Allen Ginsberg’s History of Poetry class continues from here
AG: Well, Wordsworth was doing the same thing, but he came at a time after Blake, after a sort of drying out of poetry and a rigidification of the meters, which we’re skipping over. Actually, quite extraordinary, (Alexander) Pope, (John) Dryden, (Jonathan) Swift, (the Earl of) Rochester. Wordsworth came to a modern spirit, post Industrial Revolution. His consciousness dimmed somewhat – conditioned, needing Rolfing, or needing acid, or needing the country, or needing vision, needing meditation. He was one of the few people who was able to recall his original visionary child-eye recollection of nature, and so wrote a series of poems in which you have a pantheistic vision, in which everything seems animate, or in which he gets a kind of visionary gleam from walking around craggy hills in the Lake Country, mid-England. And one of his most clear statements of that is called “Ode on Intimations of Immortality From Recollections of Early Childhood”. Now how many of you know that, have read that? That’s pretty much taught. And how many have not? Wordworth’s “Ode on Intimations of Immortality..” Well, is it worth going through, because the majority…
AG: I think it’s a great poem. It turned me on. I think it’s a key poem in many many ways. Key because it is a recollection and an evocation of a visionary state that we’ve all experienced one time or another, whether in childhood, or through drugs, or through meditation, or through accident. It’s also a funny attitude toward it, like a clinging attitude toward it, so it’s a real 19th Century Post-Industrial hung-up attitude that assumes that it’s gone forever and we’re not going to get it back and the best thing you can do is lie here on the shores of life and moon about it some more. At the same time, it’s a very humane statement of what most people go through, and it’s a great poem. My book here says it comes from Plato – “Your favorite doctrine, Socrates, is that knowledge is simply recollection” – “The Child is father of the Man/ I could wish my days to be/ Bound each to each by natural piety” – [Allen reads the entire “Ode on Intimations of Immortality..” – “There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream…” –
There’s a more direct description of the specific inspiration or vision that he was talking about in another poem, not so long, called “Lines Composed A Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey”. He had visited Tintern Abbey and had some sort of psychedelic experience and five years later he came back and wrote – Tintern Abbey is an abbey, a church ruined in Monmouthshire, England. He’d gone there in 1793, the time of the French Revolution, I think. It’s a hollow shell of a building, solid red stone wall, the roof out, some tower left. So he composed it on the spot, or on a hill above Tintern Abbey, so the famous title is “Lines Composed A Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey”. I don’t know if I’ll read it all, but there’s a specific section that should be heard and it needs to be built up from the beginning [Allen reads first 17 lines – “Five years have past, five summers , with the length/ Of five long winters…” to “Of sportive wood run wild, these pastoral farms/ Green to the very door..”] – He has a really perfect eye – “sportive wood run wild” “pastoral farms/ Green to the very door”. Are you visualizing with your inner camera a farmhouse where the cultivation is so ancient, the lineage of farming so ancient, that the grass is green to the very doorstep? In other words, you step from grass right on to the lintel of the door. Which means really old, old, old consciousness and cultivation and living there – “these pastoral farms/ Green to the very door, and wreaths of smoke.”
So, to interrupt, what was partly Wordsworth’s excellence is his eye, his common-sense eye. Fading into the light of common day he still sees what’s there. Louis Zukofsky is a great poet (who was in the school of Imagists, a friend of Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams) and I asked him what he liked about Wordsworth, and he mentioned a line very similar to this “Green to the very door”, which was “The star-shaped shadow of a blossom cast on stone“. [Allen/Zukofsky just paraphrases, not directly quotes the line here] – Just a line lost in some fragmentary poem. Which means that Wordsworth, at one time, was walking in a very clear air in a sunny day in a field. The sun was out and it was relatively cloudless, and so bright that he could observe the star-shaped shadow of a blossom cast on a stone. Which means he was walking along with head down looking at what was going on and not only looking at the flowers but also observing the shape of the flowers, the ground and the shadow. Just as “Green to the very door” tells you a whole historical.. a whole history of that land – orchards of mind-language cultivated for centuries – so there’s a photograph of himself given in the lines, “Star-shaped shadow of a blossom cast on stone”.
“Sportive wood run wild” is also pretty interesting. It’s very hard to describe the time taken for a wood to grow while along the side of a field. “Sportive wood run wild” is really about two hundred years of woods put there in your eyeball – “Once again I see/ These hedgerows, hardly hedgerows, little lines/ Of sportive woods run wild; these pastoral farms/ Green to the very door..” [Allen continues reading – “..and wreaths of smoke…” to “The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul/ Of all my moral being…”] – There’s another thirty or forty lines addressed to his sister. [tape ends here – Allen picks up with lines 94-102 – “..disturbs me with the joy..” to “And rolls through all things”] – That’s like a really great moment there. And there’s a lot of inspiration in that in terms of the sound, the breath there. So there he rises, in that one moment. Everything else is intelligent, everything else is really clear and pure, but, all of a sudden, he gets to a sequence of phrases that involves the whole body and all breath.
He claims that in his old age he lost his inspiration, and Wordworth is the great case of a great poet, like Blake.. Blake loved Wordsworth. Blake, the visionary, thought Wordsworth was a great visionary in youth, too. But then got mad at him because Wordsworth got older and crustier, sort of as prophesied by his rhetoric, like a constant lamentation of what was gone before, of the brightness and the glory of the dream that somehow he feels that he’s missing now he’s getting older, and then he started putting down the French Revolution in a kind of conservative way, like the professional Cold War Anti-Communist put-downers of the day now – sort of a too-heavy rejection of his youthful ambition, delight, revolutionary sense. So then Shelley got mad at him for that. Shelley was really disappointed because the great Wordsworth who had perceived the visionary light over the fields had turned into a duller, older reactionary in his old age. So Shelley thought, at the age of 22 or 24, thinking of Wordsworth.. How old was Wordsworth when Shelley was… does anybody know? Well, okay, Wordsworth was… Shelley.. let’s find Shelley’s date. The “Tintern Abbey” was written 1798. Shelley’s “Ozymandias” or “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty” is 1816-17. Wordsworth died in 1850, so Shelley died before him actually.
Student: Shelley was 27 years younger
AG: Yeah. And, in a way, a more brilliant poet, Shelley . Because he did as well as Wordsworth. For the early Wordsworth, there are a number of very great poems that rise up, or very short poems that make out into a great visionary… (William) Burroughs’ favorite was a very brief “Lucy poem” (he wrote a series of poems to a dead love, Lucy) – “She dwelt among the untrodden ways/ Besides the springs of Dove/ A Maid whom there was none to praise/ And very few to love. A violet from 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!” – I think I heard Burroughs reciting that from memory, that and several other short poems of Wordsworth. There’s one great sonnet, but you can look that up yourself.
Audio for this (including Allen’s remarks on Gnosticism and his readings from both Milton and from Wordsworth – see above) is available here: