William Wordsworth and the Immortality of Art

Wordsworth 1

Art is simply wonderful. I can’t think of anyone who, to some degree, doesn’t agree. I’ve always been fascinated by the ways in which art affects individuals, and cultures at large. Whether it’s an album, film, novel, television show, poem or play, there’s something truly captivating about art’s ability to reach deeply into our souls.

In his book, The Four Loves, CS Lewis articulates some of the ways in which art binds friendship:

“Friendship arises out of mere Companionship when two or more of the companions discover that they have in common some insight or interest or even taste which the others do not share and which, til that moment, each believed to be his own unique treasure (or burden). The typical expression of opening Friendship would be something like, “What? You too? I thought I was the only one.” We can imagine that among those early hunters and warrior single individuals—one in a century? one in a thousand years?—saw what others did not; saw that the deer was beautiful as well as edible, that hunting was fun as well as necessary, dreamed that his gods might be not only powerful but holy. But as long as each of these recipient persons dies without finding a kindred soul, nothing (I suspect) will come of it; art or sport or spiritual religion will not be born. It is when two such persons discover one another, when, whether with immense difficulties and semi-articulate fumblings or with what would seem to us amazing and elliptical speed, they hare their vision—it is then that Friendship is born. And instantly they stand together in an immense solitude.”

This quotation is in the broader context of Lewis’ comments on the subject of friendship, but it’s certainly relevant in thinking about art’s power. We’ll get back to Lewis later.

There are theories upon theories—both in literature and philosophy—that speak about the nature of the arts and how individuals should go about diving into them. Be it Romanticism, Realism, Formalism, and most recently Postmodernism and Deconstruction. As much as literary or film critics differ from one another in their particular approaches, they’re all banking on a simple, yet profound assumption: art has power.

Experience and art are inseparable words–in that art evokes a response. The Romantic period of literature (1785-Romanticism1830) was an era in which the individual’s subjective experience of the art became invaluable. The individual’s response to the art, has just as much value as the art itself.

William Wordsworth, one of the godfathers of the Romantic period, stood by this notion with zeal. He was revolutionary because he not only wrote for the aristocracy, but for peasants. Wordsworth often used outcasts of the social hierarchy as his protagonists–an extremely progressive approach at this moment in history. Works like “We Are Seven”, a poem about a child contemplating the inevitability of death, and the horror thereof, is a great example of this notion.

What Wordsworth highlighted was the power of literature to articulate the human experience as he evoked the immortality of literature and art.Whatever form Wordsworth wrote, he sought to shed light upon the complexities of the human existence as accurately and as honestly as possible. Being a Romantic, subjective feelings and experiences were highly valued by Wordsworth—probably to a fault in some ways. Nonetheless, Wordsworth spearheaded a movement in which a human being’s psychological and mental state had value, both for his characters and the people who engaged in his work.

Perhaps most famously, Wordsworth believed the poet had an extremely significant role in the world. In one of his most controversial and revolutionary essays, Preface to the Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth argued for his approach to writing—in a most prophetic manner—and gave his definition of a poet, and poetry:

“What is a poet? To whom does he address himself? And what language is to be expected from him? He is a man speaking to men: a man, it is true, endued with more lively sensibility, more enthusiasm and tenderness, who has a greater knowledge of human nature, and a more comprehensive soul, than are supposed to be common among mankind; a man pleased with his own passion and volitions, and who rejoices more than other men in the spirit of life that is in him; delighting to contemplate similar volitions and passions as manifested in the goings-on of the universe, and habitually impelled to create them where he odes not find them. To these qualities he has added a disposition to be affected more than other men by absent things as if they were present.Lyrical Ballads

The poet writes under one restriction only, namely, that of the necessity of giving immediate pleasure to a human being possessed of that information which may be expected from him, not as a lawyer, a physician, a mariner, and astronomer or a natural philosopher, but as a man.

Poetry is the first and last of all knowledge—it is as immortal as the heart of man.”

This quotation in particular has shaped the way I’ve thought about literature in numerous ways. This has been my experience of art—the “men speaking to men” sentiment that Wordsworth evoked. Has this been the case for you? I hope our friend, Mr. Wordsworth can help us understand–in a thoughtful, honest way–just how powerful art is, whether it’s watching the Grammys or reading a Jane Austen novel.

Maybe Lewis was onto something. Maybe, experiencing art is, as Lewis said earlier—a “What? You too? I thought I was the only one” moment—bridging socioeconomic, religious, and generational gaps in ways that only art can.

MP

For recommended reading, here’s some classic Wordsworth:

Essays

-Preface to the Lyrical Ballads

Poetry

-“Michael”

-“We Are Seven”

-“The Thorn”

-“Tintern Abbey”

-“The Prelude”

2 Responses to “William Wordsworth and the Immortality of Art”

  1. Carey

    Thank you for this post! Poetry is most definitely a door, as WW knew so well. Have you read Seamus Heaney’s poem “Seeing Things?” Might touch upon or even illuminate some ideas you’re exploring here. Godspeed.

    Reply

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