Poetry, Wordsworth

The Eight Greatest Poems of William Wordsworth (Society of Classical Poets, 6 Oct 2018)

by Charles Eager

William Wordsworth was born in Cockermouth, Cumberland, in 1770—the same year as gave us Beethoven, Hegel, and Hölderlin—and died at the age of eighty, rich in the knowledge of his huge accomplishments, in Rydal Mount, Westmorland, in 1850. In those eighty years, Wordsworth brought a unique poetry to English letters and to the world; it had never before been seen, nor has it since. He spent his last couple of decades, after many years of less genial reception (see, for example, Byron’s, Shelley’s, and Keats’ responses to Wordsworth), enjoying his well-earned popularity amongst the early Victorians. He had many friends in high places, including Queen Victoria herself, and he was awarded honorary degrees by both Durham and Oxford—honours which Wordsworth responded to with dry wit in a letter to Henry Crabb Robinson (28 July 1838): ‘I forgot to mention that the University of Durham the other day by especial convocation conferred upon me the honorary degree of L.L.D. Therefore, you will not scruple when a difficult point of Law occurs, to consult me.’

Wordsworth possesses one of the most intriguing biographies of all the poets, which is itself indispensable for understanding his poetry. In his youth, for example, he was fired with the revolutionary zeal which in the 1790s—while he was in his twenties—infected so many Europeans whilst the ideals and the resentments of The French Revolution matured and, ultimately, plummeted into La Terreur. The Revolution’s bloody turn, which appalled Wordsworth, affected him for the rest of his life. Yet, like many, he remained a lover of the Rousseauan ideals which animated the early revolution. Thus, in what is perhaps his most ambitious work, The Prelude, his poetic autobiography, he could say of the Revolutionary era, ‘Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,’ and also could denounce the violence and ‘atheism’ of Robespierre and the other architects of the terror. One begins to get a sense, just from the music and the longing of this single line of iambic pentameter, of how sorrow and joy beautifully intermingle in Wordsworth; they do so in a truly personal voice which ought to be the sincere envy of all us poets who cannot match that sincerity. The results often move his readers to tears.

Virgil sang “of arms and of the man”. Wordsworth sings of walks and of the man—and the man is himself. His chief works are—like Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu, or even Dante’s Commedia—explorations of the entire world by way of the self. Indeed, for these poets, the distinction between world and self is hardly relevant, since the former is to be experienced only by way of the latter, and the latter experiences nothing other than the former. In Wordsworth’s poetry, a personal voice—indeed a whole personality—comes out with incredible vividness and force. In this he is virtually the opposite of (say) Shakespeare, who banishes his own personal voice about as much as is possible in the hugely personal practice of literary creation.

Those of us who love Wordsworth’s poetry, then (and he does have his detractors, though these people I do not understand), love the man himself. So great and impressive is his soul, one almost feels he lives today with us; he is imprinted upon his surroundings; in recording them, he (in a sense) makes them for us. And he is not so much a distant, admired figure as he is a dear friend to those who love to read him and hear the music of his lines.

Wordsworth is the best kind of moralist: although obsessed with goodness, and though striving to be good, he had his faults. As well as the intellectual foolery of his early revolutionary years, he also fathered an illegitimate child whilst living in France. Thus Wordsworth might say with St. Paul, ‘I am the chief of sinners!’ But this story gives a little bit more flesh and blood to the man. Although practicality kept him from this early lover and daughter, he helped to support them financially for the rest of their lives.

So, on to the rundown of his eight greatest poems, eight being the least great, one being the finest:

8. Daffodils, or ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed—and gazed—but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

This poem is by now a bit too famous for its own good. Yet some masterpieces are so great that they will bear endless repetition without losing their effect, and I suspect that the spiritual balm of this poem’s opening lines (particularly the first) will soothe souls for as long as English is understood:

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils.

If this occasion which Wordsworth describes seems at first a little slight, he offers what is tantamount to a defence of his enthusiasm in the following stanza, where the daffodils are

Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way;
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay’.

But this is not all: if they are as numerous (and so by implication glorious) as the stars, moreover they out-perform the nearby waves in jollity:

The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee.

And if we are not yet won over to the poet’s excitement, neither (at the time) is he, since he realises only later the lasting spiritual strength which the flowers have brought him:

I gazed—and gazed—but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

We might wish the poet had concluded the poem with something other than those last two rather superficial lines (something which a different rhyme scheme might have helped), but the kernel that makes this poem one of Wordsworth’s very best comes in the heart of the above-quoted final stanza:

They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude.

But what, precisely, does it mean? The mystery is precisely what makes so enthralling. We all know that solitude can give bliss, but Wordsworth here offers an insight unique to him and typical of his searching descriptions of experience by making this inward eye the instrument by which we find bliss in solitude—so much so, indeed, that it in fact is the bliss of solitude. This analysis is all fine, but ultimately all we need is that beautiful nexus of inward eye, bliss, and solitude—a trinity, and a distich (i.e., any two apposite lines of poetry, not necessarily rhymed) that forcefully communicates the texture of spiritual excitement.

