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Wordsworth's eye : a study of the nature of vision in Wordsworth's poetry in relation to contemporary concepts of vision Rudrum, June Rose

Abstract

Wordsworth's treatment of the eye is discussed in relation to contemporary concepts, especially those of the Neoplatonists, and shown as illuminating the relation of subject and object in perception. His use of philosophic ideas is eclectic. He had some contact, either from his own reading or through Coleridge, with the main thinkers discussed, Newton, Locke, Berkeley, Hartley, Plato, Plotinus, Cudworth, Shaftesbury and Thomas Taylor. The development of Wordsworth's attitude to his own eye is recorded in The Prelude, the Immortality Ode, "Tintern Abbey," and "Peele Castle." As a child, the games he enjoyed incidentally fostered a close relationship with nature, thus awakening the imagination. Unlike The Prelude, the Immortality Ode describes the child's vision as brighter than the adult's. It also suggests that the child is conscious of life as mind, while the adult loses this insight into the world beyond the senses. The Prelude, which makes no such claims for childhood, also describes experiences of perception as union of perceiver and perceived in a manner reminiscent of Neoplatonism. The Prelude describes how Wordsworth comes later to love nature for its own beauty. The developing power of his eye guarantees a proper sense of reality. However, his growing visual appetite possibly contributed to the mental crisis of early adulthood, one feature of which was a feverish seeking out of visual pleasure. The eye usurps the dominant role in vision, while the mind becomes excessively passive. This resembles Neoplatonic discussion of the relation of sense and intellect. This brief crisis taught Wordsworth the value of a true relationship between mind and sense. "Tintern Abbey," the Immortality Ode and "Peele Castle" all express a sense of loss in connection with visual experience. They record different experiences but a similar pattern: all describe a loss of intense perception and a compensatory deeper understanding of human suffering. "The inward eye" and similar phrases are used of the eye which sees what is not physically present. This phrase is used by contemporary translations of Plotinus and by Shaftesbury: Wordsworth's inward eye has some relationship with Neoplatonic thought, but the inward eye for him has a firm relationship with the bodily eye. Wordsworth's poetry describes an external power working purposively on the mind through the senses. His thought has affinities with empiricism. "Wise passiveness" is an enlargement into the moral plane of an observation of Locke's, while his accounts of the education of nature have obvious links with Associationism. Yet he understands the external power as forming man's mind intentionally: different versions of The Prelude show this: the description of the power changes, yet it remains purposive. Divine grace operates similarly. Wordsworth's sense that everything moves through the same spirit resembles the classical anima mundi, and similar suggestions in later writers. His though also parallels Berkeley's in important ways. A study of poems explicitly connected with the imagination shows the external power operating through the senses on an independently active mind which in organizing sense impressions,, transforms them. Wordsworth's imagery of sight and light suggests the mind's active powers and the mutuality of perception. The artist, imagination, intellect, all are expressed through light imagery. The mind is radiant. Thus vision is an interaction of lights. Neoplatonic writings, too, express intellect as light and see the mind as essentially active and true perception as interchange between perceiver and perceived. Wordsworth's ideas of vision, inevitably influenced by empiricism, are closer to Neoplatonism. Yet he drew on both to express similar ideas, for he cared, not for a logically consistent philosophy, but rather for communicating his understanding of his own experience.

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