Saturday, 6 November 2010

Wordsworth and the Sublime

The word ‘sublime’ can mean exalted, noble, awe-inspiring, or it can suggest a supreme indifference. Each of these descriptions is self-contained and yet connected, layering the concept of the sublime with many shades of meaning, and language is inherently a system of signs that refers to itself for meaning. Many writers through the ages have discussed and argued on what the sublime means in various contexts. Among them is John Baillie, who wrote ‘An essay on the sublime’ in 1747. In it he creates a useful sketch of what the sublime might be:

Few are so insensible, as not to be struck even at first view with what is truly sublime; and every person upon seeing a grand object is affected with something which as it were extends his very being, and expands it to a kind of immensity. […]hence arises that exultation and pride which the mind ever feels from the consciousness of its own vastness -

With this in mind the essay will explore the work of William Wordsworth with regards to the sublime.  When discussing the subject of poetry in ‘Preface to the Lyrical Ballads’, Wordsworth argues for a choice of language closer to what is actually used by men, and ‘to throw over them a certain colouring of imagination […] as far as regards the manner in which we associate ideas in a state of excitement’.  Later he goes on to say, ‘For the human mind is capable of being excited without the application of gross and violent stimulants; and he must have a very faint perception of its dignity and beauty who does not know this’.

It seems Wordsworth wants to convey the power inherent in both Nature and the mind of Man, especially by highlighting the interrelationship between them. Later in the Preface he asks, ‘What then does the poet? He considers man and the objects that surround him as acting and re-acting upon each other, so as to produce an infinite complexity of pain and pleasure’. This insight alone could be deemed sublime because it recognises the endless interplay of elements that give rise to any one moment, event, or individual. As he says in ‘Expostulation and Reply’:

The eye – it cannot choose but see;
We cannot bid the ear be still;
Our bodies feel, where’er they be,
Against or with our will.

Wordsworth views both nature and the human mind as being filled with magnificent subtleties. It is this exquisite strength that he discusses in much of his poetry, a vitality that can overpower or liberate the senses depending on the skill of the perceiver. In ‘Simon Lee’ he writes simply:

O Reader! had you in your mind
Such stores as silent thought can bring,
O gentle reader! you would find
A tale in every thing.

Wordsworth seems to find nobility in the connection between nature and man – the way nature enlarges the mind by feeding its creativity, and how the mind exalts nature by perceiving its complex power. To the poet this interrelationship is awe-inspiring, creating a rich combination of fear and joy. In this imaginative perception the mind appears to itself as both vast and miniscule, a microcosm of the external world. As he highlights in ‘Tintern Abbey’:

And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused

This sense of the sublime could be described as a noble humility because it carries with it the acknowledgment of disturbing things, of questions unanswered, of suffering and joy both existing at once. If increasing age necessitates this kind of humility then perhaps it is recognition of the inevitability of death. Juliet Barker, in her book Wordsworth: A Life, discusses an incident the poet had as a child at Cockermouth Castle while investigating the ruins with friends. She writes:

Like any small boy, he found the castle dungeons irresistible and decided to brave a descent. These were no ordinary dungeons, however, but oubliettes, accessible only through a small trapdoor in the ceiling. […] Not surprisingly, he was overcome with horror at the thought of being buried alive. To the hitherto blithe and unthinking boy, the ‘soul-appalling darkness’ of the dungeon was like an unexpected taste of the grave.

The passion of youth could be said to normally lack this awareness simply because youth, in general, is fresh, a carefree romp through new enchanted lands. However, in later life, through ‘emotion recollected in tranquillity’ the mind can become sober, even solemn, by witnessing the complexity of nature and its relationship to Man. The mind’s responsiveness to life does not need to wither, it only needs to mature. As he describes so sincerely in ‘My Heart Leaps Up’:

My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky:
So it was when my life began;
So it is now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old,
Or let me die!

The spectre of death seems to be powerfully connected to an appreciation of the sublime. In the note to Isabella Fenwick on ‘Ode: Intimations of Immortality’ he says, ‘Nothing was more difficult for me in childhood than to admit the notion of death as a state applicable to my own being’. In the Ode itself he writes:

O joy! that in our embers
Is something that doth live,
That nature yet remembers
What was so fugitive!

With maturity comes the appreciation of the transience of human life, and nature’s apparently sublime indifference to it – it seems a noble indifference that is somehow comforting. Has Wordsworth added a colouring of imagination to a natural world that neither comforts nor remembers? If he has added this gleam then it is a sober moral choice stemming from his love of man and nature. In the ‘Elegiac Stanzas’ he writes:

Ah! THEN, if mine had been the Painter’s hand,
To express what then I saw; and add the gleam,
The light that never was, on sea or land,
The consecration, and the Poet’s dream;

The use of the word ‘consecration’ suggests that Wordsworth does not genuinely doubt nature, but rather that he desires an imaginative morality that would make human life sacred.  If recognising sanctity is to be awe-inspired, then Man’s morality can allow him to experience the sublime. This more mature interaction with the world can be seen in his sonnet ‘Composed upon Westminster Bridge’ where he writes:

Ne’er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
The river glideth at his own sweet will:
Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;
And all that mighty heart is lying still!

These lines touch upon the potency of stillness, a kind of quiet power beneath the surface that seems all the more awesome because it is patient. Considering the frenetic, full-blooded perception of youth, could this quiet power be analogous to the more solemn perception of maturity? Perhaps the idea of the sublime comes into focus more sharply in older-age because it is a consciousness infused with an awareness of death.

This creation of a mature poetic image of the mind is indivisible from Wordsworth’s sense of morality. It is tantamount to a code of conduct, a way of treating the mind and its experiences with love. This link between reason and imagination seems to be an important key to understanding and interacting with the sublime. As he writes later in The Prelude:

This spiritual love acts not, nor can exist
Without Imagination, which in truth
Is but another name for absolute power
And clearest insight, amplitude of mind,
And reason, in her most exalted mood.

This code of conduct is a way of navigating through human experiences; it simultaneously enchants and makes sense of what Man perceives in his relationship to nature and to himself. Everything in a human life is transient, even the physical body. Wordsworth was buried at Grasmere Churchyard in the Lakelands, near to his childhood home. As Juliet Barker writes in Wordsworth: A Life:

The headstone that was eventually erected over William’s grave was, as he wished, stark in its simplicity. A plain piece of Lakeland stone, without ornament of any kind, it simply stated to the curious passer-by, ‘William Wordsworth 1850’.

In closing then, it seems the individual must eventually recognise that death claims all living things, but he must also recognise that the power to imagine can transcend any physical experience. This is the closest thing to a divine power that Man possesses. Wordsworth was likely well aware of this when he composed these lines of The Prelude:

The prime and vital principle is thine
In the recesses of thy nature, far
From any reach of outward fellowship,
Else is not thine at all.


Barker, Juliet: Wordsworth: A Life (London: Viking, Penguin Books Ltd, 2000)

The Cambridge Companion to Wordsworth (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,

Hartman, Geoffrey H.: Wordsworth’s Poetry 1787-1814 (Cambridge, Massachusetts:
Harvard University Press, 1987)

Kelly, Theresa M.: Wordsworth’s revisionary aesthetics (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1988)

The Norton Anthology of English Literature (New York: W.W. Norton & Company,

Purvis, John: A Preface to Wordsworth, Revised Edition (London, Longman Group UK,

Romanticism: A critical reader (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd, 1995)

The sublime: a reader in British eighteenth-century aesthetic theory (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1996)

William Wordsworth: Selected Poems (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990)

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