Not in Utopia, subterranian fields,
Or some secret island, Heaven knows where!
But in the very world, which is the world
Of all of us, the place where, in the end,
We find our happiness, or not at all!
William Wordsworth - The Excursion (1)
The Pedlar and The Prelude never appeared in print during Wordsworth's lifetime. For the poet, these texts were only the long run-up to an even more ambitious project in which he wished to summarise all his ideas about 'Nature, Man and Society' into an all-encompassing song of truth about the vicissitudes of mortal existence. He never realised this ambition, but what came close was The Excursion. The poem is nine thousand lines long and spread over nine chapters or 'books'. Unfamiliar as they were with The Prelude, Wordsworth's contemporaries considered this work his real magnum opus. It established his reputation as one of Britain's greatest ever poets.
The Excursion was published in 1814. The poem consists of a patchwork of fragments cut and pasted from the unpublished The Prelude and The Pedlar, supplemented with other existing and new verses. All these fragments span almost twenty years of poetry and together formulate the 'all-encompassing truth' about 'Nature, Man and Society' that Wordsworth wanted to express.
The common thread of The Excursion is a three-day walk of the poet Wordsworth and the pedlar, now called the wanderer. During their 'excursion' they visit a friend of the wanderer. This friend - the solitary - has been hit by a series of severe setbacks that made him fall into deep depression. Consumed by disappointment in life and humanity, he has turned his back on the world. He spends his days alone in a deserted place in the mountains. The poet and wanderer have a special mission: to cure the solitary from his melancholy and misanthropy. To this end they enter a dialogue with him, assisted by a pastor and employing heavy orthodox-Christian artillery. There is one consolation only for the disasters in human life: a firm belief in the infinite goodness and power of a Being who turns all evil for the better.
One adequate support
For the calamities of mortal life
Exists - one only; - an assured belief
That the procession of our fate, however
Sad or disturbed, is ordered by a Being
Of infinite benevolence and power,
Whose everlasting purposes embrace
All accidents, converting them to Good.
The Excursion, IV, 10-17
Fear and pain do not take hold of him who arms himself with complete resignation in the Will Supreme. Salvation is in hope and absolute faith in God's boundless love and perfection.
The darts of anguish fix not where the seat
Of suffering hath been thorougly fortified
By acquiescence in the Will Supreme
For Time and for Eternity; by faith,
Faith absolute in God, including hope,
And the defence that lies in boundless love
Of his perfections...
The Excursion, IV, 18-24
These melodic yet somber lines must sound like music to the ears of the true believer. They seem to have been taken directly from the Biblical book of Ecclesiastes and would perfectly fit in a Calvinist sermon, with raised finger from the pulpit.
This message is indigestable for the God-abandoned man of modern times. Yet The Excursion remains worth reading, despite its length, dull passages and often pedantic tone. The reward lies in the countless beautiful observations of landscape, people and animals, which also appear in this poem. In addition, the replications of the solitary always furnish an effective antidote to the Christian message of salvation. Wordsworth gives the unbelieving pessimist sympathetic treatment. He provides space to all the main characters to explain their point of view. None of them has a monopoly on the truth. The poem has an open end: the misanthrope in the poem and in the poet remains ununconvinced by the others. In the meantime, many a beautiful passage resounds with the one-life thought, or concept of universal symbiosis.
In fact, the four main characters in The Excursion represent different facets of Wordsworth's own personality. The poem is the result of a search for spiritual balance in the hectic race of human existence. At the same time, it reflects Wordsworth's struggle with faith after the severe setbacks he has experienced himself. ►