Sunday, May 18, 2008

Wordsworth and Pleasure

After reading William Wordsworth's preface to Lyrical Ballads innumerable times, I believe I have spotted an angle which has been scarcely touched before. Wordsworth uses the word pleasure 25-30 times in the preface. The fact that the preface is only twelve(ish) pages long makes this significant. There is also some irony in it; few people think of Wordsworth as a poet of pleasure. That honor usually goes to Mr. John Keats, who emphasizes the body, the non-cognitive (post-cognitive), sensual richness, heavenly prosody, O for a draught of vintageetc. It turns out that Wordsworth was as intent on "imparting pleasure" as Keats was, but the major difference seems to be this: Wordsworth associated pleasure with thought (specifically, thoughts occurring in a certain associative relation to each other); thinking, in Wordsworth's self-created aesthetic milieu, leads to satisfaction, which inverts Keats' "tease us out of thought" dynamic. He is tracing the primary laws of our nature, and we may gain pleasure through thoughtfully deciphering them. Here he is, cogitating at Tintern Abbey:

And now, with gleams of half-extinguished thought,
With many recognitions dim and faint,
And somewhat of a sad perplexity,
The picture of the mind revives again:
While here I stand, not only with the sense
Of present pleasure, but with pleasing thoughts
That in this moment there is life and food
For future years.

Tracing primary laws is tied here to the figure of Wordsworth himself; and the law has to do, evidently, with using the mind instrumentally as a kind of digital camera, to let images impress themselves on it, so that they might be memorized, stored, and hauled out in due course when the appropriate occasion arises. "The picture of the mind" is more than a cognitive construct, but cognition itself is given pride of place; it is the enabler for pleasure to enter consciousness. How different is Wordsworth's conception of sensation than Keats, whose wonted gestalt sensibility is more present-minded, prosody-sensitive (to Keats, Apollonian), less conservative, and less bound to processes abstracted away from physical reality. Here, Keats visits the cottage of Robert Burns:

My pulse is warm with thine own Barley-bree,
My head is light with pledging a great soul,
My eyes are wandering, and I cannot see,
Fancy is dead and drunken at its goal;
Yet can I stamp my foot upon thy floor,
Yet can I ope thy window-sash to find
The meadow has tramped o'er and o'er-
Yet can I think of thee till thought it blind-
Yet can I gulp a bumper to thy name-
O smile among the shades, for this is fame!

Pleasure comes from unmediated physicality; thought, in Keats' conception of pleasure (and melopoeia), is something in the way, something often futile. Yet, I am unaware that Keats made any special mention of pleasure (beyond its chiasmus, in art, with intensity) in his famous letters. Wordsworth is the Romantic with the overt pleasure principle, and it is quite curious, considering how convoluted his conception of pleasure seems to have been. Somebody could (and probably will) take this in a New Historical direction, and demonstrate why these two established representatives of two generations of British Romanticism had such widely divergent conceptions of pleasure. Notice the essence of the difference; Wordsworth wants to craft pleasure for the reader; Keats actually experiences pleasure first-hand in the poem;  which is then transferred, hopefully, to us, to be absorbed by osmosis, via richly detailed prosody, and (as) a direct experience of Keats' visionary frisson.

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