A Complicated Message
Having absorbed the music of the Psalms and having grasped something of the personal intensity of David’s lyrics, it was probably inevitable that when I discovered Wordsworth in my late teens I would succumb to his influence. His powerful emotions overwhelmed me, and it would be years before I could temper them with recollections in tranquility.
The Wordsworth who most attracted me was the Wordsworth of the Lucy poems. I was a young man in love. When in my nineteenth year I gathered the poems I was writing into an awkward, halting manuscript, I chose a quatrain from one of them as an epigraph:
Strange fits of passion I have known:
And I will dare to tell,
But in the lover’s ear alone,
What once to me befell.
Some days, now, I think these lines are a bit precious, but I suspect that thought is a cover for my reluctance to remember myself as a youth. Reading Dante’s La Vita Nuova this morning, I was struck by a sonnet that begins
It is of Love that all my thoughts now speak,
but they are in such discord that I cannot
order them or even determine what
I think. One says to me that I should seek
his tutelage, while another one’s critique
is that love is a kind of madness—
Not many pages after recording this sonnet Dante begins a famous canzone “Ladies, you who understand love, let me/ speak to you of my lady” (Translations by David R. Slavitt).
In these poems both Dante and Wordsworth seem to cry out for an audience of initiates, readers possessing a sympathetic knowledge of love and an inclination to be understanding. In choosing the epigraph I was doing the same thing. Perhaps we were doing nothing more than seeking likeminded readers to assure us that our experiences were such as is common to men and women. On the other hand, it may be that poems often require a collaboration of poet and reader for them to be experienced as meaningful, that there really is as every beleaguered high school students knows a “hidden” meaning they are helpless to find.
I am reminded that Jesus spoke in parables not only to be understood but also to obscure his message, “lest at any time [some part of his audience] should see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and should understand with their heart, and should be converted, and I should heal them.”
Perhaps this is what Wordsworth and Dante are about, telling us that there is something more than the surface of the poem, that there is no available paraphrase, no meaning to be explicated in a critical essay, and tucked away in the file labeled “I got it.” Perhaps their appeal is warning us that a poem is a dangerous experience not to be taken lightly by casual readers unprepared to be disturbed, unsettled, and changed.
The poem of Wordsworth I chose as an epigraph for my early poems continues from those opening lines to describe a moonlight ride to Lucy’s cottage. As he rides he watches the moon.
My horse moved on; hoof after hoof
He raised and never stopped:
When down behind the cottage roof,
At once, the bright moon dropped.
What fond and wayward thoughts will slide
Into a Lover’s head!
“O mercy!” to myself I cried,
“If Lucy should be dead!”
The poem took the top of my head off the first time I read it. “If Lucy should be dead!” What kind of fond thought is that? Where did it come from? Then I heard that awful line of preparation in the penultimate stanza. After all those lines of alternating tetrameter and trimeter a disruption of hammer blows: da dum, da dum dum dum. “[T]he bright moon dropped.”
In those lines Love revealed itself to me as finite. “O mercy,” I cried. I knew, profoundly, what I would continue to learn: the end of every earthly love is grief. Like it or not, I was changed.
John Leax (pronunciation: leks) was for many years poet-in-residence at Houghton College in Houghton, New York. His articles, fiction and poems have been widely published in anthologies and in periodicals such as Image, The Christian Century, The Other Side, The Cresset, The Reformed Journal, Christianity Today, ASLE, Christianity and Literature, Radix, Cold Mountain Review and Midwest Quarterly.
His books of poetry include Reaching into Silence (1974), The Task of Adam(1985), Country Labors (1991), Tabloid News (2005) and Recluse Freedom(2012). His novel, Nightwatch, was published in 1989. And his non-fiction works include In Season and Out (1985), Standing Ground (1991), Out Walking (2000) and Grace Is Where I Live (first edition, 1993; revised and expanded edition 2004).
Leax gives several readings and lectures each year at various colleges, libraries and conferences. He has read at Calvin College, Concordia College, Nyack College, The Kings College, Asbury Theological Seminary, Gordon College, St. Joseph’s College, SUNY Buffalo and others. He has been featured as a panelist and seminar leader at Calvin College’s biannual Festival of Faith & Writing.
He is a member of the Conference on Christianity and Literature, The Chrysostom Society, The Orion Society, The Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment and the Nature Conservancy.