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Tuesday, May 12th, 2009 | Author:

Earlier self is other

Our being, as it was at an earlier time in life, especially childhood, can seem like another self who has died but whom we feel is somehow still alive; or is a self whose live presence we think we feel inside ourselves, even though we know that she or he is chronologically dead.  I think the first person who has left a record of such a feeling in poetry is William Wordsworth, in his early poem “There Was a Boy,” which he published originally in the second edition of Lyrical Ballads (1800).  A few years later Wordsworth used this poem in a different way, including it with slight alterations in Book 5 of the second version of his long poem, The Prelude (1805).  The first published version reads as follows:

There was a Boy; ye knew him well, ye Cliffs
And Islands of Winander!  many a time,                         [Winander=lake Windermere]
At evening, when the stars had just begun                    ["earliest stars began" in 1815]
To move along the edges of the hills,
Rising or setting, would he stand alone,
Beneath the trees, or by the glimmering lake,
And there, with fingers interwoven, both hands
Press’d closely palm to palm and to his mouth
Uplifted, he, as through an instrument,
Blew mimic hootings to the silent owls
That they might answer him.  And they would shout
Across the wat’ry vale and shout again,
Responsive to his call, with quivering peals,
And long halloos, and screams, and echoes loud
Redoubled and redoubled, a wild scene
Of mirth and jocund din!  And, when it chanced
That pauses of deep silence mock’d his skill,
Then, sometimes, in that silence, while he hung
Listening, a gentle shock of mild surprize
Has carried far into his heart the voice
Of mountain-torrents; or the visible scene
Would enter unawares into his mind
With all its solemn imagery, its rocks,
Its woods, and that uncertain heaven receiv’d
Into the bosom of the steady lake.
Fair are the woods, and beauteous is the spot,
The vale where he was born: the Church-yard hangs
Upon a slope above the village school;
And there along that bank where I have pass’d
At evening, I believe, that near his grave
A full half-hour together have I stood,
Mute–for he died when he was ten years old.

We do not look to such a poem for rapid movement; in the blank verse of this poem and The Prelude, Wordsworth is rather slow-paced and relaxed in his delivery, despite the intensity of his feeling.  He writes without narrative urgency, as if he had all the time in the world, but he does sometimes achieve sudden and striking motion on a larger scale.  The moment he describes in this poem is most notable not for the accuracy of its detail or the vividness of its imagery, but for its presentation of a psychological movement.

And in fact Wordsworth’s goal in describing this moment was explained to us by his friend (for a while) Thomas de Quincey; it was to capture a kind of psychological phenomenon that Wordsworth may have noticed in advance of any other thinker.  In Wordsworth’s words, as reported by De Quincey: “I have remarked from my earliest days that if, under any circumstances, the attention is energetically braced up to an act of steady observation or of steady expectation, then, if this intense condition of vigilance should suddenly relax, at that moment any beautiful, any impressive visual object, or collection of objects, falling upon the eye, is carried to the heart with a power not known under other circumstances.”

De Quincey reports that Wordsworth gave him two examples–the first, from a midnight walk in the Lake Country when Wordsworth knelt and put his ear to the ground to try to hear whether, beyond their sight, the wagon bringing mail might be approaching; he gave up and only then he noticed a bright star that “fell suddenly upon my eye, and penetrated my capacity of apprehension with a pathos and a sense of the infinite that would not have arrested me under other circumstances.”  The second example, Wordsworth drew from the poem I have quoted above.  Reading De Quincey we recover some of the freshness of what was apparently a new metaphor in Wordsworth’s lines, one that we no longer perceive as fresh; De Quincey (mis)quotes the poem and then comments upon it as follows.  When the boy stops listening for the owls,

then, at that instant, the scene actually before him, the visible scene, would enter unawares, “With all its solemn imagery.”  This complex scenery was–what?


Was carried far into his heart
With all its pomp, and that uncertain heav’n received
Into the bosom of the steady lake.


This very expression, “far,” by which space and its infinities are attributed to the human heart, and to its capacities of re-echoing the sublimities of nature, has always struck me as with a flash of sublime revelation.

I think it’s worth noting that Wordsworth feminizes the receptivity of the boy by making it analogous to the receptivity of the lake to the light of the stars; the lake is subtly feminine simply because it is a body of water (with many unconscious associations with the feminine established through centuries of art, literature, and thought).  The boy’s sudden perception, in the moment of release from his concentration on listening for owls, of the sound of water and of the scene around him, including the reflection of the stars in the still waters of the lake, ends with this latter image, and so does this main portion of the poem.

Turning then in another direction, Wordsworth intervenes in the first person to describe the boy’s birthplace and, surprisingly, his grave, noting that “he died when he was ten years old.”

In the version of this poem that Wordsworth used in this (the thirteen-book) version of The Prelude (5.389-422),  the last section is slightly different.  Wordsworth announces the boy’s death immediately after the image of the star-reflecting lake, and emphasizes this boy’s isolation from other children.

