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Arachne. No. 2

The Empty Country

The Empty Country


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.

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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.


The dilemma may be looked at in another way. More fortunate ages had had the benefit of mythology, and others that of a settled and vital religion. Mythology and a religion have this much in common, that they are both (at least in part) a way of clothing the bare and elemental in a sociable and communicable guise. They can refer page 5 the experience of the individual (arising in this case from the relation of poet and landscape) to a fund of common metaphor. Had Wordsworth indeed been the pagan who saw Proteus rising from the foam, he would have been more fortunate. His particular experience of the miracle would have been to some extent moulded by an existing and traditional way of looking at these things, a metaphor. And this metaphor would have been in turn modified by the strikingly new experience of the poet. But this, of course, was not the case. Classical mythology had always been an exotic in the English scene—a more profitable source of wit and instruction than of illumination. And Wordsworth was decidedly not an exotic. Traditional religion, once so fertile, had surrendered to the infiltrations of the eighteenth century. When Wordsworth accepted its ministrations, he too succumbed. The urbanity of city life repelled him; education and learning left him mostly untouched. For him there was only the empty country, which, after every effort, remained empty. Wordsworth was left alone with the visible world, and with his own image. Neither mythology nor religion linked his illumination to a common body of experience. He found no true cure for isolation, and utter isolation is silence. And silence was equally the result of adopting a social attitude invalid upon all other grounds. The result is the tragedy of his later life—the dissipation of magnificent talent upon uncongenial topics—the moral requirements of duty, the excellences of the established church, and the evils of popular enthusiasm.

There were two stresses in the life and writing of the young Wordsworth: a notable affinity, amounting at times to a dangerous identification with natural objects (in one place he speaks of his failure to treat trees and men as different and rightly recognised this as a state of mental disease) and a keen awareness of the need for human improvement. These two stresses, abstractly regarded, need not conflict except to produce an agreeable and fruitful tension. Ideally, the poet need give no more to his society than his poems; Wordsworth would be living a full social life if he translated his rural exaltation into verse which would itself be a vehicle for moral improvement. But, ideally, a third factor must enter—the communal and traditional metaphor which would make strange sights communicable. Without such a metaphor, there may be the most exciting privatism; the poet may well sing to the glory of God, but not for the edification of the multitude. Many poets may go on writing for the ear of God alone, and occasional human beings may eavesdrop to their profit; this, however, was not the role Wordsworth chose for himself. Men, ordinary men, ' unassuming things,' were to be his audience. Because the ideal situation did not exist, the conflict between the two stresses bred more than a tension; it developed into open warfare. One of the two had to go down—the poet with nature, or the poet among men.

Instead of an institution which could keep this conflict within profitable bounds, Wordsworth accepted the misty mis-relation of the Anglican communion, and the social attitudes which it sanctioned. The sin of his conservatism is not the volte-face from boyish revolutionary joy—it lies in a much deeper denying of the life of the spirit. The Anglican Church, like all Christian groups of the time, was singularly unfitted for the task of co-ordinating social and individual action. Its beliefs and practices meant little to its age. It had manoeuvred its way into a restless agreement with Enlightenment and Utility; it had lost spiritual urgency and power. At its best, it shared the finer qualities of the aristocracy, a cultured urbanity and a sense of graceful leisure; at its worst, it was afflicted with non-residence, plurality and clerical sloth. At its most enthusiastic, at the level of the evangelicals, it spread, with Methodism, like an enervating page 6 contagion among the lower classes. No spiritual depth was there—no such depth as would be necessary to hold the two sides of Wordsworth's nature together. Nor could the church give him the common metaphor he needed—the church did not speak the language of the common people, and meant as little to them as did the poets. Indeed, the only sorts of language familiar to the common people were, first, that of the exhortatory Methodists, and second, that of the political agitators. And it is as hard to imagine Wordsworth a hot-gospel preacher, as it is to see him in the role of an 'Orator' Hunt. All the doors seem to have closed upon Wordsworth, but the one he opened led nowhere as surely as would any other. He became, indeed, 'a pagan suckled on a creed outworn,' but he was no longer visited by Triton and Proteus.


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.