The Suppression of the Other and Self-Enlightenment in William Wordsworths Resolution and Independence

The Suppression of the Other and Self-Enlightenment in William Wordsworths Resolution and Independence

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My response to William Wordsworth’s Resolution and Independence focuses upon the precept that Wordsworth’s narrator uses the tale of the Leech Gatherer as a means to achieve ‘resolution’ to his own internal crisis. This is highlighted by, in my opinion, the narrator not so much paying attention to the Leech Gatherer’s tale, yet instead his pre-occupation with what he wants to interpret from the tale in order to satisfy his needs. I further argue that in doing so Wordsworth’s poem constructs the Leech Gatherer as the ‘other’, and that his ‘otherness’ is suppressed by converting him into a mere instrument by which the narrator attains enlightenment.

Although my reading of the poem is heavily focused on the encounter between the narrator and the Leech Gatherer, this doesn’t occur until the eighth stanza. The poem starts with the narrator out for a stroll, feeling “as happy as a boy” marveling at the offerings of nature in the sunshine following a “roaring in the wind all night.” What struck me from these opening stanzas was the rhyming pattern used throughout the poem. Set in ‘rhyme royal’ I found the meter both inviting and accessible, which made for an entertaining read from the outset.

However from this pleasant beginning, quite suddenly and apparently inexplicably during the fourth stanza, the narrator undergoes a violent mood swing: ‘As high as we have mounted in delight/In our dejection do we sink so low;/ To me that morning did it happen so.’ This sudden change left me quite disorientated and perplexed as to cause of his depression. After re-reading the passage and considering it in the context of the entire poem I felt that this mood swing was the reader’s first indication of the narrator’s status as a poet. This notion of a poet’s perspective remained at the foreground of my reading and I felt constantly reminded that the narrator’s subsequent quest for resolution and enlightenment came from the perspective of a poet, not merely an individual. My view of the narrator within this context was not an entirely positive one, as in addition to seeming over-analytical and emotionally fragile – ‘Perplexed and longing to be comforted’ - I felt he came across as condescending toward the Leach-Gatherer; as if he came from a position of higher moral ground by virtue of his occupation as a poet.

Within this context, an observation I found significant was

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that Wordsworth’s narrator seemed in constant fear of losing his creative powers, just as the Leech Gatherer had lost his youth and strength; ‘By our own spirits we are deified: we Poets in our youth begin in gladness; But thereof come in the end despondency and madness.’ My interpretation of this was that Wordsworth is commenting upon the loss of creative power as a poet ages. What I found troubling about this was the likening of the poetic imagination to a divine spirit: the notion that there exists a power to create that exalts poets’ spirits above that of ordinary men. I felt that by referring to ‘despondency’ and ‘madness’ Wordsworth was referring to the loss not of a skill, but of a divine spirit. This to me seemed a little contrived and in turn highlighted my reading that Wordsworth’s narrator was not engaging with the Leech Gatherer on a level of mutual respect, yet was using the ‘other’ to serve as an instrument with which to satisfy his own needs.

Simon Malpas argues that Resolution and Independence explores the notion of the self being healed through an empathy with the suffering of the other, and that this is “an old and familiar story.” I would argue that the narrator is too caught up in his own thoughts and self-reflection to be able to empathise with the Leech Gatherer. My preferred reading is that Wordsworth’s narrator takes what he can from the Leech Gatherer’s tale and almost probes him for answers in order to resolve a personal crisis, as opposed to connecting and showing empathy toward this man’s suffering. I feel this reading finds support via the manner in which their conversation is conducted, and in particular the narrator’s inadvertence to what the Leech Gatherer is saying. After asking, in the fourteenth stanza, “what occupation do you there pursue?”, the Leech Gatherer gives a reply, at some length, to the simple query. However only three stanzas later, the narrator asks the same question again, with no apparent recognition of the preceding conversation: ‘My question eagerly did I renew, “How is it that you live, and what is it you do?” This dialogue I found puzzling from both the perspective of the narrator and the Leech Gatherer. For example why does the inattentive narrator not mitigate his socially unacceptable reiteration of a previously fulfilled request for information? Also, why does the Leech Gatherer take no offence to the narrator’s obvious inattention to his response? This observation is supported by Austin who examines the poem in light of its dialogue and focuses upon what he refers to as ‘the narrator’s clear breach of conversational protocol.’

A potential answer that I considered in light of these questions incorporated the notion of poverty and the class difference between the two characters. While I took the narrator’s re-questioning to be condescending, this must be considered in terms of the class system existing at the time Wordsworth wrote the poem. Lloyd comments that there was a ‘tenacious belief in inherited status’ and the notion that one was born into a certain class and it was there they would remain. Thus, taking the narrator’s approach to the Leech Gatherer out of any modern-day, egalitarian views I may have in relation to class status, the comments of the narrator and his inattentive inquisition of the impoverished Leech Gatherer seems less offensive in the context of early nineteenth century England.

