Tuesday, December 16, 2014

How To Live, Part Twenty-Four: "Quiet Sympathies With Things That Hold An Inarticulate Language"

I recently came across the following remarkable lines by William Wordsworth:

                                          Not useless do I deem
These quiet sympathies with things that hold
An inarticulate language; for the man
Once taught to love such objects as excite
No morbid passions, no disquietude,
No vengeance, and no hatred needs must feel
The joy of that pure principle of love
So deeply that, unsatisfied with aught
Less pure and exquisite, he cannot choose
But seek for objects of a kindred love
In fellow-natures and a kindred joy.
Accordingly he by degrees perceives
His feelings of aversion softened down,
A holy tenderness pervade his frame,
His sanity of reason not impaired,
Say rather all his thoughts now flowing clear,
From a clear fountain flowing, he looks round,
He seeks for good and finds the good he seeks
Till execration and contempt are things
He only knows by name and if he hears
From other mouths the language which they speak
He is compassionate and has no thought
No feeling which can overcome his love.

William Wordsworth, excerpt from manuscript of "The Ruined Cottage," in Ernest de Selincourt and Helen Darbishire (editors), The Poetical Works of William Wordsworth, Volume Five (Oxford University Press 1949), pages 400-401.  The lines were later incorporated, with revisions, into Book IV ("Despondency Corrected") of The Excursion (1814).

James McIntosh Patrick, "Springtime in Eskdale" (1935)

Over the years, I have made only desultory, occasional forays into Wordsworth's lengthy philosophical/narrative poems (e.g., The Prelude, The Excursion, The Recluse).  I confess that their prolixity and their often high-flown rhetoric have been a barrier.  However, a passage such as this makes me feel that I have been remiss, and inexcusably lazy.  Yes, there is some prolixity and rhetoric in these lines, but they are outweighed by the simple truth of what Wordsworth says -- and the beautiful way in which he says it.

Wordsworth wrote this passage at a time when his friendship with Samuel Taylor Coleridge was at its strongest.  Thus, it is not surprising that, in a letter to his brother written in March or April of 1798, Coleridge quotes the first 18 lines of the passage (indicating that Wordsworth had shared the manuscript with him).  Immediately prior to quoting the lines, Coleridge writes:

"I love fields and woods and mountains with almost a visionary fondness. And because I have found benevolence and quietness growing within me as that fondness has increased, therefore I should wish to be the means of implanting it in others, and to destroy the bad passions not by combating them but by keeping them in inaction."

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Letter to George Coleridge, in Ernest Hartley Coleridge (editor), Letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Volume I (1895), pages 243-244.

James McIntosh Patrick, "Glamis Village" (1939)

For some reason, two poems by R. S. Thomas came to mind as I was mulling over Wordsworth's lines.  I do not consider them to be reiterations of what Wordsworth has to say.  Rather, I think of them as being instances of how Wordsworth's thoughts may play out in our lives.


Not conscious
         that you have been seeking
         you come upon it

the village in the Welsh hills
                 dust free
         with no road out
but the one you came in by.

                 A bird chimes
         from a green tree
the hour that is no hour
         you know.  The river dawdles
to hold a mirror for you
where you may see yourself
         as you are, a traveller
                 with the moon's halo
         above him, who has arrived
         after long journeying where he
                 began, catching this
         one truth by surprise
that there is everything to look forward to.

R. S. Thomas, Later Poems (1983).

For me, the most profound, and the loveliest, statement in Wordsworth's passage is this:  "Not useless do I deem/These quiet sympathies with things that hold/An inarticulate language."  I think this statement sets forth a principle (to use Wordsworth's word) that provides the link between Thomas's poems and Wordsworth's meditation.  That principle, as expressed by both Wordsworth and Thomas, requires openness, receptiveness, repose, and contemplation.  Not easy qualities to attain.  A lifetime in the making, and then, if one is lucky, one may finally touch them.  In the meantime, we can only strive.

               The Bright Field

I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it.  But that was the pearl
of great price, the one field that had
the treasure in it.  I realize now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it.  Life is not hurrying

on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past.  It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.

