Sunday, May 10, 2009

Comfortably, Wordsworth


While doing some menial task at work -- a spreadsheet I think -- and listening to some music on headphones, I was stunned into consciousness by an unexpected association between what I was hearing and what I'd been reading.

"Comfortably Numb" had lulled me into this place of (perceived) clarity when, suddenly, during the second chorus, as Waters sang "When I was a child I caught a fleeting glimpse" I heard an echo of Wordsworth's question: "Whither has fled that visionary gleam?" It didn't seem a coincidence or a loose association. I thought there must be a reason for it.

After comparing the lyrics to "Ode: Intimations of Immortality," I decided that the themes of "Numb" and "Ode" are but one theme. It is not a theme that hasn't been repeated elsewhere, nor was Wordsworth the first to explore it. But parallels in the lyrics and the poem still seemed significant.

Wordsworth's observations about the "prison-house" and "yoke" of adulthood reflect an early sort of cynicism, which would be fully developed by the time rock musicians were writing reflectively. Wordsworth's little bit of jadedness, however, is tempered throughout the poem by his period fascination with the positive effects of nature on the soul, and nearly sentimental (but never giving over completely to sentimentality in Wordsworth) dwelling on the joys of youth. Pink Floyd carries out the life-cynicism without as much of an attempt to overcome it (Wordsworth repeatedly calls himself back to the beauty of the day, and chides himself for disgracing it with sadness) -- we don't expect Wordsworth's positivity in post-modernity, even with qualifications.

To further the association, Wordsworth's romantically rhythmic and rhymed lines seemed to match the cadence and mood of "Numb." In other well-known poems he often employed a blank verse that trailed on in natural speech patterns ("Tintern Abbey," The Prelude), instead of this anisometric verse with varied line lengths. The choice to use rhyme in "Ode" lends a song-like quality to it. In fact it was set to music several times before Waters and Gilmour got the idea (Waters actually wrote the lyrics and gave Gilmour feedback on the music).

Before I get into the line by line comparisons, I want to note one major difference between the poem and the song. Waters uses a sort of dialog to unfold the story. The first voice we hear, the semi-whispering deceptively friendly voice, is the antagonist (a doctor?) and the second voice -- high and mellow, accompanied by synth strings -- that begins with the first chorus is our speaker. The doctor (society? adulthood?) interviews the speaker who has begun to feel the emptiness of life ("Hello, is there anybody in there?") and of forgetting. When asked "where it hurts" and the speaker realizes he does not actually have any pain, just a numbness (the same thing?), the doctor ensures that the numbness will continue, and at a level where no doubts or memories can creep to the surface. As the doctor does his work ("Ok. Just a little pinprick.") the speaker desperately tries to remember what childhood meant to him, and who he was before the numbness set in, but he "can't explain it" and the doctor "would not understand" anyway. The speaker, unable to express himself, gives up and gives over to the comfort of numbness, and the song ends with his pain never having been felt ("There is no pain") and his exploration of the origins of his numbness incomplete. He is an ironic tragic hero, who faces an end very different from death, and faces it without anything like valiance.

I know "doctor" is too literal of an explication for what's going on in these lyrics but for the sake of explaining the dialog, I cast a person for the part.

Wordsworth does not carry on a dialog with anyone but himself. He also does not necessarily lay the blame for the "forgetting" outside of himself. For Wordsworth, the forgetting is a natural process and a spiritual maturing that is to be expected. The "trailing clouds of glory"(line 65) we bring with us from heaven are sure to dissolve as the sun rises on adulthood, and though youth's "vision splendid" (line 74) will "fade to the common light of day" (line 77), it brings a sadness and a loss, but not tragedy. Wordsworth ends the poem on a somewhat optimistic (but still poignant) note in fact, because, as he suggests throughout the ode, a child is the "best philosopher," but the wisdom of adulthood brings out a new sort of philosopher in the man, a "philosophic mind" (line 191) (rather than soul?) with a new view "that looks through death" (line 190), and can appreciate the beauty and ephemerality of everything the joy-drinking child takes for granted.

Despite this difference in format, the thematic similarities remain, as well as some very close textual similarities. Some lines I found strikingly close (Wordsworth in green, Floyd in pink, of course) are listed here with explanation. Some are repeated, as Waters' much shorter lyrics match up with several lines in the long "Ode," and sometimes, conversely, whole "stanzas" of the song are explorations of a line in the poem.

These are the lines that woke me from work-stupor:

"Where is it now the glory and the dream?" (line 59)
"The child is grown, the dream is gone."

The above lines encapsulate the theme the two works share. I scribbled on a yellow legal pad "Comfortably Numb....Intimations!?"

The below lines show Waters elaborating on an idea that Wordsworth danced around.

"Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting" (line 59)
and "The things which I have seen I now can see no more." (line 9)
"When I was a child I caught a fleeting glimpse out of the corner of my eye. When I turned to look it was gone. I cannot put my finger on it now."

The forgetting seems to be an important notion, but it fades away in the poem. Waters' speaker seems to struggle with this more than Wordsworth does. He desperately tries to recall the vision, to articulate what has gone missing. The message of the "Ode" is the same as the message of "Numb," insofar as the vision is something the child takes for granted or never looks at full-on. Once he gains the self-consciousness to look for the source of the vision, it moves away from him. But Wordsworth shows the ramifications of all this indirectly, and keeps calling his own attention back to the May day, making himself delight in the children he is observing rather than deal with his loss and forgetting on a personal level.

