There is one sure way of giving freshness and importance to the most common-place maxims—that of reflecting on them in direct reference to our own state and conduct, to our own past and future being. —Coleridge, Aids to Reflection
[Emerson's] theory of reading and his theory of writing are both biographical; the text should carry the reader to the writer, and should carry the writer to the reader. Conventional argumentation frowns on ad hominem arguments. For Emerson it is just the other way. All arguments are ad hominem or ad feminem; nothing else matters. —Robert Richardson, First We Read, Then We Write: Emerson on the Creative Process
In Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930), William Empson points out that literary "specialists"—by which I take him to mean the professoriate, such as it was, at the time—"usually have a strong Trade Union sense, and critics have been perhaps too willing to insist on the operation of poetry as something magical, to which only their own method of incantation can be applied, or like the growth of a flower, which it would be folly to allow analysis to destroy by digging the roots up and crushing out their juices into the light of day." "Critics, as 'barking dogs,' on this view," Empson goes on to say, "are of two sorts: those who merely relieve themselves against the flower of beauty, and those, less continent, who afterwards scratch it up." Empson "confesses himself" to belong to the "second of these classes." "Unexplained beauty," he says, "arouses an irritation in me, a sense that this would be a good place to scratch." I am in Empson's camp, though the sonnet I treat in this essay "irritates" me not for its "unexplained beauty" but rather for its pretense. So, where Empson says that the "reasons that make a line of verse likely to give pleasure" are like "the reasons for anything else"—that is, "one can reason about them"—I will be reasoning about what bereaves me of the pleasure other readers take in Wordsworth's well-worn anthology piece: the "mutability" sonnet. And "while it may be true that the roots of beauty ought not to be violated," as Empson concedes, it nonetheless is "very arrogant of the appreciative critic to think that he could do this, if he chose, by a little scratching" (9). Likewise, I trust that I will not bereave anyone else of the pleasure he or she may take in Wordsworth's poem by the "scratching" that follows, or, as Empson might prefer me to say, by my having relieved myself on this flower of beauty (as a critical "barking dog"), only thereafter to scratch it up by the roots. But first, of course, the poem:
From low to high doth dissolution climb,
And sink from high to low, along a scale
Of awful notes, whose concord shall not fail;
A musical but melancholy chime,
Which they can hear who meddle not with crime,
Nor avarice, nor over-anxious care.
Truth fails not; but her outward forms that bear
The longest date do melt with frosty rime,
That in the morning whitened hill and plain
And is no more; drop like the tower sublime
Of yesterday, which royally did wear
His crown of weeds, but could not even sustain
Some casual shout that broke the silent air,
Or the unimaginable touch of Time. (66-67)
"Dissolution" is said, here, both to "climb" and to "sink." The latter verb is easy enough to attach to "dissolution," with its idea of falling away. But it is an odd "dissolution" that can "climb"—a verb that seems to require some manner of integrity on the part of the thing doing the climbing (anyway, it is hard to imagine "dissolution" as a "climbing" entity). Of course, Wordsworth is not talking about just any dissolution; he is talking about a dissolution that is also a resolution, a harmony. So it might as well be said to climb as to sink. In any case, he assures us that its "concord shall not fail." The phrasing, in its solidity of faith, has about it something of a doxological air ("As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be"). "Musical," in "musical but melancholy chime," catches the concord, and "melancholy" catches the awe, of this strange dissolution that is not really a dissolution at all but a kind of concord in its merely "worldly" phase. We can hear this concord—we can transcend our own worldliness—if we do not "meddle in crime." "Crime" must mean sin, here. "Avarice," of course, is a particular sin, but in this case it likely signifies something more general—say, a grasping unwillingness to detach oneself from the world. "Over-anxious care" is a bit more difficult to specify, though surely Wordsworth must have in mind the sort of temperament that can't make its peace with things (the sort of temperament that can't pray the "Serenity Prayer" in good earnest). At the close of the sonnet the "silent air" is said to be "broken," and then the "tower sublime" itself: the movement, here, is striking—from the familiar figurative sense in which a silence may be "broken," to the passing strange idea of a tower shattered not merely by a shout, but by a "casual" shout. If we admire the sonnet, we admire it for details like this.
