Theme 2: Advice on how to Live
< Poem 6: Lines left upon a Seat >
poem, analysis, commentary, criticism
William Wordsworth >
Landscape in the Lake District
by Turner and possibly also Girtin
Skiddaw and Bassenthwaite Lake from Newlands
sold at auction in 2009
Alain R Truong
Lines Left upon a Seat in a Yew Tree
which stands near the Lake of Esthwaite,
on a desolate part of the shore,
yet commanding a beautiful prospect.
Lyrical Ballads (1798, 28)
--Nay, Traveller! rest. This lonely yew-tree stands
Far from all human dwelling: what if here
No sparkling rivulet spread the verdant herb;
What if these barren boughs the bee not loves;
Yet, if the wind breathe soft, the curling waves,
That break against the shore, shall lull thy mind
By one soft impulse saved from vacancy.
--------------------------Who he was
That piled these stones, and with the mossy sod
First covered o'er, and taught this agèd tree,
now wild, to bend its arms in circling shade,
I well remember.--He was one who own'd
No common soul. In youth, by genius nurs'd,
And big with lofty views, he to the world
Went forth pure in his heart, against the taint
Of dissolute tongues, 'gainst jealousy, and hate,
And scorn, against all enemies prepared,
All but neglect: and so, his spirit damp'd
At once, with rash disdain he turned away,
And with the food of pride sustain'd his soul
In solitude.--Stranger! these gloomy boughs
Had charms for him; and here he loved to sit,
His only visitants a straggling sheep,
The stone-chat, or the glancing sand-piper;
And on these barren rocks, with juniper,
And heath, and thistle, thinly sprinkled o'er,
Fixing his downward eye, he many an hour
A morbid pleasure nourish'd, tracing here
An emblem of his own unfruitful life:
And lifting up his head, he then would gaze
On the more distant scene; how lovely 'tis
Thou seest, and he would gaze till it became
Far lovelier, and his heart could not sustain
The beauty still more beauteous. Nor, that time,
Would he forget those beings, to whose minds,
Warm from the labours of benevolence,
The world, and man himself, appeared a scene
Of kindred loveliness: then he would sigh
With mournful joy, to think that others felt
What he must never feel: and so, lost man!
On visionary views would fancy feed,
Till his eye streamed with tears. In this deep vale
He died, this seat his only monument.
If thou be one whose heart the holy forms
Of younger imagination have kept pure,
Stranger! henceforth be warned; and know, that pride,
Howe'er disguised in its own majesty,
Is littleness; that he, who feels contempt
For any living thing, hath faculties
Which he has never used; that thought with him
Is in its infancy. The man, whose eye
Is ever on himself, doth look on one,
The least of nature's works, one who might move
The wise man to that scorn which wisdom holds
Unlawful, ever. O, be wiser thou!
Instructed that true knowledge leads to love,
True dignity abides with him alone
Who, in the silent hour of inward thought,
Can still suspect, and still revere himself,
In lowliness of heart.
Interestingly, the first stanza of this little poem comes close to expressing the Buddhist idea of meditation, the goal being to empty the mind, or to concentrate on just one thing, or at least to arrest the turbulent and uncontrolled flow of thoughts which drowns our consciousness, and prevents us from really seeing what we are looking at. The barren landscape that Wordsworth (1770-1850) describes helps him to arrive at the same point, except that, confronted by 'vacancy', he recoils. He hangs onto the 'one soft impulse'. Perhaps he was approaching too close to the state of consciousness of the village idiot for the taste of the mainly middle class, urban readers of poetry, or even for his own taste, which was notoriously addicted to 'lowly subject matter'. But the juxtaposition of the two landscapes (the busy landscape with its 'sparkling rivulet' and 'verdant herb', and the sparse landscape with the 'barren boughs the bee not loves', ie the landscape where his seat is situated) parallels the two states of consciousness (busy and calm), and forms a nice poetic whole, like a walnut in its shell.
The second stanza traces the career of the man who made the seat on which we presume the poet to be sitting. He had a 'lofty soul', and he was prepared for all that the world might throw at him, except neglect. As Oscar Wilde has it: 'There's only one thing worse than being talked about, and that's not being talked about'. It is at this point that one begins to suspect that the poet is possibly talking about himself. The barren scene affords him a 'morbid pleasure', and he sees a parallel to his own, unfruitful life. When he lifts his eyes to the more distant view, however, he is struck by its beauty, and he sees a parallel between this beauty and the beauty of those he has met in the world who concerned themselves with 'labours of benevolence'. He conceives that the world, and even man himself can be viewed from a similar perspective from which he views the distant landscape. But, for whatever reason, the seat-maker himself is excluded from this harmonious perspective. We do not know why, but it is clear that in some way this man is seen to be channelling emotions that would be more appropriately expressed in human society into a visionary view of nature. This man is surely Wordsworth himself. At all events, we have to ask how Wordsworth could possibly know what he claims to know about the seat-maker, his thoughts, intimate feelings and emotions.
We now receive some of the poet's normal fare: advice on how to live. Above all, don't do what I (or the man who constructed the seat) did. Pride is identified as the principle sin of the seat-maker (not very original this), and we are informed that 'true knowledge leads to love' ie connection with the world, a possibility which the seat-maker has been denied for reasons unknown. We are finally advised to 'suspect, and still revere' ourselves, a very odd combination of ideas. The overall effect of the poem is make us feel that the poet has given us a puzzle to work out, but only half of the pieces necessary to solve that puzzle. Is this ingenious? Hardly. More like ingenuous.
The visionary experience the seat-maker has when he raises his eyes from contemplation of the scene near at hand to the distant landscape is central and pirvotal to the poem as a whole. The association of the near landscape with the perceived failures and the barrenness of the seat-maker's life is contrasted with what happens when he turns his attention to the distant prospect, which he associates with the 'labours of benevolence' he has seen, but from which he himself is excluded. Having already read the final stanza, we can hazard a guess that it is pride that restrains him from participating in these 'labours of benevolence'. He has to content himself to feed his fancy on 'visionary views', clearly only a second best, leading to tears and death with the seat his only monument. If we ask how can the poet possibly know all this about the seat-maker, the only conclusion we can come to is that the seat-maker and the poet are one and the same, the death of the seat-maker being merely a way of expressing some sort of terminal event in the poet's life.
The central motif of raising the eyes to the distant prospect is a close parallel to the motif used in A Night Piece where the clouds open to give the traveller a visionary view of the moon and stars. But the actual process is not elucidated. It is simply related as an event that happens and produces a strong emotional reaction in the observer. It is interesting that, during this process, the poet speaks directly to the reader: 'he (the seat-maker) then would gaze / On the more distant scene; how lovely 'tis / Thou seest, and he would gaze till it became / Far lovelier, and his heart could not sustain / The beauty still more beauteous.' The reader is thereby encouraged to see with the poet and the seat-maker the visionary landscape, and feel its effect which moves to tears. But there is really nothing apart from the exhortation to bring this about. We might perhaps go back to Wordsworth's preface to the Lyrical Ballads, where we find that poetical ability is based on being possessed of 'more than usual organic sensibility', whatever that means, and perhaps this 'organic sensibility' is what is necessary to feel with the poet the strong emotion evoked. At all events, we can probably all agree that this process of experiencing these strong emotions on observing natural phenomena is central to Wordsworth's poetic experience. We can believe it, not believe it, or think we experience something similar ourselves when contemplating nature, depending on our own constitution, world-view, reverence or suspicion of ourselves.
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