“But They Have Dwindled,” Rethinking Wordsworth’s “Resolution And Independence” As A Modern Day Cautionary Tale
In one of his most profound existential poems, “Resolution and Independence,” William Wordsworth adds a postscript to Qoholeth’s proverbial ancient mantra from Ecclesiastes—“All is vanity…there is nothing new under the sun”. The question that resounds between each line of the poem written in 1802 when Wordsworth was 32 is a cliché that poets have been doomed to find a way around since the dawn of poetry: how to go on writing in the loss of one’s “summer mood”? Samuel Beckett captured Wordsworth’s conundrum most succinctly in his famous statement: “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.” Wordsworth chooses a more fleshed out, cathectic response to writer’s block than Beckett’s in “Resolution and Independence” by writing an extended pastoral metaphor in the form of a dramatic narrative that begins in despair and ends on a note of ironic hope. Like Dante wandering in “a dark wood midway through the journey of [his] life” at the outset of The Inferno, Wordsworth’s speaker, a poet also, finds himself wandering with similar ennui on a “moor” following a refreshing rain storm that has filled the air with the “pleasant noise of waters” while “the sky rejoices in the morning’s birth.” Yet, despite the refreshing scenery and climate, the poet is despondent, complaining, “My old remembrances went from me wholly;/ All the ways of men, so vain and melancholy.” And not only the “vanity” of men, but the poet’s faith as well. With no semblance even of nostalgia for his past upbeat walks on the moor or “pleasant thoughts” in which he has “lived,” he grieves his former “summer mood,” impugning God with Job-like anger for the loss of his happiness:
My whole life I have lived in pleasant thought,
As if life’s business were a summer mood;
As if all needful things would come unsought
To genial faith, still rich in genial good;
But how can He expect that others should
Build for him, sow for him, and at his call
Love him, who for himself will take no heed at all?
In the midst of his aimless wandering, the poet suddenly encounters “a Man before [him] unawares// The oldest man he seemed that ever wore grey hairs.” This striking figure embodies a primordial figure, “Like a sea-beast crawled forth, that on a shelf/ Of rock or sand reposeth, there to sun itself” and “not all alive nor dead.” With the countenance of a mythical character, not unlike the Green Man, this man seems as oneiric as he does real:
The whole body of the Man did seem
Like one whom I had met with in a dream;
Or like a man from some far region sent,
To give me human strength, by apt admonishment.
The poet does not yet recognize himself in the stranger—the leech gatherer—at this point in the poem, for while he needs to believe he’s capable of “catching” new poems, just as the leech gatherer needs to believe in his skill at gathering leaches, he feels hopeless about the prospect of continuing to write, as well as to maintain his faith in doing so in a “summer mood.” The leech gatherer does not provide any immediate hope for the poet’s melancholy as his ravaged appearance belies precisely that ironic toughness the poet will come to discover in him soon enough:
His body was bent double, feet and head
Coming together in life’s pilgrimage;
As if some dire constraint of pain, or rage
Of sickness felt by him in times long past,
A more than human weight upon his frame had cast.
Following the leech gatherer’s introduction, the leech gatherer’s struggle to continue harvesting leeches amidst their dwindling and “decay” provides a pastoral analogue to the aging poet’s search for new poems. Like the leech gatherer, the poet must brave his own “dwindling” stock of poems with “cheerful” resolve if he is to overcome his fate “to begin in gladness” and “end in madness” like “the marvelous boy…Chatterton.” One could not have blamed Wordsworth for concluding his brown study on a black note, just as one could not have blamed his friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge for sentencing his Ancient Mariner to a life of endless remorse and misery. Wordsworth, like Coleridge, creates a near impossible spiritual problem, as well as a serious thinking problem, for his protagonist to solve. He must ironically muddy his waters, just as the leech gatherer must stir the water of the pond to gather leeches:
At length, himself unsettling, he the pond
Stirred with his staff, and fixedly did look
Upon the muddy water, which he conned,
As if he had been reading in a book.
