Tuesday, July 19, 2011

London, 1802 - William Wordsworth

Milton! thou should'st be living at this hour:
England hath need of thee: she is a fen
Of stagnant waters: altar, sword, and pen,
Fireside, the heroic wealth of hall and bower,
Have forfeited their ancient English dower
Of inward happiness.  We are selfish men;
Oh! raise us up, return to us again;
And give us manners, virtue, freedom, power.
Thy soul was like a star, and dwelt apart:
Thou hadst a voice whose sound was like the sea:
Pure as the naked heavens, majestic, free,
So didst thou travel on life's common way,
In cheerful goodliness; and yet thy heart
The lowliest duties on herself did lay.

Wordsworth, here, falls into the trap that every generation fall into at some point: assuming that the present is a diseased state that needs curing from an older, lost, generation.  This is a trend in music, art, and social thought that has been present in every generation, and will be present in every generation.  Musicians once condemned the use of the tritone, and today, it is trite and overused.  Essentially, London is 1802 was not a cesspool of stagnation in the arts and virtues as Wordsworth claims.  The existence of men like Wordsworth, Coleridge, and others is proof enough of that.

I also wonder if Wordsworth allowed his idolization of Milton to interfere with the reality of who Milton was.  Truly, Milton's voice was as the sea, but laying the lowliest duties on his heart?  Folly.  Milton was the most hated man in Europe after he wrote to justify Cromwell's regicide.  Milton himself thought himself on a heavenly duty to write Paradise Lost, in the later years of his life.  He was also a fairly terrible father, and not exactly the most caring husband.  He could be self-absorbed to the point of making his daughters resent him completely.  Claiming that this man would restore virtue to England is an overstatement.  I do not like when hero worship overcomes our faculties of reason, as Wordsworth seems to let himself do.

It's symptomatic of a larger problem still at play today.  People are quick to say that the inventions of the past are to be forever unsurpassed.  Even among things so trivial as pop music, people claim that we're in a period of stagnation, and can't match the greats of yesteryear.  Untrue.  What we remember from the past's musical output is always what is best, not is what most popular.  The most popular music of today is not what will be remembered in 40 years.  People need to stop and remind themselves that every single generation has considered itself on the precipice of moral degradation and creative bankruptcy.  And yet, here we are.  We've yet to ever come close to hitting that point.  People are more polite today than ever before.  There is virtually no chance that you will be spat at during an argument nowadays.  In Wordsworth's day that was a fairly common sight.

I post this poem in hopes that you will consider that things are not so bad.  We are not in need of Milton to return, for he has never left us.  His writings are as enduring today as they ever have been.  As are Wordsworth's.  For all that I criticized the content of the poem, the language itself is inspirational and beautiful.  I just think Wordsworth got caught up in a righteous fervor, as we all may from time to time.


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