—this book builds its conclusions on the basis of an unprecedented range of Wordsworth’s poetry: early and late(r), before and after revision(s), minor and major, including the work which was (allegedly) never written (The Recluse)
—it reads Wordsworth as a disciple of Coleridge educated on the rhymed heroics of Alexander Pope and regularly referring to the Dictionary of Dr Samuel Johnson; a contemporary of Blake and of Keats who outlived both of them by a couple of decades and worked on till the mid nineteenth century
—it points to Wordsworth as the figure of major significance for defining the position of religion in Western culture in the last three centuries, challenging both the readings of Wordsworth as a fully secularized author as well as those which overemphasize his conversion to Christian orthodoxy
—it engages with a number of Wordsworthian aporias, bringing in new angles of analysis and approaching his oeuvre through a lens of a modern methodology which allows to reveal the essence of Wordsworth’s poetry as relevant to contemporary perception and inspiring for modern reading
—it contends that Wordsworth’s failure to erect his projected “gothic church” does not necessarily mean that the author of The Prelude never wrote The Recluse
Notes on Texts
ONE “Go forward, and look back”: Wordsworth’s Theologies of the Future and Past Encounters (abstract)
TWO “How exquisitely the individual Mind / . . . to the external World is fitted”: The Absent Present (abstract)
THREE A Recluse: The Esemplastic Power of the Imagination (abstract)
FOUR ““The philosophic mind”: The Author’s Method(s) for the Imagination (abstract)
FIVE The Recluse: The Presence of the Absence (abstract)
SIX Retrospect—The Presence of the Absence (Concluded): Wordsworth’s Discourses on God (abstract)
This introductory section defines the range, theme and approach of the book. Based on Wordsworth’s entire poetic oeuvre, The Absent God in the Works of William Wordsworth draws attention to a feature which has not been noted in critical literature, namely, the fact that the God of whom Wordsworth writes in his poetry is always ABSENT. Around half a thousand of the poems he composed and published in his lifetime contain references to belief. Yet, the God whom he strives to locate in his verse constantly evades the Author—regardless of the perspective (the Past, the Future, or the Present) from which the Wordsworthian “I” endeavours to approach Him/him/it. These untiring attempts to approach God place Wordsworth at a large distance from the atheistic and truly secularized Second-Generation Romantics and their followers. On the other hand, what clearly puts him on a path that, in the long run, leads to Shelley or Keats, is the fact that all his religious discourse turns out to be a record of his encounters with Absence. Wordsworth is the first English poet of major significance whose oeuvre includes such a record. At the same time, he is probably the last major English poet who struggled to come to terms with his own—and his epoch’s—religious crisis by tirelessly endeavouring to (re)present the Absence. Included in the Preface is also a reflection on the overall methodology of this work, which I characterize as “post-deconstructive humanist constructivism.”
The book’s argument concerning the absence of God in the works of Wordsworth opens with a reflection on the poet’s “theology of the Future Encounter,” revolving around his phenomenally plentiful (though lesser known) poetry which engages the themes of death and life after death. The God projected in this category of Wordsworth’s works wafts the spirits of the dead to “raptures,” and “joys,” and “glory.” But He remains at a safe distance from the “I”: the distance which separates the afterlife from a professional writer engraving an epitaph. The God invoked in Wordsworth’s “poetry of the grave” is, from the perspective of the epitaph-writer, still absent, not present yet; the meeting evoked in this “poetry of eternity,” remains, from the point of view of the speaker, a future encounter. On the other hand, in what I label Wordsworth’s “theology of Past Encounters,” which relates to his best-known works, esp., the “Immortality Ode” and The Prelude, God is already absent, not present anymore. Meeting Him was the experience of childhood. But Wordsworth’s child (unlike Vaughan’s) does not realize it is living in “a pastoral paradise.” The realization comes later, too late: when childhood is over, paradise lost, and when those meetings become bygone encounters, the “things” of the past. The paths of God and man hopelessly miss each other; they cannot meet in the same space and time. The light is admitted when it is extinguished. Only after he loses the “glory” does man recognize that he saw it—once.
This chapter opens the book’s “quatrain” on Wordsworth’s encounters with the Present. The works analysed in chapter One are subjected here to a series of re-readings. Wordsworth’s poetry of the Past and of the Future Encounter(s) projects a God who is not present any more, or is not present yet. The “I” is placed in a void between the “glory” of the past and the “glory” towards which he is journeying; he is suspended between what is gone and what will come. His present relation to God is as negative as the poet’s “present” itself. This is the most precarious temporal perspective in the poetry of Wordsworth. I argue this point through a discussion of the poet’s “arts of detachment,” which include, among other things, his definition of poetry as “emotion recollected in tranquillity.” Wordsworth’s formula denies the subject the right to pronounce judgements on what he is experiencing at the moment, because tomorrow, when today becomes yesterday, each “now” will be more clearly filtered and appropriated. Harking back to the past, constantly processing his bygone experience, the “I” becomes oblivious to his present whereabouts. Discussed in this chapter is also the way Wordsworth managed to counteract this instinctive/spontaneous propensity to look backwards through the Hartleyan implications of the 1798–1805 Prelude. The platform through which Hartley’s associationism was mediated to the poet was S.T. Coleridge, which is why, in my reading, he becomes a “link” between the Wordsworthian “I” and his elusive “now.”
