(If you need context for this project, see Part I)
The first fragment I’ve decided to share is a list of poem titles, written on the back of a dirty paycheck envelope:
Three of them are William Wordsworth poems, which I’ll be looking at today, and two are Emily Dickinson, which I will discuss next time. I’m not sure when or why I was reading these, or how they spoke to me at the time, but perhaps I can reconstruct my state of mind by rereading them.
The first listed is Wordsworth’s “The Nightingale,” with the following passage specifically noted:
And hark! the Nightingale begins its song
“Most musical, most melancholy” Bird!
A melancholy Bird? O idle thought!
In nature there is nothing melancholy.
— But some night wandering Man, whose heart was pierc’d
With the remembrance of a grievous wrong,
Or slow distemper or neglected love,
(And so, poor Wretch! fill’d all things with himself
And made all gentle sounds tell back the tale
Of his own sorrows) he and such as he
First named these notes a melancholy strain:
And many a poet echoes the conceit;
Poet, who hath been building up the rhyme
When he had better far have stretch’d his limbs
Beside a ‘brook in mossy forest-dell
By sun or moonlight, to the influxes
Of shapes and sounds and shifting elements
Surrendering his whole spirit, of his song
And of his fame forgetful! so his fame
Should share in nature’s immortality,
A venerable thing! and so his song
Should make all nature lovelier, and itself
Be lov’d, like nature! — But ’twill not be so;
What he seems to be saying here, is that the natural world is inherently lovely and not melancholy. It is melancholy poets who make the world melancholy out of their own internal pain. If they would only leave their writing desks and experience Nature for themselves, they would see her perfect loveliness, and that would in turn cure their melancholy hearts.
Again, I don’t know where my mind was when I made my note on the back of an envelope, but I can currently read this poem in two ways:
1) I disagree with Wordsworth. I sometimes like a good melancholy mood, and almost always enjoy a good rainy day, foggy night, scraggly forest, dirty street, etc. I also like artists who can capture a dark mood, and I resent the implication that everyone should just go smell some flowers and think happy thoughts. However,
2) I can also see his point. When I’m having a “the whole world sucks” experience, it often does have more to do with me and my own internal problems. And when I’m in that space, I tend to color the world ugly for others as well.
The second poem on the envelope is “Expostulation and Reply”:
Why, William, on that old grey stone,
Thus for the length of half a day,
Why, William, sit you thus alone,
And dream your time away?
“Where are your books?–that light bequeathed
To Beings else forlorn and blind!
Up! up! and drink the spirit breathed
From dead men to their kind.
“You look round on your Mother Earth,
As if she for no purpose bore you;
As if you were her first-born birth,
And none had lived before you!”
One morning thus, by Esthwaite lake,
When life was sweet, I knew not why,
To me my good friend Matthew spake,
And thus I made reply:
“The eye–it cannot choose but see;
We cannot bid the ear be still;
Our bodies feel, where’er they be,
Against or with our will.
“Nor less I deem that there are Powers
Which of themselves our minds impress;
That we can feed this mind of ours
In a wise passiveness.
“Think you, ‘mid all this mighty sum
Of things for ever speaking,
That nothing of itself will come,
But we must still be seeking?
“–Then ask not wherefore, here, alone,
Conversing as I may,
I sit upon this old grey stone,
And dream my time away,”
As I mentioned in my last post, I’ve been discovering a lot about myself over the past few months through studying the Enneagram personality typing system. One of my major coping strategies as an Enneagram Type 5 is seeking solace through knowledge. Any time fear, anxiety, sadness, or boredom threaten me, I turn to books. Like Wordsworth’s friend Matthew in this poem, I consider learning to be the best use of my free time.
Learning, however, fails to comfort me much of the time. And relying on knowledge as an exclusive source of comfort can lead to a very dark place. So I’m trying to work on turning my attention outward as well as inward. This blog series is part of that process, and so is prayer.
I’m finding this article by Tara Owens particularly helpful when it comes to prayer*, and the Prayer of the Senses she describes is essentially what Wordsworth’s narrator is doing in this poem:
As Observers, Type Fives like to take in the world through their eyes. They read, they watch, they take pictures. Prayers that integrate their whole selves into communion with God (and with all their other parts) are therefore deeply valuable—and sometimes very difficult and frustrating for a Type Five. Prayers of the Senses are prayers that use the senses as a form of attending to God and His goodness in the world. To pray this way, we engage all of our various ways of absorbing the gifts around us—taste, touch, smell, sight, hearing—in a holistic experience of the present moment. An easy way to start this type of prayer is to eat meals mindfully, to intentionally slow down your eating so that you can absorb all the various tastes of the food in your mouth, the smell of the nourishment that is coming to you, the way things feel in your mouth. Paying attention in this way naturally leads to wonder, thanksgiving and praise—have you ever really tasted a fresh raspberry? It’s hard to not turn toward God in worship.
Prayers of the senses are an engaged form of prayer that focuses on the gift of the now, releasing problems and worries, and, most importantly for a Type Five, fears. To be in the present moment with God, engaging the senses right now rather than analyzing or worrying, helps a Type Five to receive God’s love and overwhelming care for them in their places of emptiness.
Perhaps when “Expostulation and Reply” caught my attention however long ago, I was intuiting a need I couldn’t yet put words to.
The final William Wordsworth poem on my envelope is “Lines Written a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey,” which I apparently misspelled (I was listening to an audio version of these). This one is longer and harder to excerpt, so I won’t quote it directly, but you can and should read it here.
It begins by describing a transcendent, joyous experience the poet had while looking at a beautiful landscape. He recalls this experience repeatedly throughout the years as a source of peace in hard times, and eventually returns to the beloved place with his sister. The second experience is even more joyous, because it connects the two of them to each other as well as to the transcendent.
While I’ll probably never be the mystic Wordsworth is, I do want to try and experience the physical world more, as I’ve already said, and I also think I would do well to share more of the joys I experience with others. I don’t always do that, because it feels vulnerable and silly, and I don’t like those feelings.
But hey, here I am doing just that. These poems brought me a measure of joy at some point in the past. I’ve enjoyed revisiting them, and I’ve enjoyed sharing them. And even though I’ve been discussing them in personal terms, I hope you’ve found something to appreciate in them too.
Emily Dickinson was notoriously not a sharer of poems, so we’ll see what she brings up next time…
* I do have to say I was disappointed in Owens’ Spotify playlist. So of course I made one of my own.