I’ve been reading Wordsworth’s Immortality Ode for the last week or so, and am finishing it today. You can read the whole poem here. Read it aloud if you can. Thinking also about some of the thoughts in my mind from the book I’m reading, Unbelievable: why we believe and why we don’t by Graham Ward. This morning I’ve been reading a chapter about reading and belief in which Ward talks about reading as an act of hope as well as an act of imagination. In fact, he connects the two, arguing that reading ‘actualises and demands belief’;
…reading is a poiesis, a transformative existential act that both actualises and demands belief. It cannot perform the act it does without engaging our belief structures. Furthermore, because reading is not a matter of escapism but expansion, then our believing, and our investment in believing, is enlarged in reading. We are freed from certain material limitations. The structures of belief are changed, refashioned.
I am glad to see his definition of reading not as an act of escapism (which has always seemed to me an odd way of thinking about reading, as if it were taking you away from somewhere, something else – unless that were ‘the light of common day’… but then I’d call it an act of return, not escape) but rather an act of expansion. I’m interested in the idea that reading also enlarges ‘our investment in believing.’ This seems to me one of the key outcomes of The Reader’s Shared Reading practice, especially noticeable in people who have not believed in much, or people whose lives have crashed or collapsed. Ward continues;
Any reading is primarily an allegory of poetic faith –the operation of our dispositions to believe, to imagine and to desire; that is, there is an intention signified that is more profound than what is given to us at the level of character, plot, landscape and themes. In the making present there is always something else, something other (hence allegoria from the Greek word for ‘other’): a journeying, a believing, a desiring, an encountering, a discovering, and an expansion of our horizons that subtly changes the structures of sensibility and possibility.
I was thinking of something like this yesterday while walking in Sweden’s Tyresta National Park – a few pictures here – that a walk is like a reading; you decide to set off on the journey (you may or may not know the route, the book). You put one foot in front of the other, one word, one sentence at a time, you move through worlds, scenes, types of place, encounter, weather, fears, joys: the story unfolds as you move. But you must move. You must do the noticing. Only you can notice the moss, the woodpecker, the pine cones falling. No one can walk for you, and no other person’s account of the walk will give you your experience of it (though you might want to read their account to experience another person’s experience). So a reading of Wordsworth’s Ode can’t be gained by reading someone else’s account of it, only by reading yourself. When I am writing each day I am mainly writing for myself, but I am also thinking of some people, who, like fellow readers in a Shared Reading group, might be reading alongside me.
Yesterday I had arrived at the point where Wordsworth had found, or remembered, the value of the ‘years that bring the philosophic mind’. I’ll pick it up from there;
I had to go back and reread the whole stanza to get a sense of the relinquishing of the ‘one delight’ – so many important words here; ‘forbode’, ‘severing’ ‘habitual’ all seem to look back up the lines of the poem to the opening stanzas – as if Wordsworth is trying to recap the whole movement – lost something, could have been broken by that loss, could have gone under the normal habituation of ‘common day’. But no, by this point, he’s less concentrated on the loss of the original glory, and more glad of what remains behind;
As if human experience, knowing and having witnessed ‘man’s mortality’ changes the lights of sunset. I’m not sure what he means by ‘Another race hath been, and other palms are won’ and need to read it in its setting, its sentence;
I think the movement is from natural things – brooks, sunrise, clouds, sunset – that he might have loved, and I’, thinking the poem began by mourning the loss of a light of glory in them, but now ‘another race hath been, and other palms are won’ -is this about humans? Now they seem as important or more important than anything in nature? certainly the last four lines point to that:
At the beginning we saw ‘the pansy as my feet’ stripped of the childhood apprehension, but now any flower, daisy, violet – small, common, uncultivated – brings with it the deepest of feelings, ‘thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears’. And it is the thing that earlier had seemed out-of-place – the human heart – that brings about this enormously moving experience. Is there a kind of balance here? As if Wordsworth no longer feels a foster-child, but is at home in his own heart, his own life, as well as the world? In the lines before these last four, there was a sense of something like baby-life-adult-death -the human movement through this world, wasn’t there? I felt it in ‘tripped’, ‘innocent’, ‘new-born’,’setting’, ‘sober’, ‘kept watch’, ‘mortality’.
I love the Brooks which down their channels fret,
Even more than when I tripped lightly as they;
The innocent brightness of a new-born Day
Is lovely yet;
The Clouds that gather round the setting sun
Do take a sober colouring from an eye
That hath kept watch o’er man’s mortality;
Another race hath been, and other palms are won.
Now I am looking back at the last four lines and seeing Wordsworth resolved into a unity – not the child of some ‘imperial palace’, not an inmate, not word down by ‘common day’ but rather given something else by his immersion in ‘common day’. I feel the poem is not a poem of time – it doesn’t begin and such o’clock go forward in linear fashion. It is all one time. The end is the beginning. But in between the beginning and the end is the journey in consciousness which creates the resolution and thankfulness, which sets ‘human’ and all the powerful feelings of ‘human’ in its natural world. As Graham Ward said, it has been ‘a journeying, a believing, a desiring, an encountering, a discovering, and an expansion of our horizons that subtly changes the structures of sensibility and possibility’;
Thanks to the human heart by which we live,
Thanks to its tenderness, its joys, and fears,
To me the meanest flower that blows can give
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.
Is looking at a flower like going for walk, reading a poem, an excusion of the human heart towards expansion?
Reading along with you has been wonderful. I’ve read the poem once or twice before, and never really got to grips with it. This has been illuminating, and I’ve looked forward to your daily post. Better still, I’ve found myself looking around at the wonders of spring and reflecting on ‘thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears’ – a line that itself could almost reduce me to tears! Still scrambling my brain, of course, but in the best possible way. Thank you.
Thanks, Lydia, great to know you are there! Always been a pleasure to read with you x