Dorothy Sayers Compares Traherne to Dante and Wordsworth

Dorothy Sayers (1893-1957), was a noted English novelist, essayist, poet, dramatist, and translator. She is one of the first women ever to receive a degree from Oxford University. In 1957, the last year of her life, she gave a lecture entitled “The Beatrician Vision in Dante and Other Poets” at the University of Nottingham. It was later published in Nottingham Mediaeval Studies (1958, Vol. II).

She opens the lecture with: “It is a favourite pastime of literary critics to debate the question: ‘Why did Wordsworth lose his inspiration?’ The cognate question, ‘Why did Dante not lose his?’ seldom appears among the quodlibets.” She later adds Thomas Traherne to her short list of poets who did not lose their inspiration. Giving this lecture during the last year of her life could be viewed as a testimony to her not having lost her inspiration through the many ups and downs of her life – and anyone familiar with Sayers’ life knows that it had its severe trials.

The lecture is a survey, an analysis, and a meditation. In terms of a survey, at least half of the lecture consists of direct quotes, mostly from Wordsworth’s poetry and Traherne’s poetry and prose. It contains an education in and of itself. The following is Sayers’ conclusion:

“I have endeavoured to sketch a certain fundamental pattern in the spiritual experience of four poets who appear to have gone by the same way to the final goal of all vision. Dante, Blake and Traherne attained the goal, and carried their poetry with them; Wordsworth, as a man, did perhaps attain, but somehow lost much of his poetry by the way. I suggest that Wordsworth’s comparative failure was due to a turning inward of the spiritual eye, which led to the loss of his authentic inspiration: the intuition of the divine in an Image extraneous to the self. Those who knew him in his old age said that he impressed them as a man ‘living in the presence of God by habitual recollection.’ But, as Professor Lascelles Abercrombie has said, ‘to live self-conscious in a mystical experience of the Divine Being of the impersonal world, as transcendent as any mystic’s experience of his personal God, is to live, as unspeakably alone; and that, for many years, was Wordsworth’s experience.’ From this exalted and intolerable solitude, Wordsworth managed to withdraw – first into an effort to find community with his fellow-men, and finally, it would seem, into communion with a God more personal, and in that sense more orthodox, than the ‘God of Nature.’ But in finding this inner peace, he could not take his art with him. To quote Abercrombie again: ‘the crucial change in Wordsworth was a retreat from that mystical experience of the world which entailed a loneliness he could no longer support. When he cut himself off from this, he cut off the native inspiration of his poetry.’” (Nottingham Mediaeval Studies, Vol. II, 1958, pp. 22-23)

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