beautiful monsters: workshopping

May 10, 2004


-----Original Message-----
From: William Wordsworth [mailto:ww@lake.district.england]
Sent: December 1799
Subject: Prospectus to ‘The Recluse’

Hi Bill,

Thanks for sending me your poem and asking for my opinion. I know you will expect an honest opinion and I will give it to you. It’s an ambitious project you’ve taken on here (if not downright impossible). Did Sam put you up to it?

In this poem you set out to write a versified treatise on “man, on nature and on human life”, which is bound to be an overwhelming subject. Like Paradise Lost this piece is both a moral and political treatise and an epic poem. But while Paradise Lost depicts the battle of good and evil on a grand scale, this poem focuses on the battles of the individual mind. You have made yourself the hero of this epic, and your quest seems to be to surpass Milton and write the ultimate philosophical poem. You prophesise a marriage of mind and nature, and yet in this piece you turn inwards and get caught up with interminable psychoanalysis. Though the life cycle of the poem begins with youthful enthusiasm, it sinks to despondency and desperation.

> On man, on nature, and on human life,
> Thinking in solitude from time to time

Right at the beginning of the poem you have set yourself up as a solitary figure, someone who finds nature and humanity stimuli for poetry. You have also set this up as a poem that is primarily to do with “thinking”. I find it interesting that you begin with man, nature, and human life. Surely man and human life are the same subject? If you are attempting to write a total philosophical system then there is something missing from this trilogy. Where is God?

> I find sweet passions traversing my soul
> Like music; Unto these, where’er I may
> I would give utterance in numerous verse.

Why have you chosen to write this prospectus in “numerous verse”? Maybe because you are attempting to impart an order to life and the world, and in turn you are imparting an order to the rhythms of natural speech. Do you think it adds something to your cause? Well, as yet I’m unconvinced. As this is a “prospectus”, perhaps prose would have been more appropriate. I can’t help feeling that you’re clinging to the mechanics of poetry - I thought you were against the limitations of traditionalism? Why reinforce them with this piece?

However, if you insist on writing this as verse rather than prose, then blank verse is a good choice. It feels less forced than rhymed verse would in this case (the more subtle internal rhymes work, e.g. traverse/verse). The rhythm is somewhat closer to natural speech.

> Of truth, of grandeur, beauty, love, and hope,

You use lists like this several times during the piece. It’s almost as though, by putting these abstract words together you hope to give them form and a meaning greater than they would have standing alone. But the effect of listing them like this actually seems to speed up the rhythm, and so they are only skimmed over lightly.

I know it is meant as an exposition, but since you’ve chosen to express your aims in verse, it seems to me you should strive to make them a little more... poetic. “Show, don’t tell” as they say. IMHO a few more specific images would add balance and contrast to the abstract concepts. Words like love and hope are so overused they have become meaningless. What kind of love? What does the hope you sing of taste like? Sometimes the most specific details can carry universal truths. If you take care of the details, I believe the universal concepts will take care of themselves. A host of daffodils, for example, can convey something powerful about gladness and the goodness at the heart of all.

>tt>> Of joy in various commonalty spread,
> Of the individual mind that keeps its own
> Inviolate retirement, and consists
> With being limitless – the one great life –

This, I suspect, is your aim; to move people to realise “the one great life”. To be one with nature and with all humanity; this concept is found in many religious teachings and is also fundamental to the principles of deep ecology.

> I sing: fit audience let me find, though few!
> ‘Fit audience find, though few!’ Thus prayed the bard,
> Holiest of men. Urania, I shall need
> Thy guidance, or a greater muse (if such
> Descend to earth, or dwell in highest heaven),

In this poem you use a lot of Miltonic language, and borrow a lot of phrases and imagery from Paradise Lost. Bill, the trouble with trying to be Milton is that you’re not. If you truly want to achieve something greater than what has gone before, you must be true to yourself. Fear, awe and terror are fitting in a Miltonic epic set on the grand scale of heaven and hell, but in this poem they seem to be expressions of your own anxiety. It seems to me that in part this anxiety may stem from trying to surpass the impact of Paradise Lost.

