The following is a revision of an old essay of mine. Changes include minor improvements in English and the elimination of some notes and the documentation; these (where feasible) are partially incorporated in the text. (Especially as my arms wearied from typing, I dropped long notes entirely.) The essay as it originally appeared, complete with documentation, can be found in the CLA (College Language Association) Journal, Vol. XXXV, No. 3 (March 1992), 339-352.
Those who seem so very different from one another are often more alike than we or they think or are willing to acknowledge, as many a stubborn quarrel between parent and offspring attests. In this, life is sometimes imitated by art, where it is left to us, the reader, to penetrate the seeming difference on the surface and locate the reality underneath. William Wordsworth’s “Resolution and Independence” is a case in point. This wonderful poem centers on the poet’s recollected chance meeting with a stranger, a man as seemingly different from the poet as old age is to youth. On this apparent difference between them much commentary has dwelt. Frederick Garber, writing about the poem (in Wordsworth and the Poetry of Encounter), for instance, describes “the meeting of [Wordsworth’s] own uncertainties with the thorough certainties of the old man.” In the same vein, J. R. Watson (in Wordsworth’s Vital Soul: The Sacred and Profane in Wordsworth’s Poetry) states that the “admirable resolution of the leech gatherer, and his independence of mind and spirit, indicate a strength beyond that of the poet.” Wordsworth the student, we are told, learns “bravery” from the “simple endurance” of a natural teacher whose “self-sufficiency corrects [Wordsworth’s] melancholy” (Peter Burra, Wordsworth; Northrop Frye, A Study of English Romanticism). Thus the stranger is seen as showing the poet a better way to live and be—as in “Self-Dependence” the stars would do for Matthew Arnold. Indeed, claiming as much himself (in an 1802 letter to Sara Hutchinson), Wordsworth credits the man with rescuing him from “dejection and despair almost as an interposition of Providence.” Harold Bloom, in Poetry and Repression: Revisionism from Blake to Stevens, however, notes that Wordsworth “seems to have wanted a far more positive, hopeful, even celebratory poem than the one he actually wrote”; and this desire, I feel, may have moved the poet to impute to the leech gatherer—both the actual person and the character in the poem—an educative magic that insists on the difference between them as a denial of their unfortunate likeness. Whatever poem Wordsworth intended to write, in the one that he did write the leech gatherer emerges as an equivocal figure whose monotonous wandering and wizened aspect cloud what hope or corrective lesson he seems to indicate, placing him—to the benefit of the poem, let me add—in the same sinking spiritual boat as Wordsworth himself.
“Resolution and Independence” is given to us as a re-vision, the imaginative revival of an encounter whose original visionary quality moves Wordsworth afresh. The one-and-a-half-year passage of time and the recollective act itself have given the poet perspective, and he fluidly moves in and out of the vision, a wanderer back and forth between two worlds. (Albert S. Gérard, in English Romantic Poetry: Ethos, Structure, and Symbol in Coleridge, Wordsworth, Shelley, and Keats, describes the poem’s “basic pattern” as “one of contraction and expansion, the poet’s attention shifting back and forth from the outside world to his inner self.”) This testifies to the power of imagination, that is, the power of the imaginative poet. Specifically, it is the power to convincingly deny mortality, which requires, however, the poet’s facing the limits that mortality imposes. Therefore, visionary experiences have their dark side for Wordsworth, who as a boy first discovered his receptivity to the spiritual world coincident with his descent into mortal apprehension. He stood, he tells us in the 1850 The Prelude,
If the night blackened with a coming storm,
Beneath some rock, listening to notes that are
The ghostly language of the ancient earth. . . .
At such times he would “drink the visionary power,” the verb drink, with its hint of a nursing infant, connecting the eternal mother, Nature, to the poet’s own mother, whose earlier death the image of a beckoning grave (“. . . night blackened . . . Beneath some rock . . . ancient earth”) evokes. From such loss or its likelihood Wordsworth’s compensatory imagination springs. (For discussions of Wordsworth’s identification of Nature and mother, see the aforementioned book by Frye and Barbara A. Schapiro’s The Romantic Mother: Narcissistic Patterns in Romantic Poetry.)
