Quietening the noisy years

thrush outside
Thrush near the back porch, Tyreso 11 April

Yesterday in my reading of Wordsworth’s ‘Immortality Ode’  I had got to this point;

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

You can read the whole poem here.  Read it aloud.

I was thinking about our experiences when we are on the very edge of what we can know, how often that must feel like knowing nothing, or being afraid, or at least, to use Wordsworth’s words, like ‘blank misgivings’. A misgiving = a feeling of doubt. Wordsworth’s poem helps me think that doubts are the very thing  I should be most glad of because they  give the clue to ‘something’ else. I am thinking about my own doubt – sorry, endlessly repeated here – about my ability to use the words ‘soul’ and ‘God’.  That inability, which  might be also be identified as under the heading  ‘fallings from us, vanishings’ might be a clue that there is something evading my current language, something my mind does not understand. Hence ‘misgiving’ rather than outright rejection.

Thus, Wordsworth gives thanks,

…for those obstinate questionings
Of sense and outward things,
Fallings from us, vanishings;
Blank misgivings of a Creature
Moving about in worlds not realised,
He continues;
High instincts before which our mortal Nature

Did tremble like a guilty thing surprised:

Agh  – so much to  take in, so much to  understand and think through. I tell myself it doesn’t matter how much reading I get done each day, so long as the reading itself is happening. But I am going to try to read this whole section today. Take a breath, it might be a long posting.

The ‘obstinate questionings’ are, he now understands, ‘high instincts’. Brilliant to name them as ‘high’  because of course we usually think of instincts as ‘low’, as ‘animal. These blank misgiving /high instincts are not part of ‘our mortal Nature’, they are from, as he says in the opening stanza, ‘elsewhere’. Wordsworth gets the poem (and me, reading) to a point between experienced knowledge and language. When we give them their due, those ‘blank misgivings’ become or are clues to something else. When we feel that kind of feeling, unnameable, powerful, not in language, bigger than us then it seems our mortal Nature feels worried, small and, in Wordsworth feeling of it, guilty,  as if it had done something wrong. (I’m thinking of the novel The Unnamed, by Joshua Ferris, a novel profoundly influenced by Wordsworth, I’d guess.  My book of the year last year, terrific story of a man troubled by High Instincts)

High instincts before which our mortal Nature
Did tremble like a guilty thing surprised:

I don’t know about the guilty feeling so I’m leaving that aside for the time being, trying to go with the flow of Wordsworth’s mind, not against it. When do I feel like this?  I think,

Gazing into the eyes of a new-born baby.
Looking at the earth from the top of a mountain.
At the edge of the ocean.
When faced with azure blue in sky or water.
Looking at the stars, the moon on a cold clear night.
Flying over Greenland.
Sometimes when walking.
Seeing Earth stir to life after winter.
Gardening or looking closely at plants as they change
When lost in reading  or writing at the edge of my ability.

The feelings of ‘more than normal’ , these ‘high instincts’, are about (for me) the spreading of   – growth of – consciousness to its very limits. You can’t think, you can only experience without language to express the experience.  At such moments that we are operating beyond what the poem calls ‘the light of common day.’ This can be frightening. maybe that is why he says ‘High instincts before which our mortal Nature / Did tremble’?

I’m still hanging back from the word ‘guilty’! And I’m going to go on now…

As I’ve been reading something has been  bothering me. I wanted to know  if Wordsworth was writing from direct experience –   the experience of very young children seems so central to the poem. I had to look it up on Wikipedia. Wordsworth had had two children by the time he wrote Intimations (Caroline, born to Annette Vallon, France 1792, and  John, born to Wordsworth’s  wife Mary Hutchinson,  born 1803) I wondered if that 11 year gap between his first child and his second affected his thinking about babies. Certainly possible to imagine that  it made him  concentrate very hard on his little son.

But back to the poem.  Wordsworth picks up again the thread about  what exactly it is that he gives thanks for – not the straightforward happy stuff of childhood, ‘delight and liberty’, but, the sense continues (let’s take a run at it, shall we?)

