Consciousness in “Old Man Traveling”

After our conversation in class on Thursday, I wanted to look at the theme of  consciousness in Wordsworth’s “Old Man Traveling.” We see phrases related to consciousness throughout the poem: The birds “regard” the old man not, The old man “does not move with pain, but moves / With thought. He is insensibly subdued,” and “the young behold…the old man hardly feels.” Additionally, the section on patience, treats it as a conscious exertion “of which he has no need.” There is an effect here that the perfect state of being is one which does not have any contradictions with the natural world, and thus has no need of conscious exertions. We see this in the contrast between pain, which signifies resistance of the body and the nervous system, and thought, which is almost effortless. The fact that the young “behold” the thoughtless quality of the man, suggest that his effortless thoughtless being is desirable. It may also be true that the poem is intending to only romanticize his calm and peaceful manner, but that manner is achieved effortlessly and thus that is romanticized too.

If we consider that an unconscious state of being is the status quo in much of the natural world, the poems effect can be taken a step further, into advocacy for humanities return to a more natural state of being. That would also suggest that the old man is closer to nature than the young, and that therefore the process of aging brings us closer to nature, which in death it most literally does. Nature only briefly enters the poem in the form of the “Little hedgerow Birds” which regard the old man not, suggesting again that the old man is one with nature, so much so that he does not disturb small, notoriously skittish, birds. Much of the Romantic treatment of nature seems to be very sublime and awful, or otherwise very separate from ourselves and only achievable to the enlightened poets, so it is nice to see an old man, thoughtlessly doing what they try so hard to achieve.

2 thoughts on “Consciousness in “Old Man Traveling””

  1. I really appreciated this exploration of the dynamic between consciousness and nature in this poem. The importance of nature as a model for man’s behavior reminded me of the portion of Wordsworth’s preface that we read last week which distinguishes poets as reflections of the “fairest and most interesting properties of nature” (10). Thus, according to your analysis, it seems as if the old man has achieved this adaptation to nature in a way that the youth envy, presenting it as the pinnacle of success just as Wordsworth does.

  2. I really enjoyed your analysis on how the more you age, the closer you are to nature. That can be combined with the poems message that age = wisdom (aka the “thought” the old man possesses). I feel like this is a possible theme you could explore — are there other Romantic poems where age, wisdom, and nature are connected? For example, the Ancient Mariner is implied to be an older man, and with that age comes his wisdom, life experience, and close connection to nature (the sea). What does this hierarchy of ages mean for the younger poets who have maybe not achieved that level of connection yet?

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