William Wordsworth: The Poet of Solitude

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      Wordsworth is, undoubtedly, a poet of solitude. He wanders “lonely as a cloud”, seeks “souls of lonely places”, sings of the “solitary reaper”. His sense for the souls of lonely places is conspicuous in his poetry, as Bernard Groom remarks.

      Figures Evoking Mystery and Semi-mystical Fear are quite common in Wordsworth’s poetry. His solitary figures, unlike Milton’s, are not figures in revolt; they often denote a one-ness with Nature, and trust in God. But many of them have an air of mystery about them. The leech-gatherer in Resolution and. Independence appears all of a sudden, creating a sense of awesome wonder in the poet. He is compared to a single huge stone on the bald top of an eminence, and again, to a sea-beast which has come out to back in the sun. In The Thorn, the picture of the old grey thorn-tree, bald and leafless, withstanding the cold, rain and sun, is striking. The woman who sits at the scene crying “O Misery” is a typical Wordsworthian figure— solitary, mysterious, poignant and awesome.

      The Solitary Figures have a Special Significance: They offer an insight into the eternal truth of life. They arouse in us a sense of our own capacity for solitude and endurance. The leech-gatherer, the stone on top of the hill and the sea-beast merge into one another to symbolize fortitude, courage and imperviousness. The aged grey thorn-tree similarly speaks of resilience born out of experience and long suffering. The wretched woman who comes there to sit and mourn in her sorrow is significantly mistaken for a “jutting crag” by the narrator of the poem. She too has suffered and now bears it with awesome patience. Indeed, these solitary figures are related not merely with their immediate setting but to a wider context of day and nighty wind and stillness, sky and star. The leech-gatherer is “motionless as a cloud that he are th not the loud winds”. Thus the solitary figures bring the whole cosmos into involvement, as in the Lucy poems.

I was taught to feel perhaps too much
The self-sufficing power of solitude.
(The Prelude: Book II: Lines 76-77)

      Poet of The Prelude is the poet of Solitude: ‘Far from all resorts of mirth’ did Wordsworth commune with objects of Nature, shared their solitariness, by cutting himself off from the noisy and crowded city life. The poet in general has craved for quiet and solitude. “Solitude is the nurse of contemplation”. Milton said so in Comus; and if a poet, as Shelley said, is to remain “hidden in the light of thought” which is only a definition of contemplation, he is to feed his mind on contemplation. But there is a difference in Wordsworth and other poets. The other poets craved for solitude; Wordsworth actually enjoyed it. It is not that Wordsworth alone sought solitude: solitude also, wanted Wordsworth. It was, again, an unwritten bond between Wordsworth and solitude. He experienced:

Amid the fretful dwellings of mankind,
A foretaste, a dim earnest, of the calm
That Nature breathes among the hills arid groves. (Book I: Line, 279-281)

      It was this calm of Nature that drew Wordsworth to hills, plains and thickets, where he went alone. In The Prelude Book I, the poet describes how he “had seen nine summers.” It was his joy:

To wander half the night among the cliffs
And the smooth Hollows, where the wood cock ran
Along the open turf ...moon and stars
Were shining o’er my head; I was alone
And seem’d to be a trouble to the peace
That was among them.
(Book: Line, 314-317)

      The thought is so subtle and it is delicately expressed. Wordsworth’s visits to these lonely spots, where peace ruled, appeared to him to disturb that peace. Noise is not known to Nature. Those who wish to drink from the ever-flowing sweet waters of the springs of solitude have to approach solitude with that state of mind with which William Wordsworth approached it. Solitude invited Wordsworth to spend his life in its company; he could not resist the temptation. He heard the call and made a response. The previous moments of the dawn of his life he spent in solitariness.

      “Partly because he is the poet of mountains he is, even more pre-eminently”, says A.C. Bradley, “the poet of solitude. For there are tones in the mountain voice scarcely audible except in solitude and the reader whom Wordsworth’s greatest poetry baffles could have no better advice offered him than to do what he has probably never done in his life—to be on a mountain alone.” A passage from The Prelude Book I finely illustrates Bradley’s viewpoint:

I heard among the solitary hills
Low breathings coming after me, and sounds
Of undistinguishable motion, steps
Almost as silent as the turf they trod.
(Book I: Line. 322-325)

      The poet describes how he played with his companions ‘along the polished ice’:

“Not seldom from the uproar I retired
Into a distant bay, or sportively
Glanced sideways, leaving the tumultuous throng,
To cut across the image of a star
That glean’d upon the ice;
(Book I: Line. 44 7-452)

