From Julie Joosten: The mind as a mood of weathers

I’m always curious to know what other people are reading.  I love encountering the texts they choose to read or are obsessed by or wade into or simply find themselves reading.  Reading opens onto territories at once intimate and impersonal.  To me, this is extraordinary.  Reading disentangles subjectivity from feeling and offers the lapsing of one’s own identity both as a temporal process and as a perceptible feeling.  It extends absorption or inhabitation or empathy as a way of being.  In the midst of these possibilities, as a reader comes into or out of language, reading also fleetingly offers a perception no longer of one’s lapsed subjectivity nor yet or any longer of the subjectivities encountered in a book, but rather, perhaps, of life itself.  This ephemeral suspension allows life or living to become discernible as a feeling. 

The works that absorbed me while I was writing Light Light often explored the delicate balance of the intimate and the impersonal that reading embodies for me.  So in this post I decided to look at one of these works—a fragment by William Wordsworth—that I read and reread while writing.  I spent long stretches of time with Wordsworth’s poem:  I also read it in snatches:  I dreamed about it:  I continue to daydream about it, returning to consciousness with the poem still vibrating out of the corner of my eye.

Wordsworth’s poem, which appears in his 1798 Alfoxden Notebook, is a fragment in blank verse; it begins with white space out of which a subjectless experience emerges:

To gaze

On that green hill and on those scattered trees
And feel a pleasant consciousness of life
In the impression of that loveliness
Until the sweet sensation called the mind
Into itself, by image from without
Unvisited:  and all her reflex powers
Wrapped in a still dream [of] forgetfulness.

I lived without the knowledge that I lived
Then by those beauteous forms brought back again
To lose myself again as if my life
Did ebb and flow with a strange mystery.[1]

“To gaze / On that green hill” describes a temporal process of perception coming into and going out of discernibility that keeps resuming; it is a process of happening and happening again.  The fragment begins with an infinitive and concrete objects of perception—“that green hill and . . . those scattered trees”—that gradually fade out, but the perception of concrete objects recurs, and its recurrence is part of the process the fragment traces.  The fragment’s infinitive, “To gaze / . . . / And feel,” allows perception to emerge without being bound to a subject:  an act of perceiving happens, and feeling unfolds from it.  The poem suggests the strange possibility that perception may emerge as an open, extensive feeling that is, in a sense, subjectless, that resists the delimitation of individuality.  And, as strangely, that this discernment, which begins with concrete objects—with an “image from without”—may lead not only to perception without a subject but also to perception without an object.

In The Inner Touch:  Archeology of a Sensation, Daniel Heller-Roazen writes of objectless perception:  “That there is a perception that may be called ‘general’ means, in truth, no more than this:  there is a perception that cannot be referred to any single object; there is a sensation that, while felt, cannot be defined as the representation of one part or one set of parts and that cannot, perhaps, be defined as the representation of ‘one’ living being at all.”[2]  Heller-Roazen identifies the sense of sensing that underlies the sense of any one particular object.  In Wordsworth’s fragment, this “general” perception leads not merely to a sense of “that green hill and those scattered trees” but also to “a pleasant consciousness of life”; it attends both to perceptions of concrete particulars and to a feeling of being.  Wordsworth’s fragment draws our attention to a form of perception that makes feeling “life” a discernible experience.  I find this form of attention astonishing.

In the poem, subjectless, objectless perception registers “a pleasant consciousness of life,” and this perception emerges from a sense of “that green hill and . . . those scattered trees.”  The repeating shifts between the act of discerning objects and the act of objectless discerning mark the stages of the temporal process the fragment describes.  “To gaze / On that green hill” interrupts the infinitive with a past tense introduced by “until,” which registers time in the poem:  “Until the sweet sensation called the mind / Into itself, by image from without / Unvisited:  and all her reflex powers / Wrapped in a still dream [of] forgetfulness.”  “The sweet sensation called the mind / Into itself” as though the sweetness of the impression were so strongly impressed in the mind as to summon the mind from the world it perceives inward to the feeling of the perception it carries.  The mind called to itself would seem to offer self-consciousness, for no outside image intrudes on this interior, and yet the doubling of the mind returning to itself suspends thought and perception, for in the next phase of this process, the mind’s “reflex powers” are “wrapped in a still dream of forgetfulness” mimed by the stanza break.  To call to mind is to remember, but to call the mind into itself in Wordsworth’s fragment is to forget.  “Forgetfulness” emerges in the fragment as the suspension of “the pleasant consciousness of life”; it “stills” the feeling of existence.

The final stanza of “To gaze / On that green hill” opens with a subject who emerges out of the mind’s recession from the world:  “I lived without the knowledge that I lived.”  This living occurs as a mode of being in which “the reflex powers” are “wrapped in a still dream [of] forgetfulness.”  An “I” thus appears in the fragment, but its status is complicated by its appearance on the other side of the mind’s withdrawal from the world.  The line holds open the possibilities that the “I lived” without the knowledge of itself as a subject, an “I,” and that “I lived” without the awareness of my living.  The repetition of “I lived” suggests an existence that repeatedly persists in the absence of a knowledge of it.  This unknowing continuously alternates with a perception of the concrete objects that opened the fragment:  “Then by those beauteous forms brought back again / To lose myself again” registers the repeating return of the image of the hill and trees that leads to the perception of existence.  The enjambment allows a subjectless perception of life to be “brought back again” and in this return “to lose myself again”—both to dissolve the particularity of individuality in a general perception of life and to recede into “a still calm [of] forgetfulness.”  The repetition of repetition—“again” and “again”—suggests the “ebb and “flow” of the poem’s concluding simile.  The final figure marks the continuous recession and emergence not of the perception of life but of life itself, as though life repeatedly diminishes and increases with the “ebb and flow’s” “strange mystery.”

[1] William Wordsworth, “To gaze / On that green hill,” The Ruined Cottage and the Pedlar, ed. James Butler (Ithaca:  Cornell University Press, 1979), 125.

[2] Daniel Heller-Roazen, The Inner Touch:  Archeology of a Sensation (New York:  Zone Books, 2007), 251.




Julie Joosten is the author of Light Light, a provocative engagement with the technologies and languages that shape discourses of knowing. Light Light is her debut collection of poetry, and happens to be on sale right now–buy it here before December 1st, 2013, and receive 25% off the list price.

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