7. The Lucy Poems

The little sequence of Lucy poems—five short stanzaic poems on the mysterious Lucy figure—are exceptional in the works of Wordsworth. Never did he so successfully unite the compression demanded by the short lyric with the powerful impression of word and image. Although he is at his absolute greatest in the huge expatiations which we come to later in our list, in these latter he never attained the still, haunting atmosphere of the present eerie verses. The cycle, which is so interlinked as fairly to be considered a unit, consists of five short poems:

I.

Strange fits of passion have I known:
And I will dare to tell,
But in the lover’s ear alone,
What once to me befell.

When she I loved look’d every day
Fresh as a rose in June,
I to her cottage bent my way,
Beneath an evening moon.

Upon the moon I fix’d my eye,
All over the wide lea;
With quickening pace my horse drew nigh
Those paths so dear to me.

And now we reach’d the orchard-plot;
And, as we climb’d the hill,
The sinking moon to Lucy’s cot
Came near and nearer still.

In one of those sweet dreams I slept,
Kind Nature’s gentlest boon!
And all the while my eyes I kept
On the descending moon.

My horse moved on; hoof after hoof
He raised, and never stopp’d:
When down behind the cottage roof,
At once, the bright moon dropp’d.

What fond and wayward thoughts will slide
Into a lover’s head!
‘O mercy!’ to myself I cried,
‘If Lucy should be dead!’

II.

He dwelt among the untrodden ways
Beside the springs of Dove,
A Maid whom there were none to praise
And very few to love:

A violet by a mossy stone
Half hidden from the eye!
Fair as a star, when only one
Is shining in the sky.

She lived unknown, and few could know
When Lucy ceased to be;
But she is in her grave, and oh,
The difference to me!

III.

I travell’d among unknown men,
In lands beyond the sea;
Nor, England! did I know till then
What love I bore to thee.

‘Tis past, that melancholy dream!
Nor will I quit thy shore
A second time; for still I seem
To love thee more and more.

Among the mountains did I feel
The joy of my desire;
And she I cherish’d turn’d her wheel
Beside an English fire.

Thy mornings show’d, thy nights conceal’d,
The bowers where Lucy play’d;
And thine too is the last green field
That Lucy’s eyes survey’d.

IV.

Three years she grew in sun and shower;
Then Nature said, ‘A lovelier flower
On earth was never sown;
This child I to myself will take;
She shall be mine, and I will make
A lady of my own.

‘Myself will to my darling be
Both law and impulse; and with me
The girl, in rock and plain,
In earth and heaven, in glade and bower,
Shall feel an overseeing power
To kindle or restrain.

‘She shall be sportive as the fawn
That wild with glee across the lawn
Or up the mountain springs;
And hers shall be the breathing balm,
And hers the silence and the calm
Of mute insensate things.

‘The floating clouds their state shall lend
To her; for her the willow bend;
Nor shall she fail to see
Even in the motions of the storm
Grace that shall mould the maiden’s form
By silent sympathy.

‘The stars of midnight shall be dear
To her; and she shall lean her ear
In many a secret place
Where rivulets dance their wayward round,
And beauty born of murmuring sound
Shall pass into her face.

‘And vital feelings of delight
Shall rear her form to stately height,
Her virgin bosom swell;
Such thoughts to Lucy I will give
While she and I together live
Here in this happy dell.’

Thus Nature spake — The work was done —
How soon my Lucy’s race was run!
She died, and left to me
This heath, this calm and quiet scene;
The memory of what has been,
And never more will be.

V.

A slumber did my spirit seal;
I had no human fears:
She seem’d a thing that could not feel
The touch of earthly years.

No motion has she now, no force;
She neither hears nor sees;
Roll’d round in earth’s diurnal course,
With rocks, and stones, and trees.

The first poem, ‘Strange fits of Passion’, is relatively unremarkable, but sets up something like a romance, a chivalric tale, in its hints of medieval tale-telling:

And I will dare to tell,
But in the Lover’s ear alone,
What once to me befell,

and arrives at a haunting, even terse conclusion:

‘O mercy!’ to myself I cried,
‘If Lucy should be dead!’

It is from the second, ‘She dwelt among the untrodden ways’, that the mystery of the ethereal ‘Lucy’ is treated:

A Maid whom there were none to praise
And very few to love:

A violet by a mossy stone
Half hidden from the eye!
Fair as a star, when only one
Is shining in the sky

She lived unknown, and few could know
When Lucy ceased to be.