Wordsworth’s mention of “a book” at the end of this stanza provides a clue to a philosophy that influenced him profoundly, namely stoicism. The Wordsworth scholar Bruce Graver elucidates this in his chapter titled “Wordsworth and the Stoics” in Rome and the Romantics (Oxford University Press, 2012) in which he cites Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations specifically, along with the writings of Seneca. In this philosophical light, the leech gatherer assumes the disposition of the archetypal stoic sage whose resignation to the rigors of survival is complemented by his belief in God. On the stage of the “moor,” Wordsworth provides a “resolution” to the poet’s despondency with a plain-spoken testimony from the leech gatherer who the poet feels has been sent to give him “human strength, by some apt admonishment.” “How is it you live, and what is it you do?” the poet asks the leech gatherer—a question that redounds as much on the poet’s curiosity about his own vocation as it does on his interest in the leech gatherer’s profession and survival skills. The harsh facts of the leech gatherer’s life and work speak for themselves as “apt admonishment” to the poet whose complaints pale in comparison to the leech gatherer’s “hardships.” At this point in the poem, the rural sage assumes a dummy-like quality for the poet to throw his voice into as a thinly-veiled ventriloquist of his own “soul-making.” How revelatory and sanguine for Wordsworth as the poet to hear in his own projected voice the very wisdom he was blocked from hearing in the “misery” he was experiencing prior to encountering the leech gatherer:
He told, that to these waters he had come
To gather leeches, being old and poor:
Employment hazardous and wearisome!
And he had many hardships to endure:
From pond to pond he roamed, from moor to moor;
Housing, with God’s good help, by choice or chance;
And in this way he gained an honest maintenance.
Wordsworth employs what he called “recollected emotion” as a catalyst for gaining new awareness of his powers of perseverance via the poetic device of a transpersonal self—the leech gatherer. This new, stalwart awareness besrs little if any resemblance to the dire emotion that initially inspired the poet and testifies to his transformative realization—“God…be my help and stay secure”— that emerges from his dramatic resolution as a cure for his melancholy. In an epiphany that combines both stoical and religious conviction, the poet grasps the anodyne for his despondency, namely, the simple will to persevere. This plain-spoken realization emerges spontaneously in the course of the poet’s conversation with the leech gatherer who exemplifies the reification of the sublime, which the third century Greek philosopher, Cassius Longinus, defined memorably as “a greatness of soul, imitation, or imagery…of art that uplifts our soul to an exalted height.” The Leech gatherer’s simple yet noble final statement to the poet, “Yet still I persevere, and find them where I may,” instills the poet with an enduring hope in a tireless muse who like the leeches in the pond’s waters resides in the murk of his intellect and imagination.
Although Wordsworth composes a thinly-veiled Christian apology in “Resolution and Independence” for persevering in the doldrums, with “God’s help,” his emphasis on “human strength” stands out as a striking secular conceit. His emphasis on human enterprise as a critical attribute for survival, and even salvation, has roots in the theology of the 4th century English theologian Pelagius, who maintained that human effort was an essential, volitional complement for accessing God’s grace—a doctrine that St Augustine considered heretical for its denunciation of God’s sovereignty in the matter. By employing a credible spiritual rebuttal to the causes of writer’s block, as well as the seductive reductio ad absurdum arguments at the heart of both Ecclesiastes and Stoicism, Wordsworth makes a romantic argument for humanity’s near-miraculous legacy of survival against all odds by attributing it to “strength” and “maintenance.” The poem endures as much as an allegory, therefore, as it does a parable since it works as both an Earthly story with a worldly meaning and an Earthly story with a Heavenly meaning. It also works as a powerfully prophetic poem for our present age in which climate change, a pandemic, and overpopulation present global extremities that would no doubt stun Wordsworth’s “summer mood” with apocalyptic shock. Yet, Wordsworth does seem to possess a remarkably intuitive prescience regarding the fragility of the natural world, reporting through his leech gatherer the inexplicable decline of leeches:
Once I could meet with them on every side;
But they have dwindled long by slow decay;
Yet still I persevere, and find them where I may.
This two hundred and twenty year old “report” on the disappearance of leeches from moor ponds in the Lake District of England redounds eerily on today’s environmental crisis as we witness the extinction of one species after another around the world in recent decades, such animals as the Pyrenean Ibyx, the passenger pigeon, the steller’s sea cow, the western black rhinoceros, the dodo, the quagga, and the pinta island tortoise, to mention just a few. Wordsworth’s leeches are these creatures now and the leech gatherers Bill McKibbben, W.S. Merwin, Elizabeth Kolbert, Rebecca Solnit and that anonymous elderly man or woman still wandering the countryside searching for miraculous, irreplaceable creatures, no matter how unseemly.