I spent the dark and snowy winter months that began 2021 under lockdown in my mother’s house in rural Wales. My mother, however, was not there: she, suffering from Alzheimer’s, was confined in a care home in the next town, unable to receive visitors for fear of Covid and unable, also, to understand what was going on. Speaking to her on the phone was painful and frustrating-an exercise in experiencing, again and again, her need, her confusion, my inability to help and our mutual isolation. Time moved very slowly and, in her case, I knew, with little prospect of anything but distress and decline.
With my university closed and travel forbidden, there was a lot of time to read. And so I turned to Wordsworth-but not the Wordsworth of The Prelude and Lyrical Ballads, although their rural solitariness suited the way I was living. It was the late ‘Evening Voluntaries’ that I looked up-having been moved by them when writing about his later work in 2018. Two poems that I had passed over then spoke powerfully to me now – two poems written from the stance of an observer looking from a distance at the anxious lives of others, each separately enduring the loss not only of loved-ones but of also hope. In both poems, it is the figure of the sailor that embodies life as a corrosive experience of solitary confinement:
How fancy sickens by vague hopes beset;
How baffled projects on the spirit prey,
And fruitless wishes eat the heart away,
The Sailor knows; he best, whose lot is cast
On the relentless sea that holds him fast
On chance dependent, and the fickle star
Of power, through long and melancholy war.
What the sailor knows is that isolation breeds depression. This is intensely imagined, not as an illness, however, but as a natural response to the effects of time – an intimation of mortality:
Daily to think on old familiar doors,
Hearths loved in childhood, and ancestral floors;
Or, tossed about along a waste of foam,
To ruminate on that delightful home
Which with the dear Betrothed ‘was’ to come;
Or came and was and is, yet meets the eye
Never but in the world of memory;
Or in a dream recalled, whose smoothest range
Is crossed by knowledge, or by dread, of change,
The poet has no solution – no blithe spirit to lift the suffering that is the human ‘lot’-except to hope that his meditation, the poem itself, by offering clarity and sympathy, may help us assuage separation and bear suffering.
I was stirred by such unexpectedly stark poetry, akin to Beckett and to the late Yeats in its bleak picture of life and chastened understanding of the poet’s role. These poems strike home, I thought, not only in my own locked-down situation but also in those I knew millions of others were experiencing in that year of isolation, illness and early death. Offering no clichéd message-neither simplistic despair nor easy consolation, they seemed the most searching response imaginable to the pandemic, and to the human vulnerability that the pandemic brought home to us. And so I wanted to think through them, in the hope I might help readers find them as involving as I did. And so I wrote a chapter on them, and that was the genesis of this book.
As I read further, I thought about what made the late Wordsworth so dark. By the late 1840s, Wordsworth had lived with the decline into dementia of his sister Dorothy, seen Southey’s wife become overwhelmed by depression and then Southey himself succumb to senility. He had witnessed old friends descend into confusion when uprooted from their homes and confined in faceless institutions in the name of modern social policy. Worse still was the frequent toll of death. As well as his brother in 1805, his children Thomas and Catherine had died in 1812, as had his closest literary partners-Scott in 1832, Coleridge and Lamb in 1834, Hogg and Hemans the following year. His sister-in-law Sarah Hutchinson also expired in 1835 and, after a long illness, his daughter Dora in 1847. Sickness, madness and death came to feature in his life to a degree that few of us in the twenty-first century West will experience; as a result his conception of the poet’s task became markedly different. His old belief that the poet’s mind could repair the damage of bereavement by brooding on nature’s sponsoring powers gave ground to a search to find ways to bear what must be borne. Nature prophecy no longer quite fitted; he increasingly turned from the sublime egotism of The Prelude and the rustic speech of Lyrical Ballads towards elegiac consolation or epitaphic commemoration of people bereft by loss-people too alienated from the world to regain their place or to recover their identity within it. In this poetry, the poet may assuage the devastating effects of death but cannot heal them. It is a matter of finding forms to bear witness to-and thus bear with-desolation rather than to find abundant recompense for it. Sorrow is no longer redeemed by a deepened conviction of being nurtured by nature: ‘Care may be respited, but not repealed; / No perfect cure grows on that bounded field’.
Finding forms to bear witness involved a commitment to challenge himself so that his words found purchase on the complexity of a world experienced as much in alienation as in unity. The later Wordsworth is reluctant either to reject or embrace nature; he attempts instead to articulate an ambivalent movement of consciousness in which awareness of isolation and need for solace are both in (grim) play. To achieve this articulation, he had to stand away from his old style even as it pulled him towards the consolation of a communion in which he no longer fully believed. Hence the later experimentation; finding new forms meant not repeating himself, meant avoiding the stale and the facile-the twin evils of continuing in his established veins. But it also meant not rejecting his earlier work outright, but inviting readers to appraise its reworking in his new poems. He cast familiar concerns in unfamiliar forms-some of his own invention-; he melded traditional genres into strange hybrids-the elegy with the epistle and with the epitaph; the sonnet with the lyrical narrative; the medieval romance with the ballad; he used unusual metres; he turned his dead friends’ verse into his own. The results were uneven but at their best the new poems speak with subtlety, insight and power of such troubling experiences as the depression of living in confinement and the dread of facing loved ones’ incurable disease and untimely death.
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