Wordsworth and Empiricism

Wordsworth's answer to the 'empiricist self'


From Robert Langbaum, The Mysteries of Identity: A Theme in Modern Literature (NY: Oxford University Press, 1977), pp. 29-33, 36-42, 46-47


More completely than the other English romanticists, Wordsworth works out in his poetry the new romantic concept of self. When Keats in a letter calls this world "The vale of Soul-making", he comes close to Wordsworth's thinking and helps us understand how Wordsworth, by answering the empiricist attack on the Christian concept of soul, is able to use the word soul in a new way. For Keats says that we come into the world as pure potentiality or "Intelligence" and that we acquire a "Soul" or "sense of Identity" through "Circumstances." And it is the main purport of Wordsworth's poetry to show the spiritual significance of this world, to show that we evolve a soul or identity through experience and that the very process of evolution is what we mean by soul.

To understand the implications of Wordsworth's view and why it is distinctively modern, we have to go back to the psychological assertions of Locke and Locke's disciple Hartley that Wordsworth was both absorbing and answering. The best analogy to the challenge raised by Locke is the challenge raised in our time by computers. For Lockean man is like a computer in that everything inside him comes from outside, through sensation; so that Lockean man gives back only what has been "programmed" into him. Even his choices are no evidence of free will; for once the idea of choice has entered his head, he must choose - and he must choose between predetermined alternatives. "A man that is walking," says Locke, "to whom it is proposed to give off walking, is not at liberty, whether he will determine himself to walk, or to give off walking or not: he must necessarily prefer one or the other of them; walking or not walking." One would use the same line of reasoning to show that a computer, for all its ability to make choices, is not free; for its choices are limited.

Although Locke lays great emphasis on self-consciousness, in that he shows that the greatest part of mental life consists of reflections on our own ideas, his system does not, as Blake pointed out in "There is No Natural Religion," allow for anything new to come into the world, since Locke's "complex ideas" merely complicate a fixed number of sensations. Lockean self-consciousness is the sort we may well predict for the formidable computers of the future.

As computers become increasiiigly complex, as they become capable of making choices, learning, and giving orders, we inevitably wonder at what point of complexity they can be considered human, as having a soul. Now in The Prelude Wordsworth was trying to answer some such question as this regarding Lockean man. If we consider that the human psyche is built up of sensations, then at what point do sensations add up to soul, or how do we jump from sensations to soul? We can understand Wordsworth's answer to Locke if we imagine him answering the question in regard to computers. His answer would be that computers will never be human - will never have continuity or identity - until they are born and grow up and can therefore have the changing memory of change that constitutes awareness of one's own identity.

If sensations turn into soul - into an ineffable quality that can never be accounted for by the sensations themselves - it is because the sensations reach an ever-changing mind that transforms them, as a merely passive receiver, the sort of mind Locke likens to blank paper, could not. No two succeeding sensations from the same object can be the same, because the later sensation reaches a mind already modified by the earlier sensation.

Locke recognizes all this, but it remains for Wordsworth to draw the necessary conclusions in his poetry and for Coleridge to formulate them in his theory of imagination. The necessary conclusions are summed up in the idea of interchange between man and nature - the idea that the mind modifies sensation as much as sensation modifies the mind.

It may be argued that computers, too, as they learn, offer a changing receiver to external data. This brings us to the second important point in Wordsworth's answer to Locke. Wordsworth portrays the mind as itself part of the nature it perceives; and it is this connection, sensed through what Wordsworth calls joy - an intensification of Hume's "vivacity" - that gives us confidence in the reality of ourselves and the external world. Dare one predict that no computer is likely to have this organic connection or to sense it through joy?

In The Prelude, Wordsworth tells us that his life began to the sound of the Derwent River that "loved / To blend his murmurs with my nurse's song" and "sent a voice / That flowed along my dreams," making

  ceaseless music that composed my thoughts
  To more than infant softness, giving mle
  Amid the fretful dwellings of mankind
  A foretaste, a dim earnest, of the calm
  That Nature breathes among the hills and groves.
  (Prelude I. 270-81)

There, in the best Lockean fashion, Wordsworth traces all his mature thoughts back to the sound of the river. But unlike Locke, Wordsworth presents the perceiving mind as active. The fact that the nurse's song blends with the river suggests a correspondence between mind and river; that is why the river's voice flows along the dreams of the growing Wordsworth. When we read that the river "loved / To blend," we understand that the baby did not merely receive but loved the river's sound, reached out to it as a flower reaches out to the sun and air and rain it has the potentiality to receive. The blending and interchange turn sensation into experience, an experience of joy that will in future years spread around the mature man's thoughts an affective tone - a tone objectified in "the calm / That Nature breathes." This tone, this atmosphere of the mind, sensed as at once inside and outside the mind, i's what the mature man will call soul.

The river received on its "smooth breast the shadow of those towers" of Cockermouth Castle (I. 283). The reflection of the towers was perceived, we gather, at a somewhat later age than the sound of the river. Visual sensations are in Wordsworth more intellectual than sensations of sound. The composite experience of river and towers - which might be understood as an experience of female and male principles - stands behind the experiences of beauty and fear described in the rest of Prelude Book I, which are composite experiences of natural and moral power.

