The Dark Night of the Poet?

Book Two of The Prelude has what is referred to by the editor as a notoriously difficult passage for Wordsworth himself and for the reader.  But I think the difficulty of this passage is exacerbated by trying to interpret it in the traditional Wordsworthian framework and not making allowances for vision that exceeds rational grasp.  That is, what is recorded in what follows sounds very, very familiar if you are acquainted with the via negativa.

from The Prelude: Book II
William Wordsworth

For now a trouble came into my mind
From unknown causes. I was left alone
Seeking the visible world, nor knowing why.
The props of my affections were removed,
And yet the building stood, as if sustained
By its own spirit! All that I beheld
Was dear, and hence to finer influxes
The mind lay open to a more exact
And close communion. Many are our joys
In youth, but oh! what happiness to live
When every hour brings palpable access
Of knowledge, when all knowledge is delight,
And sorrow is not there!

What is most interesting here is to compare Wordsworth to someone like, say, St. John of the Cross, also a poet and also capable of expressing this mystery in language that defies an explanation that is looking for critical apparatus.

Dark Night of the Soul
St. John of the Cross

On a dark night,
Kindled in love with yearnings--oh, happy chance!--
I went forth without being observed,
My house being now at rest.

In darkness and secure,
By the secret ladder, disguised--oh, happy chance!--
In darkness and in concealment,
My house being now at rest.

In the happy night,
In secret, when none saw me,
Nor I beheld aught,
Without light or guide, save that which burned in my

This light guided me
More surely than the light of noonday
To the place where he (well I knew who!) was awaiting me--
A place where none appeared.

Oh, night that guided me,
Oh, night more lovely than the dawn,
Oh, night that joined Beloved with lover,
Lover transformed in the Beloved!

Upon my flowery breast,
Kept wholly for himself alone,
There he stayed sleeping, and I caressed him,
And the fanning of the cedars made a breeze.

The breeze blew from the turret
As I parted his locks;
With his gentle hand he wounded my neck
And caused all my senses to be suspended.

I remained, lost in oblivion;
My face I reclined on the Beloved.
All ceased and I abandoned myself,
Leaving my cares forgotten among the lilies. 

Coming from a different and earlier tradition in poetry the links may be difficult to see and perhaps are better noticed with extensive reading in St. John of the Cross's commentary on his own poem.  But of particular interest here is the tight correlation between the "suspension of senses" in the last stanza but one and the "I remained."  This correlates nicely to the section of The Prelude highlighted in yellow above. The last stanza of "Dark Night of the Soul" corresponds well to the section of Wordsworth's poem highlighted in blue. 

Is it possible that what Wordsworth is describing here is a mystical experience?  One every bit as deep, but more highly orthodox than those that Blake brought on himself.  I don't know if Wordsworth is often seen as a mystic--but this passage suggest affinities with almost all writers of spiritual literature in which a limit is reached of what the senses can divine and the pleasure link with that sensual association vanishes for no reason.  What remains, however is all that occurred in the building of the mystical experience, and it proves a solid ground for building a higher level of the mystical experience? 

Perhaps, we might object, we don't see Wordsworth as particularly holy, religious, or pious in any meaningful way.  His poetic theory comes to within a breath of a pantheistic heresy.  But in that breath is all of the difference, and the Holy Spirit blows were He wist, so I don't know what kind of case you can make from that point of view.  Plus, this does provide a very nice solution to textual problems that writers looking at Wordsworth's poetic theory are tortured to explain. 

And perhaps a little credence can be granted this reading, if we look a little later in the poem:

from The Prelude: Book II
William Wordsworth

Thence did I drink the visionary power;
And deem not profitless those fleeting moods
Of shadowy exultation: not for this,
That they are kindred to our purer mind
And intellectual life; but that the soul,
Remembering how she felt, but what she felt
Remembering not, retains an obscure sense
Of possible sublimity, whereto
With growing faculties she doth aspire,
With faculties still growing, feeling still
That whatsoever point they gain, they yet
Have something to pursue.

The interpretation offered in the notes of this passage suggests that the blue highlighted passage is a reference to the continuing creative and artistic impulse.  But given the passage discussed above and the section in yellow above, I would advance a different understanding.  The yellow highlighted passage is another common trope or image used in discussing the consolations of a life of communion with God, the sweet taste that lingers but is ineffable and undefinable in any useful sense of the word.  It is the taste that calls the pray-er onward.  The language in blue is the effect of the enticement and suspension of sensible consolations.  That is, however much you receive, you desire yet more--there is something more to pursue even though as you grow you feel yourself strengthening in the pursuit.  In the pursuit of union with the infinite, there can be no end except that union.

I think if we read the poem in a more mystical sense, many of the traditional interpretive problems evaporate and we come to perhaps a better understanding of the poem than the poet himself may have had. These are difficult things to express, but Wordsworth captures here clear, ancient, continuous, mystical language employed by the saints from the earliest days talking about seeking communion with  God.


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