Visions of the Self
They learned that the power of an experience resides less in the event than in the response to it. The world and life had meaning only in ttieir experience of it, and that depended on the vigor of the self. The self could die, they discovered, and, when it did, the world died with it. Recovery was not a mere reversion to natural health but, like Christian conversion, a rebirth to a new world. Self-consciousness they knew to be, in Mill's phrase, 'the daemon of the men of genius of our rime,' and to that self-consciousness the age owed 'much both of its cheerful and its mournful wisdom.'
Thus, Mill's despondency and his recovery from it were the occasion of his grounding firmly in the self his projects for the improvement of society—projects that became, in time, quite different from those for which his father and Bcntliam had worked. And On Liberty, the book on which (as he foresaw) his modern reputation largely rests, would perhaps never have been written if he had not suffered as he did; for the power, he says, 'by which one human being enters into the mind and circumstances of another'—the imagination that, finding room for human diversity, is present everywhere in On Liberty—is impossible for the healthy-minded to attain. For Wordsworth, too, the reordering of conceptions that mental crisis entailed had important consequences. It forced him to perceive that the sources of his moral ideas were not the abstract speculations of other men, but nature and his recollections of his early, intuitive responses to it. That perception is at the heart of most of his poems that we remember, few of which had been written before his despondency.
That perception, rising out of his 'heart-experience,' is a source of his poetic power, and that power, as Mill testifies, was sanative. Mill was wrong about precisely how his experience resembled Wordsworth's, but it made no difference. For Mill did not learn to feel from reading The Prelude, where the poet deals directly with his own distress. The poems that taught Mill were not written about Wordsworth's sufferings, but as a result of them—according, that is, to a theory of poetry as a therapeutic agent at which Wordsworth's crisis had helped him to arrive.
Matthew Arnold was right. The supreme virtue of Wordsworth's poetry is its 'healing power.' What Arnold finds in the poems is precisely what Mill found: their capacity to 'make us feel,' freeing souls from 'the prison-cell / Of festering thoughts' and the 'benumbing round' of modern life. Something like this is the meaning of Arnold's widely misunderstood dictum in his essay on Wordsworth (and elsewhere) that poetry is 'a criticism of life.' The 'lesson,' so to speak, of 'The Solitary Reaper' has nothing directly to do with the explicit content of the poem; the Highland lass is not being criticized, the reader is, on the ground that, caught in the 'benumbing round,' he is, in his incapacity or unwillingness to feel, leading a less than human life. Poetry is to be understood first in terms of its effects, not its statements.
There can be no doubt that Wordsworth intended his poems to be used. In the 'Preface' to the 1800 edition of Lyrical Ballads, he proposes his poems as an antidote for the 'savage torpor' contemporary life produced in many. Wordsworth believed that he had himself escaped from that torpor and from the 'prison-cell' by returning, in act and recollection, to a trustful intercourse with the natural world. Writing The Prelude was the last step in his recovery.