In Book II, the mature man's capacity for love is traced back the contentment of the infant

  who sinks to sleep
  Rocked on his Mother's breast; who with his soul
  Drinks in the feelings of his Mother's eye!

Through his connection with his mother, he gains a sense of connection with nature, a connection portrayed through the imagery of flow and blending:

  No outcast he, bewildered and depressed:
  Along his infant veins are interfused
  The gravitation and the filial bond
  Of nature that connect him with the world.

The infant is from the start an active agent of perception who "drinks in" feelings. Because he inhabits the loving universe circumscribed for him by his mother's "Presence," he loves or reaches out to all that he beholds. That sense of "Presence," the baby's first apprehension of Deity, is produced by the sympathetic relation of mind to universe which is, says Wordsworth, the "Poetic spirit of our human life." The mind is portrayed as a relation and a process - a process growing from feeling through power, sense, thought, into the one great Mind and between subject and object, in such a way that the parts flow one into the other and can hardly be discriminated.

  For feeling has to him imparted power
  That through the growing faculties of sense
  Doth like an agent of the one great Mind
  Create, creator and receiver both,
  Working but in alliance with the works
  Which it beholds.

This poetic spirit, says Wordsworth, is in most people "abated or suppressed" in later years. But in some few it remains "Pre-eminent till death", and those few are, we gather, poets (Prelude II. 235-65).

We have here a psychological accounting for affect, for the value or "glory" we find in the world, which seems to contradict the Platonic accounting in the "Immortality Ode." The accounting in The Prelude is the authentically Wordsworthian one, because it is naturalistic, psychological and sensationalist.

We have only to recall Locke's description of the mind as a dark closet penetrated by certain rays of light from the outside world - a comparison even more revealing of Locke's outlook than his better known comparison of the mind to white or blank paper - to understand the sense in which Wordsworth answers Locke. Yet it is Locke who supplies the concepts of memory and association through which Wordsworth can give psychological substantiation to his experience of his own mind as light or music. And it is important to note that the mind recognizes itself in an external sensation, that Wordsworth arrives at his concept of mind by tracing his life back to an original sensation to "A visible scene, on which the sun is shining" or to the sound of the Derwent River. Wordsworth is moving toward a notion of external self.

Much ink has been spilled over the question whether Wordsworth believed that his apprehension of spirit came from outside or inside, whether he was a Lockean empiricist or a Platonic believer in innate ideas. The answer is that Wordsworth, when he is writing his best poetry, uses both doctrines as possibilities, blending them in such a way as to evoke the mystery he is talking about - the mystery of life, vitality, organic connection. The case should teach us something about the proper relation of ideas to poetry.

F. R. Leavis and Donald Davie have shown, through an analysis of Wordsworth's syntax, how he gives us poetry by blurring the thought. One can say even more specifically that Wordsworth gives us poetry by being both Lockean and anti-Lockean at the same time. For Wordsworth answers Locke by using the Lockean concepts of memory and association. It is only through memory, says Locke, that the mind has any effectiveness, and he equates the self with the sum of conscious memory ("whatever has the consciousness of present and past actions, is the same person to whom they both belong"). But Locke does not speak of memory as modifying the actions remembered; these actions remain fixed, like the data "remembered" by a computer. It is in speaking of the accidental association of ideas that Locke recognizes a modifying and transforming process. Locke accounts for our irrational behavior and for affect - for what he calls our "sympathies and antipathies" - by the connection through "chance or custom" of ideas that have no correspondence in nature or logic. Through association, in other words, sensations and ideas are transformed into something other than they would be in themselves, with a value they would not have in themselves.

The difference between Locke and the romanticists is that Locke deplores the process of association as unamenable to reason; whereas the romanticists glory in it because it shows the mind as creative and carries them over from sensation to value. It is significant that Wordsworth and Coleridge were specially interested in the eighteenth-century medical doctor David Hartley, who builds his whole system on the theory of asociation that is in Locke only one proposition. From associa- ion, Hartley derives the affective responses of pleasure and pain which lead to Christian values and faith. Hartley must have seemed to Wordsworth and Coleridge to have transcendentalized Locke. In "Religious Musings," Coleridge hails Hartley as "of mortal kind / Wisest," because he is the first to establish value on a materialistic and therefore scientific basis - the "first who marked the ideal tribes/ Up the fine fibres through the sentient brain (ll. 368-70). Hartley comes close to calling this world a vale of soul-making when he says: "Some degree of spirituality is the necessary consequence of passing through life. The sensible pleasures and pains must be trans- ferred by association more and more every day, upon things that afford neither sensible pleasure nor sensible pain in themselves, and so beget the intellectual pleasures and pains." In other words, we grow spiritually by conferring spirituality upon the world. The issue between the Locke-Hartley doctrine and the Platonic doctrine of preexistence is whether we gain or lose spirituality by living.