R. S. Thomas, Laboratories of the Spirit (1975).

Thomas's phrase "the eternity that awaits you" prompts me to think of a statement by Ludwig Wittgenstein that I have posted here on more than one occasion: "If we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present." Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921), Proposition 6.4311 (translated by David Pears and Brian McGuinness).

James McIntosh Patrick, "Boreland Mill, Kirkmichael" (1950)

Everything is right there in front of us, if only we pay attention, if only we look.

     To wake, alive, in this world,
What happiness!
     Winter rain.

Shoha (1727-1771) (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 4: Autumn-Winter (Hokuseido Press 1952), page 217.

James McIntosh Patrick, "A City Garden" (1940)


Fred said...


Beautiful--it's 7:30 AM here and what a wonderful way to begin the day.

RS Thomas' poems are wonderful examples of Wordsworth's general observations.

Stephen Pentz said...

Fred: Thank you for the kind words, which I greatly appreciate. Yes, the Thomas poems are lovely. I think they popped into my mind because they are two of my favorites by Thomas.

As ever, thank you very much for visiting. Happy holidays!

Fred said...


And an Happy Holidays to you also.

Stephen Pentz said...

Thank you, Fred.

John Ashton said...

Mr Pentz, your comments here regarding Wordsworth very much echo my own. I am very fond of the shorter poems and return to them often, the longer philosophical poems I confess to finding rather hard work.
As you say there are passages, such as the one you quote at the beginning of this post which are wonderful, but too often they are hidden or lost almost among a welter of words, which I also find to be a barrier.
Perhaps I should be prepared to exercise more diligence when it comes to reading the longer poems.

Both of the R.S Thomas poems have long been favourites of mine.

I recall once in Norfolk,following a path through part of the Nar valley that unexpectedly emerged onto beautiful, water meadows and the fast flowing river hidden among the reeds and those words of Thomas:
"Not conscious
that you have been seeking
you come upon it"

fit such a moment perfectly.

The haiku by Shoha is marvellous. Such truth so exquisitely done.

I'd like to take this oppotunity to wish you a Happy Christmas and thank you for the continued existence of First Known When Lost. I always look forward to visiting and am never disappointed. I've discovered many wonderful poets I might ordinarily never have come across.
Thank you again.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr Ashton: Thank you very much for your kind words about the blog. And I owe you (and my other loyal readers) thanks as well. I am grateful that you and others have found your way here, and keep returning. And I particularly enjoy being able to share our thoughts here in the comments section.

So I am not the only one who has that sort of issue with Wordsworth's longer poems! Like you, I will always prefer his shorter lyrical pieces. But coming across this passage over the weekend made me feel that I need to, as you put it, "exercise more diligence" with respect to the longer poems. I think there are rewards waiting there for us.

You've identified the key aspect of the Thomas poems (as reflected as well in your own experience in Norfolk -- and I'm sure you've had many others): the serendipitous nature of these moments. The lines you quote speak to this perfectly. I would say that these moments are nearly always a matter of pure chance. Pure chance which turns into something unforgettable.

I'm pleased you like the haiku by Shoha. I never cease to be amazed at how the good haiku poets are able to distill these things down to their essence.

Again, thank you for your kind words, for your continued visits, and for sharing your thoughts, which always send me down new avenues.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Bruce Floyd said...

(I apologize for the length of the below. I am not skillful enough to be both succinct and clear.)

When young I thrilled to Wordsworth's lyrical poetry, especially the intimations ode. No longer. The poem contains lovely lines, but I'm afraid I no longer believe a word of it. Childhood is not the paradise that some claim it is. We don't come "trailing clouds of glory." We come in great ignorance, learn early how powerless we are, how these bodies in which we find ourselves can betray us, how we exude the foulest kind of stuff from our orifices, how the sight of his own blood can make a child scream, how terrifying our dreams can be.

Of course there's no accounting taste, but I have come to believe that "The Ruined Cottage," along with another long narrative poem, "Michael," is the greatest poem Wordsworth ever penned. I'd recommend admirers of poetry to read both poems.

"The Ruined Cottage" is the work of a man who sees life as it is, one who can, because of his age and his openness to experience and sensibility, see things that others cannot see. I call this kind of old man "the Wordsworthian Hero."

