Whispers of the Sublime

In these first few books of The Prelude, the sublime, for Wordsworth,
resides in the small, quiet sounds that barely break the silence of
nature.  In his story of himself as a poet, to return to his work as a
poet from the distractions of a noisy, social college life is always
to return to the stillness and quietude of nature in order to listen
and to receive into a calm, reflective soul the small drops of beauty,
of poetry, of the sublime that he finds there.  To do the work of the
clear-sighted poet-prophet, he must escape the blind clamor and noise
of social life and enter into the clear, peaceful calm of quiet
nature.  Describing his lapse from his poetically charged youth into a
lazy, social college life, he says “To the deep quiet and majestic
thoughts / Of loneliness succeeded empty noise / And superficial
pastimes…” III 210-212.    For him as a poet, the noisy social life
is empty (of poetic inspiration), and it is in quiet solitude that the
“majestic thoughts” of poetry are born.  Throughout the third book in
particular, Wordsworth reiterates his understanding that the
perception of poetic truths requires a still soul, wherein the
turbulence of the subjective is minimized.  Silence of self,
forgetfulness of self is required to accurately perceive poetic
truths, so that the poet may serve as the conductor between reality
and consciousness.  It is then that the small, quiet whispers of
nature can find a reflective resonance in the soul.
This, then, is the nature of Wordsworth’s music of the sublime: small
whispers that only a still, self-forgetting soul and mind may hear.
This is the sort of music that the “touches of the wind” upon a
passive lute suggests in these lines:
I was wakeful even as the waters are
To the sky’s motion, in a kindred sense
Of passion was obedient as a lute
That waits upon the touches of the wind.
III, 35-138
The sounds thus produced would be subtle indeed!  Even a violent wind
might produce only small sounds, but in his description of sublime
sound Wordsworth would not even go beyond “touches of the wind.”  It
is this sort of sound one hears again in Wordsworth’s enigmatic phrase
“breathings for incommunicable powers”:
Points have we all of us within our souls
Where we all stand single; this I feel, and make
breathings for incommunicable powers.
III, 186-190
Such is the stillness and quietude of the sublime music of nature that
to reflect them is to make only “breathings.”  In book two we have
heard this music as well:
And I would stand
Beneath some rock, listening to sounds that are
The ghostly language of the ancient earth,
Or make their dim abode in the distant winds.
II, 306-310
The work of the poet, then, is to listen to these small, still
whispers of nature.  And such is the sublime music that the sound of
it as it may be reflected in poetry is only as “a lute / that waits
upon the touches of the wind.”

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~ by mahler1860 on September 6, 2012.

One Response to “Whispers of the Sublime”

  1. This post touches on a very important theme: the idea that the poet himself is, metaphorically, a musical instrument or conduit through which the wind/breath of nature blows. Does this metaphor imply that the poet is nothing more than a conduit for the sublime or apocalyptic vision; in a sense, a person deprived of an ego? Certainly, Keats will make this assumption more clear in his refutation of Wordsworth’s poetry. A more detailed analysis of the connection between wind and breath can help draw out the connection between self and nature that the poet is trying to bridge or even abolish.

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