William Wordsworth.

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But there are others supplied by his own, and his sister's letters, and
also by the Grasmere Journal. In the Dove Cottage household it was
known, and talked of, as "the Poem to Coleridge;" and Dorothy records,
on 11th January 1803, that her brother was working at it. On 13th
February 1804, she writes to Mrs. Clarkson that her brother was engaged
on a poem on his own life, and was "going on with great rapidity." On
the 6th of March 1804, Wordsworth wrote from Grasmere to De Quincey,

"I am now writing a poem on my own earlier life: I have just finished
that part of it in which I speak of my residence at the University."
... It is "better than half complete, viz. four books, amounting to
about 2500 lines."[A]

On the 24th of March, Dorothy wrote to Mrs. Clarkson, that since
Coleridge left them (which was in January 1804), her brother had added
1500 lines to the poem on his own life. On the 29th of April 1804,
Wordsworth wrote to Richard Sharpe,

"I have been very busy these last ten weeks: having written between
two and three thousand lines - accurately near three thousand - in that
time; namely, four books, and a third of another. I am at present at
the Seventh Book."

On the 25th December 1804, he wrote to Sir George Beaumont,

"I have written upwards of 2000 verses during the last ten weeks."

We thus find that Books I. to IV. had been written by the 6th of March
1804, that from the 19th February to the 29th of April nearly 3000 lines
were written, that March and April were specially productive months, for
by the 29th April he had reached Book VII. while from 16th October to
25th December he wrote over 2000 lines.

Dorothy and Mary Wordsworth transcribed the earlier books more than
once, and a copy of some of them was given to Coleridge to take with him
to Malta.

It is certain that the remaining books of 'The Prelude' were all written
in the spring and early summer of 1805; the seventh, eighth, ninth,
tenth, eleventh, and part of the twelfth being finished about the middle
of April; the last 300 lines of book twelfth in the last week of April;
and the two remaining books - the thirteenth and fourteenth - before the
20th of May. The following extracts from letters of Wordsworth to Sir
George Beaumont make this clear, and also cast light on matters much
more important than the mere dates of composition.

GRASMERE, Dec. 25, 1804.

"My dear Sir George, - You will be pleased to hear that I have been
advancing with my work: I have written upwards of 2000 verses during
the last ten weeks. I do not know if you are exactly acquainted with
the plan of my poetical labour: It is twofold; first, a Poem, to be
called 'The Recluse;' in which it will be my object to express in
verse my most interesting feelings concerning man, nature, and
society; and next, a poem (in which I am at present chiefly engaged)
on _my earlier life, or the growth of my own mind,_ taken up upon a
large scale. This latter work I expect to have finished before the
month of May; and then I purpose to fall with all my might on the
former, which is the chief object upon which my thoughts have been
fixed these many years. Of this poem, that of 'The Pedlar,' which
Coleridge read to you, is part; and I may have written of it
altogether about 2000 lines. It will consist, I hope, of about ten or
twelve thousand."


GRASMERE, May 1, 1805.

"Unable to proceed with this work, [B] I turned my thoughts again to
the 'Poem on my own Life', and you will be glad to hear that I have
added 300 lines to it in the course of last week. Two books more will
conclude it. It will not be much less than 9000 lines, - not hundred
but thousand lines long, - an alarming length! and a thing
unprecedented in literary history that a man should talk so much about
himself. It is not self-conceit, as you will know well, that has
induced me to do this, but real humility. I began the work because I
was _unprepared_ to treat _any more arduous subject_, and _diffident
of my own powers_. Here, at least, I hoped that to a certain degree I
should be sure of succeeding, as I had nothing to do but describe what
I had felt and thought, and therefore could not easily be bewildered.
This might have been done in narrower compass by a man of more
address; but I have done my best. If, when the work shall be finished,
it appears to the judicious to have redundancies, they shall be lopped
off, if possible; but this is very difficult to do, when a man has
written with thought; and this defect, whenever I have suspected it or
found it to exist in any writings of mine, I have always found it
incurable. The fault lies too deep, and is in the first conception."


GRASMERE, June 3, 1805.

