Is B. Wordsworth, the character who appears in Naipaul’s short story of that name, a real poet or is he a fake, a dreamer? His name, which is presumably not the name he inherited but one he adopted for himself to fit his self-image, clearly shows how he wants others to think of him. The B in his name, he tells the young narrator, stands for Black, and Black Wordsworth says he is the brother of ‘‘White Wordsworth,’’ by which he means William Wordsworth (1770–1850), one of the leading English poets of the Romantic movement. B. Wordsworth obviously feels an emotional and spiritual kinship with the great English poet. ‘‘We share one heart,’’ he says. That one sentence suggests that B. Wordsworth does indeed have some affinity with the man he has chosen as a model because it is close to a phrase that Wordsworth himself wrote in his poem ‘‘The Old Cumberland Beggar,’’ which was published in the 1800 edition of Wordsworth’s famous Lyrical Ballads. The narrator in the poem praises those who give to those in need, because ‘‘we have all of us one human heart.’’ B. Wordsworth also resembles William Wordsworth in his ambition to write a long poem that will ‘‘sing to all humanity.’’ Wordsworth’s The Prelude (1850) is an autobiographical poem in which he tells the story of the development of his own mind. He hoped the poem would have universal appeal and would inspire others to understand the vast capacity of the human mind, especially in its interactions with nature.
Another thing that B. Wordsworth has in common with his role model is that they both like to observe nature in a passive kind of way. In Wordsworth’s poem, ‘‘Expostulation and Reply,’’ two friends have a friendly discussion in which one man complains that the other sits alone for hours doing nothing except observing nature, to which the other replies that just sitting in nature in a state of ‘‘wise passiveness’’ is preferable to his friend’s habit of poring over books. In the companion poem, ‘‘The Tables Turned,’’ the same speaker tells his friend to put down his books, go out in nature and ‘‘bring with you a heart / That watches and receives.’’ B. Wordsworth tries to emulate this. He likes to just sit and watch things. When the narrator first meets him, they both sit for an hour watching the bees in the palm trees in the narrator’s yard. B. Wordsworth says, ‘‘That’s what I do, I just watch.’’ He says he can watch ants, as well as other insects, for days. He does not offer any explanation of why he does this, but since he thinks of himself as a poet, it is likely that he watches so he can quietly absorb into himself different aspects of nature and understand how other creatures behave. One is reminded of the story about one of the great twentieth-century poets, Rainer Maria Rilke. When Rilke was working as secretary to the artist Rodin, he was in a barren period as far as writing poetry was concerned. Rodin told him to go to the zoo and look at an animal until he really saw it. He suggested that learning to see just one animal might well occupy the poet for two or three weeks. One of the results of Rilke’s attempt to learn how to see was his poem ‘‘The Panther,’’ in which he tries to describe the world of a caged panther from the panther’s point of view. (The story is told by Robert Bly in his edition of Rilke’s poems, Selected Poems of Rainer Maria Rilke.)
In addition to his cultivation of a ‘‘wise passiveness’’ when in the presence of nature, Wordsworth is known as a poet of deep feeling. He even defined poetry as the ‘‘spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.’’ Following his mentor, B. Wordsworth also likes to think of himself as a man of feeling. After he tells the boy that Wordsworth is his ‘‘brother,’’ he says, ‘‘I can watch a small flower like the morning glory and cry.’’ He probably thinks this is a suitably Wordsworthian sentiment. Perhaps he has on his mind the concluding lines of Wordsworth’s ‘‘Ode: Intimations of Immortality’’:
“Thanks to the human heart by which we live, Thanks to its tenderness, its joys, and fears, To me the meanest flower that blows can give Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.”
According to B. Wordsworth, ‘‘when you’re a poet you can cry for everything.’’ He believes that the poet must feel compassion for everything in creation. Perhaps he is simply moved by the beauty of nature, aware that such beauty is often fragile and will soon vanish, like the morning glory. He may also be aware, like Wordsworth, of the tragedies of human life. It was the real Wordsworth who, in Lyrical Ballads, expressed compassion for those who are outcasts, on the margins of society, such as beggars, vagrants, the insane, and the mentally retarded, and in ‘‘Lines written a few miles above Tintern Abbey,’’ he wrote of listening to ‘‘The still, sad music of humanity.’’ This is the kind of poet B. Wordsworth wants to be—a man who feels the sorrows of the world and can speak consoling words to others.
