William Wordsworth and Andrew Wright:
a reflection on the sublime, on solitude and sky
by Robert Cole.
William Wordsworth was born Cockermouth, Cumbria, on 7 April 1770 and died 80 years later on St George’s Day 23 April. It was the same day of the year as William Shakespeare and – according to Isaac Newton – Jesus Christ.
Wordsworth was educated at Hawkshead Grammar School and St John’s College Cambridge. Disliking academic discipline, he left for a Grand Tour of Europe. He became fascinated by the French Revolution and helped create the Romantic movement in English poetry with Coleridge, Keats, Shelley, Byron and the rest.
The Wordsworth verses set to music here by Andrew Wright were written between 1798 and 1805 – when Wordsworth was aged 28 to 35. The title of Andrew’s six song choral piece is The Bliss of Solitude.
Andrew Wright, the composer and tonight’s conductor, has worked in church music for nearly forty years. He attended Oxford University and in 1979 became Assistant Master of Music at Westminster Cathedral under Stephen Cleobury. In 1982 Andrew was appointed Cathedral Director of Music in Brentwood and Director of Liturgical Music for the Diocese.
For what my pretty much uneducated view is worth, Andrew’s compositions are right up there with the best of John Rutter and John Tavener. Andrew’s Requiem of Peace has been performed all over the world from Los Angeles to here in Forest Hill. The Gloria is part of tonight’s programme. Click here – for Youtube clips.
The lyrics chosen for Bliss of Solitude are the first non-liturgical words upon which Andrew has exercised his prodigious composing talent. That’s apt not least because Wordsworth gets God in a way that is of course not always the case with poets of his age – and subsequent ages. Percy Shelley, for instance, advertised his atheism is some aggression – not that that harmed the quality of his poetry.
We credit Julia Bentham for introducing us to Andrew, for her own musicality and for the tirelessness with which she has made tonight happen. For the generosity of the choir, Fathers Tom and Gregory, and to our Parish family.
So, to business. For many, perhaps most, Wordsworth is the epitome of the Romantic period that did so much to change English Literature in the generation or two that lived around the turn of the 18/19th century.
The notion of the sublime is emblematic reference point for the Romantic poets. What is sublime? It is described in the excellent Oxford Companion to English Literature, edited by Margaret Drabble as an idea “associated with religious awe, vastness, natural magnificence and strong emotion.”
The sublime runs through Wordsworth, and the lines that you are about to hear. It rolls through To a Butterfly, Song, Daffodils, To A Skylark and both extracts you’ll hear from Wordsworth’s Lines composed a few miles above Tintern Abbey . . . this is the first . . . titled in this sequence as Nature
For I have learned
To look on nature, not as in the hour
Of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes
The still sad music of humanity,
Nor harsh nor grating, though of ample power
To chasten and subdue.—And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things.
It would be foolish to assume Wordsworth was beyond reproach: William Empson, in his book Seven Types of Ambiguity, takes aim at what he describes as the grammatical, contextual and thematic “muddle” in the passage I have just read. Empson, I fear, only damns the Lakeland poet with faint praise when he writes: “I must protest again that I enjoy the lines very much, and find, like everybody else, that I remember them.”
Whatever. In To a Butterfly we see “natural magnificence of the sublime” expressed in concentration and detail.
I’ve watched you now a full half-hour;
Self-poised upon that yellow flower
And, little Butterfly! Indeed
I know not if you sleep or feed.
In Song, we experience a “religious awe”. The Dove mentioned references one of the potent Christian symbols . . . but it seems Wordsworth also refers to the River Dove which rises in on Axe Edge Moor in the Peak District flows into the Trent at Newton Solney in the south of Derbyshire. Dove Cottage, meanwhile was something of a Romanticist HQ – it is where Wordsworth and his diarist sister Dorothy, and Samuel Coleridge, hung out.
The “Lucy” character, meanwhile, features in five of Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads including this one. It is not known if the character was, or was based on, an actual person. Literary scholar Karl Kroeber (1926–2009) argues that Lucy “possesses a double existence; her actual, historical existence and her idealised existence in the poet’s mind.” Is it too far-fetched to see Lucy as a Christ figure? The Carpenter’s son is an historical and supernatural figure. . .While on the “religious awe” part of the Romantic sublime it is worth noting that the feast of St Lucy – 13 December – was the Winter Solstice before calendar changes. And Lucy – a name which means light – could be linked with the Light that Baby Jesus brought into the world. Maybe.
She dwelt among the untrodden ways
Beside the springs of Dove,
A Maid whom there were none to praise
And very few to love:
A violet by a mossy stone
Half hidden from the eye!
—Fair as a star, when only one
Is shining in the sky.
She lived unknown, and few could know
When Lucy ceased to be;
But she is in her grave, and, oh,
The difference to me!
So to solitude. Wordsworth lost his mother aged 8 and his father aged 13. (Keats’ father died when he was 8 and he was only 14 went his mother fell victim to tuberculosis. Coleridge and Byron had similar misfortune.) This ‘orphanage’ aspect of Romanticism makes one wonder about the thematic appearance of solitude in works of Wordsworth. It is reflected in Andrew’s choice of title for the cycle you are about to hear too: “The Bliss of Solitude”. It is a Bliss of Solitude that, perhaps, we enjoy in prayer or meditation.
I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.
And sky? It features in the lyric I have just read in the clouds wot lonely Wordsworth is wandering with. The last piece in tonight’s six-Song cycle will be sung by Art Wangcharoensab, is called To A Skylark.
Shelley wrote a probably more famous poem of the same name which makes it tempting to see the enigmatic song bird as another of emblem of Romanticism. I cannot find the source of the following quote but it sums the Romantic significance of Skylark rather nicely: “The Skylark symbolises high imagination, eternal happiness and harbinger of peace and progress. It is a spirit. Though it is unseen, yet it pours forth profuse sweetness. It stands for idealism and newly built society – free from corruption, exploitation and economic slavery.”
But hmmn. ‘Freedom from exploitation and economic slavery’? The Marxist literary critic Christopher Caudwell observes that it was the industrial revolution – a clear manifestation of exploitation and economic slavery – that gave Wordsworth the wherewithal to live as he did. Caudwell writes of Wordsworth that the industrial revolution: “made it possible for sufficient surplus produce to exist to maintain a poet in austere idleness in Cumberland.”
Might we accept that for all the beauty of Wordsworth’s nature notes, he was product of “corruption, exploitation and economic slavery”? Was Wordsworth “Singing, Singing” with his head in the clouds? In a detached fantasy of sublime solitude and sky?
In To A Sky-Lark –
Up with me! up with me into the clouds!
For thy song, Lark, is strong;
Up with me, up with me into the clouds!
With clouds and sky about thee ringing…
Maybe. It is more attractive, and more appropriate to tonight, to remember FR Leavis’s take on Wordsworth. The Eng Lit critic who did so much to elevate the reputations of Gerard Manley Hopkins, Ezra Pound and TS Eliot described Wordsworth’s work as “emotion recollected in tranquillity”.
Courtesy of Andrew Wright, Julia Bentham and the choir of St William of York Catholic Church, we can focus, as Wordsworth himself wrote: on “The beauty coming and the beauty gone.” And the “emotion recollected in tranquillity.”
* The Bliss of Solitude will be rendered on 14 November at 7.30pm at St William of York parish church, Brockley Park SE23 1PS. Free entry.