Dark Workmanship

Wordsworth’s magnum opus, The Prelude, recounts the circumstances surrounding the growth of the poet’s mind involving elements of the natural world, the sense of how his own powers of imagination interacted with that realm, and the transcendent element that arises and unifies them both without abdicating the role that is the exclusive domain of the poet’s creative prowess.

Imagination—here the Power so called
Through sad incompetence of human speech,
That awful Power rose from the mind’s abyss
Like an unfathered vapour that enwraps,
At once, some lonely traveller. I was lost;
Halted without an effort to break through;
But to my conscious soul I now can say—
“I recognise thy glory” (P, VI.592-99)

This creative imagination per-se is in no way related to what Carl Jung labeled the Active Imagination, wherein a meditative technique is employed to create images that arise out of the collective unconscious. Wordsworth’s images were obtained from what he experienced directly from without in nature’s habitat; his imagination in essence that awful Power arising from the mind’s own dark abyss. This awful-power soon began to take-on a life of its own that led him beyond nature itself via a movement of transcendence to what all mystics convey as the “negative way”, or for Wordsworth, the naturaliter negativa.

Dust as we are, the immortal spirit grows
Like harmony in music; there is a dark
Inscrutable workmanship that reconciles
Discordant elements, makes them cling together
In one society. (P, I.341-45)

The darkness and the corresponding invisibility Wordsworth assigns the reconciling powers of the mind comprise especially poignant indicators of how creative consciousness works through its essential alignment or identity with emptiness or the Void. And here again, Zen thought and art provide useful guideposts to our understanding. A particularly notable example of how darkness functions as a creative force occurs in yet another poem by Bashō “The Goi”:

A flash of lightning;
Through the darkness goes
The scream of a night heron

Like Wordsworth’s “dark workmanship,” it is not a separately existing energy so much as a positive force-field working not against light, as we might expect, but as a capacious enabling arena for all form and energy. In his commentary on Bashō’s poem, Aitken explains that “for the poet and the student of religion in Asia, darkness is an organic metaphor of the undifferentiated absolute. Absorbed in the darkness, Bashō is absorbed in the universe, timeless, without bounds.” In this state of absorption, the particular and the universal fold on each other in much the same way that the flash of lightning and the heron’s cry both adumbrate and emerge from the void they illuminate: “In these immediately consecutive experiences,” writes Aitken, “the scream and the lightning are one with the darkness, and the sighs of the poet and reader alike. (John G. Rudy, Wordsworth and the Zen Mind : The Poetry of Self-emptying, pg. 45)

Like Bashō, Wordsworth gives himself over to this “dark workmanship of the mind”. Much akin to John of the Cross’ line, “in darkness and secure.”

That spectacle, for many days, my brain
Worked with a dim and undetermined sense
Of unknown modes of being; o’er my thoughts
There hung a darkness, call it solitude
Or blank desertion. No familiar shapes
Remained, no pleasant images of trees,
Of sea or sky, no colours of green fields;
But huge and mighty forms, that do not live
Like living men, moved slowly through the mind
By day, and were a trouble to my dreams. (P I. 392-401)

It is only during those times of experiencing those “unknown modes of being” when the darkness of solitude envelops the soul, no longer giving comfort in “dreams” or known modes of being like those articles of nature, but only and exclusively in the realm of the undifferentiated Absolute.

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