A Gathering of Leeches

Wordsworth’s poem Resolution and Independence does not utilize nature as a major theme, but as a backdrop highlighting those vexations that haunt the human consciousness. It employs what is known as a group of twenty septets with the rhyme scheme ababcc.

Resolution and Independence
There was a roaring in the wind all night;
The rain came heavily and fell in floods;
But now the sun is rising calm and bright;
The birds are singing in the distant woods;
Over his own sweet voice the Stock-dove broods;
The Jay makes answer as the Magpie chatters;
And all the air is filled with pleasant noise of waters.

All things that love the sun are out of doors;
The sky rejoices in the morning’s birth;
The grass is bright with rain-drops;—on the moors
The hare is running races in her mirth;
And with her feet she from the plashy earth
Raises a mist, that, glittering in the sun,
Runs with her all the way, wherever she doth run.

Usual pastoral-setting that runs through Wordsworth’s works, stating that all is well or as we shall soon discover, apparently so. My own backyard (near a wooded area) is no stranger to the sweet songs of birds or nibbling-rabbits feasting on fragments of grass, both adults and babies having their fill. This scene is usually enhanced after nature blows “at her worst without” and the bright morning sun issues-forth its glittering rays warming the earth and all creatures about.

I was a Traveller then upon the moor;
I saw the hare that raced about with joy;
I heard the woods and distant waters roar;
Or heard them not, as happy as a boy:
The pleasant season did my heart employ:
My old remembrances went from me wholly;
And all the ways of men, so vain and melancholy.

But, as it sometimes chanceth, from the might
Of joys in minds that can no further go,
As high as we have mounted in delight
In our dejection do we sink as low;
To me that morning did it happen so;
And fears and fancies thick upon me came;
Dim sadness—and blind thoughts, I knew not, nor could name.

The traveler is captivated by all the glorious sounds swirling around him, but a dark sense of melancholy soon descends and crushes the happy scene with “fears and fancies” arising from nowhere in particular. This can oftentimes afflict the unguarded mind as all manner of disconcerting thoughts and images descend and totally devastate the former sense of reverie.

I heard the sky-lark warbling in the sky;
And I bethought me of the playful hare:
Even such a happy Child of earth am I;
Even as these blissful creatures do I fare;
Far from the world I walk, and from all care;
But there may come another day to me—
Solitude, pain of heart, distress, and poverty.

My whole life I have lived in pleasant thought,
As if life’s business were a summer mood;
As if all needful things would come unsought
To genial faith, still rich in genial good;
But how can He expect that others should
Build for him, sow for him, and at his call
Love him, who for himself will take no heed at all?

Our traveler is somewhat naïve as he has experienced in his youth many carefree moments, forever moving along in a playful, “summer mood”, perhaps never taking upon himself a deeper-sense of responsibility. He senses that his former playful self is soon about to change as the repercussions of the care-free life will bequeath upon him dark karmic shadows in old age.

I thought of Chatterton, the marvellous Boy,
The sleepless Soul that perished in his pride;
Of Him who walked in glory and in joy
Following his plough, along the mountain-side:
By our own spirits are we deified:
We Poets in our youth begin in gladness;
But thereof come in the end despondency and madness.

Chatterton: The poet, Thomas Chatterton (1752-70), who committed suicide at 17 years of age. Wordsworth also is describing that general sense of malaise that befell most of his Romantic peers. Shelly drowned after his sailing boat capsized, he was just a month shy of his 30th birthday.  Lord Byron died at 36 from a fever when fighting the Greek War of independence against the Ottoman Empire. Wordsworth, though, lived to a ripe-old age of 80, his huge volume of poems totaling 387.

Now, whether it were by peculiar grace,
A leading from above, a something given,
Yet it befell that, in this lonely place,
When I with these untoward thoughts had striven,
Beside a pool bare to the eye of heaven
I saw a Man before me unawares:
The oldest man he seemed that ever wore grey hairs.

As a huge stone is sometimes seen to lie
Couched on the bald top of an eminence;
Wonder to all who do the same espy,
By what means it could thither come, and whence;
So that it seems a thing endued with sense:
Like a sea-beast crawled forth, that on a shelf
Of rock or sand reposeth, there to sun itself;

Such seemed this Man, not all alive nor dead,
Nor all asleep—in his extreme old age:
His body was bent double, feet and head
Coming together in life’s pilgrimage;
As if some dire constraint of pain, or rage
Of sickness felt by him in times long past,
A more than human weight upon his frame had cast.

Wordsworth crafts a fabulous portrait of this aged-man as old as dirt itself, likened to some ancient sea-beast emerging from the murky depths to sun itself on some forlorn shore. The description can be likened to when Siddhartha’s own eyes fell upon a decrepit old man littered with disease wherein “A more than human weight upon his frame had cast.” Our traveler here stops dead in his tracks totally captivated by such a lonely and decrepit spectacle.

Himself he propped, limbs, body, and pale face,
Upon a long grey staff of shaven wood:
And, still as I drew near with gentle pace,
Upon the margin of that moorish flood
Motionless as a cloud the old Man stood,
That heareth not the loud winds when they call,
And moveth all together, if it move at all.

Motionless: like the hub at the center of the relentless turning samsaric wheel of birth, life and death. Unperturbed by it all, the clouds soon dissipate and just Clear Mind remains, like the matrix of the Sugatagarbha.

