Index  Dorothy Wordsworth

She gave me eyes

Above his head he views the clear moon and the glory of the heavens

Moonlight in poetry and prose

The Wordsworths had a fascination for the moon and the light that this celestial body spreads over the landscape. The accounts of this phenomenon are numerous in Dorothy’s journals and William’s poetry, beginning from their time in Somerset. There Dorothy notes:

The sky spread over with one continuous cloud, whitened by the light of the moon, which, though her dim shape was seen, did not throw forth so strong a light as to chequer the earth with shadows. At once the clouds seemed to cleave asunder, and left her in the centre of a black-blue vault. She sailed along, followed by multitudes of stars, small, and bright, and sharp. Their brightness seemed concentrated, (half-moon).

Alfoxden Journal, 25 January, 1798

William converted this moon scene into a poem entitled A Night-Piece. Below a version of Williams's poem highlighting the words that correspond to Dorothy’s wording.

                       A Night-Piece

                           The sky is overspread
With a close veil of one continuous cloud
All whitened by the moon, that just appears,
dim-seen orb, yet chequers not the ground
With any shadow - plant or tower or tree.
At last a pleasant instantaneous light
Startles the musing man whose eyes are bent
To earth. He looks around, the clouds are split
Asunder, and above his head he views
The clear moon and the glory of the heavens.
There in a black-blue vault she sails along
Followed by multitudes of stars, that small,
And bright, and sharp, along the gloomy vault
Drive as she drives: how fast they wheel away -
Yet vanish not! The wind is in the tree;
But they are silent, - still they roll along
Immeasurably distant, and the vault,
Built round by those white clouds, enormous clouds,
Still deepens its unfathomable depth.
At length the Vision closes; and the mind,
Not undisturbed by the delight it feels,
Which slowly settles into peaceful calm,
Is left to muse upon the solemn scene.

In the first thirteen lines of the poem William follows Dorothy's formulations closely. No wonder: her images are a sample of beautiful poetic prose. But these images become only real poetry through the poetic tools that William uses and the extra, philosophical dimension he adds.

Glory of the heavens
The first thing one notices the measure of five feet iambs (an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable) per verse. Wordsworth uses this iambic pentameter in most of his poems. He also converts Dorothy's ‘sail along’ into two words with inner rhyme: ‘role along'. Then there are the alliterations: 'a close veil of one continuous cloud’, ‘solemn scene’ and ‘silent, - still'.  Wordsworth's imagination not only discerns a black-and-blue vault between the clouds containing the moon. He also sees what he describes, in quasi-biblical terms, as the ‘glory of the heavens.’ A typical poetic addition to his sister's description is also the contrast between the rustle of the wind on earth and the silence of the unfathomably deep firmament.

A special effect occurs in the line describing how ‘silent, - still’ the moon and stars are. Something remarkable happens between these two words. They convey a deep silence. For a moment the poem comes to a complete stop. The comma, word space and hyphen create a gap between the words 'silent' and 'still' and together seem to mirror the opening in the cloud cover. In this way, these two alliterating near-synonyms make the nightly moonlit silence all the more tangible.