A reader's first inclination may be to make the "scale" spoken of in the first two lines a social scale, perhaps in keeping with the tradition of death's-head poems from which this sonnet on mutability oddly derives (it is a kind of memento mori). It is as if the poem said: "The `lowly' and the `high' are alike subject to `dissolution'; death is the great leveler." Or something like that familiar idea. (At issue may also be the "great scale" of "being" Alexander Pope speaks of in the Essay on Man, though the links above mankind in that chain would certainly not be subject to "dissolution," which must stop its "climbing" once it reaches the height of us.) But of course, as the second line of the sonnet extends by enjambment into the third, the "scale" is specified and the figure changes, or perhaps is merely clarified (the poem continues to contemplate the original idea, however subsidiarily). This "scale" is a musical one, and "dissolution" is likened to a symphony of "awful notes." This appears to mean that the "music" of Time is awe-inspiring, even if it rides below the threshold of our every-day awareness, as a kind of under-song. (This must be the music Emily Dickinson reports having heard in the poem beginning "Musicians wrestle everywhere." She is one of the elect who hears the awful concord; she is no meddler in crime.) The music of Time is, fortunately enough for us, a music of "concord," not discord. Or rather, and to take Wordsworth at his word's worth, all auditors who are sound in mind and heart—that is, those who meddle not in crime—can discern the real harmony or "concord" in a changing and "dissolving" world whose appearance is deceptively entropic and disorganized.
This is a way of saying that decay is not really disorder, not really a lack of "concord," to those who truly see and hear. I think I understand the proposition made in this sonnet. I have some sympathy for its fitness. But I do not credit it as Wordsworth here states it. The invincible faith of his statement of the idea irritates me—which is where the Empsonian scratching comes in. Wordsworth's statement is, as he makes it, a perfectly conventional religious one, quite pious, though this is appropriate given that the poem appears in the Ecclesiastical Sonnets. Stipulate (for example) that I don't hear the "concord" in dissolution, and stipulate as well that I do not slander Wordsworth because he does claim to hear it. Why, then, should he slander me? Is it really immoral—evidence that I'm a meddler in crime, or avarice, or over-anxious care—to disagree with Wordsworth on this point? Why must we assent, on pain of excommunication from anything at all, to the proposition that a deep concord hums along at the tonic of the great scale that the world is? Why must we—even in 1820, when the sonnet was published—assent to the idea that Time is a part of anything especially harmonious? Or to the idea that there is anything especially composing about decomposition? The questions cannot be answered because, of course, Wordsworth's poem works in a sphere unanswerable to reason. To those who do not already believe in the concord of dissolution, poems like the "Mutability" sonnet have the Platonic air of a tune whistled in the graveyard. Who knows? Maybe Wordsworth was still atoning for the French Revolution.
In light of all this, the remark of the editors in an old anthology I have seems unwarranted. "This great sonnet," they say, "was included in an otherwise pedestrian sequence, 'Ecclesiastical Sonnets,' dealing with the history and ceremonies of the Church of England." There is a note of condescension in the observation, as if to suggest that the sonnet on mutability transcends the doctrinal and parochial limits of the larger work to become something more universal, and also more strange; or as if to suggest, taking an old New Critical line, that "doctrine" and "great art" are somehow incompatible. But I doubt that the sonnet's theme, expressed in exactly the way we find it expressed here, is much better than "pedestrian," as these editors use the word, and doubt as well that it transcends either doctrine or the parish. As I say, the poem presents us with a rather bloodless way to consider death. Wordsworth's sense of security is to be sharply distinguished from the resignation of so many sixteenth- and seventeenth-century poems on the same theme of mutability. These poems—the memento mori to which I have alluded—tend to make the prospect of "dissolution," rather than its underlying ''concord,'' much more vividly present to the reader, who sees "the skull beneath the skin," as T.S. Eliot said of Renaissance playwright John Webster. In any case, Wordsworth's poem is a prejudicial and exclusive sermon, and therefore a timid one. It hates the idea that concord may merely be a thing imagined. It hates the prospect—or perhaps simply evades it—of real and immedicable grief, of dissolution for which there can be no resolution. I suppose it is the sort of poem with which we flatter ourselves by not, really, taking it seriously. But it ought to be taken seriously. All poems this pretentious ought to be taken seriously.
