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Isolation and the Sublime in Rousseau and Wordsworth

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In their article entitled “Me,” Andrew Bennett and Nicholas Royale assert that “Literature, like art more generally, has always been concerned with aspects of what can be called the… ‘not me’ or other,” (Bennett 129-130). Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his Confessions and William Wordsworth in his The Two-Part Prelude expound upon this issue of isolation from humanity as it relates to achieving a more natural state of existence. Although both Rousseau and Wordsworth analyze moments of isolation from what can be considered social normalcy, each author approaches this seclusion differently in his attempt to better embody natural man. Wordsworth seems to focus primarily on the internal, socially independent dynamics of his psyche, while Rousseau seeks a more natural state of being through analyzing his interactions with others. Rousseau, through the disarmingly candid tone of this work, conveys an exclusively mental isolation, while Wordsworth employs a more veiled and metaphorical strategy to succeed in achieving a simultaneously mental and physical withdrawal from modern convention. Ultimately, the constant influence of society in Rousseau’s Confessions impedes his ability to achieve an effective return to Nature, while Wordsworth’s ability to fully isolate himself from modern influences leads to a more complete progression toward the natural state of man.

Even within the first few lines of Wordsworth’s work, it is evident that the author places a higher value on the clarity of thought found in Nature than the complications of human experience. He asserts that a stream near his birthplace possesses the capabilities of “…tempering/ Our human waywardness,” and that it, “composed [his] thoughts/ To more than infant softness, giving [him]/ Among the fretful dwellings of mankind/ A knowledge, a dim earnest, of the calm/ Which Nature breathes among the fields and groves?” (Wordsworth ln 9-15). The quotation seems to refer to Nature as a balancing force in human existence that causes mortal trivialities to become less significant. He also can be said to heavily reproach his societal surroundings through contrasting his pure, calm communication with Nature to the turbulent complications of interacting with humanity. Through his criticism of and voluntary extraction from humanity, Wordsworth is able to achieve a pre-infantile state of mind that not only allows him to transcend the most simplistic human thought, but actually results in a minimalist thought process previously unachieved by man.

This concept is further exemplified through his personification of Nature in following lines. In claiming that Nature breathes knowledge and calm into the setting described, Wordsworth implies that Nature is an entity or being to interact with and that, because he is able to comprehend its message, he has further progressed to becoming natural man. Due to the fact that Wordsworth has been able to grasp this unique form of innate knowledge, he has isolated himself from the worldly distractions of mankind enough to profoundly communicate with Nature. The author further recognizes his early embracing of Nature as he asks, “Was it for this that I, a four years’ child,/ A naked boy, among thy silent pools,/ Made one long bathing of a summer’s day…?” (Wordsworth ln 17-19). Adding to the sentiments of the previous quotation, Wordsworth further acknowledges his innocence through detailing his nakedness, but also focuses upon the solitude he consistently finds in Nature through his describing the pools as silent. Wordsworth seems to seek out this independence from human interaction solely for the purpose of being able to communicate more fully with Nature, even prior to his being able to make a conscious effort to do so.

Contrary to Wordsworth’s genuine appreciation for Nature early in The Two-Part Prelude, Rousseau is challenged by defining the significance of the emotions he experiences from a young age. Within the first few pages of Confessions, Rousseau recalls: “I had feelings before I had thoughts: that is the common lot of humanity…I have no idea what I did before the age of five or six…I had as yet no ideas about things, but already I knew every feeling. I had conceived nothing; I had felt everything,” (Rousseau 8). It is evident at this point in Rousseau’s work that, unlike Wordsworth, the author considers himself like the remainder of humanity in terms of his mental capacity. Whereas Wordsworth describes himself as being in touch with nature at the age of four, Rousseau claims that he has no recollection of any such experience at such a young age.

Although Rousseau’s ability to maintain an emotional connection with his surroundings is vaguely perceived at this point, he concentrates more heavily upon furthering his personal relationships rather than exploring this intuitive bond with Nature in greater depth. Rousseau goes on to describe himself as “…by birth a citizen of the republic and the son of a father whose love for his country was his greatest passion,” and that he was “…fired by his example,” (Rousseau 8). At this point in the work, the author feels himself to be a part of a purely societal entity. He defines himself from his birth in terms of nationality and familial ties which, consequently, results in his devoting his young life to the emulation of his father. The social focus of Rousseau’s early memories firmly juxtaposes that of Wordsworth in that the latter is already realizing the more profound benefit which results from this otherworldly connection with the natural. Rousseau, then, seems to begin his Confessions as less mentally transcendent than Wordsworth in that the social manner in which he defines himself clouds his ability to achieve the seclusion from humanity that proves necessary to return to a state of Nature.