The grandeur of the language seems somewhat out of place and dissonant from your general aims. If you value natural speech, why refer to Greek Mythology? This is hardly the speech of humble and rustic life. You speak of “fit audience though few”, but I was under the impression you believed poetry should be accessible to the common man. What do you think your more “rustic” subjects would make of these lines? What muse would they call on? Isn’t there a danger that by seeking an ideal audience, you protect yourself from criticism that might ultimately enrich your work?

It is interesting that you choose to call on Urania – muse of astronomy. She alone among the muses inspires scientific endeavours. She holds dear philosophers, not poets.

> For I must tread on shadowy ground, must sink
> Deep, and ascend aloft, and breathe in worlds
> To which the heaven of all heavens is but a veil.

I love the line, “breathe in worlds”. I think it’s because you’re starting to use more imagery. Breath, veil, they’re both lovely delicate images. A nice change from all the empty abstractions.

> All strength, all terror, single or in bands,
> That ever was put forth by personal forms –
> Jehovah with his thunder, and the choir
> Of shouting angels, and th’ empyreal thrones –
> I pass them unalarmed. The darkest pit
> Of the profoundest hell, night, chaos, death,
> Nor aught of blinder vacancy scooped out
> By help of dreams, can breed such fear and awe
> As fall upon me when I look
> Into my soul, into the soul of man –
> My haunt and the main region of my song.

Here you seem to claim that the journey into the mind is both darker and more sublime than the journeys through heaven and hell in Paradise Lost. But what are heaven and hell except aspects and creations of our own minds?

> Beauty, whose living home is the green earth,
> Surpassing far what hath by special craft
> Of delicate poets been culled forth and shaped
> From earth’s materials, waits upon my steps,
> Pitches her tents before me as I move,
> My hourly neighbour. Paradise and groves
> Elysian, blessed islands in the deep
> Of choice seclusion – wherefore need they be
> Once wedded to this outward frame of things
> In love, find these the growth of common day?

This, I believe, is the essence of the poem; you believe that through the consummation of a marriage of mind and nature it is possible to create paradise here on earth. But in this passage you move straight from the darkness of your soul, the soul of man, to the beauty inherent in nature. If your aim is to move people to realise that a Utopia is made possible by the union of mind and nature, then why do you set man and nature against each other as such stark contrasts? Are we not part of nature? Are we not made of the ashes of dead stars? Do we not return to the dust of the earth? By creating this dichotomy you are undermining your own goals. In fact you are giving yourself an excuse to avoid acting. By retreating into an idealised nature you avoid engaging with the challenging dimensions of life.

You might also want to consider that “Mind” is not limited to humans, or even to animate beings. Mind can be understood as the self-defining principle that is present in all matter; in the stars and the spaces between stars, in water, stone, leaf and bird, in nucleic acids and atoms, blood, sweat, heart, lungs, mind, in music and poetry, laughter and tears. Is this the “one great life” that you speak of? Many people name this “God”. Whatever name you choose, this (God, Universe, Mind, Love) cannot conform to such arbitrary divisions, as man / nature, mind / matter.

> Such pleasant haunts forgoing, if my song
> Must turn elsewhere, and travel near the tribes
> And fellowships of man, and see ill sights
> Of passions ravenous from each other’s rage,
> Insult and injury, and wrong and strife;
> Must hear humanity in fields and groves
> Pipe solitary anguish; or must hang
> Brooding above the fierce confederate storm
> Of sorrow, barricadoed evermore
> Within the walls of cities, to these sounds

This passage seems to express your disillusionment with the French Revolution, and again hints at the anxiety you must be experiencing. You are placing huge demands upon yourself – or perhaps you are accepting the demands of others. I know Sam is worried that the masses are giving up on their own amelioration. Don’t lose sight of the big picture, Bill. Humans have always had bloody revolutions, “insult and injury, and wrong and strife”. But surely humans have also always been the creators of beauty, music and poetry.