"Men are wiser than they know," says Emerson. "That which they hear in schools and pulpits without afterthought, if said in conversation, would probably be questioned in silence." And so it often is with poetry in English Departments. We too seldom ask what it might mean to "believe" what is said in certain literary works we ritually admire—Wordsworth's "mutability" sonnet being but one example. Only rarely do I encounter a teacher who will take an old lyric poem at its word. Yvor Winters, say what you will about him, was, and in his books remains, a bracing exception to this rule.
Truth is opposed, in this sonnet, to the outward forms in which Truth makes itself apparent to us. Truth must therefore be a purely inward thing, or in any event a thing somehow not available to the senses. (Truth itself is a-temporal. Only its "outward forms" exist in Time.) And clearly the True, in this sonnet, involves three related but distinguishable ideas: the unchanging (that which fails not), the perfect (that which possesses concord), and the good (that to which crime and avarice are opposed). The sonnet equates the unchanging, the perfect and the good—a classically Platonic maneuver. Its thinking is built out of a tediously familiar series of binary oppositions, the second terms of which are always subordinate to the first: inside/outside, soul/body, intuition/tuition, Truth/Falsity, the Real/the Apparent, the eternal/the time-bound, the intelligible/the sensible.
Let me summarize, then, as best I can anyway, the argument made in the sonnet, together with whatever corollaries that argument seems more generally to imply:
It is only in its time-bound embodiments or ‘forms’ that we can have an experience of the True. These embodiments or forms are always derivative and secondary, merely copies; in short, they are accidental rather than essential. Truth alone is substantial, but all 'sensible' traces of it—even the most apparently solid—are, precisely because they are available to the senses, also insubstantial or un-True. The True cannot be apprehended by the senses, in the sublunary world we inhabit. A question arises, then: How did we ever get the idea that anything lies beyond "the unimaginable touch of Time"—that anything is, in fact, True in this special sense of the term? What makes us suppose that there is an invisible ‘inside’ to all this ‘outwardness’—in short, that there is a “soul”? The answer, it seems, is that we can have an intuition of the True and sempiternal, as for example in sonnets like "Mutability," or at least as in moments like the ones that give rise to sonnets like "Mutability." This intuition takes up residence in us only insofar as we are free from sin;—that is, only insofar as we are not "meddlers in crime," and so on. Sin must therefore be Time in us, must be an "exteriority" that somehow has gotten "in" to negate or block an intuition of the True (tuition infects intuition): sinners do not hear the concord in dissolution, being themselves dissolute. The avaricious and the over-anxious do not hear it because they are simply too attached to the world, which exists in Time and so can manifest nothing Perfect, nothing Eternal, nothing True.
To all of this one wants to make a reply along the following lines:
If our radical "interiority," the place where intuition resides, is itself infected by Time, then we are self-divided: we cannot tell where outside leaves off and inside begins—where flesh leaves off and spirit begins, where the Apparent leaves off and the Real begins. How far in do we have to go to reach what St. Paul calls, in the book of Romans, our "inmost self," the self that has its ground beyond "crime," "avarice," "over-anxious care," and contingency—the self that has its ground in the laws of Heaven rather than in the laws of Earth? Is it possible that the Apparent and the Real, the outward and the inward, are somehow continuous? Clearly, this possibility cannot be allowed. We simply cannot suppose that Being is infected by Becoming (that is, "mutability"). Therefore, it must already be a sin to "exist," which is simply another way of saying that we are Fallen: perfectly alienated from Being—at least until we are redeemed. (Make way for Christ!) And if Time contains all of us—if there is no "inside" that is finally "untouchable" by Time—then the harmony of this sonnet, the very logic of it, is broken. Like the "tower sublime," it falls. It, too, is but an outward form of Truth, an imperfect embodiment of it. It, too, awaits a Redemption, and a Grace, that must come entirely from elsewhere.
