All things shall live in us, and we shall live
In all things that surround us.
William Wordsworth, The Ruined Cottage
William Wordsworth – The Pedlar
In early 1798, almost a year before writing the earliest version of The Prelude in Goslar, Germany, Wordsworth worked on a poem that later appeared to be the prototype of his magnum opus. The Pedlar has almost the same number of lines (356) and is Wordsworth's first attempt to capture his world view in an autobiographical poem. He positioned himself as objective outsider: writing in the third person, instead of The Prelude's first. As narrator, he sketched the life of a pedlar travelling door to door with his backpack full of 'wares for maids who live in lonely villages or straggling huts'. The pedlar's fictional biography drew from the young Wordsworth's experiences and impressions, but were not yet fully fledged spots of time. We first follow the pedlar in his childhood as he:
learned to read
His bible in a school that stood alone,
Sole building on a mountain's dreary edge,
Far from the sight of city spire, or sound
Of minster clock.
The Pedlar, 15-19
The boy had a long way to walk to and from school, often returning through a dark wood at night. In that desolation perceiving the presence and power of greatness, the foundations of his mind were laid.
He many an evening to his distant home
In solitude returning saw the hills
Grow larger in the darkness, all alone
Beheld the stars come out above his head,
And travelled through the wood, no comrade near,
To whom he might confess the things he saw.
So the foundations of his mind were laid.
In such communion, not from terror free,
While yet a child, and long before his time,
He had perceived the presence and power
Of greatness (...)
The Pedlar, 26-31
When the young pedlar was less than nine years old, his father sent him to herd sheep. From the tops of high mountains, he would see the dawn spreading over earth and ocean beneath him.
Oh then what soul was his, when on the tops
Of the high mountains he beheld the sun
Rise up and bathe the world in light. He looked,
The ocean and the earth beneath him lay
In gladness and deep joy. The clouds were touched,
And in their silent faces he did read
Unutterable love. Sound needed none,
Nor any voice of joy: his spirit drank
The spectacle. Sensation, soul, and form,
All melted into him; they swallowed up
His animal being. In them did he live,
And by them did he live - they were his life.
The Pedlar, 95-106
Wordsworth says here that earth and ocean are not only the source of emotions, but also share in these emotions with the boy: 'the ocean and the earth beneath him lay in gladness and deep joy'. The love that the pedlar felt for his environment in his early years was written in the 'silent faces' of the clouds, which, like the earth and the ocean, were still, because their very existence expressed unspeakable joy. He became absorbed in his surroundings even as those surroundings absorbed him. 'Sensation, soul, and form' - what he saw and heard, felt and thought all flowed together in him. Wordsworth here projects human feelings into natural phenomena. Later we will say more about the workings of this literary figure.
He felt his works
Raised in the Christian tradition, Wordsworth naturally describes the quasi-religious experiences of the boy - as representative of his own younger self - in biblical terms.
In such access of mind, in such high hour
Of visitation of the living God,
He did not feel the God, he felt his works.
Thought was not; in excitement it expired.
Such hour by prayer or praise was unprofaned;
He neither prayed, nor offered thanks or praise;
His mind was a thanksgiving to the power
That made him. It was blessedness and love.
The Pedlar, 107-114
The boy did not see God, but felt his works. He did not pray, nor thank nor praise God, but was filled with gratitude and love for the power that had created him. Some lines in this passage conform, more or less, to a Christian worldview. Nature as a work or creation of God is a well-known Christian theme. But the earth, the clouds and the sea as the visitation of the living God? Such a thought runs counter to Christian faith. And the remark that the boy did not 'unprofane such hour by prayer or praise' might also raise the eyebrows of a committed Christian. The same goes for the twist Wordsworth gives, in the following lines, to the biblical promise of eternal life, by stating that 'the least of things seemed infinite':
A shepherd on the lonely mountain-tops,
Such intercourse was his, and in this sort
Was his existence oftentimes possessed.
Oh then how beautiful, how bright, appeared
The written promise. He had clearly learned
To reverence the volume which displays
The mystery, the life which cannot die,
But in the mountains did he FEEL this faith,
There did he see the writing. All things there
Breathed immortality, revolving life,
And greatness still revolving, infinite.
There littleness was not, the least of things
Seemed infinite, and there his spirit shaped
Her prospects - nor did he believe; he saw.
The Pedlar, 115-128
Here Wordsworth says that the boy had learned to respect the Bible, 'the volume which displays the mystery.' That mystery is not a dead letter. He 'did' FEEL it, the poet emphasises again in capitals. The written revelation of the mystery in the Bible is overshadowed as it were by the revelation in visible reality.
Life that cannot die
With these words, Wordsworth navigates away from Christian orthodoxy. Everything in the world breathes immortality, life rolls on in a grand and endless cycle. Each being participates in life's infinity and immortality, not as an individual, but as a link in an endless chain of 'the life that cannot die'.
Despite the biblical-sounding language, this conception of reality does not exactly agree with the biblical idea that immortality is granted only to the righteous man of faith in a life after death or at the end of days at the resurrection of Christ. Everything under the sun (in the universe, in the cosmos), everything - to 'the least of things'- is part of the immortal whole. Between large and small there is no distinction.
He saw one life
Overlooking the earth and the ocean from the mountain tops, the pedlar shared with his surroundings a deep sense of joy and well-being. At such moments of fusion with the environment, the insight broke through that all that exists is characterised by close mutual cohesion.
From Nature and her overflowing soul
He had received so much that all his thoughts
Were steeped in feeling; he was only then
Contented when with bliss ineffable
He felt the sentiment of being spread
Over all that moves, and all that seemeth still,
Over all, that, lost beyond the reach of thought
And human knowledge, to the human eye
Invisible, yet liveth to the heart,
Over all that leaps, and runs, and shouts, and sings,
Or beats the gladsome air, o'er all that glides
Beneath the wave, yea, in the wave itself
And mighty depth of waters. Wonder not
If such his transports were; for in all things
He saw one life, and felt that it was joy.
The Pedlar, 204-218
'For in all things he saw one life'. Wordsworth wrote these lines because he intuitively sensed that no phenomenon, no thing, no being stands alone. That 'all that moves, and all that seemeth still' exists in symbiosis. He derived this intuitive certainty from the direct experience of all-encompassing reality that he called Nature. ►