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John G. Rudy, Wordsworth and the Zen Mind: The Poetry of Self-Emptying

Tuesday, March 10, 1998 - 07:56
John G. Rudy, Wordsworth and the Zen Mind: The Poetry of Self-Emptying. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996. xv + 268pp. $59.50 (Hdbk; ISBN: 0-7914-2903-2). $19.95 (Pap; ISBN: 0-7914-2904-0).

Reviewed by

Mark S. Lussier

Arizona State University

The use of Zen thought and art as a method for reading Wordsworthian poetic production is, to my mind, long overdue, especially since Wordsworth's mode of spiritual meditation remains embedded in a "discourse of the Other," whether anchored in the "capaciousness of natural process" or dispersed into the "isolation" of the Leech-Gatherer. John Rudy's small book certainly achieves its twofold purpose: "It seeks to provide a Zen context for understanding the spirituality of the English poet William Wordsworth (1770–1850) and attempts to enrich the East-West dialogue" emerging with considerable force in the West during the latter half of the twentieth century (xi). As a result, Wordsworth and the Zen Mind will undoubtedly, though not unproblematically, become a foundational text as this critical concern flows into other eddies within Romantic criticism. Indeed, in reviewing my marginal annotations for this assessment, I found continual intersection with other Romantic poets generally and William Blake particularly, suggesting the need for even wider application of the strategies embodied in Rudy's thoughtful book.

While many Romanticists continue to embrace the judgment of the second generation that the Wordsworthian process itself defines the "egotistical sublime"—a position not compatible with the practice of self-emptying at the spiritual core of most Buddhist vehicles of enlightenment—Rudy's thorough application of Zen thought and practice points to another Wordsworth, one engaged (whether consciously or unconsciously) in the eradication of "dualistic idiom[s]" buried in Western epistemology in order to perceive that "the entire phenomenal world, all that exists, is tied together in a gigantic, interrelated, interanimative web of moving aggregates" (11, 14). Viewed in this light, it is easy to see why Wordsworth was the first Romantic poet to receive ecocritical scrutiny since such a view anticipates James Lovelock's Gaia hypothesis, but simply seeing Wordsworth's commitments in "green" political terms fails to confront the degree to which, as Barbara Schapiro argues, "imagination and Nature, or mind and the material world, are mutually reflecting realms for Wordsworth" (qtd. in Rudy, 10). This aspect of Wordsworth's poetic practice lurks on the margins of Rudy's text, which positions itself at the point where mental and material processes coalesce.

The tripartite structure through which Rudy organizes his discussion begins with the "characterless immensity" of capaciousness in inner and outer experience (27), expands into a comparison of the resonant "paths" explored by Wordsworth and Zen ("Each thing is a revealing of and a resting place for the infinite" [65]), and ends with specific consideration of discrete Zen "moods" (sabi/isolation, wabi/poverty, aware/impermanence, and yugen/mystery) manifest in several of Wordsworth's best-known works. The primary link between Wordsworthian and Zen modes remains the recognition of what quantum physicist David Bohm describes as the implicate state of mind/matter relations, the enfolding of one within the other. Rudy discusses this point through the representations of the Alpine crossing in the sixth book of The Prelude, where the collapse of poetic "intention" and "acceptance" of experiential flow provide the dynamic for visionary connection: "All is an endless swirl of forces, objects, and events folding inward on each other to form the pulsatory eternity of the present moment, a totality that is always with us, that is for all practical purposes the coming forth of each thing in its own right" (80).

To his credit, Rudy does not attempt to transmute Wordsworth into a Buddhist without nominal designation since "there is no evidence to suggest that he was formally influenced by the philosophy" (218); rather, Rudy's argument confronts the problem of Wordsworth's occasional inability to accommodate the implications of his own spiritual insights. Again focusing on the Alpine episode, Rudy argues that additional complexities arise "because Wordsworth himself had only the dimmest understanding of such experiences and resorted on many occasions to the very dualistic perspective" (84) that hinders post-nineteenth-century critical understanding of the poet's perception that mind and matter form an implicate order. Thus, while the application of Zen to Wordsworth (and vice versa) remains the textual steady state, the author never loses perspective on the limitations of those applications. As a result, within such complex framing, a new perspective of the poet becomes possible:

Indeed, throughout the Wordsworth canon, one senses that the many references to freedom and solitude, whether direct or implicit, celebrate not a resistance to the conditions of experience nor a transcendence to a higher state beyond the vicissitudes of life but an abiding acceptance so complete in itself that all moods, all states of being, are in some way positive and contributive. (107)

In its best modes (and "moods"), Wordsworth's poetry operates through dynamic exchange where "mind and nature, like the roaring of the one voice of the waters, are so conjoined as to be indistinguishable . . . a oneness in which all distinctions between the human soul and the soul of nature, the human imagination and the 'imagination of the whole,' fall inward on each other" (201).

Often those positive "states of being" reside in Wordsworth's poetical characters, rather than the node of poetic consciousness associated with the poetic eye: the Leech-Gatherer, rather than the speaking "I" of the poem, achieves emptiness, solitude, freedom (102–6); the child, rather than the father, cuts through spiritual materialism in "Anecdote for Fathers" (118–21), and the Cumberland Beggar, although "the very image of poverty" (125), underwrites communal charity by enabling "the villagers to forget the self and partake of a deeper goodness than mere utilitarian and religious institutional strategies can reach" (128). Through such characterizations, Wordsworth continually brings into view—to use Nishitani's phrase—"a `horizon of nihility at the ground of life'" (122), establishing a position from which to "move within ourselves to the bottomless depths of the individual" and allowing the discovery of "the true absolute, which is, paradoxically, forever negating itself through us in a self-emptying matrix of eternal creativity" (179). In a sense, one might say, Wordsworth's best poetry encourages self-erasure (or what Blake terms "self-annihilation") even when the poetic eye fails to enter such an annihilated subjective space.

Finally, readers should be aware of the limitations of the book, which Rudy states quite clearly in his preface: "On the few occasions when I have undertaken to comment on studies of Wordsworth, I have endeavored to avoid a critique of Western literary scholarship and the philosophical principles on which it is based, preferring instead to adumbrate lines of demarcation that provide opportunities for alternative rather than contending interpretive visions" (xii). Readers looking for a systematic analysis of Eastern thinking in a Western academic mode (a synthesis of the secondary) would need look elsewhere, but readers interested in the considerable confluence residing within Eastern and Western poetics as meditative practice will find this book extremely satisfying.

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