—this book takes into account an unprecedented range of materials, comprising Wordsworth’s poetry: early and late(r), before and after revision(s), major and minor (including reflection on the poet’s most celebrated pieces as well as drawing attention to compositions which are rarely referenced in Wordsworth criticism), and his prose writings: public and private
—it approaches Wordsworth’s poetic and prosaic oeuvre from a number of perspectives which have not been considered in critical literature so far; the conclusions which emerge from these novel approaches are surprising, sometimes upsetting
—it contributes to the ongoing debate concerning Wordsworth’s religious attitudes by pointing to a range of thematic, structural, and stylistic features which occur in the poet’s writings with phenomenal regularity, and which make it so easy to “construct” Wordsworth (Stephen Gill’s phrase)—or else, to construct from Wordsworth whatever answers his critics’ needs
—rather than highlighting the volta connected with Wordsworth’s turn to Anglican orthodoxy, or reiterating critical clichés about the correlation between “Wordsworth’s decline” and his “conversion,” the book underscores a specific continuity of the poet’s practice (demonstrating, for instance, that Wordsworth relied on exactly the same techniques of revision when converting the earliest versions of The Prelude to pantheism as he would employ decades later when converting the pantheistic Prelude to Anglicanism)
—it challenges both the readings of Wordsworth as a fully secularized author as well as those which overemphasize his conversion to Christianity
Notes on Texts
ONE A Prelude: The Author Behind the Work (abstract)
TWO “Wisdom and s/Spirit of the universe[!]”: The Indeterminacy of Wordsworth’s Religious Signposting (abstract)
THREE “([T]hanks to the good God / That made us)”: The Allusiveness of Wordsworth’s Religious Discourse (abstract)
FOUR “Upon this I shall insist elsewhere . . .”: Religion in The Prose Works of William Wordsworth (abstract)
FIVE “[S]urrounded . . . by kneeling crowds”: Churchgoing and Prayer in The Poetical Works of Wordsworth (abstract)
SIX The Excursion: Wordsworth’s “Dramatic” Mode (abstract)
SEVEN The Prelude: The Author’s Voice (abstract)
EIGHT Postscript: The Author’s Method (abstract)
RETROSPECT—OR THE TURN (abstract)
This introductory section of the book draws attention to a curious statistical detail, namely the fact that in Wordsworth’s collected Poetical Works allusions to religious belief will be found more commonly than references to almost all “typically Wordsworthian” themes, such as childhood, or low and rustic life, liberty, or poetry. More than every second poem Wordsworth wrote and published in his lifetime includes allusions to God (immanent or transcendent), or to Heaven, Providence, the Virgin Mary, the Church—or churches (and chapels, temples, cathedrals, monasteries, abbeys, convents, shrines)—or/and pastors and priests (and nuns), and crowds of praying laymen, male and female, old and young, etc. This tendency of Wordsworth’s verse to take up such themes and motifs was recognized by his contemporaries (this point is supported by evidence collected by Stephen Gill), and it has likewise been acknowledged in later criticism (this is illustrated with extensive lists of the twentieth- and twenty-first century monographs focused on Wordsworth’s religious attitudes). The intriguing feature of these writings is their authors’ ability to read the poet’s oeuvre in completely contradictory terms. The Presence of God in the Works of William Wordsworth contributes to this ongoing debate by pointing to a range of textual (thematic, structural, stylistic) features which occur in the poet’s writings with phenomenal regularity, and which make it so easy for his commentators to “construct” Wordsworth—or else, to construct from Wordsworth whatever answers his critics’ needs.
The surprising phenomenon highlighted in the opening chapter of the book is the limitation of Wordsworth’s interest in religion to poetry alone. Overall, the picture that emerges from the reminiscences of the poet’s contemporaries—Coleridge, De Quincey, Hazlitt, Crabb Robinson, or those cited in Christopher Wordsworth’s Memoirs—coincides with the image of William Wordsworth that could be drawn on the basis of his poetry. That is, a dedicated professional focused on his art, regularly studying the works of his contemporaries and predecessors, knowing a lot of these same works by heart. A man of strong attachments; a patriot and a democrat. A lover of nature—and of men (the kindest of neighbours, the most devoted friend, a happy family man). Also, of course, a man of the remembrance of things past. In all these and other respects, the reminiscences of Wordsworth on the one hand and his poetry on the other converge. The interests and attitudes which impressed those who knew him harmonize with the interests and attitudes expressed in his work. There is only one area where this harmony is disrupted: the subject of religious faith, which is one of the most prevalent topics of Wordsworth the poet, while being almost totally absent from his talk.