The third poem is a curious piece which I leave to the reader’s discretion as I move to the fourth. ‘Three years she grew’ is the longest of the set and relates Nature’s decision ‘to take Lucy for her own’. Being longer, it allows for slightly more complexity, and the poem shows beautiful use of enjambement and pattern. The fourth stanza begins,

The floating clouds their state shall lend
To her

and the fifth,

The stars of midnight shall be dear
To her.

Out of context, some of the beauty of the rhythm is lost, and I would encourage the reader to see this poem in its entirety above. But even out of context, some of the beauty of both sentiment and sonority comes through, e.g.,

Grace that shall mould the Maiden’s form
By silent sympathy.

Most of the poem is occupied with the speech of Nature—too complex and protracted to delve into here—but concludes on notes of quiescence, melancholy, and absence:

Thus Nature spake—The work was done—
How soon my Lucy’s race was run!
She died, and left to me
This heath, this calm and quiet scene;
The memory of what has been,
And never more will be.

Lucy seems to hover between allegory (her name means Light) and (for want of a better word) reality. The discussion of these poems among passionate Wordsworthians rages on. But the mystery which makes them so powerful remains. The final poem of the set, ‘A slumber did my spirit seal’ is an excellent example of that sort of poem about which there is almost nothing to say which the poem itself does not put infinitely better. It boasts in its short space such compression, beauty, and mystery, you may profitably read it above for yourself.

6. ‘Expostulation and Reply’ and ‘The Tables Turned’

Expostulation and Reply

“Why William, on that old grey stone,
Thus for the length of half a day,
Why William, sit you thus alone,
And dream your time away?

“Where are your books? that light bequeath’d
To beings else forlorn and blind!
Up! Up! and drink the spirit breath’d
From dead men to their kind.

You look round on your mother earth,
As if she for no purpose bore you;
As if you were her first-born birth,
And none had lived before you!”

One morning thus, by Esthwaite lake,
When life was sweet I knew not why,
To me my good friend Matthew spake,
And thus I made reply.

“The eye it cannot choose but see,
We cannot bid the ear be still;
Our bodies feel, where’er they be,
Against, or with our will.

“Nor less I deem that there are powers,
Which of themselves our minds impress,
That we can feed this mind of ours,
In a wise passiveness.

“Think you, mid all this mighty sum
Of things for ever speaking,
That nothing of itself will come,
But we must still be seeking?

“—Then ask not wherefore, here, alone,
Conversing as I may,
I sit upon this old grey stone,
And dream my time away.”

The Tables Turned; An Evening Scene, on the Same Subject

Up! up! my friend, and clear your looks,
Why all this toil and trouble?
Up! up! my friend, and quit your books,
Or surely you’ll grow double.

The sun above the mountain’s head,
A freshening lustre mellow,
Through all the long green fields has spread,
His first sweet evening yellow.

Books! ’tis a dull and endless strife,
Come, hear the woodland linnet,
How sweet his music; on my life
There’s more of wisdom in it.

And hark! how blithe the throstle sings!
And he is no mean preacher;
Come forth into the light of things,
Let Nature be your teacher.

She has a world of ready wealth,
Our minds and hearts to bless—
Spontaneous wisdom breathed by health,
Truth breathed by cheerfulness.

One impulse from a vernal wood
May teach you more of man;
Of moral evil and of good,
Than all the sages can.

Sweet is the lore which nature brings;
Our meddling intellect
Misshapes the beauteous forms of things;
—We murder to dissect.

Enough of science and of art;
Close up these barren leaves;
Come forth, and bring with you a heart
That watches and receives.

These two poems, which are explicitly paired together by the poet, are perhaps not his most beautiful, but effectively constitute his poetic and intellectual manifesto in only a few quatrains. But Wordsworth’s poetry is never purely intellectual, and into these two slight poems sneak some of Wordsworth’s most beautiful and memorable lines, which secures them an easy place in a list of his greatest achievements, regardless of their size.

The first of the pairing—’Expostulation and Reply’—is, as the title suggests, a dialogue. It begins with a complaint, or, rather, a challenge submitted to Wordsworth by the fictional ‘Matthew’:

‘Why, William, on that old grey stone,
Thus for the length of half a day,
Why, William, sit you thus alone,
And dream your time away?

‘Where are your books?—that light bequeathed
To Beings else forlorn and blind!
Up! Up! and drink the spirit breathed
From dead men to their kind.’

A powerful criticism, we can all agree. There is so much to read; even with a thousand lifetimes you could not do it. Why don’t we all simply devote every moment to reading the myriad richnesses hidden in almost any book lying beside us? Wordsworth has an answer. He says to ‘Matthew’:

‘The eye—it cannot choose but see;
We cannot bid the ear be still;
Our bodies feel, where’er they be,
Against or with our will.

‘Nor less I deem that there are Powers
Which of themselves our minds impress;
That we can feed this mind of ours
In a wise passiveness.’