Nevertheless, Hartley's system remains mechanical because he does not recognize that the crucial element in Locke's theory of association is this - that only in speaking of association does Locke allow for any unconscious mental process. Wordsworth and Coleridge modify Hartley by dwelling on the unconscious aspects of the associative process. Thus Coleridge, in turning against Hartley, says that "association depends in a much greater degree on the recurrence of resembling states of Feeling, than on Trains of Idea," and that "Ideas never recall Ideas . . . any more than Leaves in a forest create each other's motion - The Breeze it is that runs thro' them . . . the Soul, the state of Feeling." "Consciousness," Freud will declare, "arises instead of a memory trace." Wordsworth says much the same thing when, in The Prelude, he describes the delayed effect of epiphanies-

  the soul,
  Remembering how she felt, but what she felt
  Remembering not, retains an obscure sense
  Of possible sublimity, whereto
  With growing faculties she doth aspire,
  With faculties still growing, feeling still
  That whatsoever point they gain, they yet
  Have something to pursue. (II. 315-22)

Association takes place not through the ideas or manifest content of an experience but through the affective tone, which can then be communicated to experiences with quite different mani- fest contents. Wordsworth makes clear what is implied by Coleridge's "Breeze" - that this affective tone is a feeling of infinity which connects the individual mind with the Great Mind and cannot be entirely accounted for by present, or even recollected, experience.

For Locke, we apprehend infinity as an idea of quantity - the result of our understanding that we can count indefinitely and can indefinitely add line segments to a given line segment. The idea is inapplicable, in the same way, to quality: "nobody ever thinks of infinite sweetness, or infinite whiteness." For Wordsworth, instead, we apprehend infinity as a feeling having to do with quality and organic wholeness - we cannot add to an organism as to a line segment. For Locke, the idea of infinity follows from our experience. For Wordsworth, we not only bring the feeling of infinity to later experiences through associated memory of earlier experiences, but the feeling somehow both rises out of and is anterior to even our primal experiences. This original feeling of infinity envelops all subsequent experiences, giving the sense that they all fold into the same self

The ambiguity is suggested through the use of both memory and the fading-out of memory. Because the soul remembers not what but how she felt, we carry with us a feeling larger than anything we can remember of our primal experiences; and the soul grows, in this vale of soul-making, toward a feeling of wholeness that seems recollected though we cannot say from where. Locke refutes the theory of pre-existence by saying that if a man has no memory at all of his previous existence, if he has "a consciousness that cannot reach beyond this new state," then he is not the same person who led the previous existence since "personal identity" - here Locke is at one with Descartes and Hume - reaches "no further than consciousness reaches."

Wordsworth's answer is to blur the line between remembering and forgetting, to introduce a notion of unconscious memory. By combining memory and association, Wordsworth sets the Lockean system in motion, infusing it with vitality, surrounding it with mystery, and carrying the mind back beyond conscious memory to the "dawn of being" where it is undistinguishable from its first sensation.

Memory becomes in Wordsworth the instrument of the associative or transforming power. It is because we see with stereoscopic vision - as Roger Shattuck puts it in speaking, in Proust's Binoculars, of Proust's use of memory - it is because partly we see the tree before us and partly we see all the trees we have ever seen that we see from outside and inside and have not sensations but experiences. With the "impressions" before him, says Wordsworth in The Excursion,

  would he still compare
  All his remembrances, thoughts, shapes and forms;
  And, being still unsatisfied with aught
  Of dimmer character, he thence attained
  An active power to fasten images
  Upon his brain; and on their pictured lines
  Intensely brooded, even till they acquired
  The liveliness of dreams. (I. 141-48)

That is the meaning of the crucial line in "Tintern Abbey": "The picture of the mind revives again." Wordsworth sees the present landscape through his mental picture of the landscape five years earlier. Because he discovers continuity in the disparate pictures through a principle of growth, he becomes aware of the pattern of his life - he binds his apparently disparate days together. He may be said to evolve his soul in becoming aware that his soul evolves. Included in the present experience is Wordsworth's sense that he will in future feed upon it, just as in the intervening five years he has fed on his last visit to this place. The experience includes, in other words, the consciousness of laying up treasure - not in heaven but in the memory. It is the point of "Tintern Abbey," the "Immortality Ode," and The Prelude that this spiritual storehouse of memory is our soul.

Thus Wordsworth establishes, on naturalistic, psychological grounds, a self as transcendent as the old Christian self created and sustained by God. He establislies a new certainty about self and the self's perceptions, after the dissolution of the old Christian certainty had been articulated by Locke and the other empiricists. Wordsworth's answer to Locke (which serves also as an answer to the rationalist Descartes) is that the mind belongs to, and therefore actively connects with, the nature it perceives. It is this connection, sensed through what Wordsworth calls joy, that gives us confidence in the reality of ourselves and the external world. For Wordsworth the self is memory and process - the memory of all its phases and the process of interchange with the external world. The movement of thought into sensation and back again corresponds to the circular movement of self into nature and back again and to the circular movement from the subjectively individual to the objlectively archetypal phases of identity and back again. Each such circular movement, which could be conceived as starting from outside as well as inside, is a new creation, a new confirmation, of self - and is impelled by joy. Wordsworth establishes the model of the modern self-creating, self-regarding identity, which draws its vital force from organic connection with nature.