Arachne. No. 2
Wordsworth's dilemma is characteristically modern—more likely to be repeated than avoided in this century. It is easy to see that he took the wrong path, but impossible to claim that there was a true one available to him. When we look back at him after a hundred years, our first impression must be of the distinctive excellence of his early poems. But the second impression must be of tragedy. The poems arose from a radically pure relation between man and the Other—the being experienced in and through the visible world. But the very purity of that relation prevented it from lasting, because it could not be carried on in a suitable social or spiritual environment. It is, indeed, generally supposed that romantics are distinguished by alternating mastery and victim-hood: a mastery that stems from moments of kinship and re-creation, and a victimhood which arises from the intractability of isolation. The connection between the two is not so apparent. When, as in this case, the mastery is achieved only after the rejection of current social values, and unsupported by a common and continuous fund of belief and metaphor, its inevitable concomitant is isolation. And isolation as thorough as mastery so achieved implies, means the damage of life without company, and the despair of thought without intellectual context. Wordsworth, moreover, was given a social mission, though without any such mission the damage of a socially valueless life would have been acute enough.
The bearing of this discussion upon the problems of authorship in New Zealand is quite close. There are immediate similarities. We have, perhaps to an unparalleled degree, an empty country, more severe than any known to Wordsworth. I find in some parts of his work an immediate relevance which I do not discover in many other English nature poets. In some poems and passages of blank verse there is no specifically English landscape. The landscape is an elemental matter of mountains, water and sky.
... I struck, and struck again,
And, growing still in stature, the huge Cliff
Rose up between me and the stars, and still,
With measured motion, like a living thing,
Strode after me. With trembling hands I turn'd,
And through the silent water stole my way
Back to the cavern of the Willow tree.
There, in her mooring-place, I left my Bark,
And, through the meadows homeward went, with grave
And serious thoughts; and after I had seen
That spectacle, for many days, my brain,
page 7 Work'd with a dim and undetermined sense
Of unknown modes of being; in my thoughts
There was a darkness, call it solitude,
Or blank desertion, no familiar shapes
Of hourly objects, images of trees,
Of sea or sky, no colours of green fields;
But huge and mighty forms that do not live
Like living men lived slowly through the mind
By day and were the trouble of my dreams.
The Prelude, Book I
I suggest that New Zealanders can find a special profit in the poems of Wordsworth; a kind of profit to be met with in few other English poets. And I would advance, though tentatively, for this would require a critical analysis, the suggestion that the influence of Wordsworth is an important one upon the body of work represented in A Book Of New Zealand Verse.
But the analysis has a more important bearing than this. I have said earlier that while a good number of New Zealand poets share a concern for their specific landscape, all of them are marked by their isolation. Indeed, pre-occupation with landscape is an especially effective method of achieving isolation. This is more than usually the case, when as in New Zealand, the landscape is particularly inhuman and remote. Poets here are more or less isolated from their society, from traditional beliefs, and from each other. They may be on the best of terms with each other, they may respect each other's work very much, but they have very little effect upon each other. Again, they frequently play an important part upon the margins of social activity. They are, in many respects, good citizens. But all too frequently they are citizens with only a fraction of their personalities. Their poetry is their most important world, and it is a carefully preserved one. Finally, they are cut off from any body of belief, any religion or mythological system which would relate their individual discoveries to a common and accepted tradition. Sometimes the beliefs of any one seem chaotic; in other cases, where there is an appearance of order, this order is achieved only at the price of the rejection of customary and social values, and of the beliefs of people in a position similar to their own. Isolation, upon all levels, is thoroughgoing and portentous. But while one admits the danger, that admission is no great access of wisdom. One pronounces Wordsworth's remedy false, but cannot point to a true one; similarly one cannot to-day find a way of thinking and acting that is not isolated—that is, if it is to be valid upon other and necessary grounds.
This multiform isolation is just that of Wordsworth. Some source of illumination is found, some field of relationship with the Other. The illumination leads to a certain mastery, a habit of re-creation through which poems are written. But this same mastery is accomplished only after isolation in its many forms has been accepted. The habit of isolation is reinforced by the experience and the mastery. Its price is a too thorough rejection. For Wordsworth the result was a victimhood which extended over the greater part of his life. The possibility of a similar fate is before New Zealand poets—there is the general cause of an even more thorough dislocation of belief and habit in this century, and the specific cause of the compelling presence of an inhuman landscape, an empty country which commands both exaltation and silence.