The narrator of the poem, representing you and me I'd guess, people who confuse sentimentality with profound understanding, runs into an old man who wanders from place to place, a tinker or peddler of sorts. Most of the poem is the narrator quoting Armytage, the old man.

On a hot day the young man and the old man retire to a shady spot to cool themselves from a scalding sun. The old man tells the younger one that where they now sit a cottage used to stand. A man, his wife, and their two sons lived there.

Then the old man tells a heartbreaking tale of a husband deserting his family, his wife slowly falling into a deep inertia, unable to do the simplest things. The older son is sent off to be an apprentice. The younger child dies of neglect, and not long after the babe dies the wife dies, her cottage collapsing around her. This disintegration takes five years of unrelenting misery.

The young man, after having heard this melancholy tale, moves away to hide the tears in his eyes. It is at this moment that the poem "turns":

The old Man ceased: he saw that I was mov’d;
and said,
“My Friend, enough to sorrow have you given,
The purposes of wisdom ask no more;
Be wise and chearful, and no longer read
The forms of things with an unworthy eye.
She sleeps in the calm earth, and peace is here.
I well remember that those very plumes,
Those weeds, and the high spear-grass on that wall,
By mist and silent rain-drops silver’d o’er,
As once I passed did to my heart convey
So still an image of tranquillity,
So calm and still, and looked so beautiful
Amid the uneasy thoughts which filled my mind,
That what we feel of sorrow and despair
From ruin and from change, and all the grief
The passing shews of being leave behind,
Appeared an idle dream that could not live
Where meditation was. I turned away
And walked along my road in happiness.”
He ceased. By this the sun declining shot
A slant and mellow radiance which began
To fall upon us where beneath the trees
We sate on that low bench, and now we felt,
Admonished thus, the sweet hour coming on.
A linnet warbled from those lofty elms,
A thrush sang loud, and other melodies,
At distance heard, peopled the milder air.
The old man rose and hoisted up his load.
Together casting then a farewell look
Upon those silent walls, we left the shade
And ere the stars were visible attained
A rustic inn, our evening resting-place.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr Floyd: Thank you very much for your thoughts on Wordsworth, and for the wonderful passage from "The Ruined Cottage." As it turns out, I was leaning towards reading "The Ruined Cottage" as the start of my resolution to delve further into Wordsworth's long poems. This passage confirms my choice.

On a broader note, thank you very much for your comments throughout the year, which are always enlightening and thought-provoking. I greatly appreciate hearing from you.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Bruce Harrow said...

Dear Mr Pentz

Another intriguing and thought provoking piece from you. Thank you.

in the preface to the 1798 edition of the Lyrical Ballads Wordsworth speaks of breaking away from the artificiality and triviality of over elaborate and contrived 18th century poetry. And yet in the passage you quote, it begins:

Not useless do I deem
These quiet sympathies with things that hold
An inarticulate language;

The diction is simple and unaffected, yet the form is, to my uncertain mind, artificial and elaborate. Why does he begin with a double negative and then invert the usual syntactic order of the typical English sentence? For meaning? For effect?

But then again such an elaborate use of form does bring the reader up short and make him consider his ideas immediately?

I remain agnostic on this piece of Wordsworth I’m afraid because I can’t make my mind up whether he is adhering to or contradicting his own literary credo.

On the matter of his longer works, I love the first part of The Prelude about Childhood, especially when he is out skating at night.

Many thanks again and Merry Xmas and Happy New Year.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr Harrow: Thank you very much for visiting again, and for your kind words.

And thank you as well for your thoughts about Wordsworth, with which I agree. He does seem to often violate his own principles as set forth in the Prefaces (both the original and amended versions) to the Lyrical Ballads, doesn't he? And I concur with you that the opening lines of the passage I quoted seem to be such an example. Still, I cannot help but be moved by the overall loveliness of the passage (both as a matter of craft and as a matter of thought).

Recently I have been in the frame of mind to give Wordsworth the benefit of the doubt, although I agree with your thoughts. And the reason I feel this way is reflected in your reference to the skating scene in Book I of The Prelude. Another example is one that I read within the past few days: the section in Book IV (lines 363 to 504 of the 1805 version) that is often referred to as "The Discharged Soldier." These sorts of passages make the effort rewarding.

Thank you again. And Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you as well!