A wise passiveness—few poets writing in English can or have matched so much beauty, calm, and simplicity in three words, and moreover in such a short line. This is Wordsworth at his simplest, and perhaps at his intellectual best. The stanza is somewhat weakened by the Wordsworthian clichés, however, of Powers which impress the mind. (To my knowledge, Wordsworth never said clearly what these are and this, as a substantial point, required a systematic prose or philosophical treatment, not verse, if they were ever to be taken seriously.) But the poem is nevertheless great, and deeply affecting—emotionally, and intellectually.

But Wordsworth should not be taken completely at his word here: he is far from against reading. Indeed, he is amongst the most literary of writers. He evidently read almost everything a learned person could read in English in his lifetime; and outside of his mother tongue he translated from the Italian of Michelangelo, the Middle English of Chaucer, and the Latin of Virgil, among other things; his defence of the sonnet (in his famous sonnet, ‘Scorn not the sonnet’) shows a poet deeply learned in the European tradition surrounding this form (in which he himself excelled most others). The next poem, ‘The Tables Turned’, continues to entertain the prospect of a bookless life—or a life with bookishness attenuated. This time he addresses a silent ‘Matthew’:

‘Up! up! my Friend, and quit your books;
Or surely you’ll grow double:
Up! up! my Friend, and clear your looks;
Why all this toil and trouble?’

Although this opening exhortation is hardly stirring, it sets perfectly the message and the rhythm of the poem. Then comes the real, substantial argument:

‘Books! ’tis a dull and endless strife:
Come, hear the woodland linnet,
How sweet his music! on my life,
There’s more of wisdom in it’.

There is more of wisdom in nature—in general revelation—than in the special revelations of books. (The theological language is no mistake: for in the next stanza the throstle is called ‘no mean preacher’—surely a remark that gives away that Wordsworth’s ‘Matthew’ is buried in something like recondite religious scholarship.) The middle remark on the linnet and the sweetness of his music could, decontextualised, persuade me I were reading a (very good) English translation of Goethe. Wordsworth exhorts ‘Matthew’ again in one of his finest distichs:

‘Come forth into the light of things,
Let Nature be your teacher’,

for, he says,

‘She has a world of ready wealth,
Our minds and hearts to bless—
Spontaneous wisdom breathed by health,
Truth breathed by cheerfulness’.

Again the religious nature of Wordsworth’s opposition—and Romanticism sits with some of the more doom-laden aspects of Christian theology uncomfortably, to say the least—is abundantly clear: Nature blesses, and breathes, as the breath of God co-creates the cosmos in Genesis 1, or the breath of the Holy Spirit enters the Apostles at Pentecost (Acts 2). The next stanza is one of the most successful, and the most lapidary, that Wordsworth ever wrote:

‘One impulse from a vernal wood
May teach you more of man,
Of moral evil and of good,
Than all the sages can.’

Perhaps it can. Beautiful and memorable though this stanza is, I myself find this position much too bookish in its following of Romantic orthodoxy. It is funny how heterodoxy becomes orthodoxy, and vice-versa. Not to mention the irony of requiring a written poem to learn this wisdom. Nevertheless, for any argumentative shortcomings, this remains fine, fine poetry. Next, Wordsworth delivers a compressed—and, for that, the more devastating—criticism of the scientific outlook:

‘Our meddling intellect
Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things:—
We murder to dissect’.

If anything in Wordsworth rings true and timely to us today, it is that common concern in him and us for the destruction of nature by humanity, what Wordsworth himself calls elsewhere ‘the vulgar works of man’. This is the most beautiful and rigorous expression of that concern which I know. The poem then concludes on another note of exhortation, which resounds in the reader’s mind long, long, after the poem ceases to be read:

‘Enough of Science and of Art;
Close up those barren leaves;
Come forth, and bring with you a heart
That watches and receives.’

5. Hart-Leap Well

The Knight had ridden down from Wensley moor
With the slow motion of a summers cloud;
He turn’d aside towards a Vassal’s door,
And, “Bring another Horse!” he cried aloud.

“Another Horse!”—That shout the Vassal heard,
And saddled his best steed, a comely Grey;
Sir Walter mounted him; he was the third
Which he had mounted on that glorious day.

Joy sparkled in the prancing Courser’s eyes;
The horse and horsemen are a happy pair;
But, though Sir Walter like a falcon flies,
There is a doleful silence in the air.

A rout this morning left Sir Walter’s Hall,
That as they gallop’d made the echoes roar;
But horse and man are vanish’d, one and all;
Such race, I think, was never seen before.

Sir Walter, restless as a veering wind,
Calls to the few tired dogs that yet remain:
Brach, Swift and Music, noblest of their kind,
Follow, and weary up the mountain strain.

The Knight halloo’d, he chid and cheered them on
With suppliant gestures and upbraidings stern;
But breath and eye-sight fail, and, one by one,
The dogs are stretch’d among the mountain fern.

Where is the throng, the tumult of the chase?
The bugles that so joyfully were blown?
—This race it looks not like an earthly race;
Sir Walter and the Hart are left alone.

