The Christian Humanist Podcast, Episode #96: Intimations of Immortality

General Introduction
– We read the poem—and it takes awhile
– Committee meetings
– A lot of listener feedback

Theory and Poetry
– Ordinary language
– Why you need the background
– Avoiding Miltonic inversion
– Enjambment
– Meter and rhyme scheme
– Spontaneous overflow of emotion

Ubi Sunt
– Elegy for what used to be
The Wanderer
The Wife’s Lament
– Wordsworth stops himself
– Disenchantment and reenchantment

Pre-Existence of the Soul
– A sleep and a forgetting
– Plato and reincarnation
– And what about Nature?
– The Romantics and Hinduism
– Social disenchantment
– Preexistence, not reincarnation

Wordsworth and Mormons
– Their favorite poem ever
– Wordsworth as oracle
– The poet responds
– Posthumous baptism

Wordsworth and Emerson
– Wordsworth’s direct influence
– The little actor’s comic part
– Disgust with imitation
– Their opposite trajectories
– Bronson Alcott’s reaction

Sermonizing
– Pelagianism and forgetting
– Lewis’s childhood
– Suffering and joy
– How poetry influences your imagination

19 comments
Todd Pedlar
Todd Pedlar

Great Show! 
Oddly, I was listening to this podcast while driving in southern Iowa along what is labelled as the Mormon Pioneer National Historic Trail.  Had no clue when I hit play on this episode that the Mormons would come into it - but really enjoyed the discussion, and the subsequent discussion of Wordsworth's faith journey as compared to the religious beliefs of Emerson, etc.  I would have to say the dazed pause upon the revelations concerning Wordsworth's letter mentioning the 'crazed religionists' and his daughter's conversion to Mormonism.... precious and priceless.  The whole discussion of Wordsworth and Mormonism was quite fascinating, so thanks to David for poking around on that issue.  Great stuff... 

JohnSager
JohnSager

You read an email that mentioned the forestation of Tudor England  that mentioned Wolf Hall. I can't recommend this and its sequel, Bring Out the Bodies too highly. Of course, the final volume is not out yet, so maybe I can lower my recommendation. Anyway, Thomas Cromwell rules!

Hrothgar
Hrothgar

JohnSager He had one of the principal antiquities of our county town blown up, the savage  Brought in an Italian engineer to do it, if I recall correctly. Mind you, I don't know that the Romantics would necessarily have held that against him.  Ruins are infinitely more romantic than whole buildings.

JohnSager
JohnSager

Hrothgar JohnSager Right. If you read Albert Speer, he has Hitler wanting structures that will look good even as ruins (Ruinentheorie). If Cromwell was a savage, you might want to wait and start with the third book. Rumor is he's gonna get his. Cheers.

Hrothgar
Hrothgar

@JohnSager Well, the 16th century equivalent of an asset-stripper I suppose. It was Lewes Priory I was thinking of. I read a lengthy account in the Sussex Archaeological Collections some years ago. If memory serves, they had to resort of gunpowder in the end. The purpose seems to have been to bring the walls down to make it easier to cart the stone away for sale.  I just tried googling "lewes priory cromwell" and found this which has a letter from Portinari (the engineer) to Cromwell: http://www.cluniac-priory-st-pancras-lewes-de-warenne-foundation-research.co.uk/index_files/Page454.htm All qualms about razing a religious edifice aside, it'd be the equivalent these days of pulling down the local hospital, schools, and social security buildings, and pocketing what you could get from the sale of the building materials. And I don't know specifically about Lewes, but the destruction of ancient manuscripts, dispersed or simply thrown away or burnt in similar events -- who knows what could have been there: unknown Anglo-Saxon poetry, all kinds of things -- would be enough to stop David Grubbs' heart.