This boy was taken from his mates, and died
In childhood ere he was full ten years old.
Fair are the woods, and beauteous is the spot,
The vale where he was born.  The churchyard hangs
Upon a slope above the village school,
And there, along that bank, when I have passed
At evening, I believe that oftentimes
A full half-hour together I have stood
Mute, looking at the grave in which he lies.

We cannot help feeling that Wordsworth regards the dead boy as a spirit akin to his own, especially since the village school he mentions near the end was his own childhood school, and since in The Prelude he spends so much time recounting his own childhood responsiveness to nature–an education apart from and deeper than the education he received in schools.  So to me the most interesting thing about this poem is that in fact it was drafted by Wordsworth in an uncertain mixture of third- and first-person narration.

That is, it was himself as a boy whom Wordsworth originally presented in this poem, a boy who cleverly imitated the calls of owls and eagerly listened for their reply and into whom the natural scene penetrated, producing in him a kind of mystical experience of nature.  First-person lines in Wordsworth’s manuscript notebooks include line 13, “Responsive to my call with tremulous sobs”; line 17, “That pauses of deep silence mock’d my skill”; and line 22, “Would enter unawares into my mind.”  Wordsworth commented in later life, “Written in Germany, 1799.  This is an extract from the Poem on my own poetical education.”

That Wordsworth would recast his own experience in the third person does not seem as unusual as his way of seeing himself as either a now dead, half-imagined, half-real childhood companion of himself, or as himself, truly, as he once was, but now dead to himself.  Wordsworth the writer is another person, not the boy.  In fact, Wordsworth’s rewriting of line 3 for an edition in 1815 seems, in this light, to be an almost wistful suppressed (“unconscious” we would now say) echo of an idea now expunged from the poem, repressed–that he in his own childhood was one of the “earliest stars,” and can now only be seen from afar.

There’s another sign of Wordsworth’s attempt to grasp this uncanny feeling about himself, this uncanny aspect of our being, in the way that in the three different versions of this poem, the boy is given three different ages.  In the first version he is ten years old.  In the second version (1805) he is not yet a “full ten years old”–that is, he is nine.  In the last version of The Prelude, published in 1850, Wordsworth again changed the last stanza in several small ways, one of them being the age of the child.  Here he dies “ere he was full twelve years old”–that is, he is eleven.  If the story were based on some other boy, real or imagined, then tinkering with the age of the boy would seem superfluous; but we know that Wordsworth is thinking of himself here as another person, a child who is alien to himself the adult.  That is, Wordsworth seems to be groping for a sense of exactly when the psychic death of the boy occurred–and this would of course be a very difficult thing to pin down in anyone, perhaps above all in oneself.  In 1850, Wordsworth also deletes the woods and calls the churchyard “grassy”–as if to suggest a certain openness of the space around the grave of his child-self.   (And in this meditation in several sections, I have earlier meditated a little on the grass that is mowed, that is a “math.”)

By far the most interesting poem here is an imaginary composite that we ourselves can construct, in which we can see the daring of Wordsworth’s deep poetic logic.  In this composite poem, the poet describes his own experience in the first person, in lines 1-25, then sees himself as a dead boy whom he describes in the third person, in lines 26-32.  That is, Wordsworth uses poetry as the site of a psychological experiment, seeing his earlier self as an other, presenting the idea that the boy’s responsiveness to nature died, although the boy grew into a man who then sought for that responsiveness in himself again and again, perhaps willing within the poem what he could not experience in life.

The boy is dead; Wordsworth knows himself as that boy, still alive; or the boy is still alive in the man, yet Wordsworth knows that in some deep sense he is dead; his responsiveness to nature is now inaccessible to the man.  It would be 75 years later and in another language, the language par excellence of modern European rationality (Descartes) and yet of feeling, too (Rousseau), that the French poet Arthur Rimbaud completed this thought and explicitly stated that the self is multiple and implied that writing inherently, unavoidably alienates the writer from himself or herself in a way that may shock the self but is also very productive.

Sunday, April 26th, 2009 | Author:

Unconscious Deliberateness (part 2)

Writing anything at all is a sweeping oversimplification of our inner life and of the complexities of the world outside us, yet it is also the making of an object.  Jean-Jacques Rousseau described thinking in this way: “[Ideas] comes when they please, not when it suits me.  Either they do not come at all, or they come in a swarm, overwhelming me with their strength and their numbers.  Ten volumes a day [of my journals] would not have been enough.  How could I have time to write them?”   The pell-mell helter-skelter of thought can never be grasped adequately by the conscious mind, much less represented in written form, not even in the most freely associative stream-of-consciousness fiction, because writing must reveal itself in the dimensions of time and language, while thought achieves many simultaneities and a rapid succession of thoughts and feelings that are not even fully articulated, much less organized in such a way as to be communicated to anyone else.

