Thursday, August 29, 2019

Confessions of an English Literature student

I was lucky to have many great teachers at school and university, but one of the most important for me was Stephen Gill at Lincoln College, Oxford. His academic interests were communicated with passion and they included George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell, and D. H. Lawrence, novelists of realism and social commitment. But foremost, at least in my impression, was his expertise in and love of William Wordsworth. He could quote with facility from throughout Wordsworth's work, but did so most frequently from The Prelude. It no doubt helped that he had been one of the joint editors of the Norton parallel text of the two full versions of that epic, along with its earlier proto-type.

     I'm aware that certain passages have half-consciously informed my reading of some themes in Yeats's A Vision. Such associations are probably inevitable for the Eng. Lit. student, sometimes because they reflect perennial concerns and sometimes they are just capriciously personal connections. I hope that these examples will resonate for others as well as for me and that they have illuminated my reading of Yeats, not sidetracked it.

     Two in particular stick in my mind. The first is the account of crossing of the Alps in Book VI of The Prelude, where Wordsworth addresses the power of Imagination which is compared to "an unfather'd vapour", showing the "invisible world" in flashes, intimating that:
Our destiny, our nature, and our home
Is with infinitude, and only there;
With hope it is, hope that can never die,
Effort, and expectation, and desire,
And something evermore about to be. (The Prelude [1805], VI: 538–42)*
This final line in particular seems to me to intimate something of the divine nature that Yeats imagines in the Thirteenth Cone, or rather in the Sphere—that all being and becoming tends to "infinitude",and that if the goal were ever reached it would be a stasis. Certainly this passage also seems to echo Yeats's conception of the nature of life—that, as spirits reflected into time and space, the goal is the timeless and spaceless, but that effort and desire driving us on is more important than the goal (in contrast to Buddha's Four Noble Truths, which aim to eliminate striving and desire).
[And this recalls, in turn, T. S. Eliot's Burnt Norton, with its vision of "the still point of the turning world" and the statement that "the world moves / In appetency, on its metalled ways / Of time past and time future"—that word "appetency" being a slightly more pedantic but precise and concise version of hope/effort/expectation/desire/becoming. Such chains of association are probably also inevitable for the Eng. Lit. student.]

    The second passage is connected and, as I copy it here, even more connected than I had probably realized. In Book II, Wordsworth writes of "the visionary power" imparted by his solitary communion with nature and the "fleeting moods / Of shadowy exultation", because:
                … the soul,
Remembering how she felt, but what she felt
Remembering not, retains an obscure sense
Of possible sublimity, whereto
With growing faculties she doth aspire,
With faculties still growing, feeling still
That whatsoever point they gain, they yet
Have something to pursue. (The Prelude [1805], II: 334–51)**
I cannot but recall this passage when I read Yeats's description of the basis of the Faculties in terms of incarnations, "the four memories of the Daimon or ultimate self", such that:
His Body of Fate, the series of events forced upon him from without, is shaped out of the Daimon's memory of the events of his past incarnations; his Mask or object of desire or idea of the good, out of its memory of the moments of exaltation in his past lives; his Will or normal ego out of its memory of all the events of his present life, whether consciously remembered or not; his Creative Mind from its memory of ideas—or universals—displayed by actual men in past lives, or their spirits between lives. (AVB 83, CW14 61–62)
Yeats places the memories of exaltation (or sublimity) within the framework of reincarnations, so that the sublime moments of former lives are distilled into the Mask of this life, the goal and focus of our being or Will, but always with the sense that the goal is more important for the direction that it gives than for the possibility of actual attainment. Will is the appetent Faculty, moving always towards Mask, seeking and desiring it. Importantly, the actual memories of past lives are unimportant as the essence is contained within the current Faculties, and it is not "what [the soul] felt" but "how she felt" that matters.
[And this recalls, in turn, the close of Alfred Tennyson's poem "Ulysses", where an ageing Odysseus, chafing at life on Ithaca after his return, proposes a final voyage to his companions:
              ... my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
Tho' much is taken, much abides; and tho'
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are:
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.]

All these are connected by the importance of striving and thus with the physical world of the tinctures and Faculties, which only "mirror reality but are in themselves pursuit and illusion" (AVB 73, CW14 53). In a draft, Yeats writes that "the Principles are value and attainment, the Faculties process and search" (cited ARGYV 96) but the Faculties are the tools or interfaces by which the Principles interact with the world and may attain the value that they represent.

In the section on crossing the Alps, Wordsworth is close to Yeats's beloved Shelley in seeing the Alps as  symbols of "The everlasting universe of things..." ("Mont Blanc"). The scene of the mountains, waterfalls, winds, and sublime nature are seen as "Characters of the great Apocalypse, / The types and symbols of Eternity, / Of first and last, and midst, and without end" (The Prelude [1805], VI, 570–72). These intimate the world of the Principles, in the final objective spiritual reality of Thirteenth Cone:
But the 13th Cone, enters in some measure into all Spirits we must then expect some image of it in all things. Primar[il]y it is in those things which Blake called in Heaven & Hell too great for the eye of man. It is there where the painters & poets find it, storm, the starlit sky, spring abundance...

The 13 Cone is reflected in those parts of external nature uncontrolable by us—sea, sky, growth & so on. As an internal experience the 13th Cone is the spiritual reality [that] transcends experience, but is touched by all at the highest moment.… We enter in the Beatitude an experience that can only enter our embodied experience when symbolized by all that is most tremendous in nature… 
(Yeats, 1930 Diary)
Maybe Yeats and Wordsworth have more in common than may appear at first glance.

There do not seem to be any good recordings of The Prelude readily available. The following links should take you to the relevant passages in a reading of the complete poem. They are less than ideal as they give the 1850 version of the poem and are read by amateurs of varying strength.

*Book VI: "Imagination... like an unfathered vapour..." 

**Book II: "I deem not profitless those fleeting moods of shadowy exultation..."

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