Continuity and brevity – to go on: This series of posts will look at the poetics of perception in the work of Wordsworth, Lyn Hejinian, and Gertrude Stein, among others.
There must be sufficient reason to continue – having something to say, a PURPOSE. This is basic composition. To narrate is to tell a story, an event, a happening; something happens or happened. And the lyric is a brief descriptive moment of epiphany, discovery, and emotion. Nothing happens. Save in the mind, in place of the speaker, persona or between the speaker and another, perhaps one who s/he views. I am thinking of the Wordsworth poem “The Solitary Reaper,” wherein the speaker is looking on – he witnesses the field worker and has an emotional experience in his perception. But the happening is truncated. It is not a story per se of an event unfolding but the story of the speaker’s mind and the fluidity of thoughts and feelings attached to the experience. The reader is invited to have a similar experience inasmuch as the poet-witness ministers. One is not drawn into his experience, because his is a telling; rather one is invited to have an experience of the mind.
Wordsworth writes: “Behold her, single in the field.” She is there; the speaker is here. And where is the audience? An imperative opens the poem, and the reader is asked to witness the scene as Wordsworth’s speaker witnessed it. He stands at a distance watching; he is not in the field. He is an invisible observer, perhaps even unaware of where he himself stands until the fourth and last stanza:
I listened, motionless and still;
And as I mounted up the hill,
The music in my heart I bore,
Long after it was heard no more.
Was he, like the subject, standing in a part of the field just beyond her reach? Did she see him passing? Did she see him watching her? He will not tell, but he makes apparent his new direction of mounting the hill away from the scene, moving upward and beyond the gale wherein she stayed to finish her work. He moves on, upward with all the symbolism that might imply. The music lingers in his mind. The poem, thus, is about a haunting, an experience that stays with an individual long after the event occurred.
In his telling, Wordsworth reveals that the precipitating event, watching the “Yon…Lass” is clouded by his perception. Notice how the poem begins in the present tense and by its close, has transgressed to the past. Thusly, for three stanzas the present dominates the poem, creating the effect of an unfolding event witnessed in the immediate. As the narrative shifts in the final stanza to the past tense, it becomes clear that the event as well as the memory of the event have been influenced by the speaker’s imagination. His experience is created by his perception.
He imagines that the subject’s experience of memory is much like his own: a haunting of the mind, a solitary, subjective and emotionally charged experience. In trying to understand the “melancholy strain,” a little tune the reaper sings as she reaps, he writes, “Will no one tell me what she sings?” and answers himself thusly:
Perhaps the plaintive numbers flow
For old, unhappy, far-off things,
And battles long ago:
Or is it some more humble lay,
Familiar matter of today?
Some natural sorrow, loss, or pain,
That has been and may be again?
In this passage, he attempts to connect and empathize with the girl, despite his great distance—his class, his gender, his English ethnicity and her Scotch; nevertheless, he does so through his perception and dispatches the reader his memory. His belief and judgment, therefore, are funneled into his experience of her song. Only the two were present at the event; therefore, the outsider must trust the speaker’s reading as the pure event; however, while the girl appears in the poem, she is a mere specter to the poet’s understanding of her.
While he meditates on the “melancholy” tone of her song, one is aware that he writes his interpretation of the sound. Moreover, he shifts into the imagination, far beyond his perception:
No Nightingale did ever chaunt
More welcome notes to weary bands
Of travelers in some shady haunt,
Among Arabian sands;
A voice so thrilling ne’er was heard
In spring-time from the Cuckoo-bird,
Breaking the silence of the seas
Among the farthest Hebrides.
As he extols the beauty of the Highland Lass’s solitary singing, he does so by creating a difference to the ideal, imaginary sounds, those he has probably read about but never heard. Her voice is more profound than his wildest imagination. And perhaps then, being that he has never heard these sounds that he compares her beauty to, then her beauty too is imagined, a construct of the mind passed to the reader in verse. At this junction, the mind is revealed as a space for creation of another as it tries to lessen the difference between their worlds. And in this sense, her actions appear to have agency: though she may appear incognizant, her song, inextricably tied to herself in both her feeling and memory, draws imagination in the speaker.
“The Solitary Reaper” is, then, not only a solitary reaping of grain for the fieldworker, but also a solitary reaping for the poet—he reaps the event of its quality and theme to exploit for the poem, to use for the conveyance of emotional tenor in the poet’s mind. What endures is the feeling tone conveyed in the memory—“the music in my heart I bore,” and a thematic reduction of Kant’s beautiful, which is both exemplar and abstraction. In other words, beauty, being perceived, is in the eye of the beholder.
I am concerned here about the force of memory and how it is used and defined in literature, understanding that no experience of an event is pure, as it is always influenced by memory (those past occurrences real and imagined, read or felt) as it is being experienced. And when written down, the text forms another layer of memory. It is no wonder that the late Romantics and Moderns wrote with a tendency toward how one might get to a pure perception, a pure experience, or experience all perceptions and have the means to understand them sufficiently as they are ever-present. And this became the direction of William James’ radical empiricism, his late-life theory of perception, an impetus that many shared.