William Wordsworth - The Prelude (2)
Nothing was going right for Wordsworth when he put his first childhood memories on paper. Aged twenty-nine, he wanted to devote himself entirely to poetry, but the Muses didn't put food on the table. The fervent promise of the French Revolution gave way to massive bloodshed. The hope that the revolution would migrate to England became ash. His poetry too was at an impasse, as a major project failed to take off.
Caught in the snow
In 1798, Wordsworth was overseas with his sister, Dorothy. In October, they travelled to Germany with the intention of learning the language and studying in a university city. However, they soon found themselves stranded in the dull provincial town of Goslar. For five months, they occupied cheap, poorly heated rooms, in what turned out to be the coldest winter of the eighteenth century. The roads were impassable and the frozen outdoors forbidding. They hardly saw anyone; no books were available. In the midst of this sadness, William devoted himself entirely to writing. In January 1799, he produced more than four hundred lines of what will become The Prelude's first book. Memories of his earliest childhood are central. Retrieving them provided comfort in dark and lonely days. As he himself wrote, there are moments in our lives that have extraordinary healing effect, that nourish the mind and imperceptibly restore it in times of unpleasantness, or when preoccupied with superfluous activity and social obligation. They cheer us up and get us back on our feet.
There are in our existence spots of time,
Which with distinct preeminence retain
A renovating virtue, whence, depressed
By false opinion and contentious thought,
Or aught of heavier or more deadly weight,
In trivial occupations and the round
Of ordinary intercourse, our minds
Are nourished and invisibly repaired -
A virtue, by which pleasure is enhanced,
That penetrates, enables us to mount
When high, more high, and lifts us up when fallen.
The Prelude, XI (1805), 257-267
We all hold certain childhood memories close, and experience healing when recalling them. Some memories appear to provide greater tonic than others.
Such moments, worthy of all gratitude,
Are scattered everywhere, taking their date
From our first childhood. - in our childhood even
Perhaps are most conspicuous. Life with me,
As far as memory can look back, is full
of this beneficient influence.
The Prelude, XI (1805), 277-279
Joy and fear
Wordsworth wrote of his early childhood as a carefree time from which he later draws comfort and inspiration. But the spots of time had an even more fundamental effect. They sowed the seeds for his personality and later poetry. The sword, however, cut both ways.
Fair seed-time had my soul, and I grew up
Fostered alike by beauty and by fear.
The Prelude, I (1805), 305-306
The paradise of his early years had a downside. Some adventures brought not only an experience of beauty and joy, but also of fear. Sometimes, during his nightly raids in the mountains, temptation overtook and he stole a woodcock from someone else's snares. Then the feeling came over him that something was haunting and chasing him.
I heard among the solitary hills
Low breathings coming after me, and sounds
Of undistinguishable motion, steps
Almost as silent as the turf they trod.
The Prelude, I (1805), 329-232
There was also the night when he secretly 'stole' a boat to row on a still, moonlit lake. Suddenly 'a huge peak upreared its head' between him and the stars. The mountain followed him 'like a living thing'. The boy sped 'with trembling oars' back to the place under the willow where he had found it.
Master light of our understanding
It is precisely that feeling of joy mixed with fear that makes the spots of time more than just a source of comfort in dark times. They are also 'a master- light of our seeing', says Wordsworth. They offer insight into the essence of our existence, because they put our 'noisy years' in the right perspective, namely that of the eternal silence that engulfs us like a sea.
those first affections,
Those shadowy recollections,
Which, be they what they may,
Are yet the fountain-light of all our day,
Are yet a master-light of all our seeing;
Uphold us, cherish, and have power to make
Our noisy years seem moments in the being
Of the Eternal Silence (...)
Ode of Immortality, 153-160 ►
Without Wordsworth's deep vision into 'the wonder and bloom of the world', the world, I know, would be inestimably poorer.