POETS Day! William Wordsworth

[This entry is cross posted at ordinary-times.com]

Welcome to POETS Day! Piss Off Early, Tomorrow’s Saturday, and you’ll surely want to oblige the acronym as this week is the special Slipped Into Curmudgeonlyness edition so get audibly frustrated with an underling’s inability to help you sign into your email, blow your top over the sadistically icy 68° thermostat setting, cough a menacing “I’m sick and I’m going to bring you all down with me” cough, call at least two people Bill even though they are not named Bill, leave a tip for the guy from the mail room but no more than a nickel; in general, be so annoying that when you declare that your patience with the people around you has reached its limit and storm out no one will follow.

Now feel free to move about the weekend, your normally kind and ebullient self, having been momentarily overtaken by a cantankerous pensioner, once more assertive and dominant. Think happy thoughts and enjoy happy hour.

William Wordsworth lived to the ripe age of eighty, but at the age of thirty-two he couldn’t have known that. The life expectancy in England’s cities then was only between twenty-five and thirty years old. Out in the county where he spent most of his years the average time from womb to tomb increased significantly to forty-one. Still, at thirty-two he wouldn’t be faulted if he felt he was getting’ up there, so he had an old man’s “Get Off of My Wafting with Natures Glory Lawn!” moment.

William Wordsworth went all in for the French Revolution until the horrors of the Reign of Terror shocked him from his idyls. I suspect that he developed expectations for the improvement of man that were left unrealized and warped by Le Committee of Public Safety and their bloodthirsty rabble. But once a fan of revolution, always a fan of revolution, so when he got fed up and decided that his England was too much without the virtues and traits that made her great, he penned an entreaty to one of England’s greatest sons, a supporter of revolution, and champion of freedom and virtue who spent his waning years blind, nearly broke, no longer at the center of intellectual life, and likely yelling about the local kids and their newfangled ribboned doublet cuffs and noticeably spacious breeches. The perfect voice to channel for whipping the country back into shape.

To William Wordsworth the rot was ubiquitous. He calls England “a fen of stagnant waters,” and indicts the clergy, military, intellectual life, and family. He writes “We are selfish men,” so he is not exempt from the rot. The final six lines are hopeful, believing that if they would look to Milton, all that was noble and lost could be regained; but I can’t help but read a grumpy undertone, an unfavorable contrast that floats through the written words highlighting Wordsworth’s unfavorable view of whichever of his contemporaries he blames for the current state.

Warning to the learned: Here be speculation. I’ve been reading analysis of other poets who occasionally use breaks in expected form or intentionally of rhythm lines to convey one thing or another. I have no corroboration for any of this, but something caught my eye and after several readings, I realized that that something was not alone. This may not be an original observation but I haven’t come across it anywhere myself.

It was the 10th line, “Pure as the naked heavens, majestic, free,” that first stood out. If you’re reading a sonnet invoking John Milton, you wouldn’t be surprised if the author used the Miltonic sonnet form. That’s what I expected and on first reading that’s what I thought Wordsworth did until I hit that 10th line. The Miltonic form uses an ABBA ABBA rhyme scheme for the octet and a CDE CDE scheme for the sestet. In this poem you first notice a break from the form when you read the 10th line as it rhymes with the 9th. The scheme here is CDD ECE.

Iambic pentameter is standard for the Miltonic form but every user of every model breaks form every so often, so you forgive a stray line or so, but William Wordsworth breaks with form several times in this poem. To start, “Milton!”, the first word of the poem, is not an iamb. The stress is on the second syllable rather than the first, making it a foot called a trochee. He’s telling us something from the outset and that he uses the name of his savior is no accident.

Lines 5,6,8,10, and 11 all have eleven syllables rather than just ten. Line 4 has twelve. Focusing on line 10 since it was the one that first drew my attention, the extra syllable is easily avoided. “Pure as the naked heavens, majestic, free,” could easily have been “Pure as the heavens, majestic, and free,” and fit meaning and meter. The errors are intentional.

In a poem in which William Wordsworth asks Milton to right the ship of England he imperfectly uses a form popularized by Milton to emphasize the scope of the imperfections that have arisen in the time between their two lives. A time with flawless poetry doesn’t need saving from a poet. It’s effective.

London, 1802

William Wordsworth (1770 – 1850)

Milton! thou shouldst be living at this hour:
England hath need of thee: she is a fen
Of stagnant waters: altar, sword, and pen,
Fireside, the heroic wealth of hall and bower,
Have forfeited their ancient English dower
Of inward happiness. We are selfish men;
O raise us up, return to us again,
And give us manners, virtue, freedom, power!
Thy soul was like a Star, and dwelt apart;
Thou hadst a voice whose sound was like the sea:
Pure as the naked heavens, majestic, free,
So didst thou travel on life’s common way,
In cheerful godliness; and yet thy heart
The lowliest duties on herself did lay.

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