During reading some secondary material I stumbled upon a parodic re-writing of Wordsworth’s poem by Lewis Carroll who replaces the Leech Gatherer with an aged man; ‘I cried “Come, tell me how you live!”/And thumped him on the head.’ Carroll’s comic yet violent parody struck me on a personal level as it agreed with the essence of my reading of the Wordsworth original - it exposes the inattention of the narrator in Resolution and Independence to the Leech-Gatherer’s tale. Steven Knapp supports this view and describes it well when he characterises the narrator’s relationship with the Leech Gatherer by the narrator’s “mysterious inability to concentrate on what he himself wants to interpret as a providential answer to his needs.”

My argument that there is a loss of attention within Resolution and Independence - as contact with the Leech Gatherer takes a back seat to the internal musings of the narrator – also appears consistent with what some critics have identified as Romantic’s poetry manner of dealing with its objects. McGann contends that ‘Romantic aesthetics indulges in political quietism by escaping from material reality to questions of self-reflection and self-consciousness.’ It was this indulgence and pre-occupation with the self on the part of Wordsworth’s narrator that struck me when reading the text and led me to consider my reading of the poem in the wider context of Romantic thought that regards the period’s writing as very focused on the self.

Another aspect of the poem which commanded my attention and prompted subsequent after-thought was the description and portrayal of the Leech Gatherer and how his representation led to my reading that he manifests as the definitive ‘other’ in the narrator’s self-reflexive quest for illumination. The first question the narrator asks is about the providential nature of the meeting; ‘Now whether it were by peculiar grace,/A leading from above, a something given.’ While this question remains unanswered, its very presence supports my view that the narrator views the interaction with the Leech Gatherer not as a mutually beneficial meeting, yet as something he was perhaps destined to be given.

After a number of readings of the poem, I found that as the conversation between the two proceeded, I became increasingly confused as to who, or what, the Leech Gatherer actually represented. As he continues speaking and the poem reaches its climatic, penultimate stanza it is difficult to ascertain whether he is alive, dead or in fact just a dream; ‘The old Man’s shape, and speech – all troubled me:/ In my minds eye I seemed to see him pace/ About the very moors continually.’ At this stage I felt that while the old man seems both wholly external to the narrator – assimilated into the landscape; an other who is impossible to comprehend or even hear – he also appears vested with a powerful metaphorical presence: internalized as a “troubling” image in the ‘minds eye’ that provides assistance to the narrator in his quest for answers to his self-reflection.

Although Wordsworth’s Resolution and Independence was engaging on a number of levels, I found the interaction that consumes the majority of the text – the meeting of the narrator and the Leech Gatherer – to be problematic. The apparent inattention of the narrator to the response of the Leech Gatherer during their conversation and his pre-occupation with his own self analysis led me to read the text in terms of a dichotomy between the ‘other’ and the ‘self’ as opposed to a text involving an encounter of mutual benefit to both parties. While potentially the text was focused on illustrating the narrator’s maturation through recognition of the value of stoicism in the face of suffering, I felt as though this was only achieved by reducing the Leech Gatherer into a mere instrument in the narrator’s process of enlightenment. I later found that this reading is indeed consistent with a wider body of academic thought that argues the Romantic’s were often focused with issues of self-reflection and self-consciousness.





























REFERENCES

Timothy Austin, ‘Narrative Discourses and Discoursing in Narratives: Analysing a Poem from a Sociolinguistic Perspective’ Poetics Today, Vol. 10, No. 4 (Winter, 1989).

Lewis Carroll, The Complete Illustrated Lewis Carroll (Ware, Hertfordshire: Wordsworth 1996).

Stuart Curran, ed., The Cambridge Companion to British Romanticism. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993).

Steven Knapp, “The Sublime, Self-Reference, and Wordsworth’s Resolution and Independence,” Modern Language Notes 99,5 (December 1994).

Sarah Lloyd, ‘Poverty’ in An Oxford Companion to the Romantic Age. (Oxford: Blackwell, 1995).

Simon Malpas, ‘I cried “Come tell me how you live!”/And thumped him on the head’: Wordsworth, Carroll and the ‘Aged, Aged Man.’
http://www.ron.unmontreal.ca [Accessed 23/8/2004]

Jerome McGann, The Romantic Ideology: A Critical Investigation (Chicago and London: Chicago University Press, 1983).

William Wordsworth Resolution and Independence in M. Abrams, ed., Norton Anthology of English Literature. The Romantic Period. (New York: Norton).








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