> Let me find meaning more akin to that
> Which to God’s ear they carry, that even these
> Hearing, I be not heartless or forlorn.
> Come thou, prophetic spirit, soul of man,
> Thou human soul of the wide earth, that hast
> Thy metropolitan temple in the hearts
> Of mighty poets, unto me vouchsafe
> Thy foresight, teach me to discern, and part
> Inherent things from casual, what is fixed
> From fleeting, that my soul may live, and be
> Even as a light hung up in heaven to cheer
> The world in times to come. And if with this
> I mingle humbler matter – with the thing
> Contemplated describe the mind and man
> Contemplating, and who he was, and what
> The transitory being that beheld
> This vision, when and where and how he lived
> (In part a fellow-citizen, in part
> An outlaw and a borderer of his age) –
> Be not this labour useless.
> Oh great God!
> To less than thee I cannot make this prayer;
> Innocent mighty spirit, let my life
> Express the image of a better time,
> Desires more wise and simpler manners, nurse
> My heart in genuine freedom, all pure thoughts
> Be with me and uphold me to the end.

Oh dear, as I read these last passages the poem seems to deteriorate into desperation. You claim to have discovered unity with nature and humanity, and yet you give nature only ten lines of this poem. The rest is devoted to tortured introspection. This is the “Egotistical Sublime” only without the sublime. Perhaps this is the price of too much solitary thinking.

I’ve highlighted the words that emphasis the mind and intellect. As a romantic poet, I would expect you to give more value to the heart and passion. You do mention the heart in the second to last line, but then you once again bring it back to “pure thoughts”. This echoes the second line of the poem “thinking in solitude”. It is possible that you intend for the term mind to encompass matters of emotion and soul, however this poem still reads as a piece of psychoanalysis – not literature. You speak of such grand concepts as love and Utopia, but love is not a word, it’s a way of interacting with the world. Creating Utopia requires action as well as thought. If people are feeling disheartened after seeing the high ideals of the French Revolution crumble into conflict and calamity, what makes you think they will have faith in a poem? Words are cheap, Bill.

This poem claims to be about man, nature and human life, but mostly it is about mind. Specifically, yours. Not only that, but instead of being about the growth of a great mind, it is about the decline from idealism to anxiety and desperation. It’s less poetry and more psychoanalysis. Maybe if you took out the line breaks you could submit it as a proposal for a paper in some journal of metapsychology, but as a piece of literature, I really don’t think you’re doing yourself justice sending it out into the world. There is something missing. In many of your other poems you use concrete, almost tangible details to create a powerful sense of location and you have used the forces of nature to echo the forces of human emotions. That, IMHO, is the stuff of poetry. In this prospectus you let go some of your poetic strengths. Perhaps you need to let the heart take the reins for a while. Perhaps you need to give nature more equality with mind. Most of all I think you need to dismantle the dichotomy you are creating between man and nature, mind and matter. Both man and nature are capable of beauty and creation, destruction and chaos. Both are permeated with the energy of God. Both are in fact aspects of the same interdependent dynamic system.

Leonard Cohen once said, “Poetry is just the evidence of life. If your life is burning well, poetry is just the ash.” I think you need to stop contemplating and start living more. The last thing I am intending is to say is that you’ve failed because you’re not a good enough poet. The problem is that you’ve set the bar too high. Sam seems to think that all poets must be philosophers, and he may be right. But that doesn’t mean that all poets have to tackle vast and overwhelming subjects such as life the universe and everything... let alone tackle them all in one poem. Such a task is likely hang around your neck like a stinking dead albatross. Leave this one in your notebook, Bill. Go climb a mountain in the predawn hours before colour seeps into the world. Take a notebook with you and see what comes of it.

Hope this helps,

Posted by Fionnaigh at May 10, 2004 01:23 AM