By Mursi Saad El-Din
It is often said that once a work of art is finished, it no longer belongs to its creator. This is no more true of any work of art than a poem, which is always interpreted differently by each reader. Sometimes led, or else misled by a critic, the reader may accept an interpretation that neither he nor the poet has thought of.
I was reminded of this when I came across a passage from a book by Duncan Wu, Wordsworth: An Inner Life, in which the writer tries to prove that William Wordsworth "was way ahead of his peers when he wrote The Prelude," which he started in 1801 and finished in 1804. The long poem was not published until 1850, however, after the poet's death. Wu believes that "this epic" was special "not just because it's the first verse autobiography in English, but because of the incredible sensitivity with which it probes the psychological traumas of its author's boyhood, anticipating Freud in its insight". In his opinion The Prelude is a revolution in literature, being a document in self-analysis.
Wu goes on to apply modern psychoanalysis to The Prelude, how Wordsworth lost both his parents at the age of 13, and how he describes this loss. He quotes lines from the opening section of the poem, when Wordsworth was waiting for horses to take him home to see his dying father. In fact, in my opinion, this is but one example of the poet's descriptive powers: "'Twas a day/ Stormy and rough, and wild, and on the grass/ I sat, half sheltered by a naked wall:/ Upon my right hand was a single sheep,/ A whistling hawthorn on my left, and there,/ Those two companions on my side, I watched/ With eyes intensely straining, as the mist/ Gave intermitting prospects of the woods/ And plain beneath."
To me this is almost like a landscape painting, or the background of a scene in a film script. In fact this quality is apparent in other poems of Wordsworth's as well, an extremely endearing quality.
After reading this part of Wu's book, I hurriedly got out Wordsworth's Collected Poems. "The Affliction of Margaret", for one, is a sad tale in verse that starts with Margaret, the mother, asking, "Where art thou, my beloved Son/ Where art thou, worse to me than dead?" The poet then goes on to describe how she has heard nothing from or of her son for seven years, and we hear her lamenting his absence: "He was among the prime in Woth,/ An object beauteous to behold;/ Well born, well bred; I sent him forth/ Ingenuous, innocent, and bold..." A despairing poem, it ends on a hopeful note: "Then come to me, my Son, or send/ Some tidings, that my woes may end;/ I have no other earthly friend."
Another poem, "Ruth, or The Influences of Nature", almost like a myth, reads like a gripping narrative: "When Ruth was left half desolate/ Her father took another mate;/ And Ruth, not seven years old,/ A slighted child, at her own will/ Went wandering over dale and hill,/ In thoughtless freedom bold." Ruth's life thus unfolds: her meeting with a youth from Georgia's shore, their marriage, his escapades, her misery, until the tale finally comes to the end: "Farewell! and when thy days are told,/ Ill-fated Ruth! in hallow'd mould/ Thy corpse shall buried be;/ For thee a funeral bell shall ring,/ And all the congregation sing/ A Christian psalm for thee."
To go back to Duncan Wu, and his interpretation of The Prelude, as an autobiography of the poet. It is young Wordsworth's feelings about the death of his parents that impress Wu. While poets of earlier ages offered only traditional age-old consolations, Wordsworth provides a key to the workings of the human spirit.