"I have the pleasure to say that I _finished my poem_ about a
fortnight ago. I had looked forward to the day as a most happy one;
... But it was not a happy day for me; I was dejected on many
accounts: when I looked back upon the performance, it seemed to have a
dead weight about it, - the reality so far short of the expectation. It
was the first long labour that I had finished; and the doubt whether I
should ever live to write 'The Recluse', and the sense which I had of
this poem being so far below what I seemed capable of executing,
depressed me much; above all, many heavy thoughts of my poor departed
brother hung upon me, the joy which I should have had in showing him
the manuscript, and a thousand other vain fancies and dreams. I have
spoken of this, because it was a state of feeling new to me, the
occasion being new. This work may be considered as a sort of _portico_
to 'The Recluse', part of the same building, which I hope to be able,
ere long, to begin with in earnest; and if I am permitted to bring it
to a conclusion, and to write, further, a narrative poem of the epic
kind, I shall consider the task of my life as over. I ought to add,
that I have the satisfaction of finding the present poem not quite of
so alarming a length as I apprehended."


These letters explain the delay in the publication of 'The Prelude'.
They show that what led Wordsworth to write so much about himself was
not self-conceit, but self-diffidence. He felt unprepared as yet for the
more arduous task he had set before himself. He saw its faults as
clearly, or more clearly, than the critics who condemned him. He knew
that its length was excessive. He tried to condense it; he kept it
beside him unpublished, and occasionally revised it, with a view to
condensation, in vain. The text received his final corrections in the
year 1832.

Wordsworth's reluctance to publish these portions of his great poem,
'The Recluse', other than 'The Excursion', during his lifetime, was a
matter of surprise to his friends; to whom he, or the ladies of his
household, had read portions of it. In the year 1819, Charles Lamb wrote
to him,

"If, as you say, 'The Waggoner', in some sort, came at my call, oh for
a potent voice to call forth 'The Recluse' from his profound
dormitory, where he sleeps forgetful of his foolish charge - the
world!"

('The Letters of Charles Lamb', edited by Alfred Ainger, vol. ii. p.
26.)

The admission made in the letter of May 1st, 1805, is note-worthy:

"This defect" (of redundancy) "whenever I have suspected it or found
it to exist in any writings of mine, _I have always found incurable.
The fault lies too deep, and is in the first conception_."

The actual result - in the Poem he had at length committed to
writing - was so far inferior to the ideal he had tried to realise, that
he could never be induced to publish it. He spoke of the MS. as forming
a sort of _portico_ to his larger work - the poem on Man, Nature, and
Society - which he meant to call 'The Recluse', and of which one portion
only, _viz._ 'The Excursion', was finished. It is clear that throughout
the composition of 'The Prelude', he felt that he was experimenting with
his powers. He wished to find out whether he could construct "a literary
work that might live," on a larger scale than his Lyrics; and it was on
the writing of a "philosophical poem," dealing with Man and Nature, in
their deepest aspects, that his thoughts had been fixed for many years.
From the letter to Sir George Beaumont, December 25, 1804, it is evident
that he regarded the autobiographical poem as a mere prologue to this
larger work, to which he hoped to turn "with all his might" after 'The
Prelude' was finished, and of which he had already written about a fifth
or a sixth (see 'Memoirs', vol. i. p. 304). This was the part known in
the Grasmere household as "The Pedlar," a title given to it from the
character of the Wanderer, but afterwards happily set aside. He did not
devote himself, however, to the completion of his wider purpose,
immediately after 'The Prelude' was finished. He wrote one book of 'The
Recluse' which he called "Home at Grasmere"; and, though detached from
'The Prelude', it is a continuation of the narrative of his own life at
the point where it is left off in the latter poem. It consists of 733
lines. Two extracts from it were published in the 'Memoirs of
Wordsworth' in 1851 (vol. i. pp. 151 and 155), beginning,

'On Nature's invitation do I come,'

and

'Bleak season was it, turbulent and bleak.'

These will be found in vol. ii. of this edition, pp. 118 and 121
respectively.

The autobiographical poem remained, as already stated, during
Wordsworth's lifetime without a title. The name finally adopted - 'The
Prelude' - was suggested by Mrs. Wordsworth, both to indicate its
relation to the larger work, and the fact of its having been written
comparatively early.