The poor Hart toils along the mountain side;
I will not stop to tell how far he fled,
Nor will I mention by what death he died;
But now the Knight beholds him lying dead.

Dismounting then, he lean’d against a thorn;
He had no follower, dog, nor man, nor boy:
He neither smack’d his whip, nor blew his horn,
But gaz’d upon the spoil with silent joy.

Close to the thorn on which Sir Walter lean’d
Stood his dumb partner in this glorious act;
Weak as a lamb the hour that it is yean’d,
And foaming like a mountain cataract.

Upon his side the Hart was lying stretch’d:
His nose half-touch’d a spring beneath a hill,
And with the last deep groan his breath had fetch’d
The waters of the spring were trembling still.

And now, too happy for repose or rest,
Was never man in such a joyful case,
Sir Walter walk’d all round, north, south and west,
And gaz’d, and gaz’d upon that darling place.

And turning up the hill, it was at least
Nine roods of sheer ascent, Sir Walter found
Three several marks which with his hoofs the beast
Had left imprinted on the verdant ground.

Sir Walter wiped his face, and cried, “Till now
Such sight was never seen by living eyes:
Three leaps have borne him from this lofty brow,
Down to the very fountain where he lies.

I’ll build a Pleasure-house upon this spot,
And a small Arbour, made for rural joy;
‘Twill be the traveller’s shed, the pilgrim’s cot,
A place of love for damsels that are coy.

A cunning Artist will I have to frame
A basin for that fountain in the dell;
And they, who do make mention of the same,
From this day forth, shall call it Hart-leap Well.

And, gallant brute! to make thy praises known,
Another monument shall here be rais’d;
Three several pillars, each a rough hewn stone,
And planted where thy hoofs the turf have graz’d.

And in the summer-time when days are long,
I will come hither with my paramour,
And with the dancers, and the minstrel’s song,
We will make merry in that pleasant bower.

Till the foundations of the mountains fail
My mansion with its arbour shall endure;
—The joy of them who till the fields of Swale,
And them who dwell among the woods of Ure.”

Then home he went, and left the Hart, stone-dead,
With breathless nostrils stretch’d above the spring.
And soon the Knight perform’d what he had said,
The fame whereof through many a land did ring.

Ere thrice the moon into her port bad steer’d,
A cup of stone receiv’d the living well;
Three pillars of rude stone Sir Walter rear’d,
And built a house of pleasure in the dell.

And near the fountain, flowers of stature tall
With trailing plants and trees were intertwin’d,
Which soon composed a little sylvan hall,
A leafy shelter from the sun and wind.

And thither, when the summer days were long,
Sir Walter journey’d with his paramour;
And with the dancers and the minstrel’s song
Made merriment within that pleasant bower.

The Knight, Sir Walter, died in course of time,
And his bones lie in his paternal vale.—
But there is matter for a second rhyme,
And I to this would add another tale.

Part Second

The moving accident is not my trade.
To curl the blood I have no ready arts;
‘Tis my delight, alone in summer shade,
To pipe a simple song to thinking hearts.

As I from Hawes to Richmond did repair,
It chanc’d that I saw standing in a dell
Three aspens at three corners of a square,
And one, not four yards distant, near a well.

What this imported I could ill divine,
And, pulling now the rein my horse to stop,
I saw three pillars standing in a line,
The last stone pillar on a dark hill-top.

The trees were grey, with neither arms nor head;
Half-wasted the square mound of tawny green;
So that you just might say, as then I said,
“Here in old time the hand of man has been.”

I look’d upon the hills both far and near;
More doleful place did never eye survey;
It seem’d as if the spring-time came not here,
And Nature here were willing to decay.

I stood in various thoughts and fancies lost,
When one who was in Shepherd’s garb attir’d,
Came up the hollow. Him did I accost,
And what this place might be I then inquir’d.

The Shepherd stopp’d, and that same story told
Which in my former rhyme I have rehears’d.
“A jolly place,” said he, “in times of old,
But something ails it now; the spot is curs’d.

“You see these lifeless stumps of aspen wood,
Some say that they are beeches, others elms,
These were the Bower; and here a Mansion stood,
The finest palace of a hundred realms.

“The arbour does its own condition tell,
You see the stones, the fountain, and the stream,
But as to the great Lodge, you might as well
Hunt half a day for a forgotten dream.

“There’s neither dog nor heifer, horse nor sheep,
Will wet his lips within that cup of stone;
And, oftentimes, when all are fast asleep,
This water doth send forth a dolorous groan.

“Some say that here a murder has been done,
And blood cries out for blood: but, for my part,
I’ve guess’d, when I’ve been sitting in the sun,
That it was all for that unhappy Hart.

“What thoughts must through the creatures brain have pass’d!
To this place from the stone upon the steep
Are but three bounds, and look, Sir, at this last!
O Master! has been a cruel leap.