At length, himself unsettling, he the pond
Stirred with his staff, and fixedly did look
Upon the muddy water, which he conned,
As if he had been reading in a book:
And now a stranger’s privilege I took;
And, drawing to his side, to him did say,
“This morning gives us promise of a glorious day.”

A gentle answer did the old Man make,
In courteous speech which forth he slowly drew:
And him with further words I thus bespake,
“What occupation do you there pursue?
This is a lonesome place for one like you.”
Ere he replied, a flash of mild surprise
Broke from the sable orbs of his yet-vivid eyes.

His words came feebly, from a feeble chest,
But each in solemn order followed each,
With something of a lofty utterance drest—
Choice word and measured phrase, above the reach
Of ordinary men; a stately speech;
Such as grave Livers do in Scotland use,
Religious men, who give to God and man their dues.

He told, that to these waters he had come
To gather leeches, being old and poor:
Employment hazardous and wearisome!
And he had many hardships to endure:
From pond to pond he roamed, from moor to moor;
Housing, with God’s good help, by choice or chance;
And in this way he gained an honest maintenance.

Given the magnitude of the old man’s spirituality, it is not surprising that the narrator describes him in religious terms, seeing in him a kind of teacher whose very being, like that of the Zen master, conveys the lessons he has to offer. Comparing the old man’s speech to that of “Religious men, who give to God and man their dues”, the narrator finds it easier to think of the leech-gatherer in terms of his nonexistence, his emptiness:

The old Man still stood talking by my side;
But now his voice to me was like a stream
Scarce heard; nor word from word could I divide;
And the whole body of the Man did seem
Like one whom I had met with in a dream;
Or like a man from some far region sent,
To give me human strength, by apt admonishment.

Like the very world in which he is arrayed, the leech-gatherer both is and is not there. To seek for any principle of vocation that might ground his identity in a specific function is as futile as the quest for a final cause to justify the existence of the cosmos. The old man, in the absence of ego, simply is, and he is all things. (ibid, Rudy pg. 105-106)

My former thoughts returned: the fear that kills;
And hope that is unwilling to be fed;
Cold, pain, and labour, and all fleshly ills;
And mighty Poets in their misery dead.
—Perplexed, and longing to be comforted,
My question eagerly did I renew,
“How is it that you live, and what is it you do?”

He with a smile did then his words repeat;
And said that, gathering leeches, far and wide
He travelled; stirring thus about his feet
The waters of the pools where they abide.
“Once I could meet with them on every side;
But they have dwindled long by slow decay;
Yet still I persevere, and find them where I may.”

While he was talking thus, the lonely place,
The old Man’s shape, and speech—all troubled me:
In my mind’s eye I seemed to see him pace
About the weary moors continually,
Wandering about alone and silently.
While I these thoughts within myself pursued,
He, having made a pause, the same discourse renewed.

The traveler becomes “troubled” in mind and spirit when he considers the measly life and demeanor of this old leech-gatherer. Still, there is an uncanny strength present, despite the circumstances.

Small wonder, then, that Wordsworth ceased calling the poem “The Leech Gatherer” and gave it the title “Resolution and Independence.” By the end of the work, the narrator, ashamed of his earlier concerns for the self, declares:

And soon with this he other matter blended,
Cheerfully uttered, with demeanour kind,
But stately in the main; and, when he ended,
I could have laughed myself to scorn to find
In that decrepit Man so firm a mind.
“God,” said I, “be my help and stay secure;
I’ll think of the Leech-gatherer on the lonely moor!”

The old man inhabits the “abode of final rest.” “Emptiness empties itself becoming true fullness” and the condition the narrator approaches in aligning security in godhead with thoughts of the leech-gatherer. The narrator’s resolve to “think of the Leech-gatherer on the lonely moor” is grounded in the notion that freedom is not a context that serves the development of the individual self but the fundamental nature of all reality. The ultimate freedom is the understanding that all modes of selfhood, all forms of allegiance to particular conditions and identities, are illusory. The resolution accompanying such a sense of freedom works not to solve problems or to establish only pleasant states of being but to accept all conditions as the passing contents of mind. “Pleasures and pains, joys and sorrows are merely accidents of life,” writes Soyen Shaku. ”They do not enter into its essential fabric.” The “essential fabric” of life, so far as we can speak of life’s having any fabric at all, is its freedom from all form in the very midst of passing form as the necessary mode of its expression. The individual’s resolve, then, is not to remove himself from life or protect himself in a shell of autonomy or of conventional ideology but, like the leech-gatherer, so to identify with the nonabiding nature of life as to be the ground of its contents at all times.

Bunan, a Japanese Zen poet of the seventeenth century, views this condition of identity as a shared thingness:

The moon’s the same old moon,
The flowers exactly as they were,
Yet I’ve become the thingness
Of all the things I see! (ibid, pg. 106-07)

The topic of leeches disgusts most people, bringing to mind as they do slithering blood suckers found in stagnant ponds and lakes. At one time though, they were the-in-thing when it came to medicinal purposes. Many ailments were purportedly cured by attaching leeches to the bodily source of the discomfort or disease. In the poem, the old leech-gatherer is the personification and source of the cure-all for what ails-one; like those leeches, the old man’s demeanor attached itself to the traveler’s hidden angst, draining it all off as it was brought to the surface during the encounter. If such a lonely, isolated and elderly creature could maintain a healthy and positive outlook, then who am I to complain and wallow in all the muck and mire of samsara? The traveler became the old leech-gatherer as the old leech gatherer became the traveler and thus both persevered in their own accorded lot.  And the Suchness AS both was not spent.

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