Hrothgar
Hrothgar

Thanks for mentioning me (although it embarrassed me). On the "history of ideas" question -- my understanding is that the first literary men to be interested in Indian thought would be the New England Transcendentalists.  (And then after that it enters public consciousness in the West, in garbled form, via the theosophists.  I looked up the Bhagavad Gita on Wikipedia (not the most reliable of sources, I know) and, indeed, Emerson's name crops up, as also a relatively late date for the first translation (1785).  I expect the Jesuits knew something of Hinduism, because they seem to have regarded exact knowledge of existing beliefs as a vital prerequisite for conversion , and there was the Portuguese connection with Goa.  I don't know for sure, but i doubt that anyone much else in Europe knew (or cared) anything much about Hinduism till a later period.  I think if it had been a topic of discussion, there'd be something in one of the omnivorously curious essayists such as Lamb or Hazlitt.  I don't know of anything like that. I think Nathan must be right to think that the source of the doctrines would be Neoplatonism -- as rediscovered and re-imagined by Renaissance writers and filtered through English literature.  I'd guess the obvious source would be the Garden of Adonis in the Faerie Queene.  I take it that, in Spenser, this is a poetic device and he likely no more believes in it as "doctrine" than he believes that the River Medway could literally marry the Thames.  Wordsworth, however, *seems* to be taking the idea seriously. But I wonder how far anyone would sensibly want to pursue that.  It seems to me that only people whose interests are fundamentally non-literary would look at a poem and try to extract doctrines from it.  If that were what mattered, then a list of statements in propositional form would "do just as well" -- which is obviously ludicrous.  In any case, it seems to me that the movement of the poem is, as you said, thus: we start with an attempt to talk about a certain kind of experience and end with another experience, which seems different, although also intense.  Along the way, we're offered a myth (whether believed in or not) that is, in a way, makes sense of the loss of the original experience.      The experiences seem to be what's (potentially) most interesting. Could the Shakesperian use of sleep as a metaphor for death be coming from the Tempest? On the language -- I understand the point that was made about Wordsworth's role in simplifying poetic diction.  Wouldn't it also be fair to say that Milton is a special case (as is Dryden)?  I think it's interesting to compare the poem with this one of Traherne's: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/180796 The diction there is simple; there's also an interest in nature, although this comes from a much earlier period and a time before the intellectual historians would say people had "become interested in nature".  (Aside: am I right to think a phrase in Kubla Khan might be coming from there? I don't know if that was a poem published in Traherne's lifetime and therefore available to have been read by other poets.) Have you any thoughts on Wordsworth's prefacing the poem with a quote from Virgil's Eclogues?  Is that there for what it says literally by itself, or an invitation to read the ode in the light of the Eclogues?  Also, edition of collected poems I consulted had "Intimations of Immortality" in brackets.  Was that title there in the original, or is it something that has been added, as showing how people have understood the ode? Can I be really wicked and say i don't like the poem much? The experiences are suggested twice by using light as a metaphor, e.g. "Apparell'd in celestial light". And they seem to be stated -- or insisted on -- by words like "splendour" and "glory": "splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower;" Is he really doing enough? There are also lines, and parts, of the poem that seem limp and unsuccessful to me.  I find this line pretty bad: "A six years' darling of a pigmy size !" Here's another fragment: "The pansy at my feet/ Doth the same tale repeat:". That seems unfortunate.  That may be partly because of associations the word "pansy" has picked up since Wordsworth's day. But also here, and elsewhere, It seems to me that there are places where the poet is serving the metre and the rhyme-scheme without serving the movement of the poem. Compare: I got me flowers to straw thy way; I got me boughs off many a tree: But thou wast up by break of day, And brought’st thy sweets along with thee. There I see metre and rhyme hit well, yet I can follow the emotion (informed by thought) moving behind, and the emotion and the form seem to work together. But it's not even that.  *Just as a fragment* this line of Eliot's: "Is it perfume from a dress/that makes me so digress" works for me. I like the feel of those particular sounds falling. I can also understand how a perfume could be evocative, and I think the line is itself evocative, redolent of the feminine. One can imagine the perfume leading to vague associations and memories and derailing a man's train of thought. "The pansy at my feet/ Doth the same tale repeat:" What does that say other than "the pansy, too: same for that"? But I've probably failed to justify myself. Is this one reason why people often do OTHER things with poems and prose -- "texts" -- extract doctrines from them, criticize ideologies imputed to the poet, or whatever?  Because saying why something works, or doesn't, is really hard.

Hrothgar
Hrothgar

Sorry -- I probably said enough already.  But to add, I wasn't being facetious, although I should suppose that anyone who's critical of Wordsworth in Eng. Lit. circles might be suspected of being so.  All those questiosn really were genuine questions that did occur to me while listening to the podcast and reading the poem. And I really was surprised to find that some people had mined the poem for -- how should one put it? -- occult knowledge? gnostic doctrines?  (I'm using "occult" in the sense of hidden there, and "gnostic" loosely). That seems so ludicrious to me that I think, being less tolerant than you three, I'd simply have ignored anyone who did. I was also quite serious in saying I found the poem unsuccessful, although I was conscious that I was sticking my neck out in doing so.  It just doesn't impress me that much.  it's not that I want to psychoanalyse the poet, or "deconstruct" him and dismiss his poem as "bourgeois consciousnes" or anything like that.  I'm prepared to take him on his won terms.  But when I do, the poem just doesn't work for me. It's not that I dislike poetry.  In fact, I'll admit that poems have made me weep before.  I just don't see much in this one. Again, take Eliot.  Here's a modest enough piece -- the girl coming back from the hyacinth garden in the _Wasteland_.  I think that's read reasonably well here (but you're the professionals not me): http://ia600308.us.archive.org/23/items/wasteland_0808_librivox/01-waste_land_eliot_mtd.mp3 She's remembering, and there's a slight hesistancy -- that "yet'; that paranthetic "late" -- shyness, memory unfolding, a struggle to put it into words.  She recalls looking at her lover: "... Your arms full, and your hair wet ..." And she remembers she couldn't even speak.  And then the quote from Tristan and Isolde.   I think that's profoundly moving.  (And, like some other "broken images" in the poem serves to comntextualize the emotionally flat seduction of the typist.) If you now turn back to the Wordsworth poem, what do you find?  The poet sorrowfully looking down at the pansy as if he expected it to *do* something!  (Although, to add to the ridiculousness) the couplet *sounds* rather jaunty.) And this is a grown man?  And I don't mean by that that it is, instead, a natural activity for a child.  That it would be is niaiserie of that poem.  In truth, I think children like flowers but don't generally spend a lot of time looking at them, and pay even less attention to landscapes.