I call it as I see it. And in any case, isn't there a note of disingenuousness in the last line of this sonnet? Hasn't Wordsworth in fact "imagined" the "touch of Time," even to the point of advancing a doctrine about it? Is anything really beyond his ken? One wants to register a complaint here, if only because Wordsworth, in professing to hear the "concord," essentially sets himself apart from sin. The really arresting thing about the last line—the reason for which it is celebrated—must have less to do with its thought than with the metaphor of "touch," which brings together two diverse ideas: the grace of the gesture Time makes, so light as to be—and not only to meddlers in crime—all but imperceptible, and yet at the same time so comprehensively transformative as to ruin a "tower sublime." The way the iambic pentameter line accommodates the polysyllabic "unimaginable" is also fine. But as for "unimaginability": as I say, nothing is ineffable to Wordsworth in this poem. He occupies a high pulpit.
My question about Wordsworth's disingenuousness is not just a quibble, because the sonnet undoes itself. In a poem that speaks of a "chime" and of "concord," and that takes the former term for a rhyme with "rime" (itself an alternate spelling of the word "rhyme"); in a variant sonnet that rings no fewer than six changes on that terminal sound within its fourteen-line limit (here is ''concord'' indeed!); in a poem such as this, I say, it is perhaps hard not to find a pun in the reference to the
. . . frosty rime
That in the morning whitened hill and plain
And is no more.
The idea, let us say (even if only tentatively), must run something like this: "The most apparently fixed structure, the most apparently orderly form—a sonnet, a tower, any bit of architecture `bearing a long date'–is subject to dissolution. The ‘rhyme’ of a sonnet is no exception to this rule: like the ‘rime of frost’ to which one can compare the mere ‘outward forms’ of Truth, it inevitably melts away. (A poem is only the outward form of Truth; it never perfectly embodies it.) All merely sensual harmony is temporary and apparent, not eternal and real. The concord of poetry, or of anything made, as the tower sublime was made, by human hands, is only an approximation of Real Concord, only an intimation of it." So far so good. Wordsworth's sonnet tempers itself. But then there comes an intemperate cheat in the thinking, a sort of heads-I-win-tails-you-lose affair, and the argument of the sonnet finally amounts to this: "True, there is discord in all apparent concord, decay in everything apparently firm and stable. But there is also Real Concord in all apparent discord, if only you have—as of course I do, for this sonnet is evidence of it;—as I say, if only you have ears good enough to hear it. If you don't hear this Concord, it must be because you meddle in crime, because you are avaricious, or over-anxious in your cares. If you don't hear and see the deeper concord in this sonnet, you are impeachable on the same grounds."
That sort of argument is irrational, though most committed monotheists are all finally guilty of it, at least when it comes to eschatological matters: Heads I win, tails you lose. And so Wordsworth, in the sonnet, slips outside of Time. Or, to be precise, he attains what he calls, in the introductory sonnet to the sequence of which this poem is a part, "the heights of Time," whence issues a "Holy River" on whose banks "immortal amaranths and palms abound." It is his original sin to think he can get away with this. But perhaps I am simply larking, or "barking," as Empson might say.
Whenever I read "Mutability" a passage in Emerson's Conduct of Life comes to mind. Emerson has just devoted fifty pages to such worldly topics as Fate, Power, and Wealth, when he takes up an objection: "Some of my friends have complained, when the preceding papers were read, that we discussed Fate, Power, and Wealth, on too low a platform; gave too much line to the evil spirit of the times; too many cakes to Cerberus; that we ran Cudworth's risk of making, by excess of candor, the argument of atheism so strong, that he could not answer it" (1055). Whereupon Emerson confesses: "I have no fears of being forced in my own despite to play, as we say, the devil's attorney. I have no infirmity of faith; no belief that it is of much importance what I or any man may say: I am sure that a certain truth will be said through me, though I should be dumb, or though I should try to say the reverse. Nor do I fear skepticism for any good soul. A just thinker will allow full swing to his skepticism." Emerson is immaculate and knows it. The Devil isn't in him, because, in the end, the Devil doesn't really exist. Recall that great passage in ''Self-Reliance'':
Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist. He who would gather immortal palms must not be hindered by the name of goodness, but must explore if it be goodness. Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind. Absolve you to yourself, and you shall have the suffrage of the world. I remember an answer which when quite young I was prompted to make to a valued adviser, who was wont to importune me with the dear old doctrines of the church. On my saying, What have I to do with the sacredness of traditions, if I live wholly from within? my friend suggested,—"But these impulses may be from below, not from above." I replied, "They do not seem to me to be such; but if I am the Devil's child, I will live then from the Devil." No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature. Good and bad are but names very readily transferable to that or this; the only right is what is after my constitution, the only wrong what is against it. A man is to carry himself in the presence of all opposition, as if every thing were titular and ephemeral but he. (263-264)
In Emerson's scheme, evil, like Wordsworth's "discord," is merely Apparent, not Real. Or, as he explains in his ''Divinity School Address'': ''Good is positive. Evil is merely privative, not absolute: it is like cold, which is the privation of heat. All evil is so much death or nonentity. Benevolence is absolute and real'' (77). A clever remark Robert Frost once made about Emerson applies just as readily to the Wordsworth of this sonnet: "Probably Emerson was too Platonic about evil. It was a mere [non-entity] that could be disposed of like the butt of a cigarette." And Frost continues, taking a line from "Uriel" as his text (the line that says "Unit and universe are round"): "Another poem," Frost says, "could be made from that to the effect that ideally in thought only is a circle round. In practice, in nature, the circle becomes an oval. As a circle it has one center—Good. As an oval it has two centers—Good and Evil. Thence Monism versus Dualism" (204-205). In "Mutability," Wordsworth is a Monist. Essentially, he says what Emerson says in the passages just quoted: no "just" man, and no "good" soul, really credits "evil" or ultimate "dissolution." Belief in these things is a confession of weakness and corruption, though in a world where no "Real" corruption exists, only the ''Apparent'' kind, it is hard to see how this might be the case. (The paradox hinted at here derives from an essential fact. No one can be at once a Transcendentalist and a subscriber to the doctrine of Original Sin, though I think Wordsworth tries to do exactly that in the Ecclesiastical Sonnets.) But whatever the case, Emerson continues with a startling suggestion in The Conduct of Life: "I dip my pen in the blackest ink, because I am not afraid of falling into my inkpot. I have no sympathy with the poor man I knew, who, when suicides abounded, told me he dare not look at his razor. We are of different opinions at different hours, but we always may be said to be at heart on the side of the truth" (1055).
I propose, if only as a parlor game, that there are two kinds of writers: those who are afraid of falling into their inkpot, and those who are not. Emerson and Wordsworth—at least the Wordsworth of “Mutability”—belong to the second category. Poe, Hawthorne, Melville, Richard Wright, Mailer (among many others) belong to the first category, as does also the early T.S. Eliot. It was fear of falling into his inkpot that led Eliot into the church. The slumming he did in the early verse was too attractive for him to bear (he had a vivid sense of personal depravity, and an overdeveloped nose for the smell of it, too). Writing really does unbalance poets and novelists who are afraid of falling into their inkpots. They come away stained and surprised by what they discover in themselves, and by what they suspect they have, by analogy, discovered in their fellows—their kind. Of course, readers may be divided up in much the same way: those who dare not look at their razor, and those who dare. Will you or will you not be bloodied or blackened by what you read? It is a question for anti-pornographers, and for censors and canon-reformers of all kinds. After all, what confession are they making about the condition of their over-anxious souls that they don't see the harmony in dissolution? What confession do I make in declaring that I have some sympathy for the poor man Emerson knew? The question is whether or not Emerson and Wordsworth would say I am merely mistaken in my sympathy, or else a meddler in crime, avarice, and over-anxious care. But probably they would have it both ways: Heads they win, tails I lose. The books by James Ellroy and Ian Rankin on my shelf are a standing reproach. I really am a meddler in crime.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Essays and Lectures. Ed. Joel Porte. New York: Library of America, 1983.
Empson, William. 7 Types of Ambiguity. New York: New Directions, 1966.
Frost, Robert. The Collected Prose of Robert Frost. Ed. Mark Richardson. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007.
Wordsworth, William. ''Mutability.'' In The Mentor Book of Major British Poets: From Blake to Dylan Thomas. Ed. Oscar Williams. New York: Mentor Books, 1963.
Mark Richardson is author of The Ordeal of Robert Frost: The Poet and the Poetics (Illinois, 1997), and editor of The Collected Prose of Robert Frost (Harvard, 2007). He teaches at Doshisha University in Kyoto, Japan.