The object worked on by this imagination in “Resolution and Independence” is himself a worn image of mortality. Frederick A. Pottle (in “The Eye and the Object in the Poetry of Wordsworth,” Romanticism and Consciousness, ed. Bloom) reminds us that “in real life Wordsworth met the old man, not on the lonely moor [as in the poem], but in the highway . . . [where he] was not demonstrating resolution and independence by gathering leeches under great difficulties, but was begging.” Furthermore, the Scotsman whom Wordsworth chanced upon—with sister Dorothy, who, although excluded from the poem in order to stress the solitude of the encounter, reappears, transmuted, as the hare “running races in her mirth”—was in fact far too feeble to pursue his former harsh vocation. In the poem, although decrepit (“His body was bent double, feet and head/ Coming together in life’s pilgrimage”), a seeming figure of purpose, grace and tenacious strength, in life he—allowing for Dorothy’s hyperbole—had “been hurt in driving a cart, [had had] his leg broke[n], his body driven over[,] his skull fractured” (Dorothy Wordsworth, Journals, ed. Mary Moorman). Old and broken, he might almost be a human translation of Wordsworth’s earlier “Thorn” (1798):
No leaves it has, no prickly points;
It is a mass of knotted joints,
A wretched thing forlorn.
Surely, in any case, the figure in the poem—the Leech Gatherer, with a capital L and a capital G—scarcely resembles the actual man apart from his advanced age (“The oldest man he seemed that ever wore grey hairs”). Instead, the ample evidence of vulnerability to which the actual person’s condition testified must have inspired in Wordsworth a contrary wish for an indomitable figure of uncomplaining affirmation, as if to deny this evidence.
It is not surprising, therefore, that in the spring of 1802, when he began composing the poem, Wordsworth was beset with anxieties. Commentators have variously cited the following: Wordsworth’s love affair ten years earlier with Annette Vallon, who still lived in France with their daughter; his impending marriage to Mary Hutchinson, especially in light of his and Dorothy’s mutual emotional dependency; the looming problem of earning a living rather than remaining financially dependent on John, his younger brother. There was also his preoccupation with mortality—not physical death only, but the loss of visionary capability and extinction of self. With the infirm, mentally battered Coleridge in mind, Wordsworth was especially concerned with the mortality of poets:
I thought of Chatterton, the marvelous Boy,
The sleepless Soul that perished in his pride;
Of [Burns] who walked in glory and in joy
Following his plough, along the mountain-side:
By our own spirits are we deified:
We poets in our youth begin in gladness;
But thereof come in the end despondency and madness.
It is in the midst of such thoughts that (in the poem) Wordsworth first sees the Leech Gatherer, prompting one commentator, Geoffrey H. Hartman (in Wordsworth’s Poetry 1787-1814), to write:
Those sudden thoughts of the poet as Ephemerid, dead among his dead dreams, are purged by the appearance and imaginative elongation of a man . . . [whose] example persuades the poet that faith in nature can survive maturation and even decrepitude.
Similarly, Robert Langbaum (in “The Evolution of Soul in Wordsworth’s Poetry,” Wordsworth, The Prelude: A Selection of Critical Essays, ed. W. J. Harvey and Richard Gravil) writes that the old man, “seen through the eye of unconscious racial memory,” “is transformed into an archetype of human endurance capable of alleviating the observer’s distress.” Doubtless Wordsworth wants this to happen; his need for such relief is what prompts his vision, giving it its shape and features.
Nevertheless, the extent to which the actual beggar is reimagined as the Leech Gatherer renders problematic the “apt admonishment” that his example provides the distressed poet. Furthermore, his identification with Nature—he is likened to a stone, a cloud and a stream, and his unceasing devotion to Nature appears to have made him emblematic of Nature’s regenerative, restorative strength—puts us in mind of other instances where Wordsworth is admonished by Nature. Consider these two, in the 1850 Prelude: the waking nightmare through Oedipal terrain climaxing the boy Wordsworth’s presumptive row across a lake in a stolen boat; ten years later, the London encounter with the Blind Beggar whose “steadfast face and sightless eyes” chide the poet’s attempt to penetrate his history and mystery. A projective figure, the Blind Beggar satisfies Wordsworth’s wish to have his presumption checked lest the awesome force of Nature that had shot out after him in childhood—the grim, mountainous shape “with purpose of its own/ And measured motion like a living thing”—be roused again. (Jonathan Bishop, in “Wordsworth and the ‘Spots of Time’,” Wordsworth, The Prelude: A Selection of Critical Essays, relates such incidents to Wordsworth’s visionary “spots of time.”) The Blind Beggar, the Discharged Soldier, the Old Cumberland Beggar, the Leech Gatherer—all of Wordsworth’s solitaries, according to Charles Williams (in The English Poetic Mind), “communicate a strange sensation of semi-mystical fear; they rise before us . . . as shapes partly of terror, partly of sympathy, wholly of mystery.” All are linked to Nature, and we see reflected in each the ambivalence toward Nature that Wordsworth, along with other Romantics, keenly felt.