“For thirteen hours he ran a desperate race;
And in my simple mind we cannot tell
What cause the Hart might have to love this place,
And come and make his death-bed near the well.

“Here on the grass perhaps asleep he sank,
Lull’d by this fountain in the summer-tide;
This water was perhaps the first he drank
When he had wander’d from his mother’s side.

“In April here beneath the scented thorn
He heard the birds their morning carols sing,
And he, perhaps, for aught we know, was born
Not half a furlong from that self-same spring.

“But now here’s neither grass nor pleasant shade;
The sun on drearier hollow never shone:
So will it be, as I have often said,
Till trees, and stones, and fountain all are gone.”

“Grey-headed Shepherd, thou hast spoken well;
Small difference lies between thy creed and mine;
This beast not unobserv’d by Nature fell,
His death was mourn’d by sympathy divine.

“The Being, that is in the clouds and air,
That is in the green leaves among the groves,
Maintains a deep and reverential care
For them the quiet creatures whom he loves.

“The Pleasure-house is dust:—behind, before,
This is no common waste, no common gloom;
But Nature, in due course of time, once more
Shall here put on her beauty and her bloom.

“She leaves these objects to a slow decay
That what we are, and have been, may be known;
But, at the coming of the milder day,
These monuments shall all be overgrown.

“One lesson, Shepherd, let us two divide,
Taught both by what she shows, and what conceals,
Never to blend our pleasure or our pride
With sorrow of the meanest thing that feels.”

This is a somewhat overlooked poem which appears early in the second volume of the 1800 Lyrical Ballads. It deserves much more attention since it is perhaps Wordsworth’s most successful and mature fable. It relates what Wordsworth himself calls in a headnote to the poem ‘a remarkable Chase’ (that is, a hunt) which gives the well its name. Appropriately, the poem begins in storm and tempest, but also, surprisingly, stillness:

‘The Knight had ridden down from Wensley Moor
With the slow motion of a summer’s cloud,
And now, as he approached a vassal’s door,
“Bring forth another horse!” he cried aloud.’

The knight is later named as Sir Walter (probably not Sir Walter Scott, of whom Wordsworth was a friend). In this stanza already one begins to see the obsessions and recurring themes in Wordsworth’s work: in ‘Daffodils’ (entry 8) he ‘wandered lonely as a cloud’; here the knight rides ‘With the slow motion of a summer’s cloud’. The idea of the chivalric tale briefly appeared in the first ‘Lucy’ poem (entry 7), and here appears again in full swing. But Wordsworth is careful not to allow a bustling tale of adventure to overtake the more earnest communication of his writing. We see this in ‘the slow motion of a summer’s cloud’, and then again more forcefully in stanza 3:

‘Joy sparkled in the prancing courser’s eyes;
The horse and horseman are a happy pair;
But, though Sir Walter like a falcon flies,
There is a doleful silence in the air.’

The poem is in two discrete parts, the first of which relates the tale: Sir Walter relentlessly hunts the hart and finds it dead by a spring after leaping a tremendous distance (which he deduces from the number of hoofprints in the earth). The element of the mysterious is strongly suggested by Wordsworth himself:

‘Where is the thong, the tumult of the race?
The bugles that so joyfully were blown?
—This chase it looks not like an earthly chase;
Sir Walter and the Hart are left alone.’

At the site of the hart’s demise, where its snout just touches the spring, Sir Walter vows to build a pleasure palace, ‘to make thy praises known’ (he tells the stag), which he shall name Hart-Leap Well. Wordsworth spends a few stanzas on a stunning description which I cannot include here, and so concludes the first part, or tale:

‘The Knight, Sir Walter, died in course of time,
And his bones lie in his paternal vale.—
But there is matter for a second rhyme,
And I to this would add another tale.’

And Wordsworth begins the second by reminding us of his poetic seriousness, and (implicitly) his adoration of Spenser, whose influence on Wordsworth is everywhere evident, but especially here:

‘The moving accident is not my trade;
To freeze the blood I have no ready arts:
‘Tis my delight, alone in summer shade,
To pipe a simple song for thinking hearts.’

The style is pure Spenser. However by the second stanza he is himself again, riding ‘from Hawes to Richmond’. He comes across the site of the well and is mystified, concluding only that ‘Here in old time the hand of man hath been’. A shepherd approaches and enlightens him of the history we have just read in the first part. What he adds is that the place is now ‘curst’:

‘There’s neither dog nor heifer, horse nor sheep,
Will wet his lips within that cup of stone;
And oftentimes, when all are fast asleep,
This water doth send forth a dolorous groan’.

The shepherd ascribes the cause to the Hart, and eulogises it movingly:

‘Here on that grass perhaps asleep he sank,
Lulled by the fountain in the summer-tide;
This water was perhaps the first he drank
When he had wandered from his mother’s side.