As the poem was addressed to Coleridge, it may be desirable to add in
this place his critical verdict upon it; along with the poem which he
wrote, on hearing Wordsworth read a portion of it to him, in the winter
of 1806, at Coleorton.

In his 'Table Talk' (London, 1835, vol. ii. p. 70), Coleridge's opinion
is recorded thus:

"I cannot help regretting that Wordsworth did not first publish his
thirteen (fourteen) books on the growth of an individual
mind - superior, as I used to think, upon the whole to 'The Excursion'.
You may judge how I felt about them by my own Poem upon the occasion.
Then the plan laid out, and, I believe, partly suggested by me, was,
that Wordsworth should assume the station of a man in mental repose,
one whose principles were made up, and so prepared to deliver upon
authority a system of philosophy. He was to treat man as man, - a
subject of eye, ear, touch, and taste in contact with external nature,
and informing the senses from the mind, and not compounding a mind out
of the senses; then he was to describe the pastoral and other states
of society, assuming something of the Juvenalian spirit as he
approached the high civilisation of cities and towns, and opening a
melancholy picture of the present state of degeneracy and vice; thence
he was to infer and reveal the proof of, and necessity for, the whole
state of man and society being subject to, and illustrative of a
redemptive process in operation, showing how this idea reconciled all
the anomalies, and promised future glory and restoration. Something of
this sort was, I think, agreed on. It is, in substance, what I have
been all my life doing in my system of philosophy.

"I think Wordsworth possessed more of the genius of a great
Philosopher than any man I ever knew, or, as I believe, has existed in
England since Milton; but it seems to me that he ought never to have
abandoned the contemplative position which is peculiarly - perhaps, I
might say exclusively - fitted for him. His proper title is 'Spectator
ab extra'."

The following are Coleridge's Lines addressed to Wordsworth:

TO WILLIAM WORDSWORTH

COMPOSED ON THE NIGHT AFTER HIS RECITATION OF A POEM ON THE GROWTH OF
AN INDIVIDUAL MIND


Friend of the wise! and teacher of the good!
Into my heart have I received that lay
More than historic, that prophetic lay
Wherein (high theme by thee first sung aright)
Of the foundations and the building up
Of a Human Spirit thou hast dared to tell
What may be told, to the understanding mind
Revealable; and what within the mind
By vital breathings secret as the soul
Of vernal growth, oft quickens in the heart
Thoughts all too deep for words! -
Theme hard as high,
Of smiles spontaneous, and mysterious fears
(The first-born they of Reason and twin-birth),
Of tides obedient to external force,
And currents self-determined, as might seem,
Or by some inner power; of moments awful,
Now in thy inner life, and now abroad,
When power streamed from thee, and thy soul received
The Light reflected, as a light bestowed -
Of fancies fair, and milder hours of youth,
Hyblean murmurs of poetic thought
Industrious in its joy, in vales and glens,
Native or outland, lakes and famous hills!
Or on the lonely high-road, when the stars
Were rising; or by secret mountain-streams,
The guides and the companions of thy way!
Of more than Fancy, of the Social Sense
Distending wide, and man beloved as man,
Where France in all her towns lay vibrating
Like some becalmed bark beneath the burst
Of Heaven's immediate thunder, when no cloud
Is visible, or shadow on the main.
For thou wert there, thine own brows garlanded,
Amid the tremor of a realm aglow,
Amid a mighty nation jubilant,
When from the general heart of humankind
Hope sprang forth like a full-born Deity!
- Of that dear Hope afflicted and struck down,
So summoned homeward, thenceforth calm and sure,
From the dread watch-tower of man's absolute self,
With light unwaning on her eyes, to look
Far on - herself a glory to behold.
The Angel of the vision! Then (last strain)
Of Duty, chosen laws controlling choice,
Action and joy! - An Orphic song indeed,
A song divine of high and passionate thoughts
To their own music chanted!
O great Bard!
Ere yet that last strain dying awed the air,
With stedfast eye I viewed thee in the choir
Of ever-enduring men. The truly great
Have all one age, and from one visible space
Shed influence! They, both in power and act,
Are permanent, and Time is not with them,
Save as it worketh for them, they in it.
Nor less a sacred roll, than those of old,
And to be placed, as they, with gradual fame
Among the archives of mankind, thy work
Makes audible a linked lay of Truth,
Of Truth profound a sweet continuous lay,
Not learnt, but native, her own natural notes!
Ah! as I listened with a heart forlorn,
The pulses of my being beat anew:
And even as life returns upon the drowned,
Life's joy rekindling roused a throng of pains -
Keen pangs of Love, awakening as a babe
Turbulent, with an outcry in the heart;
And fears self-willed, that shunned the eye of hope;
And hope that scarce would know itself from fear;
Sense of past youth, and manhood come in vain,
And genius given, and knowledge won in vain;
And all which I had culled in wood-walks wild,
And all which patient toil had reared, and all,
Commune with thee had opened out - but flowers
Strewed on my corse, and borne upon my bier,
In the same coffin, for the self-same grave!

