Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Numinous In Wordsworth's Poetry

My friend, Rod McDaniel, in Heidelberg, sent me a copy of an old essay from 1930 from The Hibbert Journal, which was evidently quite popular in its day. It is titled, "The Numinous in the Poetry of Wordsworth," by W. A. Clayton. There are some good points in it, which I want to pull out for you. It is so refreshing to read and feel the deep spiritual experiences of the sensitive and thoughtful people who have lived before us.

First, the author describes the numinous as: "that which is non or supra-rational in religious experience," which excludes those elements that can be precisely conceptualized—ie, religion's innermost core, the ineffable of the mystics. It is something that fills the mind with blank wonder and astonishment. He calls the faculty of our mind that can apprehend the numinous: "divination."

The author then describes how the numinous experience is stimulated and brought about by appropriate sense impressions. This higher, visionary experience is often incited by beauty and sensual experience in the world, until becoming "gradually purer, it disengages itself from this and takes a stand in absolute contrast to it."

"Wordsworth's experiences were not gained by his opposing himself to the outside world; they came naturally as he abandoned himself to his environment. The mountains of the Lake Country, with their austerity and severe economy of sense impressions, favored the evocation of the numinous experience, which was frequently stimulated in addition by that which baffles sensory apprehension—darkness, mist, the void sky, vastness without clear shape, silence or the formless and incessant murmur of the winds." Wordsworth "valued his environment above all for the knowledge it gave him of the Uncreated."

Wordsworth speaks of "aesthetic intuition" that gives rise to the perceptions that lift him,

". . .the gentle agitations of the mind
From manifold distinctions, difference
Perceived in things, where to the unwatchful eye,
No difference is."

Here is a powerful passage that demonstrates the connection of aesthetic intuition to something deeper or beyond. Wordsworth is describing the horizon as a craggy ridge, and "Far above/Was nothing but the stars and the grey sky," until suddenly the grim shape of "a huge peak, black and huge" towered up between him and the stars, and seemed to pursue him as he rowed away from it.

"After I had seen
That spectacle, for many days, my brain
Worked with a dim and undetermined sense
Of unknown modes of being; o'er my thoughts
There hung a darkness, call it solitude
Or blank desertion. No familiar shapes remained, no pleasant images of trees,
Of sea or sky, no colors of green fields;
But huge and mighty forms, that do not live
Like living men, moved slowly through the mind
By day, and were a trouble to my dreams."

Wordsworth gave "a moral life" to every aspect of nature, and linked his aesthetic and moral intuitions, so that one constantly evoked the other. He was a passionate lover of natural beauty, especially that beauty that "hath terror in it" and which could inspire the noblest associations—"thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears."

Wordsworth's writing, as his friend Coleridge reminds us, "was intended for such readers as had been accustomed to watch the flux and reflux of their inmost nature, to venture at times into the twilight realms of consciousness, and to feel a deep interest in modes if inmost being, to which they know that the attributes of time and space are inapplicable and alien, but which yet cannot be conveyed, save in symbols of time and space."

Finally, a few words about Wordsworth's conception of the imagination: "Before (imagination) the vision of the senses melts and dissolves, but melts into a revelation of permanent supersensual realities." To him, imagination is not just the aesthetic faculty, however heightened in its functioning. In the supreme moment the message of the senses is forgotten for the revelation of the invisible world. Imagination is but another name for divination.

". . .In such strength
Of usurpation, when the light of sense
Goes out, but with a flash that has revealed
The invisibe world, doth greatness make abode,
The harbors; whether we be young or old,
Our destiny, our being's heart and home,
Is with infinitude, and only there;
With hope it is, hope that can never die,
Effort, and expectation, and desire,
And something evermore about to be.

photo copyright by Penney Peirce