Wordsworth’s ‘Old Man Travelling’


Old Man Travelling
Animal Tranquillity and Decay, A Sketch

The little hedge-row birds,
That peck along the road, regard him not.
He travels on, and in his face, his step,
His gait, is one expression; every limb,
His look and bending figure, all bespeak
A man who does not move with pain, but moves
With thought—He is insensibly subdued
To settled quiet: he is one by whom
All effort seems forgotten, one to whom
Long patience has such mild composure given,
That patience now doth seem a thing, of which
He hath no need. He is by nature led
To peace so perfect, that the young behold
With envy, what the old man hardly feels.
—I asked him whither he was bound, and what
The object of his journey; he replied
‘Sir! I am going many miles to take
A last leave of my son, a mariner,
Who from a sea-fight has been brought to Falmouth,
And there is dying in an hospital.’

“degrading thirst after outrageous stimulation”

Described as a sequel to his memoir, My Bright Abyss, I shall be reading backwards, getting to the prequel after He Held Radical Light, which I’ve just finished reading three times, back to back.

Wiman is a poet wrestling with spiritual matters yet nothing to him is more central and worthy of attention than the raw facts of living. His optimistic thesis is that no one is spiritually so out of reach as to be forever removed from communication with things infinite and mystical.

“I’m usually suspicious of claims that privilege one generation’s experience, always of some form of suffering, over another’s. (Why do we never compare our joys or our relative capacities for experiencing joy?) Contemporary culture is awash with anxiety over the disease of anxiety, the endless onslaught of technology, and the diminishment of individual attention our electronic immersion entails. It’s a genuine problem, no question, one I feel myself, but it’s not as new or as dependent upon contemporary technology as we make it out to be. Way back in 1790, in his “Preface to Lyrical Ballads,” Wordsworth decried the “degrading thirst after outrageous stimulation” against which his poetry–interior, meditative, focussed on common people and things–was trying to find an audience. The argument is more eloquent and sophisticated than we’re used to, but the heart of his critique would make a fine tweet.”

Christian Wiman, He Held Radical Light

Inchoate Thoughts

Earlier I commented on Robert’s post entitled On Disdainful Ignorance. As I was reading and responding, I remembered this fragment of Wordsworth that always makes me think of that ‘how’.

”          but that the soul,
Remembering how she felt, but what she felt
Remembering not, retains an obscure sense
Of possible sublimity, to which
With growing faculties she doth aspire,
With faculties still growing, feeling still
That whatsoever point they gain, they yet
Have something to pursue.”

Wordsworth, The Prelude

The Lessons of Modernism by Gabriel Josipovici

Reading Gabriel Josipovici’s The Lessons of Modernism, published in 1977, accentuates the palpable frustration of his latest, brilliant book; the title reflects this frustration: the Lessons of becomes What Ever Happened To. In his no less thrilling book of thirty years ago, Josipovici finished the central essay on a note of optimism:

The teacher of English does inevitably feel himself to be in a privileged position: a hander-down of culture and language, a bulwark against chaos and barbarism. Modern art asks him to relinquish this authority, but, like all authoritarians, he fears that if he does chaos will ensue. . . The two lessons of modernism, the lessons of silence and of game, are hard ones for any teacher, in school or university, to learn. But, once learned, and applied, they could lead to a renewed enthusiasm and excitement in the study of English.

In 2010 this hope is all but faded. Josipovici identifies a few contributory factors: an inherent English philistinism, the merger of showbiz and art, and intellectualism being labelled as pretentiousness. Josipovici’s latest book reopens what for him has clearly been a lengthy debate:

Wordsworth, James, Eliot and Virginia Woolf all flourished on these shores. We need to go back and try to understand what they were up to as writers, not dismiss them as reactionaries or misogynists, or adulate them as gay or feminist icons.

After a period of reading criticism, of Josipovici, Woolf, Kiberd and a first attempt at Blanchot, I finally feel able to end my post-Ulysses cessation of reading fiction. I am tackling the latest of a writer, who appears to offer at least a partial answer to the question what ever happened to modernism.

Blows to the Head

It may be that, some years ahead, I look back on this curvaceous year of 2010 as a personal literary milestone, a transformative year. So far in 2010, I have read three books that have redefined my literary appetite.

As a journey, it is similar to the pre-teenage passage when gradually music, and the girl’s hand you held at the beach, supersedes Action Men and comic books. Suddenly some old friends on my library shelves no longer call out to me with quite the same Siren song.

Woolf’s To the Lighthouse and Joyce’s Ulysses have fulfilled Kafka’s oft-quoted dictum, “I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we are reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for? …we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.”

Making up the third in the triumvirate of blows to the head is Gabriel Josipovici’s What Ever Happened to Modernism? I accept that this might be a personal and idiosyncratic choice. As Josipovici says:

My own ‘story’, as I have tried to present it here, discovering what it was as I went along, is that only an art which recognises the pitfalls inherent in both realism and abstraction will be really alive. That is why I warm to the novels of Perec and Bernhard more than to Finnegans Wake or the novels of Updike and Roth, the pictures of Bacon and early Hockney more than to Pollock or Tracy Emin, to the music of Birtwistle and Kurtág more than to Cage or Shostakovitch. . . But I realise that this may be largely because of who and what I am.

I am a common reader. As Woolf wrote, a common reader differs, “… from the critic and the scholar, He is worse educated, and nature has not gifted him so generously. He reads for his own pleasure rather than to impart knowledge or correct the opinions of others.” There are, however, uncommon and erudite readers like Jospovici.

What Ever Happened to Modernism? enables me pin down just why some writers and artists electrify me and others leave me cold. It has given definition to what I had previously thought an almost arbitrary, random collection of preferences. I recognise why I buy each new book of several once favourite writers and leave them unopened on my shelves.

In What Ever Happened to Modernism? Josipovici pins down Modernism, and argues that, “… it is a response to the simplifications of the self and of life which Protestantism and the Enlightenment brought with them, in return of course for many impressive achievements . . .” He challenges “… the prevalent English view, epitomised by Waugh, Larkin and Amis, that Modernism that was just a blip in the serene history of the arts,” and argues for its sustained relevance today.

Polemic in part, Josipovici’s book is persuasive and deeply thought-provoking and above all personal:

Naturally I think the story  I have just finished telling is the true one. At the same time I recognise that there are many stories and that there is no such thing as the true story, only more or less plausible explanations, stories that tale more or less account of the facts.

One final quote, succour to English readers:

So many English novelists today confess to wanting to write like Dickens that it might be thought that the difference between England and France and Germany is that we have no great model to look back to, who might give us an understanding of what it might mean to have a European sensibility, that is, to be as English as they come and yet have a real historical awareness. But there is one, as I have suggested: Wordsworth.