We may then say that the Leech Gatherer both reflects and confounds the poet’s intentions regarding him. Through him Wordsworth seeks to elevate morally the Nature that he still finds threatening—the Nature whose “admonishment” casts him again in the role of a child, reviving the childhood terror he experienced on the lake. This fear helps explain why the Leech Gatherer is likened to a stone and to a “sea-beast” that has “crawled forth” into the sun—imagery whose grotesqueness Wordsworth tried hard to explain away in his 1815 commentary:
In these images, the conferring, the abstracting, and the modifying powers of the imagination, immediately and mediately acting, are all brought into conjunction. The stone is endowed with something of the power of life to approximate it to the sea-beast; and the sea-beast stripped of some of its vital qualities to assimilate it to the stone; which intermediate image is thus treated for the purpose of bringing the original image, that of the stone, to a nearer resemblance to the figure and condition of the aged man; who is divested of so much of the indication of life and motion as to bring him to the point where the two objects unite and coalesce in just comparison.
This finely tortuous explanation, I feel, helps to protect Wordsworth from his own fear of Nature. If we wish, we may cite the poet’s “habit of interchanging qualities of the animate and inanimate” (Herbert Lindenberger, On Wordsworth’s Prelude), or see in the Leech Gatherer “the primeval quality of life itself, evolving out of the sea into the sun that calls forth the human” (Bloom, The Visionary Company). On the other hand, his old age and likeness to primordial beast and rock suggest that the Leech Gatherer is finally indistinguishable from the mortal evidence from which he is supposed to redeem the poet. His close connection with Nature also underscores this, for it is Nature that imposes mortal limits.
In summary, “Resolution and Independence” demonstrates the unsettled experience of Nature with which Wordsworth identifies the Leech Gatherer, who represents Nature, and which is, as we shall see, linked to the potential loss of visionary capability that Wordsworth dreads. Eventually, the poet would successfully evade the fearsomeness of Nature by coming to view Nature, not as “visionary” or transcendental, but as practical, educative and edifying; after a stormy, sometimes brave crossing, Wordsworth dropped anchor in a rigorous conventional faith. (See the original publication of this essay for a plethora of materials on Wordsworth’s religious transformation.) Writing about one of the Leech Gatherer’s poetic descendents, the Pedlar in The Excursion, Peter J. Manning (in “Wordsworth, Margaret, and the Pedlar”) sees the shift as wholesome:
The gradual emergence of these stern and monitory figures in Wordsworth’s work is a tacit admission that Nature alone could not fulfill the demands he had placed on her. The reshaping of the Pedlar [through successive drafts] in effect belies the consolation he offers. The shift in the depiction of him from one fostered almost wholly by nature to one reared within the discipline of the Scots church is an especially poignant illustration of Wordsworth’s spiritual progress from the celebration of material nature to the patriarchal virtues of patience and fortitude enforced by his later poetry.
One wonders, though, if the word enforced gives away more than was intended. To ensure his survival in the face of his friend Coleridge’s negative example, Wordsworth may have constructed by degrees his stern, Stoic, “respectable” self in order to subdue his fear of Nature and render inconsequential the loss of the vision that in fact mattered most to him.
Already with the Leech Gatherer, the stone simile suggests the rock-hard solidity of the patriarchal church. It is curious, then, that the progression of similes—stone, cloud, stream—also identifies the Leech Gatherer with a metamorphic nature, a character in constant flux. This has the remarkable effect of resolving the figure’s solidity into insubstantiality, which is to say, nothingness, poising the poem in the nihilistic direction of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “The Cloud” (1820). In this context, the stone simile shows Wordsworth attempting to impose permanence on the visionary capability he increasingly despaired was transient. Indeed, the Leech Gatherer—now solid, now vapor—is at times above all else elusive, much as the poem’s shifts in tense, far from achieving an eternal aura by transcending logical considerations of time, underscore an anxious attempt by the poet to certify his own memory and vision, his imaginings and reimaginings. Garber, for one, finds the spiritual dimensions of the Leech Gatherer enlarged by his elusive character; but in the troubled poem that I see, the image of a restless, dreamlike solitary—“In my mind’s eye,” Wordsworth writes, “I seemed to see him pace/ About the weary moors continually,/ Wandering about alone and silently”—undercuts and undoes the impression of his substantial quality, thereby also undoing the firm moral prescription that the poet presumably gleans from his example.