‘In April here beneath the flowering thorn
He heard the birds their morning carols sing;
And he perhaps, for aught we know, was born
Not half a furlong from that self-same spring’.

Wordsworth concludes with the shepherd that

‘This Beast not unobserved by Nature fell;
His death was mourned by sympathy divine’.

The conclusion is unapologetically didactic, and one of Wordsworth’s best:

‘One lesson, Shepherd, let us two divide,
Taught both by what she [nature] shows, and what conceals;
never to blend our sorrow or our pride
With sorrow of the meanest thing that feels.’

If we could take such a lesson more seriously, we might today occupy a better world than we do. But Wordsworth is wise enough (after his early revolutionary years) to know that real revolution is impossible: humanity is, for the most part, much as it is, as it has always been, as (most likely) it shall always be.

4. ‘The World is too much with us’

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for every thing, we are out of tune;
It moves us not.—Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.

Wordsworth always returned to the sonnet. It seems to him to have been an ideal form of expression. Whereas Ben Jonson thought the form misshaped strains of thought, making them longer or shorter than best suited them—and compared them therefore to the Bed of Procrustes—the form was to Wordsworth just large enough to elaborate, without allowing him to become prosaic, as he could often be in his longer, conversational verse, and forcing him to make his points with grace and concision. He took this well-worn love poetry form and used it for truly inventive and original ends. The Wordsworthian sonnet is a thing unto itself. There are many famous poems that could have been included in this list—‘Scorn not the Sonnet’, ‘Upon Westminster Bridge‘—as well as not so famous but beautiful works such as the Ecclesiastical Sonnets (much to be recommended), the many other ‘Miscellaneous Sonnets’, or the sonnet sequence, ‘The River Duddon’ (even more beautiful than the Ecclesiastical Sonnets): but this present poem, in warning us not to indulge too much our consuming impulses, perhaps speaks the most sharply to us today, and retains a beauty that, to my mind, will never cease to refresh a tired soul:

‘The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.’

I don’t believe those first seven words, on those following, ever likely to wear thin: they speak to the very principle of weakness in us.

The turn (or volta) of this sonnet, however, into its closing sestet, moves the verse from the didactic to the Classical Wordsworth—a significant aspect of the poet too rarely seen and appreciated:

‘It moves us not.—Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.’

It is a nice little joke, addressing the ‘Great God’ and immediately saying that one would rather be a pagan. But Wordsworth’s point here is indeed much more serious and is made more deeply and substantially in his longer Prelude, that we live ‘in a world of life’, and that it is our duty—and an incomparable pleasure—fully to appreciate this truth. To do otherwise is to beckon catastrophe.

Wordsworth wrote so many sonnets on sundry matters, which are all worth reading, such as ‘Even as a dragon’s eye‘, ‘Four fiery steeds impatient of the rein‘, the handful of sonnets translated from Michelangelo’s Italian, ‘Surprised by joy’ (which gave C. S. Lewis the title of his autobiography), ‘Where holy ground begins, unhallowed ends‘ (aka ‘A Parsonage in Oxfordshire’), the wonderful short sequence ‘Personal Talk‘, and so the list continues. Really, we are long, long overdue an edition of Wordsworth which treats his sonnets exclusively. Wordsworth the Sonneteer would have a welcome place on my bookshelf—and, I would hope, on many others’.

3. Ode: Intimations of Immortality

The Child is father of the Man;
And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.

I.
There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparelled in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
It is not now as it hath been of yore;—
Turn wheresoe’er I may,
By night or day,
The things which I have seen I now can see no more.

II.
The rainbow comes and goes,
And lovely is the rose;
The moon doth with delight
Look round her when the heavens are bare;
Waters on a starry night
Are beautiful and fair;
The sunshine is a glorious birth;
But yet I know, where’er I go,
That there hath passed away a glory from the earth.

III.
Now, while the birds thus sing a joyous song,
And while the young lambs bound
As to the tabor’s sound,
To me alone there came a thought of grief:
A timely utterance gave that thought relief,
And I again am strong.
The cataracts blow their trumpets from the steep;
No more shall grief of mine the season wrong;
I hear the echoes through the mountains throng;
The winds come to me from the fields of sleep,
And all the earth is gay;
Land and sea
Give themselves up to jollity,
And with the heart of May
Doth every beast keep holiday.
Thou child of joy,
Shout round me, let me hear thy shouts, thou happy shepherd-boy!

IV.
Ye blessed creatures, I have heard the call
Ye to each other make; I see
The heavens laugh with you in your jubilee;
My heart is at your festival.
My head hath its coronal,
The fulness of your bliss, I feel—I feel it all.
Oh evil day if I were sullen
While Earth herself is adorning
This sweet May morning,
And the children are culling
On every side,
In a thousand valleys far and wide,
Fresh flowers, while the sun shines warm,
And the babe leaps up on his mother’s arm:
I hear, I hear, with joy I hear!
—But there’s a tree, of many, one,
A single field which I have looked upon,
Both of them speak of something that is gone:
The pansy at my feet
Doth the same tale repeat.
Whither is fled the visionary gleam?
Where is it now, the glory and the dream?