The chapter argues that the most distinct characteristic of the religious signposting in Wordsworth’s poetry is indeterminacy. At a number of critical junctions, this signposting is downright illegible. This is illustrated through an attempt to trace the chronology of the poet’s conversions to (and from) pantheism and to Christianity by way of juxtaposition of “Tintern Abbey”—versus the 1798 and 1799 Prelude—versus “Ode. Intimations of Immortality”—versus 1805 and, finally, 1850 Prelude. Sometimes a line that is drawn with a hesitant hand, or a line which is not drawn at all, makes the emergent picture blurry. On other occasions, the problem is that there are too many lines in one part of the picture, and too few in another. This latter point is argued with the help of a curious statistical detail, namely, the fact that Catholic figures appear much more commonly and persistently in Wordsworth’s poetry than the figure of Christ. The absence of Christ, or more precisely, the vagueness of his presence, has been regularly pointed out in critical reflection on The Excursion. I contribute to this discussion by evidencing that the same applies to all Wordsworth’s writings—his minor poetry, his works in prose, as well as the 1850 Prelude: Christ is present in only four lines of this nearly 8,000-line long autobiographical poem, revised over the period of several decades with the intention of imposing upon it a specifically Christian idiom and frame of mind.
The characteristic of Wordsworth’s treatment of religion highlighted in this chapter is what I call allusiveness—a trait that can be captured by clashing two statistical considerations. The first is that nearly five hundred poems collected in The Poetical Works of Wordsworth include references to belief. On the other hand, only several dozens of these works can be considered genuinely religious compositions (the chapter provides an exhaustive list of works which I qualify as such). This in effect means that in more than four hundred of his works—in over half of the poems he composed and published—Wordsworth has the tendency to mention the subject rather than take it up. He readily enters the religious milieu but refuses to explore it, which is reflected in the manner in which he organizes and patterns his poetic spaces. One formula he frequently adopts is to place a religious reference somewhere in the opening of a poem’s argument and then drop it after a few lines. The second formula, reserved for longer forms (most spectacularly, The Prelude), is to refer to religion from time to time. The third, by far the most common variant, is to introduce a religious sentiment at a work’s end. The result is that religious faith in Wordsworth’s poetry—early as well as late(r)—tends to be a starting point, or a turning-point, a side-thought, or an after-thought. Only sporadically does it become the real focal point and the central thought of a Wordsworthian composition.
This chapter examines the presence of God and religious discourse in Wordsworth’s prose writings, taking into account all of the author’s essays, prefaces and appendices, notes and notices (including the Fenwick Notes), as well as eight volumes of his letters written during 1790–1845. A curious regularity which transpires from these extensive and varied materials is that Wordsworth as a prose writer has a tendency to bring up the subject of religion exclusively in three contexts: politics, death, and poetry. The God of the poet’s prose writings practically never assumes one of the chief roles He plays in his verse: that of the keeper of the natural world. Considering Wordsworth’s references to religion in the context of poetry, a striking feature is that they occur almost exclusively in his private prose—most often, when he must defend his verse against adverse criticism. Other than that, religion is not invoked when Wordsworth the prose writer is not provoked. This is especially visible in the prefaces he wrote to his poems, which are almost totally devoid of religious reflection. Dozens of poems collected in, for example, Lyrical Ballads, or in the Poems of 1815, or numerous long passages in The Excursion refer to belief. Wordsworth’s “poetic mind” (Aubrey de Vere’s formulation) needed religious faith to compose these works, but his “prose mind” does not need it to introduce them, define his objectives as a poet, or explain his principles.
This chapter starts with a reflection on the discordant ways in which Wordsworth’s “prose mind” and his “mind poetic” relate to the practice of churchgoing. After this, the attention is drawn to one specific motif: the incessant, nearly obsessive presence of the subject of prayer in The Poetical Works of Wordsworth. Almost as in Christopher Smart, the lyrical “I” sees or imagines he sees or hears prayer all around; this is evidenced through references to a long list of Wordsworth’s “minor Pieces.” The poet’s universe, the human world and the natural, real and imagined, experienced or recollected in tranquillity, inside his mind and outside it, serve and adore, build their temples, worship, thank, praise, sing, and pray. The perplexing feature, however, is that, unlike Smart’s lyrical speaker, Wordsworth’s “I” sounds disconnected. He just listens, hears, overhears, looks without joining in, observes those observing their rites. “[S]urrounded . . . by kneeling crowds,” his “I” remains standing: strikingly, in Wordsworth’s entire poetic oeuvre there is only one stanza (the second stanza of “On a high Part of the Coast of Cumberland”) wherein his “I” turns to God with a relatively elaborate, genuinely personal prayer.