... Eve following eve,
Dear tranquil time, when the sweet sense of Home
Is sweetest! moments for their own sake hailed,
And more desired, more precious for thy song,
In silence listening, like a devout child,
My soul lay passive, by thy various strain
Driven as in surges now beneath the stars,
With momentary stars of my own birth,
Fair constellated foam, [C] still darting off
Into the darkness; now a tranquil sea,
Outspread and bright, yet swelling to the moon.

And when - O Friend! my comforter and guide!
Strong in thyself, and powerful to give strength! -
Thy long-sustained Song finally closed,
And thy deep voice had ceased - yet thou thyself
Wert still before my eyes, and round us both
That happy vision of beloved faces -
Scarce conscious, and yet conscious of its close
I sate, my being blended in one thought
(Thought was it? or aspiration? or resolve?)
Absorbed, yet hanging still upon the sound -
And when I rose I found myself in prayer.


It was at Coleorton, in Leicestershire, - where the Wordsworths lived
during the winter of 1806-7, in a farm-house belonging to Sir George
Beaumont, and where Coleridge visited them, - that 'The Prelude' was read
aloud by its author, on the occasion which gave birth to these
lines. - Ed.


[Footnote A: See the 'De Quincey Memorials,' vol. i. p. 125. - Ed.]


[Footnote B: A poem on his brother John. - Ed.]


[Footnote C: Compare

"A beautiful white cloud of foam at momentary intervals, coursed by
the side of the vessel with a roar, and little stars of flame danced
and sparkled and went out in it: and every now and then light
detachments of this white cloud-like foam darted off from the vessel's
side, each with its own small constellation, over the sea, and scoured
out of sight like a Tartar troop over a wilderness."

S. T. C. in 'Biographia Literaria', Satyrane's Letters, letter i. p. 196
(edition 1817). - Ed.]





* * * * *





BOOK FIRST


INTRODUCTION. - CHILDHOOD AND SCHOOL-TIME


O there is blessing in this gentle breeze,
A visitant that while it fans my cheek
Doth seem half-conscious of the joy it brings
From the green fields, and from yon azure sky.
Whate'er its mission, the soft breeze can come 5
To none more grateful than to me; escaped
From the vast city, [A] where I long had pined
A discontented sojourner: now free,
Free as a bird to settle where I will.
What dwelling shall receive me? in what vale 10
Shall be my harbour? underneath what grove
Shall I take up my home? and what clear stream
Shall with its murmur lull me into rest?
The earth is all before me. [B] With a heart
Joyous, nor scared at its own liberty, 15
I look about; and should the chosen guide
Be nothing better than a wandering cloud,
I cannot miss my way. I breathe again!
Trances of thought and mountings of the mind
Come fast upon me: it is shaken off, 20
That burthen of my own unnatural self,
The heavy weight of many a weary day [C]
Not mine, and such as were not made for me.
Long months of peace (if such bold word accord
With any promises of human life), 25
Long months of ease and undisturbed delight
Are mine in prospect; whither shall I turn,
By road or pathway, or through trackless field,
Up hill or down, or shall some floating thing
Upon the river point me out my course? 30

Dear Liberty! Yet what would it avail
But for a gift that consecrates the joy?
For I, methought, while the sweet breath of heaven
Was blowing on my body, felt within
A correspondent breeze, that gently moved 35
With quickening virtue, but is now become
A tempest, a redundant energy,
Vexing its own creation. Thanks to both,
And their congenial powers, that, while they join
In breaking up a long-continued frost, 40
Bring with them vernal promises, the hope
Of active days urged on by flying hours, -
Days of sweet leisure, taxed with patient thought
Abstruse, nor wanting punctual service high,
Matins and vespers of harmonious verse! 45

