William Wordsworth and Lao-tzu:
the Similarities between a Philosophical Poet and a Poetic Philosopher

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At first glance, the ancient Chinese philosopher, Lao-tzu may seem completely unrelated to the Poet Laureate of the nineteenth century, William Wordsworth.   However, similarities can be found, through meticulous scrutiny of the teachings and the work of Lao-tzu and the poetry and ideals of the Romantic poet Wordsworth.  Their likenesses lie in their poetic creativity, their wisdom, and the ideas which they wished to promulgate.

At around three hundred B.C., a man by the name of Li Erh [李耳] wrote a book that set the foundation of the Chinese Taoist philosophy called Tao-te Ching[道德經].  Li Erh was also known as Lao-tzu[老子].  He based his teachings on the simplicity of life and the harmony between man and the natural world.  The word ‘tao’ means ‘the way’.  In Lao-tzu’s perspective, it is the ultimate reality: it is empty, yet it paradoxically contains ‘ten thousand things’ [萬物], which refers to all material existence in the universe.  The concept of  ‘tao’ is so deep, that even Lao-tzu confessed to not having come to a complete understanding of it.  For the purpose of this essay, this ‘ultimate reality’ shall be referred to as ‘the way’. The ‘te’ deals with the concept virtue, i.e. the morality of man.   The ‘te’ aspect demonstrates his concern for social and political matters.  The Tao-te Ching was written in eighty-one chapters in poetic forms, and it is mainly through this essential Taoist text that the similarities between this Chinese sage and the Romantic bard shall be drawn.

‘Taoism’, according to Signet’s Reader’s Companion to World Literature, “stands for spiritual freedom, naturalism, simplicity”.   Lao-tzu, being the founder of Taoism, no doubt followed this motto and effortlessly lived the kind of life that consisted of the above-mentioned elements.  Similarly, Wordsworth is known in the literary world as the ‘Prophet of Nature’ and had comparable ideas that he wished to spread amongst his readers.

The ‘Nature Prophet’ glorified the natural world, and saw it as supreme.  Most of his poems were written using imagery of the natural world, and he himself has stated that nature is ‘the guard, the guardian of my heart and soul’. [Gill] He perceived the power of nature, understood and appreciated its beauty, and reconciled with it.  He mourned when he realized “the things which I have seen I now can see no more”.

Since the Tao-te Ching was constructed poetically, it can be enjoyed simply as poetry.  At the same time, it can also be regarded as a masterpiece of philosophy.  Simliarly, Wordsworth weaves his philosophy into his poetry.  Both, then, offer more than merely one or the other.  As Gill points out in his essay ‘Wordsworth as a Philosopher’, the poet wished to depict the relationship between man and the natural world, and to illustrate the relationship of nature to the development of morality.   This is very similar to how Lao-tzu uses natural objects, such as trees, flowers, and rivers to communicate his ideas.  In chapter thirty-two of his Tao-te Ching, he says, “The Way’s presence in the world/Is like the relationship of small valley steams to rivers and seas.”  These subjects, taken from nature, are used to help his followers to gain a better understanding of abstract concepts and ideas. The difference between the philosopher and the bard is this: Wordsworth claims these objects of nature to be something beyond our understanding as human beings, while Lao-tzu, instead of glorifying nature, uses it as a tool that allows the grasp of deeper ideas.   The lines “The sunshine is a glorious birth/Yet I know/Where’ver I go/ There hath past a glory from the earth” illustrates something natural, yet the poet goes beyond that, and embellishes and glorifies even the most common things which we see every day. 

The poetic form of the Tao-te Ching is symmetric, and miraculously remains just as beautiful even after translation.  Without even understanding the language, one can perceive its uniformity by the alignment of the characters and the placing of the different punctuation marks.  Nonetheless, the philosophy that lies behind these poetic verses is deep beyond its simple surface appearance.

“As for the Way, the Way that can be spoken is not the constant Way;
As for the names, the name that can be named is not the constant name.
The nameless is the beginning of the ten thousand things;
The named is the mother of the ten thousand things.” [Chapter 1]

道可道,非常道;
名可名,非常名;
無名,天地之始;
有名,天地之母。

The ‘ten thousand things’, as mentioned earlier, refers to all things in the natural world.  Again, the parallel can be clearly drawn between the simplicity of Tao-te Ching’s poetic form, and that of Wordsworth’s.   This can be observed in his conversational poem, ‘We Are Seven’:

“ ‘Sisters and brothers, little maid,
How many may you be?’
‘How many? seven in all,’ she said,
And wondering looked at me.”

The simplicity of these lines almost creates a fairy-tale, nursery rhyme atmosphere which can, again, be seen in “And then my heart with pleasure fills,/And dances with the Daffodils.”

Furthermore, their respective views of the natural world can also be analyzed in these simple verses.  In Raulph Pite’s essay on ‘Wordsworth and Nature’, he states that Wordsworth aims to ensure that “nature’s laws are authoritative without being absolute.”  Lao-tzu wrote in chapter sixty-six, that “The reason why rivers and oceans are able to be the kings of the one hundred valleys is that they are good at being below” [江海知所以能為百谷王者,以其善之下]. The duality of nature, the flexibility of nature is in fact the reason why it is authoritative.  We must coexist with nature for nature is superior.  In order for us to coexist with nature, we must live in harmony with it.

Another similarity can be found in their concepts of “The Child is father of the Man”.  Robert G. Henricks asserts in the introductory chapter of the English translation of the Tao-te Ching that “Lao-tzu seems to assume that something happens to people as individuals…as they grow up such that as adults they are ‘uprooted’ and have lost touch with the Way.”  This concept echoes Wordsworth’s concept exactly.  The speaker in ‘Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood’ begins by citing his own work from earlier on:

“The Child is father of the man
And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.”