I picture Wordsworth on a green hill shaking his head at the view and the kids. "Mmm-mmm. Isn't that something. You can never go back to it." I picture Waters' speaker on a cold metal table waffling between misery and acceptance, desperate to cry out but muted by forgetfulness and an inability to articulate what there are no words for (though Wordsworth did his best to find substitutes) in the language of Man. The word I keep returning to for "Numb" is "desperate." Wordsworth is not desperate, only contemplative. Or if he is desperate, he hides it well.


"The homely nurse doth all she can/To make her foster-child, her Inmate Man/Forget the glories he hath known" (lines 82-4)
"Well I can ease your pain, get you on your feet again."
and all the doctoring lines about fixing him up

The above lines make reference to the forces and niceties of the Earth that keep us in line, keep us accepting of the numbness and of the trappings of adulthood. This is a far bigger fish to fry for Waters' twentieth century speaker than it was for Wordsworth, who was lulled into numbness by the "meanest" things in nature! This bigger conflict for Waters' speaker would explain the dialogic framework (them v. me) of the Pink Floyd song and the locus of the pain/numbess being outside of the Man.

"To me alone there came a thought of grief"
(line 22)
"Now I've got that feeling once again...I can't explain, you would not understand."

The above lines show that both speakers are outsiders. They are alone in their feeling grief at this situation that faces every man. Wordsworth is sure no one else beholding that pastoral scene has any unrest in his heart. Waters' speaker is sure the doctor could not understand what he is yearning for, even if he could explain it.

Didn't find a direct match in Wordsworth, but this line kills me!
"When I was a child I had a fever. My hands felt just like two balloons."


There are quite a few lines in "Ode" having to do with the child's light-infused vision of the world, his fresh and dazzling perspective on sunsets, lambs, mothers, everything. I think the word "fever
" catches my eye in the Floyd line; the fever being the altered vision, the heat and energy of youth. It could be both Wordsworth's fever and an actual childhood fever, giving it a place in Water's speaker's mind where it would be vividly remembered, so that it calls him back to his childlike way of seeing. The balloons are hard to figure -- but I think they are a distinctly child-like interpretation of a physical sensation. Also, it is a comforting thing for a feverish child to have such happy thoughts -- his perception of his body's changes in sickness remind him of balloons, rather than frightening him. All he has to judge the situation by are "fragment[s] of his dream of human life" (line 92).

"The little actor cons another part"
(line 103)
"As if his whole vocation/Were endless imitation." (lines 107-8)
"Both of them speak of something that is gone" (line 54)
"This is not how I am."

The above lines show the speakers struggling with who they are at that moment. Waters' speaker remembers his childhood self, and denies the man he has become. Wordsworth, lost in brief reflection on trees and flowers, is brought back to his speculations in line 54 because of he way a tree and a field refuse to interact with him the same as they had in his youth. He is in limbo between his selves. Lines 103 and 107-8 are Wordsworth's description of a child growing up, as he learns by imitation. However, many critics have wondered at this entire stanza on the child growing up, and some call it superfluous (See Cleanth Brooks, "Wordsworth and the Paradox of the Imagination"). These last lines add ambiguity to the poem, because the adult-making process is described differently than elsewhere. Could it be that the little boy who learns to play his part becomes a man who is always merely playing? Wordsworth wonders what Waters' speaker states without question: "IS this how I am?"

"Whither has fled that visionary gleam?" (line 58)
"And custom lie upon thee [me] with a weight/Heavy as frost, and deep almost as life!" (132-3)
"At length the Man perceives it die away/And fade into the light of common day."
(lines 76-7)
"I have become comfortably numb."

The above Wordsworth lines and many, many more can be summed up by Waters' ingenious title-giving phrase, "comfortably numb."

Perhaps, is the below line the key to Wordsworth's actual suffering, which he manages to hide better than Waters' speaker?

"A timely utterance gave that thought [of grief] relief,/And again I am strong."
(lines 23-4)
"Just a little pinprick...I do believe it's working, good. That'll keep you going for the show."

Whereas this renewed strength may be a kind of denial for Wordsworth, Waters acknowledges the pain/numbness as something he has succumbed to, and that the pure numbness he gets a shot of is (like Wordsworth's shot of strength from a jangling tambor) merely to keep him operating as a human. Despite his doubts and fears, the show must go on. Again Waters presents a far more cynical approach to "the show" than Wordsworth many have even been capable of. The angriest Wordsworth gets at society is when he complains of "custom."

The above lines also call us back to the aforementioned lines about the "little actor."

Finally, there is no direct and meaningful correllation here, but I find the below lines to be imagistically similar.

"Though far inland we be/Our souls have sight of that Immortal sea...And see the children sport upon the shore/And hear the mighty waters rolling evermore."
(lines 167-172)
"A distant ship's smoke on the horizon. You are only coming through in waves. You lips move but I can't hear what you're saying."


Wordsworth has inspired two centuries of poets and artists, and I think we can count Pink Floyd among them. It is not only amazing to see what Waters may have borrowed from this epic theme done Wordsworth style, but to see how the song can even illuminate a poem that was written over 170 years before anyone ever got stoned to The Wall.

P.S. In case you thought I missed a line, I'll tell you I could probably write a whole new entry just on "You are receding." But I'll save that for later. (That's why I didn't open that can of worms during the comparison.)

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