“We’re too unconsciously productive to ever be able to fully grasp ourselves,” as the psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas puts it (my italics).  How still are the plans and projects and categories and analysis of the intellect, compared to the pitching and running of the whole mind!  Consciousness is one rider on all the racing horses of the unconscious; when we must analyze words and events and defend ourselves against the manipulation of our feelings by others, it is consciousness that guides us; and when we must seek in our own being that which really matters to us, it is the unconscious that holds the lamp.  Yet consciousness is often insufficient to these tasks.  Hence our need to learn, from parents, and the best teachers, and all mentors official and unofficial, how to analyze, how to reason, how to sort out what is real and true and how to make decisions in the midst of our reactions to rushing circumstances, conflicting loyalties, deliberate lying and spinning, and all kinds of crisis.

So our experience of writing is twofold–the hope of expressing something that will satisfy our impulse to speak what is true to and of ourselves and true to our experience of the world, and the hope of making something that will gratify our pleasure in shape and proportion, rhythm and sound, movement and pace.  (And perhaps, in some writers, pleasures, whether questionable or merely artful, of manipulating readers.)  When we as writers can trust not only reason but also an intuition that somehow is honest, then we can manage to hear as much as possible of what intuition is saying, since it has already spoken in our drafts.  Bollas writes that “the sense of intuition” leads us “to consciously authorize certain forms of investigation in thought which are not consciously logical but which may be unconsciously productive” (1994, 90).  What is the complex way of thinking that is writing fiction or poetry, if not precisely that?

The novelist Cyrus Colter (1910-2002) once told me a down-to earth version of all this.  Colter–whose family might have been the only blacks in the whole white country where Colter grew up in southern Indiana–moved to Chicago after college, put himself through law school by working as the night clerk at a YMCA on the South Side, practiced–as he said–any kind of law he could, and eventually achieved great professional distinction as a long-time member of the Illinois Commerce Commission.  Having been a tremendous reader of fiction all his life, he began to write when he was fifty.  He published his first book, the superb collection of short stories, The Beach Umbrella, at the age of sixty, and went on to write several novels, among which The Hippodrome is the most shocking and astonishing and A Chocolate Soldier is his masterwork of narration of the hard truths of race in America.

I first met him in 1984, when he was seventy-four years old.  His wife had died earlier that year, and the sorrow of that loss never left him afterward.  When I asked him, perhaps five years later, what his wife–who was, to judge from his descriptions of her, a more conventional person than he–had said about his books, he replied that he had never shown a new work to her until he had completed it, and then only with some trepidation.  Colter was tall, imperious, a talker with considerable momentum, so I was surprised at the caution with which he had gone to the now departed Imogene for her response to his writing.  Given the inescapably autobiographical dimension of everything we write–precisely in this sense of the unconscious that I am trying to describe, in that everything we write shows at some level what our obsessions and preoccupations are–I had been wondering how Colter had handled the sometimes ticklish problem of personal diplomacy between the writer and the members of his family.  He said that Imogene, having read the typescript, would return it to him and, if he had done what he hoped, she would say the one thing–he told me–that he most needed to hear, most needed to know, and which at the same time removed from her the burden of commenting in detail: “Cyrus,” she would say, “it’s you.”

That is to say that the novel, no matter what it described, conveyed (as she recognized, looking with her whole being, conscious and unconscious) his whole being (not only the lawyerly competence, propriety and combativeness by which others knew him, his affability or imperiousness with others, his literary ambitions).  He had the gift of knowing himself more fully than he might have been thought to know himself, even by close friends.  Without this, even with his late-blooming literary craft and his preparatory wide lifelong reading, his accomplishment would have been minor.  He used all of what he had.

While the lattermath harvest of grass is scanty, the aftermath of experience and feeling can be rich.  It is only afterward that we have enough to work with.  Wordsworth’s well-known phrase “emotion recollected in tranquillity” is accurate enough, if by “emotion” we understand every sort of feeling and thought, even–perhaps especially–the body’s sense of what it experiences: what it knows, what it remembers, beyond consciousness, and every such fleeting feeling and thought whether or not we have a name for it; and if by “recollected” we mean simply having been preserved within us in such a way as to remain available to us, in some form or other, whether we try to remember it and do, or it comes to consciousness without our trying to remember it at all, or it reveals itself to us only through an arduous and even traumatic process of self-inquiry; and by “in tranquillity” we mean at least sometime after the activity of body and mind that is experience itself.

But I must end with a reminder of the deep pleasure of writing.  It may not be the kind of pleasure that makes one smile.  It may be a pleasure that seems to satisfy us most when we are least on guard against our worst tendencies as writers (which vary, naturally enough, from writer to writer).  Pleasure it is, though.   Pleasure–however desperate, at moments, for reasons personal, psychological, artistic, or political–of catching hold of, or creating out of imagination, the language and the image for what we sense, see, know, and feel.