"The Dangerous Craft of Culling Term and Phrase"

Today our visit with Wordsworth pauses to consider youthful reading and youthful errors in understanding.  (Additionally, we enter triumphantly into book 6 of The Prelude.

from The Prelude Book VI
William Wordsworth

On the vague reading of a truant youth
'Twere idle to descant. My inner judgment
Not seldom differed from my taste in books,
As if it appertained to another mind,
And yet the books which then I valued most
Are dearest to me now; for, having scanned,
Not heedlessly, the laws, and watched the forms
Of Nature, in that knowledge I possessed
A standard, often usefully applied,
Even when unconsciously, to things removed
From a familiar sympathy.—In fine,
I was a better judge of thoughts than words,
Misled in estimating words, not only
By common inexperience of youth,
But by the trade in classic niceties,
The dangerous craft of culling term and phrase
From languages that want the living voice
To carry meaning to the natural heart;
To tell us what is passion, what is truth,
What reason, what simplicity and sense.

Let me use this passage to show you a little trick in reading that can help you with any poetry, but which is too often missed by those who early on cultivate our reading.  Too often, they teach from texts and poems that are completely end-stopped, and that does not serve us well as we try to understand poetry.

For many, this will be an unnecessary lesson, but for some, it may help to read a poem more naturally.

Poetry is about words--rhythm, rhyme, sound.  It often takes a shape on the page that reflects some of these internal elements.  However, it is important to recall that all of those attributes in language do not necessarily allow the poet to express his thought in one completely wrapped up line.  So, taking today's reading, let's look at the second sentence.  The shape on the page cues us to the fact that it is poetry, but the thought is expressed in the same ways as a thought on a prose page--sentences and paragraphs.

My inner judgment
Not seldom differed from my taste in books,
As if it appertained to another mind,
And yet the books which then I valued most
Are dearest to me now; for, having scanned,
Not heedlessly, the laws, and watched the forms
Of Nature, in that knowledge I possessed
A standard, often usefully applied,
Even when unconsciously, to things removed
From a familiar sympathy.

Now, let's reformat it to read it as it actually sounds if one is reading the poem aloud and to make some visual sense as fragments of though:

My inner judgment Not seldom differed from my taste in books,

As if it appertained to another mind,
And yet the books which then I valued most Are dearest to me now;
for, having scanned, Not heedlessly, the laws,
and watched the form Of Nature,
in that knowledge I possessed A standard, often usefully applied,
Even when unconsciously,
to things removed From a familiar sympathy. 

Aside from the erratic capitalization which preserves the original line breaks, these lines now record the thought in a fashion more akin to prose.  It is still poetry--it will never become prose by mere reordering of its syllables.  But what has happened is that it makes more sense to those more accustomed to prose than poetry.

Poetry is not meant to be read end-stopped.  Most of us came to understand that with Shakespeare.  But if we are not accustomed to reading poetry, we forget it.  And in forgetting it, we struggle with the lines, we struggle to have them make sense as individual lines, as fragments of meaning.  But a line in poetry is not necessarily a fragment of meaning--it is a visual trace of some of the important elements of the poem--rhyme, rhythm, meter.  In that visual traces some of the essentials of the poem are captured--some of the things that most make it a poem.  However, the visual trace can hide the real fluidity of the the thought and meaning.  And this is only captured when the poem is read first for its visual effect and then for the actual flow of the words.  This happens more often when we slow down and read as though reading aloud.  Then we must shift the stress to understand the relationships of the words.  Let's consider these lines:

for, having scanned,
Not heedlessly, the laws, and watched the forms
Of Nature, in that knowledge I possessed
A standard, often usefully applied,
Even when unconsciously, to things removed
From a familiar sympathy.
Let's read it carefully--

 "for, having scanned, not heedlessly, the laws. . . " and here the reader pauses and asks, "What laws?"  --and the answer is forthcoming--" and watched the forms of Nature. . ."  Ah, so the thought is around the law of forms of nature.  I've scanned the laws and watch the forms.  What next?  "In that knowledge I possessed a standard. . ."  In what knowledge?  The knowledge of laws and forms of nature.  We have from that knowledge a standard which is "often usefully applied,"  but notice how the poet leaves off the joining phrase that a prose artist might have used,  there is no "which was"  or "which is" between the two phrases.  So, it is often usefully applied "even when unconsciously."  So, Wordsworth may not have been aware that this standard was being brought into contact with the things that he was reading, but it was this standard that searched out the thought and judged it--even when this thought was among those "things removed from a familiar sympathy."

I hope this little guide offered to those who are poetry shy a way of breaking down the literal meaning of the poem, because first the lines must make some sort of literal sense--or in more contemporary poetry, perhaps provide a place from which to take flight (I seriously doubt that anyone can make any literal sense of "Altarwise by owl-light in the half-way house"  until contextualized by the whole poem.  And that is the other "trick" of reading poetry--it does not begin to mean until it is whole and taken whole.  It can sound and it can provoke emotions, but if one thinks that one has grasped the entire meaning through reading a line, one has missed one of the most valuable and interesting aspects of poetry.  It does not necessarily make sense line by line, but rather in the grasp of the whole. 

 

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