William Wordsworth - The Excursion (2)
God and Nature retain a close bond throughout Wordsworth's work. The Excursion is no different. Halfway through are fifty-six lines that Wordsworth had written as a separate verse ten years before the publication of this marathon poem. This rounded fragment shows the poet at his best. First of all, through the balanced combination of substantial images of nature and philosophical observations. Second, and above all, because of the convergence of two apparently mutually exclusive worldviews: that of the believer and the non-believer. What seems to be an impossible combination takes place in this poem-within-a-poem. For the theist, the conviction resounds that God is the creator and sustainer of the universe; that nature - besides the Bible - is a secondary revelation of God. In the first thirty-five lines, this idea is most apparent. But the lines thereafter also express, in a sublime way, the wonder the atheist can feel for the harmony and beauty of an indifferent universe. So much so that the first half of the poem is retrospectively coloured by this more secular or universal tendency.
Murmur of the distant sea
The fragment in question is in book IV of The Excursion (1125-1181) and opens with the words 'I have seen a curious child '. Then it describes how a child – somewhere in the inner land - holds a shell to his ear and listens intently to what he thinks is the mysterious murmur of the distant sea.
I have seen
A curious child, who dwelt upon a tract
Of inland ground, applying to his ear
The convolutions of a soft-lipped shell;
To which in silence hushed, his very soul
Listened intensely; and his countenance soon
Brightened with joy; for from within were heard
Murmerings, whereby its monitor expressed
Mysterious union with its native sea.
In the lines that follow the shell appears to symbolise the entire universe. Even as the shell makes the sea sound to the child, the universe reveals what is true but not visible: an everlasting power and peace that rests in endless turmoil.
Even such a shell the universe itself
Is to the ear of Faith; and there are times,
I doubt not, when to you it doth impart
Authentic tidings of invisible things;
Of ebb and flow, and ever-during power;
And central peace, subsisting at the heart
Of endless agitation. Here you stand,
Adore, and worship, when you know it not;
Pious beyond the intention of your thought;
Devout above the meaning of your will.
The universe is like a shell before the believer's ear, the poem states. But you don't necessarily have to be a believer to view the universe in awe and wonder. Even without thoughts of a god you can become silent from the measureless 'miracle' that is beyond comprehension.
With the line 'Of ebb and flow and ever-during power', Wordsworth uses a formula that refers to a creative principle that occurs in all kinds of variations in The Excursion. Some examples:
- the presence and the power of greatness
- a presence or a motion
- Earth's native energy
- an active principle
- an ebbing and a flowing mind
- impulse and utterance
- the mighty stream of tendency
- the breeze of nature stirring
- nature's language
- the ancient Soul of this wide land
- the voice of Deity on height and plain
This creative or 'active principle' is the first cause of all things in the universe that keeps nature moving as a hidden, quasi-divine force. Anyone who accepts only a rational, scientific explanation of reality will shrug off so much vagueness. The rationalist demands clearly formulated definitions, unambiguous and verifiable. Wordsworth does not provide definitions. He provides images. He is a poet, not philosopher. A poet, moreover, who honours feeling as high as thinking. Man would even be lost, blinded by false conclusions of the mind, to shut his heart to what he sees and hears.
- Yes, you have felt, and may not cease to feel.
The estate of man would be indeed forlorn
If false conclusions of the reasoning power
Made the eye blind, and closed the passages
Through which the ear converses with the heart.
Wordsworth does not reject the ratio, on the contrary, but he warns against abstract reasoning, because it quickly leads the mind astray. We have to rely on eye and ear in particular if we want to understand the world. After all, it is the senses through which that world reveals itself to us. The rest of 'I have seen a curious child' describes a series of natural phenomena that underpin this belief: from the clear starry sky and the singing of the nightingale to the whispering of the wind and the murmur of mountain streams. All this in the calm twilight of a spring or summer evening amidst the mountains.
Has not the soul, the being of your life,
Received a shock of awful consciousness,
In some calm season, when these lofty rocks
At night's approach bring down the unclouded sky,
To rest upon their circumambient walls;
A temple framing of dimensions vast,
And yet not too enormous for the sound
Of human anthems, - choral song, or burst
Sublime of instrumental harmony,
To glorify the Eternal!
The evening landscape is enveloped in a sacred atmosphere. The cloudless sky seems to rest on the rocks that surround the poet like the walls of a temple. Note that Wordsworth does not use the word 'church.' He calls this sacred place 'temple', a word that first refers to a pagan house of God. The whole awe-inspiring space demands the glorification of the Eternal: the Eternal, that is God, in the eyes of the believer; the Eternal, that is the Universe, in the eyes of the non-believer.
Impulse and utterance
Religious terminology continues in what follows . The song of the nightingale sounds 'solemn': the dictionary describes 'solemn' as 'performed with religious ceremony'. The song of the tree lark is called vespers (evening prayer). The word 'chant' evokes the church. The position of 'here' at the beginning of the line, followed by a comma and dash, isolates the word and gives it heavy emphasis. The poet falls silent. For a moment nothing else exists but the here and now.
What if these
Did never break the silence that prevails
Here, - if the solemn nightingale be mute,
And the soft woodlark here did never chant
Her vespers, - Nature fails not to provide
Impulse and utterance.
The poet does not conclude from all his impressions that it is God working in nature. For him, these are the very workings of Nature, which 'never fails not to provide impulse and utterance'. Nature knows no idleness, its creative pursuit never ends.
At the apotheosis of the poem, Wordsworth summarises all of the above in the image of an all-encompassing expanse in which a solitary raven squawks) its way along an arc of sky. With the words 'concave' and 'circuit' he emphasises the height and depth, the length and width of the surrounding landscape. The word 'fabric' refers to the interweaving of all natural phenomena. 'Dome' places the entire scene in the sacred atmosphere of a cathedral. The raven's cry, symbol of death, sounds like an iron death bell, dies away all the time and then rings again in a timeless space.
The whispering air
Sends inspiration from the shadowy heights
And blind recesses of the caverned rocks;
The little rills and waters numberless,
Inaudible by daylight, blend their notes
With the loud streams: and often, at the hour
When issue forth the first pale stars, is heard
Within the circuit of this fabric huge,
One voice - the solitary raven, flying
Athwart the concave of the dark blue dome,
Unseen perchance above all power of sight –
An iron knell! with echoes from afar
Faint - and still fainter - as the cry, with which
The wanderer accompanies her flight
Through the calm region, fades upon the ear,
Diminishing by distance till it seemed
To expire; yet from the abyss is caught again,
And yet again recovered!
And so this fragment ends in an image of infinitude, in the feeling that the world - reality, the universe - extends infinitely in time and space before we existed and will continue indefinitely after we have returned to dust. Infinitude caught in the moment.
Wordsworth had already stated in The Prelude that we should accept endless space and time as our only shelter.
Our destiny, our being's heart and home.
Is with infinitude, and only there.
The Prelude VI (1850), 604-605
In The Excursion he shows how we can feel at home in 'the circuit of this fabric huge' in full awareness of our mortality. The death knell sounds eternally. ►