Charles H
Charles H

That doesn't seem like much of a re-enchantment toward the end there.  The best we can do is try to remember the glory that was?  The only other poem of Woordsworth's that I've read was "The world is too much with us", and that's a downer as well.  Is there somewhere else where he talks about adulthood being in fact a good thing?  I was listening to this episode while I was working out, by the way, and "It's almost as if philosophical movements are abstractions" made me laugh out loud.  So thanks a bunch, guys; now the people at the Briercrest athletic centre think I'm weird. :)

michb
michb

Charles H  I think as you note and I believe Michael pointed out in the podcast, we are looking for some sort of fixed and final resolution that poem refuses to give.  I think Wordsworth never really answered the question for himself.  When he wrote this poem The French Revolution and progressed through the Terror and on to Napoleon, so it was no longer Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive! The problem he never really resolves is revelation and creation. When younger Nature reveals God to him. He seems fully integrated with God and Creation. But by the second half of the poem, the Glory has fled. He still sees the beauty of creation, but he no longer sees God revealed. To quote Coleridge, he is left with the shaping power of his Imagination, and is that enough?   He says it is, but I think you are right not believing him. I think we get 2 conversation partners for this poem  with Arnold's "Dover Beach" and Keat's "Ode on a Grecian Urn." Guys--the Podcast was great!

MichialFarmer
MichialFarmer

michb Charles H Spoiler alert: The third in our trilogy will be on "Grecian Urn," so I'll make sure that give you credit for the connection. "Dover Beach" is my favorite poem, and I would have done my episode on that--if Arnold were a Romantic. I think you are both right that the poem does not give total satisfaction, but the point of it is that life is not ultimately satisfying. We must take our enchantment where we can find it.

michb
michb

MichialFarmer michb Charles H  Quoth the Farmer, "Nevermore!"

ngilmour
ngilmour

michb Charles H We have the most literate listeners EVA.

Charles H
Charles H

MichialFarmer Charles H michb ngilmour   Wow.  First Les Mis and now Poe.  Our relationship might be mutating from "friend" to "frienemy".

MichialFarmer
MichialFarmer

Charles H michb ngilmour After our Les Mis debacle, I hesitate to insult you any further--but I deeply hate Poe, down to my marrow. I would have to die to myself to a degree unusual for me in order to do a Poe episode. But then again, it is Lent.

ngilmour
ngilmour

michb Charles H ngilmour I'm definitely in favor of doing more poetry-episodes, especially if they're already getting this sort of feedback.  We try to spread things out among philosophy, theology, and literature, and one natural iteration of the last in that series seemed to me an episode dedicated to one relatively brief poem.  I reckon I might have hit on something.

ngilmour
ngilmour

michb ngilmour Charles H The book sounds fascinating.  The only Roger Lundin I've read is his collaboration with Susan Gallagher, Literature Through the Eyes of Faith.  That book disappointed me, but that was at least in part because it was trying to treat "literature" as a single entity that one can discuss intelligently in under 200 pages.  I imagine Believing Again might, because its length is a better match for its scope, serve better.

michb
michb

Charles H michb ngilmour  A poetry focus? Yes.  How about making it thematic? Stick with some of the problems raised by Wordsworth and pick a poet and poem that addresses it. Do maybe one a semester? In no particular order: Keats, Arnold, Eliot, Auden, etc.

Charles H
Charles H

michb ngilmour I have not read that, but the reviews online look good, and the library here has it (yay).  I'll put it on my list.  Thank you. BTW, regarding the recent focus on poetry:y'all want to depress us with an episode on Poe? (I actually felt bad about giving one of my daughters a name that could be shortened to "Lenore", because part of me couldn't stop looking at my sweet baby and worrying that I named her after "the doubly dead in that she died so young" and "the rare and radiant maiden... nameless here for evermore")

michb
michb

ngilmour michb Charles H Have you guys read, "Believing Again: Doubt and Faith in a Secular Age" by Roger Lundin? It's fantastic and speaks directly to lots of the theme you discussed in the Wordsworth podcast. He use the Romantics set the stage for the 19th century and loss of faith with Darwin, etc. He uses folks like Melville, Dickinson, Dostoevsky as people struggling to maintain their faith. Then he puts all this folks in conversation with more modern theologians(Barth, Von Balthasar) and writers Auden, Steiner, Milosz and Wilbur to try to answer those Wordsworthian questions and point us toward a 21st century Christian faith.  I think he wrote this to give you guys a textbook for the podcast! :-)