This chapter demonstrates that, except for one stanza in one poem, all uninhibited prayers in Wordsworth’s prayer-oriented oeuvre are “dramatic.” That is, they employ “the intervention of characters speaking” (Wordsworth’s own definition, given in the Preface to The Excursion). This is illustrated with several “minor Pieces” and, above all, The Excursion (considered are both the 1814 version and the revised version of 1845). The only central persona of this pious “dramatic” poem who is not associated with a single attitude of piety is the “I.” Additionally, analysis of the part the “Author” wrote for himself as the character and the homodiegetic narrator of this poem prompts the inference that devotional passages are not the only type of discourse which Wordsworth was careful not to undersign. The other species of such a discourse is religious debate in general. Whenever religious themes are taken up in The Excursion, the “I’s” functions become purely auxiliary: he hangs the backdrops and operates the spotlights, but he does not direct the spectacle or comment upon its proper themes from behind the scenes. This “dramatic” propriety of the poem, I argue in the conclusion, was probably the chief reason why The Excursion could expand into the most religiously elaborate work in the career of Wordsworth, and why it is the only major poem he managed to complete and publish in his lifetime.
This chapter argues that, without the “dramatic” guard, when “meditating in the Author’s own person” (the poet’s own formula, introduced in the Preface to The Excursion), Wordsworth did not have the confidence to elaborate upon the subject of religion. I draw attention to “the Author’s voice,” specifically, to how uncertain of this voice—his own voice—the poet seems to have been when handling religious discourse, by examining the methodology of the revision of his major autobiographical poem. The religious orientation of The Prelude is the only aspect of his work that Wordsworth revised with determination and consistency. The conversion of the text from the pantheism of 1805 to Christianity is the only type of textual alteration he introduced systematically and methodically. Yet, a comparison of the version published in 1850 with the “original” 1805 Prelude leads to the conclusion that Wordsworth endeavoured to “Christianize” his autobiography solely by alluding to Christianity. All his revisions can be classed into three categories of minute textual adjustments, which I call substitutions, additions, and elaborations. The altered autobiography does not include one single sustained statement of Wordsworth’s own altered views. Several decades of the revisionary effort did not incite the Author, when speaking “in his own person,” to write one new unrestrained passage devoted to his new creed. The most sustained of those religious insertions composed for the “Christianized” Prelude takes six lines: the size of a sonnet sestet.
This concluding chapter of the book is devoted, fittingly, to Wordsworth’s conclusions—or else, the poet’s art of “religious postscripts.” I argue that Wordsworth’s favourite method of organizing his poetic spaces was to conclude otherwise secular compositions with a religious sentiment. This is illustrated, most of all, with Wordsworth’s sonnets, the poet’s favourite genre. Referencing a number of compositions, early and late(r), from a variety of collections, I work out the patent Wordsworthian formula for how to make a sonnet—which is to follow a secular octave with a religious sestet, or to introduce a turn to religion somewhere in the sestet, for example, in the final tercet, or in the penultimate (or the last) line. Supposedly, the postponement of the turn till the conclusion should be, like in the Shakespearean pattern, an element of surprise. But in a sonnet by Wordsworth, the turn to God or other “religious sentiment” in the end does the opposite: it comes as the obvious, the predictable, the most expected. The chapter also contrasts Wordsworth’s original compositions with his translations from Michelangelo, and incudes a slightly tongue-in-cheek reflection on the “recyclability” of Wordsworth’s sestets (illustrated by an experiment with swapping the sestets of “In the Woods of Rydal” and “Composed on a May Morning”).
RETROSPECT—OR THE TURN
This brief final section is both a “Retrospect” and “the Turn.” On the one hand, it sums up this volume’s most important conclusions, concerning, among other things, the uncertain chronology of Wordsworth’s “conversions.” I also argue that although historians of literary criticism like to associate Wordsworth with Plato, Plato’s categories seem useless when considering the character of the religious discourse in The Poetical Works of Wordsworth. Inspiration fails, the “emotive transport” hardly carries the poet; Aristotle with his treatment of poetry as a craft seems a more enlightening guide through this province. On the other hand, this final section of the book is “the Turn” in that it points to the companion volume, The Absent God in the Works of William Wordsworth, which can be treated as a book-length conclusion of The Presence of God in the Works of William Wordsworth. That twin monograph reflects on the forms of presence of God in Wordsworth’s poetry from a different angle; it throws a light on the character, scope, and quality of this representation. The six chapters of The Absent God... follow the eight chapters of The Presence of God... like a sestet which complements the octave. Combined, these two monographs constitute a tribute to one of the most prolific sonnet masters in history: the composition of each of these books, and the conception of the manner in which they interact with each other rehearse the formula engaged in over half a thousand works composed by Wordsworth.