Fear in Wordsworth's My heart leaps up when I behold, We Are Seven, Tintern Abbey, and Resolution and Independence
Fear in Wordsworth's "My heart leaps up when I behold", "We Are Seven", "Tintern Abbey", and "Resolution and Independence"
Romantic poetry conjures in the mind of many people images of sweet, pastoral landscapes populated by picturesque citizens who live in quaint houses in rustic villages, with sheep grazing on green-swathed hills, while a young swain plights his troth to his fair young maiden, who reclines demurely amidst the clover and smiles sunnily. William Wordsworth is perhaps the archetypal Romantic poet; his most famous poem, "I wandered lonely as a cloud", would seem on first reading to support the traditional, one could say stereotypical, image of a Romantic poet. Even his name, Words-worth, reinforces that image. And yet, upon looking more closely and carefully at his works, it becomes clear that the emotions which motivate his creativity are not solely a love of nature and pastorality.
Let us consider Wordsworth's "My heart leaps up when I behold". The poem can be interpreted on a very simple level as a typical Romantic poem: there is the glorying in and of nature that most people immediately think of when Romantic poetry is mentioned. The speaker is thrilled when he sees a rainbow, he was thrilled in his youth when he saw a rainbow, and when he is old he will continue to be thrilled by seeing a rainbow; if he cannot be thrilled, he would rather be dead. The speaker's life has a kind of continuity, of stability, through the process of memory. The reader can wipe away a tear and mumble "Isn't that nice?", and switch on Three's Company; this interpretation affirms our sense of what poets should feel, without challenging anything.
Yet the speaker "could wish" (line 8) that his days "be bound ... by natural piety" (line 9); not "does wish" or even simply "wishes", but "could wish", which implies not only desire but envy. Does the speaker himself believe the affirmations he has made in the first six lines?
As always with Wordsworth, the poem is not about what it seems at first glance. "The child is father to the man" (line 7) is true in a basic sense: everything the man is comes from what the child was. A child has natural, or unforced and hence automatic, piety; he must, simply because he has not yet acquired the cultural baggage that modifies, cultivates and un-naturalizes his being. Growing up is the process of socialization -- the gaining of prejudices that block out "unnecessary" or "extraneous" thoughts, feelings and images. Eventually enough prejudices are acquired that a reader can say "Isn't that nice?", wipe away a crocodile tear, and dismiss a poem that might be disturbing. The child, having not yet acquired these prejudices, is closer to the fonts of meaning and truth; the child finds easily, even carelessly, what the adult, by growing up, has lost forever. And here is the envy mentioned above --...