Monday, March 1, 2010

A Tale of Two Versions

At first glance, there may not seem to be much difference between the two versions of Wordsworth's "Animal Tranquility and Decay." In fact, the only real difference is that in the earlier version, the old man is quoted, where as in the second version, what he says is merely reported by the narrator. This may seem like an insignificant detail, but in my opinion it changes the entire poem.

In the first part of the poem that remains unchanged, Wordsworth describes an attribute of an old man. To summarize how I understood it, the man seemed to have an easiness about him and a sense of comfort in the world despite what else may be going on; it seems to be implied that this is partially due to his age. This characterization is what makes the quotes in the first version of the poem so powerful. This ease, this acceptance of events, even applies to his sick son. This ease, almost a disconnect, with all the possible outcomes of his son's hospitalization, reflects back on the nature of the man in such a way that we assume that he himself is comfortable with such misfortunes. While a discomforting thought, going back to the man's age, it could be reasoned that the man is simply more accepting due to his time spent in the world and the knowledge that it may soon end for himself. This seems to mirror the idea of "Animal Tranquility" mentioned in the title; the instincts for fight or flight and survival in general have simply "decayed" as the inevitable end approaches.

In the second version, however, these lines are not quoted, but rather just reported. This creates a sense of disconnect with the narrator rather than the old man, and in my opinion, takes away much from the poem as a whole. The narrator could simply be creating the detachment because he has no feelings one way or another for a man he's never met, or because he isn't comfortable speaking more in depth on such topics - these possibilities take away from the analysis of the human experience over time that is present in the first version.

1 comment:

  1. The second important change between the two versions of the poem is the title change. In the second edition, Wordsworth removes "Old Man Travelling." I think the poet is intentionally removing the "old man" from this scene, and this is reflected by removing his voice. This "animal tranquility" is not necessarily a good thing- perhaps the poem reflects the inhumanity of the old man's profound detachment, even from his own son. By taking the old man's voice out of the scene, Wordsworth shows an even greater removal from human emotion and connection.