Wordsworth the Mystic--Part I

We know that in the romantic strain there is an element of mysticism.  In Blake, it emerges in almost psychotic fashion with art resembling that of Goya and verse that is by turns lushly beautiful and nearly incoherent--what can one expect when one's teas in the garden are attended by Elijah himself?  In Coleridge, this strain takes on the fever-dream intensity of "Frost at Midnight," "Rime of the Ancient Mariner," "Christabel," and, of course, "Kublai Khan."  For the ardent atheist, the strain takes on another aspect--the "echoes of eternity" that resound through "To a Skylark" and "Ozymandias."  Of all, it is most difficult to discern in Byron, but seems to be present in many of the shorter lyrics, among them, "She walks in Beauty."  But of them, Wordsworth lays greatest claim to the mystical element and the more classically, religious mystical element.  Wordsworth and Blake are the bookends of this tradition, with Blake as the outlier, John the Baptist, raging and raving in his desert fastness and Wordsworth following the line of English Mystics from Richard Rolle and Walter Hilton, to Julian of Norwich--visionaries with feet grounded in the reality of being.

I go on so because today's excerpt is one of those in which the mystical element comes to the fore in a passage of ravishing beauty--one of those high points of The Prelude that rewards the reader who merely endures the poetry.

from The Prelude Book V
William Wordsworth

Here must we pause: this only let me add,
From heart-experience, and in humblest sense
Of modesty, that he, who in his youth
A daily wanderer among woods and fields
With living Nature hath been intimate,
Not only in that raw unpractised time
Is stirred to extasy, as others are,
By glittering verse; but further, doth receive,
In measure only dealt out to himself,
Knowledge and increase of enduring joy
From the great Nature that exists in works
Of mighty Poets. Visionary power
Attends the motions of the viewless winds,
Embodied in the mystery of words:
There, darkness makes abode, and all the host
Of shadowy things work endless changes,—there,
As in a mansion like their proper home,
Even forms and substances are circumfused
By that transparent veil with light divine,
And, through the turnings intricate of verse,
Present themselves as objects recognised,
In flashes, and with glory not their own.
Other than the remarks made above, it does not seem that this requires any commentary.  Except perhaps to point out two gorgeous, almost off-hand observations:


Visionary power
Attends the motions of the viewless winds,
Embodied in the mystery of words:

"The motions of the viewless winds " is one of those phrases that captures perfectly the excited, anticipatory rush that accompanies a walk in the woods and that space of breath that occurs and speaks through the rattling rush and roar of the leaves in the trees.  Anyone who has had the pleasure of walking through the woods and hearing this sound, like the swell of many waters knows the way it plays with the heart and speaks to the soul.  There is no more precise description of it that I have read than this of Wordsworth's.  Look how many words it took me to come even close.

Immediately following upon that first statement is the second.  I copy out the whole because it is needed for context--the whole passage sings, but it is the last three lines that speak particularly:


There, darkness makes abode, and all the host
Of shadowy things work endless changes,—there,
As in a mansion like their proper home,
Even forms and substances are circumfused
By that transparent veil with light divine,
And, through the turnings intricate of verse,
Present themselves as objects recognised,
In flashes, and with glory not their own.


And this, in a nutshell is the Wordsworthian poetic impulse and theory.  Words can, with much work, thought and meditation capture some sense of what the soul and heart feel when exposed to the ravishing beauty and intricacy of nature, where things both seen and unseen work on the human person and transform him or her into a new creature.


Sir Francis Bacon commented:  "God has, in fact, written two books, not just one.  Of course, we are all familiar with the first book he wrote, namely Scripture.  But he has written a second book called creation." And so, Wordsworth continues the path blazed by Bacon, looking carefully at that second book, that had an appeal as strong, a call as great (to some) as the first.  It is the book that leads to the pantheism and transcendentalism of the American Romantics, but which Wordsworth captures pretty squarely within the Christian tradition--perhaps at times overbalancing in favor of nature, but nevertheless recognizing that Nature itself speak of the higher power.

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