As Wordsworth continues to progress through the first part of his work, he furthers his description of isolation from humankind in terms of both a unique connection to nature as well as a voluntary rejection of social pleasures. In detailing this profound attachment Nature, he states

Not seldom from the uproar I retired/ Into a silent bay, or sportively/ Glanced sideway,

Leaving the tumultuous throng,/ To cut across the shadow of a star/ That gleamed upon

The ice/…and I stood and watched/ Till all was tranquil as a summer sea. (Wordsworth ln 170-184)

This passage, apart from displaying Wordsworth’s desertion of what he considers to be the intrusive, crazed atmosphere of social life, also exemplifies the lack of resentment or loneliness he experiences as a result of this seclusion. Through the use of the word “sportively,” Wordsworth conveys that, although he does cast a fleeting glance upon the social interaction he is leaving behind, he does so more for the purpose of jest than true interest. He seems to give only slight acknowledgment to the actions of the remainder of humanity and rather prefers to concern himself with the sublime experience of observing how elements of nature interact with one another. Instead of lingering in a situation he considers purely chaotic, Wordsworth retreats to a safe distance within the company of the surroundings that he seems better able to interpret, observing the interactions of humanity until they resemble a condition of Nature: the tranquility of a summer sea. At this point in the poem, it seems that Wordsworth has achieved so complete a mental and physical separation from humanity that he must define the actions of others in terms of natural phenomena.

Unlike Wordsworth’s successful retreat from humanity depicted in his poem, Rousseau’s work seems to progress no further than a contemplation of the potential consequences of completely abandoning social constraints. Despite the fact that Rousseau views a return to Nature to be crucial to his existence, he cannot separate his personal aspirations from the judgments of others. In a crucial moment of mental isolation and realization of his difference from those with whom he interacts, Rousseau claims:

I could envisage nothing grander and finer than to be free and virtuous, above the reach of fortune and the good or bad opinion of men…Although a sense of false shame and a fear of ridicule at first prevented me from living in accordance with these principles…I was from that moment on resolved on my course of action, and I only delayed putting it into practice for as long as was needed for various contraries to oppose it and thus to ensure its triumph. (Rousseau 346-347)

Although it is evident in this passage that Rousseau seeks a connection to nature that is exclusive from the pressures of public opinion, his mental state is still somewhat linked to social obligation. In fact, he explicitly states that his reason for delaying this conversion to his newfound natural perspective is that he deems it important for it first to be opposed by others. Due to the fact that Rousseau continues to consider attention from others to be of greater importance than his seeking a return to Nature, it is evident that the lack of isolation from humanity impedes his progression toward the natural state he seeks to achieve. Rousseau’s perspective differs from Wordsworth in that the latter is able to accept and embrace the fact that humanity is progressing without him, while Rousseau is only able to vaguely glimpse the benefit of a natural state without succeeding in leaving his former existence behind. Not only does Wordsworth have no fear of the ridicule that could follow his intentional estrangement from social interaction, but he goes so far as to playfully acknowledge his isolation. Rousseau, however, views this same prospect as terrifying and debilitating.

Though Confessions continues to focus on Rousseau’s difficulty with disregarding the opinions of others, the author later attempts simultaneous physical and mental isolation by settling on Île de Saint-Pierre. Upon his arrival, Rousseau declares that he “…should like to have been so confined on [his] island that [he] need have no further commerce with mortals, and [he] certainly took every measure imaginable to relieve myself of the necessity of maintaining any,” (Rousseau 625). A few pages later, however, he divulges that he successfully convinced Thèrése to live with him in the intendant’s home. Despite the fact that he first claims that he has no use for any human interaction and that he has accepted his complete seclusion from the modern world, his later transport of his long-time lover belies the fact that he is still impeded by his desire to belong. At the end of Wordsworth’s poem, however, the author fully embraces his isolation, stating:

If in my youth I have been pure in heart/ If, mingling with the world, I am content/ with my own modest pleasures, and have lived/ with God and Nature/ from little enmities and low desires,/ The gift is yours! (Wordsworth ln 473-478)

It is conveyed through this quotation that Wordsworth, though he has attempted to understand the reasoning behind social formalities as they have been traditionally defined by humanity, prefers the simple pleasures of Nature. Ultimately, after experiencing both worlds as they naturally occur, he is actually able to achieve and enjoy the isolation that Rousseau is only able to attempt. As compared to Rousseau’s lack of commitment to returning to a natural state, Wordsworth asserts that, as a result of his loyalty to both God and Nature in all aspects of his existence, he has been better disposed to fully employing his innate creativity. From the perspective of Wordsworth, then, humanity may benefit not from his personality as they do from Rousseau, but rather from an artistic productivity that occurs as a result of his isolation.

Through an analysis of Rousseau and Wordsworth’s opposite approaches to attempting to achieve the natural state of man, it can be concluded that these different styles function to track the development of a character’s ability to appreciate the sublime. Although Rousseau is able to admire the phenomena of Nature, he is only able to do so at a surface level due to the inference of humanity. Wordsworth, however, is able to fully acknowledge both the physical and artistic value of the naturally sublime due to his successful isolation from modern influences of society. It seems, after exploring these works, that a complete understanding of the sublime may only be achieved in its entirety; any sort of devotion to humanity, such as that which is found in Confessions, disrupts a return to nature. These two works, when juxtaposed, can be considered a larger commentary on Romanticism and its connection to the sublime in that, without a complete natural understanding like that which is found in The Two-Part Prelude, the sublime cannot be fully converted into artistic expression.

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