Continuing the account of Wordsworth’s attempts to approach the Present through the routes suggested by Coleridge, this chapter opens the book’s “tercet” devoted to the theme of the imagination. It traces Wordsworth’s interest in the workings of the “esemplastic faculty” in “The Pedlar” and “Tintern Abbey,” and then focuses on the effects of his reworking of Coleridge’s theory in Part II of the 1799 Prelude, which I regard as the poet’s attempt to start writing his philosophical Recluse without actually starting to write it. The most important implication for the overall argument of The Absent God… is that there is no room for God in Wordsworth’s Romantic paradigm, because the “majestic intellect” of man has grown too much. The egotistically sublime “individual Mind” receives only the light it emanates. The “clouds of glory” are dispersed. The “celestial light” is extinguished. Shadows are illumined by the “auxiliar light”—which sheds all the “wisdom and spirit” the universe can offer. God seems absent from this paradigm, because He is superfluous. There are no gifts man can pray for, and no gifts he can thank for with conviction, because nothing is genuinely given. The marvel man finds in this world is the marvel he invests in it. He receives what he gives: his “plastic”/shaping power shapes the reality he lives in. These conclusions are strengthened in the final section of this chapter through a juxtaposition of Wordsworth’s conception of the imagination with William Blake’s.
This chapter highlights several intriguing coincidences. Shortly after his first “solo ride” on Coleridge’s “hobby horse” (the esemplastic faculty) in the 1799 Prelude, Wordsworth gives up on his major projects. In his response to “Dejection,” “Resolution and Independence,” he retreats from the Coleridgean position and assumes, I argue, the Crabbean. He resumes The Prelude and its grand theme of the imagination at the same time as he composes “Ode to Duty.” This evidence allows to formulate the claim that Wordsworth’s “return to Romanticism” in 1804 coincides with his resolute turn from Romanticism. In his attempt to work a way out of the spiritual and intellectual entrapments of his epoch, Wordsworth did not search among the philosophical traditions his contemporaries reached for. (He was not interested in philosophical books: this debatable point is supported by evidence compiled from all his public prose writings.) Instead, Wordsworth’s ultimate method for the imagination and Coleridge was to (re)turn to the “fixities and definites” of the Age of Reason: he was, after all, a poet of the remembrance of things past. This has important implications for the overall argument of The Absent God in the Works of William Wordsworth. A nineteenth-century poet could not effectively locate the God of Pope in his own verse, because his epoch had moved on from that God. Blake regarded that God as Urizen: the abstraction conceived by the mind of man. That God must remain absent from the Present space or time, because he (it) does not exist.
Wordsworth’s return to the eighteenth century (discussed in chapter Four) coincides with his return to the nineteenth. (Re)integrating the stabilities and fixities of the Enlightenment helped the poet regain the self-assurance to cope with the challenges of Romanticism. This duality is displayed most powerfully in the split between Wordsworth’s approach to the imagination in his “minor Pieces” composed after 1805 and, on the other side of the divide, the revisions which were (not) introduced into the post-1805 Prelude. Wordsworth never effectively revised the poem’s claims concerning the imagination. As a result, these original bold claims for man’s “glorious faculty” clash uncontrollably with the inserted low-key passages of pious self-abasement. Additionally, the revisions ironically minimize the presence of God in the “Christianized” text. In the imaginative climax of The Prelude, the Climbing of Snowdon, the effect of these revisions is Beckettian: the “I” climbs through the mists up towards the revelation of the human condition and his own existential solitude. He is a Recluse on “the lonely mountain.” In the coda of this chapter I argue that the conversion of the autobiographical work from pantheism to Christianity might have been Wordsworth’s method of converting The Prelude (the sanctuary of the “worshipper of Nature”) to The Recluse (the “gothic church”). That is, the final stage of the history of Wordsworth’s Recluse does not end in 1815 (Kenneth Johnston’s claim) but begins in 1819 (the first overall revision of The Prelude), and terminates with this poem’s posthumous publication in 1850.
This concluding chapter of the “sestet” reflects on Wordsworth’s discourses on God as a record of his encounters with Absence. I add that perhaps the only space/spot (of time) where the Wordsworthian “I” has a chance to encounter the God present(ed) in his verse is the pantheistic Prelude of 1805. But this version was composed at the time when the Author was, most likely, not a pantheist anymore: the spiritual orientation of the 1805 text was a technical decision, just like the Platonic solution of the “Immortality Ode.” In the final section, “After-thought—Or: A Postscript,” I turn to ask about Wordsworth’s motives. Why did the poet whose finest verse was rooted in personal experience insist on (re)presenting the Absence? What prompted the poet of the “spontaneous overflow” to regularly enter the territory where he was reduced to cautious dependence upon a method? These are not appropriate questions from the point of view of post-Romantic literary theory or criticism, but, following Wordsworth’s poetic practice, the end of a sestet—the conclusion of the conclusion—is the appropriate place to ask questions which must not be answered conclusively. The motive that resonates the most (as it is placed in the end of this “Postscript”) is the poet’s struggle not to give up on God; his resolve to keep up “the mysteries of faith.” Wordsworth’s poetry cannot effectively ease the “doubts and scruples which tease the brain.” And yet it can—and certainly does—bring up those questions, tensions, mysteries, and uncertainties.