as the prototype of that of the greater number of modern poets, and, with especial relevance, an image of that of the New Zealand poet.
Wordsworth's chief inspiration derives from his experience of an empty country; the moments of spiritual exaltation in which his poems had their beginning arose in the crucial encounter of poet and landscape, a relation which always tended to become that of saint and divinity, oracle and godhead. But he was never content, except in the glorious moments of experience, with such a relation; and, when youth had gone by, these moments were less frequent and less sustaining. Essentially, I think, the relation is unsupportable. Man, it has been remarked, is no longer a man when he is beyond society; he must become either beast or god. Wordsworth was neither; he was almost exclusively a poet. It can be argued that in a life which is socially valueless even such remotely sociable products as poetry are unrecognisably damaged. Lack of social value in the ordinary actions of men leads to the destruction of some aspects of personality, and a destruction of this nature is not limited to the aspects destroyed. The lack of balance so caused affects the whole of the man. The destruction of a social sense, in itself a damaging feat, may well mar and distort those activities which seem solely the fruit of solitude. This, however, was doubly the case with Wordsworth. His joy in nature was not pantheistic—landscape turned him outwards to other men, to moral education, to the cultivation of the feelings, and to general human improvement.
Long time in search of knowledge desperate,
I was benighted heart and mind; but now
On all sides day began to reappear,
And it was proved indeed that not in vain
I had been taught to reverence a power
That is the very quality and shape
And image of right reason, that matures
Her processes by steadfast laws, gives birth
To no impatient or fallacious hopes,
No heat of passion or excessive zeal,
No vain conceits, provokes to no quick turns
Of self-applauding intellect, but lifts
The Being into magnanimity;
Holds up before the mind, intoxicate
With present objects and the busy dance
Of things that pass away, a temperate shew
Of objects that endure, and by this course
Disposes her, when over-fondly set
On leaving her encumbrances behind
To seek in Man, and in the frame of life,
Social and individual, what there is
Desirable, affecting, good or fair
Of kindred permanence, the gifts divine
And universal, the pervading grace
page 4 That hath been, is, and shall be. Above all
Did nature bring again that wiser mood
More deeply re-established in my soul,
Which, seeing little worthy or sublime
In what we blazon with the pompous names
Of power and action, early tutor'd me
To look with feelings of fraternal love
Upon those unassuming things, that hold
A silent station in this beauteous world.
The Prelude, Bk. 12
Wordsworth felt required to populate these bare places, and in this task he was aided by the existence, though only the vestigial existence, of an English peasantry. Peasants were, he thought, people who lived as men in this country, who passed as normal beings before the landscape, people whose normality was based, not upon ignorance or neglect of the bare places (this was the death of the soul), but upon the very communion through which he himself received power. Their life was not prose, but poetry. And their speech, simple and unaffected, was (once shorn of vulgarity and lifted by high feeling) serviceable to the poet. Clearly the lineaments of such a race form an ideal not an actual picture. Wordsworth's peasants, where they are real to us and command our attention, seem to be Wordsworth himself. Where they are not, where they represent attempts to bring known people into the verse, they often dissipate in vulgarity and silliness. Where the attitudes are those of the poet, though disguised as peasant, they are compelling. Where they are such as we might imagine a decaying peasantry (the livelier were quickly making their way to the new industrial centres) to employ, they are trivial. Wordsworth's attempt to populate his empty country was a failure; he himself, reflected in a thousand mirrors, remained the sole inhabitant. Nature directed him towards Man, but the only knowledge of men it gave him was of an ideal race—'silent in this beauteous world'—the inhabitants of a stern rural Utopia. This, I think, is the intimate connection between Wordsworth's preoccupation with landscape and his failure to find scope for feelings which should have led to social action. Nature may teach a man a good deal about himself, about a select similar few, and about the many as they ideally might be. But little about men in their actual condition—the condition which must be known before it can be changed. And change is the end proposed by moral instruction.
The pain of isolation remained, the miracle was seen by one man only. There was no social milieu 'of unassuming things that hold—A silent station in this beauteous world'—a community in which the miracle was an exciting but not eccentric event, and one in which it could be put to purposes of moral improvement. The poet was still required to be beast or god—and to be either was to be silent; a beast cannot speak, and a god need not. The dilemma was excruciating—the visible world was at once the spring of the singing voice, and the advocate of silence.