Thus far, O Friend! [D] did I, not used to make
A present joy the matter of a song,
Pour forth that day my soul in measured strains
That would not be forgotten, and are here
Recorded: to the open fields I told 50
A prophecy: poetic numbers came
Spontaneously to clothe in priestly robe
A renovated spirit singled out,
Such hope was mine, for holy services.
My own voice cheered me, and, far more, the mind's 55
Internal echo of the imperfect sound;
To both I listened, drawing from them both
A cheerful confidence in things to come.

Content and not unwilling now to give
A respite to this passion, I paced on 60
With brisk and eager steps; and came, at length,
To a green shady place, [E] where down I sate
Beneath a tree, slackening my thoughts by choice,
And settling into gentler happiness.
'Twas autumn, and a clear and placid day, 65
With warmth, as much as needed, from a sun
Two hours declined towards the west; a day
With silver clouds, and sunshine on the grass,
And in the sheltered and the sheltering grove
A perfect stillness. Many were the thoughts 70
Encouraged and dismissed, till choice was made
Of a known Vale, [F] whither my feet should turn,
Nor rest till they had reached the very door
Of the one cottage [G] which methought I saw.
No picture of mere memory ever looked 75
So fair; and while upon the fancied scene
I gazed with growing love, a higher power
Than Fancy gave assurance of some work
Of glory there forthwith to be begun,
Perhaps too there performed. Thus long I mused, 80
Nor e'er lost sight of what I mused upon,
Save when, amid the stately groves of oaks,
Now here, now there, an acorn, from its cup
Dislodged, through sere leaves rustled, or at once
To the bare earth dropped with a startling sound. 85
From that soft couch I rose not, till the sun
Had almost touched the horizon; casting then
A backward glance upon the curling cloud
Of city smoke, by distance ruralised;
Keen as a Truant or a Fugitive, 90
But as a Pilgrim resolute, I took,
Even with the chance equipment of that hour,
The road that pointed toward the chosen Vale. [F]
It was a splendid evening, and my soul
Once more made trial of her strength, nor lacked 95
Æolian visitations; but the harp
Was soon defrauded, and the banded host
Of harmony dispersed in straggling sounds,
And lastly utter silence! "Be it so;
Why think of any thing but present good?" [H] 100
So, like a home-bound labourer I pursued
My way beneath the mellowing sun, that shed
Mild influence; nor left in me one wish
Again to bend the Sabbath of that time
To a servile yoke. What need of many words? 105
A pleasant loitering journey, through three days
Continued, brought me to my hermitage, [I]
I spare to tell of what ensued, the life
In common things - the endless store of things,
Rare, or at least so seeming, every day 110
Found all about me in one neighbourhood -
The self-congratulation, and, from morn
To night, unbroken cheerfulness serene. [K]
But speedily an earnest longing rose
To brace myself to some determined aim, 115
Reading or thinking; either to lay up
New stores, or rescue from decay the old
By timely interference: and therewith
Came hopes still higher, that with outward life
I might endue some airy phantasies 120
That had been floating loose about for years,
And to such beings temperately deal forth
The many feelings that oppressed my heart.
That hope hath been discouraged; welcome light
Dawns from the east, but dawns to disappear 125
And mock me with a sky that ripens not
Into a steady morning: if my mind,
Remembering the bold promise of the past,
Would gladly grapple with some noble theme,
Vain is her wish; where'er she turns she finds 130
Impediments from day to day renewed.

And now it would content me to yield up
Those lofty hopes awhile, for present gifts
Of humbler industry. But, oh, dear Friend!
The Poet, gentle creature as he is, 135
Hath, like the Lover, his unruly times;
His fits when he is neither sick nor well,
Though no distress be near him but his own
Unmanageable thoughts: his mind, best pleased
While she as duteous as the mother dove 140
Sits brooding, lives not always to that end,



Online LibraryWilliam WordsworthThe Poetical Works of William Wordsworth — Volume 3 → online text (page 10 of 33)