A socialist perspective on some great poems throughout history...
A favourite pleasure hath it been with me
From time of earliest youth to walk alone
Along the public way, when, for the night
Deserted, in its silence it assumes
A character of deeper quietness
Than greater solitudes. At such an hour
Once, ere these summer months were passed away,
I slowly mounted up a steep ascent
Where the road’s wat’ry surface, to the ridge
Of that sharp rising, glittered in the moon
And seemed before my eyes another stream
Creeping with silent lapse to join the brook
That murmured in the valley. On I went
Tranquil, receiving in my own despite
Amusement, as I slowly passed along,
From such near objects as from time to time
Perforce intruded on the listless sense,
Quiescent and disposed to sympathy,
With an exhausted mind worn out by toil
And all unworthy of the deeper joy
Which waits on distant prospect – cliff or sea,
The blue vault and the universe of stars.
Thus did I steal along that silent road,
My body from the stillness drinking in
A restoration like the calm of sleep
But sweeter far. Above, before, behind,
Around me, all was peace and solitude;
I looked not round, nor did the solitude
Speak to my eye, but it was heard and felt,
O happy state! what beauteous pictures now
Rose in harmonious imagery; they rose
As from some distant region of my soul
And came along like dreams – yet such as left
Obscurely mingled with their passing forms
A consciousness of animal delight,
A self-possession felt in every pause
And every gentle movement of my frame.
William Wordsworth, The Prelude (1805), IV
This extract from Wordsworth’s great autobiographical poem The Prelude, is an introspective account of the early years of his life.
From resolute supporter of the French Revolution, his views became more conservative after 1800, as he became disillusioned with the course of events in France.
This extract presents a world where there is, for some, a means of achieving repose through separating oneself off from the exigencies of primitive capitalism — then still in relatively early stages of development. There is, at this point, still the possibility of finding a “public way” that is unexposed to the movements of freight.
Night retains its “character of deeper quietness”: it has not yet been disturbed by 24-hour shopping and deliveries. The darkness remains unviolated by the haze of ubiquitous streetlights. Some, at least, are in the happy situation where they are “worn out by toil” that exhausts the mind as well as the body, toil that is purely voluntary and not that of industrial or agricultural labour.
Wordsworth recognises and sets out the conditions under which self-possession can be attained. But two hundred years later, there is no possibility of attaining repose by physically excluding oneself from a world because it has been permeated to a much greater extent by the movement and exchange of capital. In setting out the material conditions for the successful accomplishment of such an exclusion, this text compels us to recognise that we cannot simply reverse out of the tunnel that is the economic development of the last few centuries, but must look to emerge from it, out the other side.
Wordsworth’s poem reminds us of the point of the struggle within and against capitalism. The self-possession of which he speaks can never be attained within capitalism. But it is a revolutionary aspiration — and for everyone, regardless of sex or race. For Wordsworth, poetry is able not only to mention and describe this pleasure, but to induce it. As he argues in the Preface to the Lyrical Ballads, “The end of Poetry is to produce excitement in co-existence with an overbalance of pleasure”. The sensual pleasure offered by poetry might be seen as something analogous to, and as a glimpse of, what we can hope for in a better world.