… for those first affections,
Those shadowy recollections,
Which, be they what they may
Are yet the fountain-light of all our day,
Are yet a master-light of all our seeing;
Uphold us, cherish, and have power to make
Our noisy years seem moments in the being
Of the eternal Silence: truths that wake,
To perish never;
Which neither listlessness, nor mad endeavour,
Nor Man nor Boy,
Nor all that is at enmity with joy,
Can utterly abolish or destroy!
Hence in a season of calm weather
Though inland far we be,
Our Souls have sight of that immortal sea
Which brought us hither,
Can in a moment travel thither,
And see the Children sport upon the shore,
And hear the mighty waters rolling evermore.

It’s as if Wordsworth stops trying to work it out and accepts that he can’t know what those intimations are  – ‘Those shadowy recollections,/ Which, be they what they may’ and yet – even if we don’t know what they are, they

Are yet the fountain-light of all our day,
Are yet a master-light of all our seeing;
Uphold us, cherish, and have power to make
Our noisy years seem moments in the being
Of the eternal Silence:

These moments of intimations of something ‘more than, whatever they are, are now ‘a fountain-light…a master-light’.  They move into  the present tense, indeed beyond that, into what feels a permanent present, with that repetition of ‘are yet’. When you plug into this mode there’s a shift, ‘common day’ is absolutely gone (and yet are we still in it?)

The intimations now seem both the source of light (‘fountain-light’) and also the key to the way we see things (‘master-light of all our seeing’). They feel like parents  – as opposed perhaps to   the ‘homely Nurse’, Earth, who tries to help us settle into her foster-care earlier in the poem.  These original feelings – ‘which, be they what they may’ – ‘uphold us, cherish…’

Yes, I’m thinking it is as if we have something in us, innate, often long-lost, like instinct, that holds on the to the super-natural – not just of Earth – part of us.  These experiences, look after us , cherish … and when we connect  with that innate, instinct part of self, then  ‘our noisy years’ (daily life, common day, all that we do in our busy-ness) are reduced to

…moments in the being
Of the eternal Silence:

When I’m reading this, I am trying all the time to think  ‘Do I know this?’ Partly the poem helps me know it  – by sharing its experience, by putting me through it. I’m thinking of times when I feel the ‘noisy years’ are quietened and I feel my life is a moment  ‘in the being of the eternal Silence’. (Is that another word for God? I think it is, and one I am much more easy with using). There are such moments. I recall them now as I write.

I’m going to finish this section.

…moments in the being
Of the eternal Silence: truths that wake,
To perish never;
Which neither listlessness, nor mad endeavour,
Nor Man nor Boy,
Nor all that is at enmity with joy,
Can utterly abolish or destroy!
Hence in a season of calm weather
Though inland far we be,
Our Souls have sight of that immortal sea
Which brought us hither,
Can in a moment travel thither,
And see the Children sport upon the shore,
And hear the mighty waters rolling evermore.

It’s as if now Wordsworth has  established to himself his own sense of what those intimations are, as if he has cleared a path to them, can hear, feel, see, experience them, and he knows that once he has  experienced this clarity, he’ll not lose it again. These are ‘truths that wake/to perish never.’

Then he remembers ordinary life, the common day (listlessness/mad endeavour/man/boy), feels its threat, is finally untroubled by it  – nothing can now destroy what he knows.

Hence in a season of calm weather
Though inland far we be,
Our Souls have sight of that immortal sea
Which brought us hither,
Can in a moment travel thither,
And see the Children sport upon the shore,
And hear the mighty waters rolling evermore.

We can go to that place, to that experience of more-than-this, we can re-find the source, the sea, and, wonderfully, can ‘in a moment travel thither’.  This seems a very different feeling to the place the poem started, when the pressure of such a move frightened Wordsworth and seemed to hurt him with loss. Remember…

But yet I know, where’er I go,
That there hath past away a glory from the earth.

Yet now the glory is available to him, in a moment, he can experience the original powerful feeling of connection to something/somewhere ‘afar’. He’s got to this by or through the course of the poem – and so  have I, following his movements of thought and feeling.

There’s more for tomorrow but time to stop now.

One thought on “Quietening the noisy years

  1. Heather April 11, 2017 / 10:42 am

    Lots to think about here. ‘In the being of the eternal Silence’ brought to mind The Absence by R. S Thomas although Wordsworth’s Silence feels more comfortable than Thomas’ Absence.

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