Reading Wordsworth in quarantine
At the tail end of my first year out of college, my then-boyfriend and I had a serious conversation about where we wanted to move.
We’d stayed in St. Louis after graduating, but it was time to go. I wanted New York. He wanted San Francisco. We sat face-to-face on my bed, in my sweet little apartment on a one-way street in the small-ish city where we’d spent the entirety of our brief adult lives. What we wanted was an adventure, we decided. He suggested New Zealand. We could work on farms and hike and camp and be in nature always. I saw something simpler: Us sitting high up on a craggy mountain in the early morning, reading Wordsworth.
I’d become interested in the Romantic poets after reading Stanley Plumly’s remarkable book “The Immortal Evening,” which had come out that fall, and on which I had spent almost an entire week’s grocery budget. (I was in AmeriCorps; hardcover books were an unimaginable extravagance.) Reading the book, a group biography of several Romantics centered on a dinner party so scintillating that the attendees called it “the immortal evening” for the rest of their lives, was like eating a rich dessert. In it and the ideas of its inhabitants — Wordsworth, Keats, Charles Lamb, the (admittedly mediocre) painter Benjamin Robert Haydon — seemed to be the entirety of the world that I was missing.
So: He said New Zealand, and I saw myself there, in my own 21st-century Romantic dream of an expanded world. And long after we broke up, and I moved to New York and he moved to San Francisco and neither of us dropped everything to go farm in the Antipodes, I held onto that image of the green mountainside, and the book of poetry in my hand. On the subway heading home from work; during interviews with boorish subjects; while hopelessly scrubbing my somehow never fully clean bathtub, I would go to it, and think: Someday — someday.
Since early March, I’ve been in Denver with my family. The sense of the world closing off, omnipresent in this moment of social distancing, is different here than I anticipated. It’s not just geography, but also self. I sleep in my childhood bedroom, with the relics of my younger self all around me. At dinner with my parents, I sit in the same spot where I sat in my high chair as a toddler. The sweet St. Louis apartment; the various Brooklyn shoeboxes that followed; depending on my mood, they look now like illusory steps in a journey that was always going to end back in the same old Denver Square. New Zealand has never seemed more distant. But just as distant is the three-block walk from my garden-level apartment by Prospect Park to the coffee shop where I used to spend each morning. As is the self who, only a month ago, made that walk without thinking every day.
There’s a Robert Frost poem I like, “Choose Something Like a Star,” that exhorts us to pick a high ideal to look to for stability: “We may choose something like a star/To stay our minds on and be staid.” I think now, as ever, of reading Wordsworth on a mountainside. With the mountainside currently unavailable, I’ve started pursuing that ideal as best I can by reading Wordsworth in the back room of my parents’ house, in a worn chair so large that, if I turn just the right way, I can curl my entire body up in its arms.
As it happens, it’s Wordsworth’s 250th birthday today, an anniversary I’ve been thinking about for a while. How is it possible to convince anyone that Wordsworth, who even the generation of young Romantics that followed him thought of as staid, should be given credence at this modern moment? The coronavirus pandemic has made the answer improbably clear: Simply, he opens up the world. In “The Immortal Evening,” Stanley Plumly wrote that Wordsworth found “solitude the high stage for experiencing” the “crucial emotions” available in the world. And from solitude, Wordsworth rendered a staggeringly intimate picture of how full and complex the world is. “I have felt/A presence that disturbs me with the joy/Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime/Of something far more deeply interfused,” he wrote in “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey.”
“Something far more deeply interfused:” In my saggy, enormous chair, in the house where I grew up and may now live forever, the words connect me to the world I know — the coffee shop, the garden-level apartment, the years-ago conversation on my St. Louis bed — and even more importantly, that which I don’t. There is a worry, now, that we will forget one another; that the terror of simply trying to stay alive will eradicate all our empathy. But beneath our current all-consuming solitude, as there was beneath Wordsworth’s, is a meaning that links us. If we only take the space to notice, our souls do reach for the world, and each other, no matter what loneliness we impose upon them.
But Wordsworth, soulful yet rarely swoony, was realistic about the world he opened. It’s springtime, and there are daffodils and hyacinths in my backyard, as well as leaves that promise tulips, soon. In “Lines Written in Early Spring,” part of his collaboration with Samuel Taylor Coleridge in the collection “Lyrical Ballads,” Wordsworth saw a similar beauty and took a tragic lesson from it: “To her fair works did nature link/The human soul that through me ran;/And much it griev’d my heart to think/What man has made of man.” Above his soaring sense of human emotion, what I prize most about Wordsworth now is his clarity. It is useful to be able to see what’s promising about the world alongside what’s painful. The two make for a relatable ideal, beautiful enough to escape to, but realistic enough for a world that is not all grand feelings and elevated thoughts — far from it.
Now when I go out walking with my mother, if it’s a clear day we can see the sharp and snow-capped eastern edge of the Rocky Mountains. I imagine a cabin there, high on a slope above a little town, where I could visit the local Victorian tea parlor — every mountain town has one, it’s just a fact — and be close to strangers without fear. The cabin is small, and mine; it’s the early morning and the cold air is a shock on my skin and in my lungs. There’s an outside chair, and a book on its arm. Wordsworth once described the evening: “Breathless with adoration.” Breathless with adoration, I sit and admire the world: big and small, pure and deeply damaged, all at once. On the empty street, I take a breath. Someday — someday.