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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Through exploring the psychopathology of Capgras syndrome, in which a patient mistakes a loved one for an imposter, The Echo Maker offers a sustained meditation on the ways in which we project our own problems onto other people. As a reflection on the mysteries of consciousness, the novel offers some interesting if not especially new insights into the fuzzy boundaries between scientific and literary interpretations of the mind. Read more

Daily Diary: Haiti, Wordsworth, Band of Brothers

Thursday, January 14, 2010

I turn on the radio to a traumatic report by Matthew Price. He can only have been on the ground for a couple of hours, but his coverage is detailed, descriptive and moving. It is probably more than just the jet lag that makes his voice sound exhausted, and as ever I admire these BBC correspondents who can turn out a report from any condition, whilst still sounding human rather than like detached, writing robots. I send some money over to Oxfam. I would like to think that I would have done this anyway, though I suspect Price's words have caught me at a moment of sympathy: me bleary eyed from sleep, he exhausted and horrified by the scene he has woken to.

Moving to a different extreme from this, I spend the morning working on Wordsworth's "Lines Written In Early Spring," preparing the poem for an OU tutorial next week:

I heard a thousand blended notes,
While in a grove I sate reclined,
In that sweet mood when pleasant thoughts
Bring sad thoughts to the mind.

To her fair works did Nature link
The human soul that through me ran;
And much it grieved my heart to think
What man has made of man.

Through primrose tufts, in that green bower,
The periwinkle trailed its wreaths;
And 'tis my faith that every flower
Enjoys the air it breathes.

The birds around me hopped and played,
Their thoughts I cannot measure:--
But the least motion which they made
It seemed a thrill of pleasure.

The budding twigs spread out their fan,
To catch the breezy air;
And I must think, do all I can,
That there was pleasure there.

If this belief from heaven be sent,
If such be Nature's holy plan,
Have I not reason to lament
What man has made of man?

Superficially, the poem seems simple enough, a case of the poet able to communicate with nature, whereas Man - at this point in history engaged in the French Revolutionary Wars - leaves him in a state of frustrated "lament."

But my argument, and the path I want to lead the students down, is that a lot hinges on the ambiguity of those lines "And I must think, do all I can,/That there was pleasure there." There are two ambiguities here. Does that "must" mean he cannot do other than perceive pleasure in nature, because it is so self-evident? Or does it mean that he feels that he ought to, given that this is part of "Nature's holy plan"? And where exactly is the pleasure located at this point? Earlier in the poem, he confidently and clearly perceives that the flower takes pleasure in breathing the air, and the birds in playing. Is this to be read similarly, that the twigs take pleasure in catching the air? Or, coming back to that ambiguity of the word "must," is it that there ought to be a pleasure in his memory of the natural scene, yet there has, over the course of the poetic recollection, developed a sort of mental blockage, wherein nature is no longer so openly a source of pleasure to him. That "do all I can" seems a little too stressed, too desperate, as if he is struggling to find pleasure in the moment of recollection; the subject, then, has switched from nature to the poetic ego, from being about the pleasure that the organisms take in the world around them, to being about the lack of straightforward pleasure the poet finds in revisiting and thinking about the memory.

Rather than being a simplistic commune with nature through an easily accessed memory (and given that these are lines written in early spring, about spring, we assume that there is not much temporal gap between experience and writing), the poem seems to me to dramatise its difficulty. Hence the movement from "much it grieved my heart to think/What man has made of man" to the question "Have I not reason to lament/What man has made of man?" Perhaps he has not reason to lament. After all, if Nature (or God) has a "Holy plan," it (or He) presumably has one for Man too, and it may just be that the poet is inconsistently incapable of seeing the reasons for God's plan for Man, though the poet is too easily capable of projecting the superficial pleasure birds and flowers take in the world around them.

This is clearer in the 1798 version above, where the theology of the work is explicit. The 1802 version we are going to be studying is less clear, with the final stanza being changed to:

If I these thoughts may not prevent,
If such be of my creed the plan,
Have I not reason to lament
What man has made of man?

This heightens the ambiguity of the previous stanza up a notch. What are the thoughts that he cannot prevent? Thoughts of the pleasure nature takes in the spring around it? Or thoughts that nature may not be so pleasant, and hence should not be such an unmitigated source of pleasure to the poet, after all? Maybe nature is not so simply the positive double of a lamentable mankind.

As ever, I started off my reading of Wordsworth's poem dismissing it as yet another dismally dull nature poem, to go with that horrid "I wandered lonely as a cloud," which I loathe not because I am an anti-populist snob, but because of its saccharine quality. And, as ever, when I go more deeply into it, I realise that Wordsworth is not directly writing about nature at all, but about man's perception and process of memorialising nature. The process of memory, rather than the world itself, is key, and is far more interesting and dramatic than a first reading gives Wordsworth credit for.

After this insight, the day crawls to inertia, as I have to go and pick the car up from the garage. Usually a pleasant two mile bike ride on a track through the woods, the lethal snow that persists anywhere that is not a main road means that I have to take a six mile dog leg, going into town and then out again, on a busy dual carriageway. When I arrive, the mechanic says the clutch is fine, which has saved me some money, but has flushed some magic potion through the fuel injectors to solve a misfire, leaving it purring like a cat.

When I return, I singularly fail to pick up on work again, and instead watch the first episode of the Band of Brothers box set that H picked up cheap. It looks set to be a very absorbing drama; unlike Saving Private Ryan, the medium of the (remarkably high budget) television series means that the characters have room to breathe and develop as individuals, rather than mere grimy faces shooting off behind a smoking gun.

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Posted by Alistair at 10:05 pm


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