Tuesday, July 22, 2008

William Wordsworth is aptly admonished; Seamus Heaney approves; William Hazlitt does not; Dorothy Wordsworth quietly observes

Seamus Heaney’s recent article in The Hudson Review (“’Apt Admonishment’: Wordsworth As an Example”) is about the moment a poet encounters a muse. I do not believe I have ever met such a creature. He wanders through examples from Hesiod to Wordsworth to T. S. Eliot, ending with himself, and the moment he saw a photo of the Danish bog man and was inspired to write his best-known poem, “The Tollund Man.”

The Wordsworth example supplies the title of the piece – “Apt Admonishment.” The poet of “Resolution and Independence” (see yesterday’s post) has met an elderly leech gatherer, a garrulous fellow. Here’s the key moment of the poem:

The old man still stood talking at my side,
But now his voice to me was like a stream
Scarce heard, nor word from word could I divide;
And the whole body of the man did seem
Like one whom I had met with in a dream,
Or like a man from some far region sent
To give me human strength by apt admonishment.

This is strange stuff. The moment becomes dream-like; the old man’s words blend together and are “scarce heard”. Not a good listener, this Wordsworth. Then there’s the final simile: “like a man from some far region sent \ To give me human strength by apt admonishment”.

Oh, now I see, that’s what he’s like. No, I don’t see it. What is that sort of man like, from a far region sent? Sent by whom? Why? Yes, to aptly admonish Wordsworth, but why would anyone send a man to do such a thing? Why wouldn’t a local man do? In fact, a local man seems to have done the job all right. As Heaney says, the muse has appeared to Wordsworth.

William Hazlitt took every opportunity he had, and invented others, to make his single insightful point about William Wordsworth (an ex-friend), that Wordsworth was a poet of pure ego. The descriptions of nature, the peasants, were all a screen. “Resolution and Independence” shows what Hazlitt meant. The leech gatherer may exist in the actual world, but to the poet he’s not quite real. He’s an instrument for Wordsworth to explore himself.

Hazlitt thought he was making a devastating criticism. Today, we are more likely to say that the turn inward is the whole point of Wordsworth’s project, his great innovation. Still, compare William’s poem to my favorite line about this encounter from his sister Dorothy’s journal: “He said leeches were very scarce partly owing to this dry season, but many years they have been scarce.” And then add in the “godly books”, and the sailor son. A world opens up there, a world outside of Dorothy Wordsworth.

Maybe this is a hint as to why I mostly like Dorothy’s writing over her brother’s, excepting “Michael” and a few other poems. And I haven’t even brought up the daffodils – see Dorothy’s Wikipedia entry for the appalling results of that comparison.

Seamus Heaney’s piece is in the Spring 2008 Hudson Review (PDF).


  1. Sir, it's "admonished." Not "astonished."

    Thanks for the links, and for your lovely blog.

  2. Ha! Aptly admonished, indeed!

    Corrected now - thanks, and thanks again.