This quote can be seen as an inference to the poet’s insight to the growth of his poetic career.  Nevertheless, it can also be referring to his notion of certain qualities that are lost through the speaker’s development into adulthood.  The poem begins and ends with respective themes distinctly illustrating that idea.  To Lao-tzu, “to know you don’t know is best/Not to know you don’t know is a flaw” [知,不知,上;不知,知,病].  A child does not know whether they have knowledge.   This is the ideal state because they are always ready to learn more. However, as the child develops and becomes an adult, that “ignorance” fades away, and they become more knowledgeable.  This “knowledge”, paradoxically, is the cause of the end of true learning, according to Taoist thought.  Shame prevents people from confronting what they do not know.

Henricks further fortifies that idea later on, stating that “Lao-tzu wants people as as adults to return to some thing they all possessed more fully as children”.  Children, in Lao-tzu’s point of view, possessed certain ‘natural’ qualities that individuals lose through the process of acquiring knowledge.  These ‘natural’ qualities are, namely, genuineness, sincerity, and spontaneity.  Wordsworth presents the idea of the lost quality in the Ode:

“There was a time when meadow, grove and stream
The earth, and every common sight
To me did seem
Apparelled in celestial light.”

However, the scene does not last long.  For the last line of the same first stanza, he concludes “The things which I have seen I now can see no more.”  One must keep in mind the distinction between the different eras of Lao-tzu and Wordsworth.  It is more than likely that Lao-tzu witnessed a more gradual change in the world around him during his time.  The change that Wordsworth experienced in the nineteenth century would have been for various reasons, much more dramatic.  The ‘things’ which the speaker can no longer see, may refer those that are lost from the natural world as a result of the sabotage brought upon by the newly developing industries.  However, it may also mean that the speaker no longer possess the natural qualities of genuineness, sincerity, and spontaneity that would help him view the natural world in a certain way.  The speaker is no longer perceiving images the same way due to the loss of his natural qualities through the process of acquiring learned knowledge.

Lao-tzu also states in chapter twenty-eight,
 
“When you know the male yet hold on to the female,
You’ll be the ravine of the country,
Your constant virtue will not leave.
And when your constant virtue does not leave,
You’ll return to the state of the infant.”

[知其雄,守其雌,為天下谿,
為天下谿,常德不離,復歸於嬰兒。]

This clearly demonstrates how a child, in this case an infant, is superior to a fully-grown adult not only in terms of spirituality, the ‘tao’, but also in its relationship to the social world, the ‘te’, or virtue.   

Though very concerned with nature and the harmony between nature and man, there is also evidence to prove that both were concerned with more than just the well-being of the natural world, but also the social and political aspects of their culture.  Many chapters of the Tao-te Ching directly address the concept of government and comment on how the government should function, the qualities of the ruler, and the consequences of a faulty state administrative system:

“When the government is muddled and confused,
The people are genuine and sincere.
When the government is discriminate and clear,
The state is crafty and cunning.” (Chapter 58)

[其政悶悶,其民淳淳;
其政察察,其民缺缺。]

Wordsworth, on a few occasions, also overtly declares his interest in the realm of society and politics.  In ‘London 1802’, he depicts his desire for Milton to be alive at his hour and describes the contemporary status of England as being “a fen of stagnant waters; alter, sword and pen”.  In this one simple line, he criticized the religious, political, and artistic development of his state.  In ‘To Toussaint L’overture’ and ‘On the Extinction of the Venetian Republic’, Wordsworth also demonstrates his concern not only for the political welfare of his nation, but that of others as well.  He calls Toussaint “the most unhappy man of men” and laments over the Venetian Republic with these as final lines to his poem: “Men are we, and must grieve when even the Shade/ Of that which once was great, is passed a way.”

The philosophy of Taoism is believed to have two fundamental sages – Lao-tzu being one, and Chuan-tzu [莊子] the other.  The distinction between the two, other than the fact that the latter had no particular interest in the social-political aspects of life, is that Lao-tzu’s teachings were written in poetic form, while the teachings of Chuan-tzu were written in prose.  The whole of Tao-te Ching can be appreciated as beautiful poetry and one must certainly acknowledge the skills of the philosopher in his choice of words for his construction of this masterpiece.  No one will doubt Wordsworth’s place as a poet, but as Gill proclaims, his ‘philosophy is in contradistinction to his poetry.’  One simply cannot understand Taoist teachings without immersing oneself in the poetry of the Tao-te Ching, and neither can anyone come to a complete understanding of Wordsworth’s poetry without also looking into his philosophy.  Lao-tzu is thus the philosopher with the skills of a poet, and Wordsworth is, indeed, the poet with the wisdom of a philosopher.

Both Lao-tzu and Wordsworth have left us their enormous legacies of wisdom and beauty, yet somewhere in time, their ideas were lost.  It is then, our job, not as literary researchers, but even just as humans, to revive their priceless treasure and preserve them over time.  They were composers.  Their ideas form the score to a symphony that calls on men to be its musicians, and Earth to be its conductor.  It is only through this mutual dependence that allow the possibility for men to live in harmony with nature, and ultimately, realize the ‘tao’.



Works Cited
1.    Gill, Stephen. ‘The Philosophic Poet’. The Cambridge Companion to Wordsworth. 2003.
2.    Henricks, Robert G. Lao-tzu Te-Tao Ching. Ballantine Books. New York. 1989.
3.    Pite, Raulph. ‘Wordsworth and the Natural World’. The Cambridge Companion to Wordsworth. Cambridge University Press. 2003.
4.    Wordsworth, William. Selected Poetry: Oxford University Press, 1998.

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