      Wordsworth relates:

.....oft times did I quit.
My comrades, leave the crowd, buildings and groves
And as I paced alone the level fields
Far from those lovely sights and sounds sublime
With which I had been conversant the mind
Dropped not. (Book III: Line. 91-96)

      The entire Prelude—as the rest of this poetry—is full of passages from the poet’s pen that reveal how much this “worshipper of Nature” loved solitariness. In book II he talks of solitude as more active even than Best Society’ (LI. 295) and remarks in the same book:

.....I would walk, alone
Under the quiet stars, and at that, time
Have felt whate’er there is of power in sound
To breathe an elevated mood, by form
Or image unprofaned; and I would stand
If the night blackened with a coming storm.
Beneath some rock, listening to notes that are
The ghostly language of the ancient earth,
Or make their dim abode in distant winds,
Thence did I d'rink the visionary power.

      “But for Wordsworth not this solitude only,” says Bradley, “but all solitude and all things solitary had an extraordinary fascination.” In The Prelude, Book I, the poet speaks of “soul of lonely places” (L. 466) and makes mention of “the solitary cliffs” (L. 458), “the solitary hills” (L. 322) “forlorn cascades” (L. 515); again in Book III, the poet talks of “solitude of lovely places” (L. 231). In Book VII, the poet speaks about “solitary hills” (L. 6), and “lonely, brooks” (L. 562). Everything that is solitary, lonely, forlorn, secluded, alone has a charm for Wordsworth.

      In Book IV, the poet describes his chance to meeting with a “man more meager” who was “clad in military garb.” Note Wordsworth’s description of him:

“He was alone,
Had no attendant, neither Dog, nor staff,
Not knap sack; in his very dress appeared
A desolution, a simplicity akin to solitude.”

      Talking of Wordsworth’s love for loneliness, Bradley observes: “What is lonely is a spirit. To call a thing lonely or solitary is, with him to say that it opens a bright or solemn vista into infinity. Solitude to Wordsworth did not mean as it means to us: emptiness absence of life. To us, life means visible movement of creatures. He perceived, as the great among mankind have perceived, a spirit in solitude. Is that spirit absent among the crowds? No, it is all-pervading; but in the midst of throng and the noise, its speech becomes inaudible to us. Thus he retired at intervals to the solitary objects of Nature to gain from their speaking presence of exaltation of mind and delight on which he fed his mind.

      This should not lead us to the conclusion that Wordsworth hated society or loathed human company. He is in a significant way, the poet of man. He sings with joy and compassion of the affections of the common life, of the ‘Solitary Reaper’ whom he found single in the field; alone “she cut and bound the grain.” The poet’s description of the soldier in Book IV is sympathetic. Nature whom Wordsworth worshipped is interested in man; how could then Wordsworth, Nature’s devotee, be indifferent to man? He tells us:

Yet could I only cleave to solitude
In lonely places; if a throng was near
That, way I leaned by nature; for my heart
Was social, and loved idleness and joy.
(Book III: Line. 320-233)

      His Love for Nature, whose Charm he Experienced in Solitude: made the poet to love man because Nature and man’s mind stood in an invisible bond. The Book VII of The Prelude deals with “love of Nature leading to love of Man.” In the closing lines of this Book, addressed to Coleridge, Wordsworth shows in what relation he viewed between Nature and Man:

Thus from a very early age, O Friend!
My thoughts by slow gradations had been drawn
To human mind, and to the good and ill
Of human life; Nature had led me on;
And oft amid the “busy hum” I seemed
To travel independently of her help,
Asif, I had forgotten her; but no,
The World of human-kind out-weighed not hers
In my habitual thoughts; the scale of love
Though filling daily, still was light, compared.
With that in which her mighty objects lay,
(Book VII. Line. 676-686)

      In the same Book he speaks of “sanctity of Nature given to man” and says:

Thus my heart was early introduced
To an un-conscious love and reverence
Of human nature; hence human form
To me became an index of delight
Of grace and honor: power and worthiness.
(Book VII: Line. 277-281)

      Wordsworth viewed man and scanned him in the light of the visions which solitude blessed him with.

      Conclusion: We may agree with A.C. Bradley who says that for Wordsworth, to call a thing lonely or solitary is to “open a bright or solemn vista into infinity”. The solitary things and figures impress with their inner strength, endurance and moral dignity.

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