One thing the astute young narrator notices about B. Wordsworth is that ‘‘he did everything as though he were doing it for the first time in his life.’’ This is an interesting comment. It suggests that B. Wordsworth does indeed have the kind of gift that is extremely useful to anyone who wants to be a poet. It seems that he has retained a kind of wonder about life. He does not allow himself merely to repeat actions out of habit or have his perceptions dulled by routine. Everything is always new, and this is part of the feeling that poetry can create in the reader. Much poetry is concerned with enabling people to see things in a fresh way. A familiar object, for example, might be presented in terms of a sharp metaphor or simile that enables a reader to see it completely differently than he or she has done before. It was not Wordsworth but another English Romantic poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley, who gave expression to this idea. In A Defence of Poetry, Shelley writes that poetry ‘‘strips the veil of familiarity from the world, and lays bare the naked and sleeping beauty which is the spirit of its forms.’’ He continues, stating that poetry ‘‘creates anew the universe after it has been annihilated in our minds by the recurrence of impressions blunted by reiteration.’’
Perhaps one of the most powerful passages in ‘‘B. Wordsworth’’ is the incident in which B. Wordsworth and the narrator lie down at night looking up at the stars. B. Wordsworth tells the boy to think about how far away the stars are. The boy does so, and something splendid happens: ‘‘I felt like nothing, and at the same time I had never felt so big and great in all my life. I forgot all my anger and all my tears and all the blows.’’ (He is referring to the beating he received from his mother.) B. Wordsworth has succeeded in conveying to this young boy a feeling with which many of the Romantic poets were familiar, that of losing oneself in the vastness of nature and becoming one with it. Lord Byron, for example, wrote in stanza 72 of Canto III of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, ‘‘I live not in myself, but I become / Portion of that around me,’’ and he refers to mountains, oceans, the sky, and the stars. The experience Byron describes is exactly what the young boy in the story feels, and it is to B. Wordsworth’s credit that he acts as a teacher, encouraging in the boy something of the response a poet might indeed have to the grandeur of nature and the universe.
Based on all this, it would seem that B. Wordsworth has many of the qualities that make up the poet. He has cultivated a poetic sensibility that has communicated something genuine and beautiful to his young friend. But is he really a poet? There is, of course, a problem with this: B. Wordsworth does not actually manage to write any poems. Certainly, he has large ambitions in that direction, but the ‘‘greatest poem in the world’’ that he boasts he is in the process of writing turns out to be a myth, the product of his own imagination, his need to believe that he is a poet with a grand task to accomplish. The reality is far less grand and much sadder, and it is here that the story touches on issues that are beyond the control of B. Wordsworth. He is an example of a man with talents and ambitions that are unsuited to the time and place in which he lives. At the most basic level, the slums of Port of Spain in the 1940s are not a promising environment for a would-be poet. But the issue goes deeper than that. In V. S. Naipaul, Suman Gupta points out the irony of the fact that B. Wordsworth, a black man in Trinidad, chooses as his poetic model a white man who lived in England, the colonial power. Gupta goes on to note, in connection with Miguel Street as a whole, as well as Naipaul’s other early fiction set in Trinidad, ‘‘Lack of authenticity . . . is what Naipaul finds in Trinidad: individuals who entertain aspirations which make little sense in Trinidad, a culture which treasures texts and ideas which are patently out of place.’’ This is B. Wordsworth’s situation exactly, and it highlights the problem of the writer in a colonial society. His identity is shaped by an alien culture. Before he can write, he must first discover his true identity—in B. Wordsworth’s case as a black man in Trinidad—and also his subject matter. Just what is he going to write about? It is not for nothing that B. Wordsworth is presented as speaking perfect, grammatical English, unlike most of the other people in Miguel Street. The narrator’s observation that ‘‘his English was so good, it didn’t sound natural’’ has great significance. B. Wordsworth himself is not ‘‘natural.’’ He is too much in debt to a culture imposed on him from without, which is at least part of the reason he can write no more than one line of his projected masterpiece. He does not know what to write about or how to write it. Naipaul himself is an illustration of this very difficulty. When he left Trinidad for England in 1950, his favorite authors included Charles Dickens, the Bronte¨ sisters, and Joseph Conrad, all British writers. The only model available to him as a writer was that of the British novel. But Naipaul was not British; he was from Trinidad, and it was not until he decided to write of what he knew at first hand—the people he knew growing up in Trinidad—that he found his subject matter. His writing became authentic. Even if he had discovered that secret while still living in Trinidad, it would not have helped him much, since as Bruce King notes in V. S. Naipaul, there were no opportunities at that time for writers within Trinidad: ‘‘As it lacked any local literary market, any local publishers interested in local writing, and any local readership, the writers were expatriates living and publishing in London.’’ B. Wordsworth’s best hope of becoming a real poet, then, appears to be to hop on a plane to England. But where will a man who spends his time wandering around Port of Spain, gazing at bees and ants, and whose only income is from singing calypsos during the calypso season, be able to pull off such a feat? ‘‘It is the poet’s tragedy,’’ he says, speaking more wisely than he knows.
Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 29, V. S. Naipaul, Published by Gale Group, 2001.
Bryan Aubrey, Critical Essay on ‘‘B. Wordsworth,’’ in Short Stories for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2010.