More Obstinate Questionings

Moving about in worlds not realised, under pines in Tyreso

In which I continue my daily reading of portions of  Wordsworth’s ‘Immortality Ode’, which you can read in full here.

Yesterday I read the section beginning;

Thou, whose exterior semblance doth belie

Thy Soul’s immensity;

And I continued to try to think again about ‘soul’ and ‘immortality’. While on the walk yesterday, Phil reminded me about the bit in Marilynne Robinson’s novel Home, where Jack says – I paraphrase – ‘soul is what’s left after everything else is gone.’

In light of that, I wonder about what makes up the essential in a human being and whether the essential comes with us when we are born – certainly in the case of my own children, I felt that to be so.  In myself there seems a core which is not to do with what has happened to me, or what I have become – that is ‘identity’.  But is the core feeling , under identity, under personality,  or that personality is built up from, what I mean by soul?

And, because this poem is asking me to think about it, I also have to ask,  beyond ‘soul’, do I believe a universal presence, in God?  But I cannot use the word ‘God’ in any real, live way, and even ‘believe’ seems the wrong word. Like ‘soul’ it feels overlaid with too many old meanings, other people’s meanings , dead-to-me meanings, to be of any use. Putting it to myself like this – do I believe in God? – I am not thinking of it in a helpful way.

But there is something? Energy, certainly, and the move towards individuation we see in all nature, each living thing always energetically pursuing the shape of itself. Is there intelligence in it? Not  like any human intelligence. Is there love? Yes,  but that may be our part in it, to apprehend love, to know it, to feel it. It seems to me as if the universal force is one of creative, and destructive, energy. And why does it matter to me that humans should try to be good and is there a connection between that and ‘soul’ or ‘God’, those unavailable words?  T.E. Hulme defined Romanticism as ‘spilt religion’ , and I vaguely remember that accusation being put me during my Ph.D. viva thirty odd years ago.  I think the accusation was something like ‘because you don’t believe in God, you see God everywhere in nature and in humans…’  I think my  answer then was ‘Mm… maybe.’

If these questions and bad answers are the wrong way to think of it, what is the right way? The disciplines developed by religions over thousands of years seem useful – prayer, observation, hope. I don’t perform any religious practice. For me walking in the woods, gardening and reading provide ways to do those things. Form doesn’t matter, only what happens within or through the form

But to the poem. The next section is a really long one, and a hard one. There is  one very long sentence. I paste some of it here, but will only get through a few lines;

O joy! that in our embers
Is something that doth live,
That Nature yet remembers
What was so fugitive!
The thought of our past years in me doth breed
Perpetual benediction: not indeed
For that which is most worthy to be blest;
Delight and liberty, the simple creed
Of Childhood, whether busy or at rest,
With new-fledged hope still fluttering in his breast:
Not for these I raise
The song of thanks and praise
But for those obstinate questionings
Of sense and outward things,
Fallings from us, vanishings;
Blank misgivings of a Creature
Moving about in worlds not realised,

The opening four lines of this section is one of the few bits of poetry I often remember and  say to myself. ‘Embers’ is a disturbing word – heat and death in one. but the oddest thing here is the tense – that ‘nature yet remembers/ What was so fugitive!’ – as if the thing remembered , the intimation, was even at the time of the experience only passing, merely ‘fugitive; we’re chasing the shadow of a shadow of a feeling.

Wordsworth feels that thinking on these echoes of memories bring him ‘perpetual benediction’   –  constant blessings and the chief of these is not (love Wordsworth’s negatives, always important) practical things that translate into adult life ( into politics, for example, creed of liberty, etc), no, not for these, good as they are and ‘most worthy to be blest’;

Not for these I raise
The song of thanks and praise
But for those obstinate questionings
Of sense and outward things,
Fallings from us, vanishings;
Blank misgivings of a Creature
Moving about in worlds not realised…

This is for me a key moment in the poem and one that  I have been trying to understand and live through during the span of my adult life. The ‘obstinate questionings’ are recognisably human: I’m sure most of us have experienced them. But that Wordsworth would  then go on to elaborate these as ‘ fallings from us, vanishings’ is surprising and  where poetry, not day-to-day autobiography takes hold.

Fallings from us, vanishings;
Blank misgivings of a Creature
Moving about in worlds not realised…

How would this experience feel? Do I remember anything like this, or  is the poem making be feel/experience it now as I read? The sense that there are ‘worlds not realised’ and that we might – even now – be ‘moving about in them’ is a wonderful mind-opener, bringing on the very blankness Wordsworth is talking about. What are these ‘worlds’? For me they are new thoughts.  Reading on the edge of understanding, trying to bring  new thoughts into new language, losing myself in a state of creative blankness, that’s one of the most powerful creative experiences I have – making me function – as Wordsworth says when describing mind in The Prelude, as ‘creator and receiver both’. We cease to be human and become ‘Creature’,  creature with misgivings, too, worried, unable to rely on what we knew before, not knowing where we are… yet that place, that experience, is the key one for human creativity. To be lost, uncertain, unknowing is to have the  discovery of worlds all before me.  Why not be afraid? Because surely this is worrying state?

But time is up – let’s leave that thought til tomorrow.

2 thoughts on “More Obstinate Questionings

  1. pamelasball April 10, 2017 / 2:40 pm

    Thought provoking and dream making…I too will carry with me today ” O joy! that in our embers
    Is something that doth live” thanks to your perceptive insights Jane.

    • drjanedavis April 10, 2017 / 6:53 pm

      Thanks for reading, Pamela. Yes !got to be glad for what lives on in us.

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