Index William Wordsworth

Life in the light of infinitude

The sky seemed not the sky of earth

Plundering the raven's nest

The Prelude, I (1805), 333-350

Nor less in springtime when on southern banks
The shining sun had from his knot of leaves
Decoyed the primrose flower, and when the Vales
And woods were warm, was I a plunderer then
In the high places, on the lonesome peaks
Wherever, among the mountains and the winds,
The Mother Bird had built her lodge. Though mean
My object, and inglorious, yet the end
Was not ignoble. Oh! when I have hung
Above the raven's nest, by knots of grass
And half-inch fissures in the slippery rock
But ill sustained, and almost, as it seemed,
Suspended by the blast which blew amain,
Shouldering the naked crag; Oh! at that time,
While on the perilous ridge I hung alone,
With what strange utterance did the loud dry wind
Blow through my ears! the sky seemed not a sky
Of earth, and with what motion moved the clouds!

Wordsworth described his plundering of ravens' nests some twenty years after the actual experience. By that time the childhood memory made him feel uneasy.

                                  Though mean
My object, and inglorious, yet the end
Was not ignoble.

On the one hand, he found what he had done mean, something to be ashamed of. But this act had 'a noble purpose'. The Lake District ravens often targeted newborn lambs and pecked out their eyes. The sheep farmers in the region often paid for the preventive ‘culling' of their eggs. Lake District farmers still consider ravens to be pests that prey on their precious livestock. James Rebanks, a modern Matterdale sheep farmer, describes in his book The Shepherd's Life the annual revenge against the 'winged killers'.

When I was a child, towards the end of lambing time the men circled the woods and shot crows, shouting, excited like boys, sociable again after the testing weeks. The whole valley echoed with cawing and the thuds of cartridges, twelve-bore retribution for one-eyed lambs and maimed corpses. Shattered twigs blown skywards, as nest floors crackled back down through the branches. Ravens, rooks, dopes (carrion crows), magpies and jackdaws… all wanted for murder or GBH. Anything with black feathers was 'a dope' – a robber, a killer and a cheat. In a valley where men lived for sheep, these shadows of the lambing fields were guilty. The morning after, there were black specks in the rushes by the wood's edge: crumpled wings, perforated flight feathers, specks of blood, porcelain legs twisted and broken like cocktail sticks. The angry caws of the survivors reprimanded the valley and its shepherds.

James Rebanks, The Shepherd's Life, A Tale of the Lake District, p. 267-268, Penguin Books, 2016