The Leech Gatherer, then, cannot really help an anxious Wordsworth. Nowhere is the poet’s attempt to offset or deny this fact more apparent than in the final stanza, whose concluding pronouncement, with its abrupt, unexpected shift to self-quotation, underscores the insecure, too-insistent claim that the Leech Gatherer has exerted on Wordsworth a fortifying and stabilizing influence:
. . . and, when he ended,
I could have laughed myself to scorn to find
In that decrepit Man so firm a mind.
“God,” said I, “be my help and stay secure;
I’ll think of the Leech-gatherer on the lonely moor!”
The shift from laughter to scorn to sobriety derives from the Leech Gatherer’s “firm . . . mind,” which has impressed Wordsworth; but it also puts us in mind of the shifting natural similes used to describe the old man, which in turn has the effect of underscoring his instability and insubstantiality. The fact that the poem ends with a projected image of him—fixed in his wandering, as it were—“on the lonely moor” makes of him a near-ghost in an infertile landscape, someone or something Wordsworth must work on to give him the firmness, the incontestable reality, of stone.
The wandering nature of the Leech Gatherer corresponds to his fluctuating identity, both of which undo the stability that Wordsworth hopes to give, through him, to himself. Nearly all of Wordsworth’s solitaries are wanderers; but what precisely does this mean? What is the point of their being wanderers? Cleanth Brooks (in “Wordsworth and Human Suffering: Notes on Two Early Poems,” From Sensibility to Romanticism, ed. Frederick W. Hilles and Bloom) surely is wrong when he writes that the Leech Gatherer becomes “almost a natural presence endowed with nature’s immortality,” for Nature’s unlimited vitality and freshness have little or nothing to do with someone’s endless pacing about a weary landscape. The experiencing of eternity through Nature, of course, is a Romantic ideal. But by definition Nature circumscribes everything human; life’s eternal measure, Nature shows the poet its regenerative way while at the same time enforcing his conclusive condition. From this proceeds the Romantic paradox of Life-in-Death, embodied—as in Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1798), which employs the term—in the figure of the Wanderer, a perpetual solitary and outcast that manifests not eternity, not immortality, but instead mortality without end, that is to say, the mortal condition of humans projected without reprieve throughout time. Thus obliged to reconcile his eternal vision of Nature with his own finite condition, the Romantic poet (too?) easily identifies himself with this “Life-in-Death”—as, for instance, Wordsworth does by lending his voice to such a figure in “Song for the Wandering Jew” (1800). In Wordsworth, Bloom reminds us (in Poetry and Repression), “what is called memory, or treated as memory, is also a composite defense against time, decay, the loss of divinating power, and so finally a defense against death.” Thus it is with the remembered and re-created Leech Gatherer, who fails to redeem the poet from mortal anxiety because reality so far intrudes as to compromise and wobble the defense, rendering self-reflexive the nature of the redemptive event. It may be so that Wordsworth, like Milton, “looks for final salvation to a paradise within” (Andrew Griffin, “The Interior Garden and John Stuart Mill,” Nature and the Victorian Imagination, ed. U. C. Knoepflmacher and G. B. Tennyson). Still, even the interior paradise of imagination requires the support and encouragement of Nature, and the Leech Gatherer, representing Nature in a peculiarly Romantic way, stands (or floats) both inside and outside the poet (everywhere, that is, and nowhere), half-created, half-real. No wonder, then, that he so oddly resembles another wanderer, Wordsworth himself, who tells us, “I was a Traveller then upon the moor.” But what good is this? It is precisely to dispel his own wandering in the dark past of poets—poets whose “despondency and madness” may yet prove to be his own fate—that Wordsworth looks to the Leech Gatherer, who disconcertingly turns out to be only a reflection of his own restless, troubled soul.
