The British romantic poet William Wordsworth is best known for his moving evocations of nature, his celebration of childhood, and his quest to find a shared humanity in his poetry. He’s also widely considered the first modern poet because he turns his experiences, memories, and the workings of his mind (earlier "spots of time") into the main subject of his accessible poetry. That hadn’t happened before, and all of us, who today are either committed to rational thought, sober analysis and reflection or are deep in our feelings, are ultimately Wordsworthians.
But what Wordsworth may really be about, I discussed with the brilliant poet and critic Maureen McLane
, is whether with knowledge truly comes wisdom, and whether we trade in the ecstasies of youthful exuberance and immediate experience for a more measured but diminished way of living life. Is there really "abundant recompense," as Wordsworth wrote, in recalling earlier "fits of passion" that roiled our lives? Are "our minds [...] nourished and invisibly repaired" when we look back upon earlier experiences of joy and suffering? "What I'm looking for is a golden bowl, carefully repaired," writes McLane in one of her poems in This Blue - but can we trust that things will be repaired after having been lost to the passage of time? (Incidentally, I talked with Jessica Benjamin in another podcast about the human capacity for "repair," and whether we can trust that things can be restored once broken).
This question is also at the heart of the Enlightenment itself: whether knowledge frees us from superstition but at the cost of sacrificing the immediacy of experience. Can we turn fights, arguments and turmoil into something larger by placing them into a wider context: do we have the "power to make/our noisy years seem moments in the being/of the eternal Silence"? Or are some things broken by humans never fully recovered, and we are left with grief, and loss, and silence, but nothing eternal?
It's an urgent question for our age, when reason, argument and truth themselves seem so easily upstaged by spectacle and the fire and fury of immediate action.
Uli Baer is a professor at New York University. He is also the host of the excellent podcast "Think About It"