Tuesday, July 19, 2011

"Rolled Round In Earth's Diurnal Course": Revisiting Wordsworth

At times a poem becomes so familiar that one has difficulty seeing it, hearing it, and feeling it freshly.  I have lately been dipping into the five-volume Ernest de Selincourt edition of William Wordsworth's Poetical Works.  De Selincourt follows Wordsworth's somewhat eccentric practice of arranging the poems according to theme (as opposed to a chronological arrangement based upon the date of composition or the date of first publication).  Thus, we are given "Poems of the Fancy," "Poems of the Imagination," "Poems Founded on the Affections," et cetera.

I have discovered that one advantage to this approach is that one encounters Wordsworth's best-known poems as a matter of happenstance, rather than having them arrive on schedule (so to speak) in, say, Lyrical Ballads or the 1807 Poems in Two Volumes.  Therefore, when I came upon the following poem the other day it had a freshness to it that it doesn't usually have.

A slumber did my spirit seal;
     I had no human fears:
She seemed a thing that could not feel
     The touch of earthly years.

No motion has she now, no force;
     She neither hears nor sees;
Rolled round in earth's diurnal course,
     With rocks, and stones, and trees.

This is one of Wordsworth's "Lucy poems," and much ink has been spilled over exactly what it "means."  I will not get into that.  Instead, I will make two observations about the words themselves -- specifically, how they sound (in the mind or in the ear).  First, I think that the fifth line teaches us a great deal about what "poetry" consists of.  Consider two alternative versions of that line using the same words, but in a different order:  "She has no motion now, no force" or "She now has no motion, no force."  Then, go back to the original.

A second point to think about:  every word in the poem consists of one or two syllables, except one:  "diurnal."  Of course, this may be mere chance.  After all, it is said that Wordsworth wrote the poem in one sitting, and he never made any changes to it thereafter.  But think of the weight that "diurnal" bears, and the role that it plays, in relation to all of the other words.

Reading "A slumber did my spirit seal" this time around brings to mind something that Matthew Arnold wrote about Wordsworth:

"I remember hearing [Wordsworth] say that 'Goethe's poetry was not inevitable enough.'  The remark is striking and true; no line in Goethe, as Goethe said himself, but its maker knew well how it came there.  Wordsworth is right, Goethe's poetry is not inevitable; not inevitable enough.  But Wordsworth's poetry, when he is at his best, is inevitable, as inevitable as Nature herself.  It might seem that Nature not only gave him the matter for his poem, but wrote his poem for him."

Matthew Arnold, "Wordsworth", Essays in Criticism, Second Series (1888).

                                Graham Sutherland, "Lammas" (1926)        


Julie Whitmore Pottery said...

Wordsworth's sister , Dorothy, writes about his
(William's) writing habits in her journal, which is fascinating. Also about going to Italy to see Lucy and their child. Have you read the journal, Stephen?

Stephen Pentz said...

Thanks for dropping by, Julie. Unfortunately, I have only read portions of Dorothy Wordsworth's journal -- it is one of those things that I have been meaning to read. But, based upon the little that I have read, I agree with you that it is fascinating. As you know, entries in her journal worked their way into poems by both Wordsworth and Coleridge. If you click on the "Dorothy Wordsworth" label to the left, you will find one example.