Of all Wordsworth’s solitaries, Lindenberger writes, Wordsworth himself is the most important, the one from whom all the others “emanate and derive their being.” The Leech Gatherer, then, may be only a blank upon which are projected what Wordsworth wishes for himself: Stoic forbearance, self-dependence, harmony with Nature, and transcendence of mortal preoccupation. He is, Irene Tayler writes (“By Peculiar Grace: Wordsworth in 1802,” The Evidence of the Imagination: Studies of Interaction Between Life and Art in English Romantic Literature, ed. Donald H. Rieman, Michael C. Jaye and Betty T. Bennett), Wordsworth’s “own poetic creation built to meet his own needs . . . [and to embody] what Wordsworth must become.” It is not surprising, therefore, that the Leech Gatherer is the one among his solitaries with whom Wordsworth grapples the hardest. Jonathan Wordsworth (in William Wordsworth: The Borders of Vision) thus describes the struggle between the poet and his creation, this “borderer” between two worlds, one “not all alive nor dead,/ Nor all asleep”:
There is about [the old man] an obstinate physicality. His words may be reducible to “a stream Scarce heard,” but he himself has to be taken bodily into the dream-world of the poet’s reverie. . . . It is as if the fight to subdue the Leech Gatherer’s obtrusive physical presence gives Wordsworth the energy to create his myth—or the figure has become imaginatively so dominant that a myth has to be created to contain and explain his power.
And yet at the same time the Leech Gatherer dissolves from being stone-like into airy nothingness, making a near-mockery of Wordsworth’s attempt at mythification. Perhaps the price that the poet must pay for making visionary use of the old man is to have this vision—and, by extension, the poet’s imagination—left high and dry. All the while Wordsworth labors to invest the Leech Gatherer with Nature’s reassurances, those reassurances turn up empty. Here, at least, Romantic imagination, like Tennyson’s home-drawn Ulysses, is “ever climbing up the climbing wave.”
For us, there are benefits to Wordsworth’s contradictory endeavor. For one thing, what initially appears to be one of Wordsworth’s preachier poems emerges with considerably more interest and complexity. Moreover, this complexity sheds light on the poet’s heroic attempt to reconcile Nature and humanity—the central motive of Romantic philosophy. Into the blank that Nature perhaps is Wordsworth “reads” features, but the features fade almost immediately, compelling him to question the reality of the visionary capacity whose loss he fears—surely a predicament of unsettling irony. Wanting to be what he wants the Leech Gatherer to be, Wordsworth reimagines an encounter with an old beggar in hope of shoring up assurances that threaten to evaporate. The nothingness of the Leech Gatherer, however, exposes the gulf between wish and fulfillment (a recurrent part of the Romantic map of things), undoing the very imagination that is ostensibly bridging this gulf. As re-created by Wordsworth, the Leech Gatherer incorporates the gap, the discrepancy. Thus “an instance resembling the influx of Extraordinary grace” (Richard E. Brantley, Wordsworth’s “Natural Methodism”) simultaneously intimates Nature’s incapacity to redeem; and in the Leech Gatherer, a touchstone for both this grace and its absence, we find a figure that both “[enables Wordsworth] to escape the weary burden of self” (Brantley again) and yet leaves Wordsworth wearily alone with himself. The Leech Gatherer provides an example of being that challenges Wordsworth’s despair and self-absorption. It is equally the case, though, that his otherness threatens to impinge on the self whose integrity the poet strives to maintain as a spiritual stronghold against the material world. Indeed, the stone-like, beastlike stranger manifests not only Nature’s strength and resilience but also its cold, insensible, and (sphinxlike) all-devouring universality. Behind his appearance of affirmation, the Life-in-Death Leech Gatherer suggests those limits which Nature—by its nature—imposes on us all. Finally, as insubstantial as he is solid, he wanders without end, a chimera unburdening upon the Wedding Guest-poet a blighted “spot of time,” a disastrous vision of eternity.
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At the heart of the poem is the question of whether the poet will become a responsible human being, independent of others for his own happiness. He realizes that his essential quality of mental or spiritual identity cannot rely upon an external environment for its continuing strength. At first, the speaker feels at one with the happy springtime setting, but when he falls suddenly into despair, he is puzzled into a crisis of confidence in himself. Then, when he has most need, the old man appears as if “by peculiar grace” to serve as an admonishment.
All that occurs in the poem is a consequence of the poet’s sense of need, apparently without cause. The powers of mind, as imagination, usurp the poet’s consciousness of everything that surrounds him, including the leech gatherer, making it difficult for the poet to keep hold of the external reality through which both he and the leech gatherer move. In this is the theme of mental experience transcending physical limitations. Yet the poet’s imagination seizes upon the details of the encounter to nourish itself, to create a self-reflecting image for the poet to study as a lesson in resolution and independence.
The poet needed to feel self-reliant just as he was nearly falling into helpless and mysterious despair. The leech gatherer supplied what the poet needed, because the poet had the imagination to make use of the encounter. The meaning of the poem is that the human mind transcends the...
(The entire section is 434 words.)