V.
Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The soul that rises with us, our life’s star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar;
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home.
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
Shades of the prison-house begin to close
Upon the growing boy,
But he beholds the light, and whence it flows,
He sees it in his joy;
The youth, who daily farther from the East
Must travel, still is nature’s priest,
And by the vision splendid
Is on his way attended;
At length the man perceives it die away,
And fade into the light of common day.

VI.
Earth fills her lap with pleasures of her own;
Yearnings she hath in her own natural kind,
And even with something of a mother’s mind,
And no unworthy aim,
The homely nurse doth all she can
To make her foster-child, her inmate man,
Forget the glories he hath known,
And that imperial palace whence he came.

VII.
Behold the child among his new-born blisses,
A six years’ darling of a pigmy size!
See, where ‘mid work of his own hand he lies,
Fretted by sallies of his mother’s kisses,
With light upon him from his father’s eyes!
See at his feet some little plan or chart,
Some fragment from his dream of human life,
Shaped by himself with newly-learned art—
A wedding or a festival,
A mourning or a funeral;
And this hath now his heart,
And unto this he frames his song.
Then will he fit his tongue
To dialogues of business, love, or strife:
But it will not be long
Ere this be thrown aside,
And with new joy and pride
The little actor cons another part,
Filling from time to time his ‘humorous stage’
With all the persons, down to palsied age,
That Life brings with her in her equipage,
As if his whole vocation
Were endless imitation.

VIII.
Thou, whose exterior semblance doth belie
Thy soul’s immensity;
Thou, best philosopher, who yet dost keep
Thy heritage, thou eye among the blind,
That, deaf and silent, read’st the eternal deep,
Haunted for ever by the eternal mind,—
Mighty prophet! seer blest!
On whom those truths do rest,
Which we are toiling all our lives to find,
In darkness lost, the darkness of the grave;
Thou, over whom thy immortality
Broods like the day, a master o’er a slave,
A presence which is not to be put by;
Thou little child, yet glorious in the might
Of heaven-born freedom on thy being’s height,
Why with such earnest pains dost thou provoke
The years to bring the inevitable yoke,
Thus blindly with thy blessedness at strife?
Full soon thy soul shall have her earthly freight,
And custom lie upon thee with a weight,
Heavy as frost, and deep almost as life!

IX.
O joy, that in our embers
Is something that doth live,
That nature yet remembers
What was so fugitive!
The thought of our past years in me doth breed
Perpetual benediction: not indeed
For that which is most worthy to be blest—
Delight and liberty, the simple creed
Of childhood, whether busy or at rest,
With new-fledged hope still fluttering in his breast:—
Not for these I raise
The song of thanks and praise;
But for those obstinate questionings
Of sense and outward things,
Fallings from us, vanishings;
Blank misgivings of a creature
Moving about in worlds not realized,
High instincts before which our mortal nature
Did tremble like a guilty thing surprised:
But for 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: truths that wake,
To perish never;
Which neither listlessness, nor mad endeavor,
Nor man nor boy,
Nor all that is at enmity with joy,
Can utterly abolish or destroy!
Hence in a season of calm weather,
Though inland far we be,
Our souls have sight of that immortal sea
Which brought us hither,
Can in a moment travel thither,
And see the children sport upon the shore,
And hear the mighty waters rolling evermore.

X.
Then sing, ye birds! sing, sing a joyous song!
And let the young lambs bound
As to the tabor’s sound!
We in thought will join your throng,
Ye that pipe and ye that play,
Ye that through your hearts to-day
Feel the gladness of the May!
What though the radiance which was once so bright
Be now forever taken from my sight,
Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower?
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind;
In the primal sympathy
Which, having been, must ever be;
In the soothing thoughts that spring
Out of human suffering;
In the faith that looks through death,
In years that bring the philosophic mind.

XI.
And O ye fountains, meadows, hills, and groves,
Forebode not any severing of our loves!
Yet in my heart of hearts I feel your might;
I only have relinquished one delight
To live beneath your more habitual sway.
I love the brooks, which down their channels fret,
Even more than when I tripped lightly as they:
The innocent brightness of a new-born day
Is lovely yet:
The clouds that gather round the setting sun
Do take a sober coloring from an eye
That hath kept watch o’er man’s mortality;
Another race hath been, and other palms are won.
Thanks to the human heart by which we live,
Thanks to its tenderness, its joys, and fears,
To me the meanest flower that blows can give
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.

Though I myself happen not to love this poem half so dearly as many other Wordsworthians, it is undeniably great in its ambition and scope, and to miss it from a list of greatest poems owing to personal caprice would be much to condemn the value of the list. This Ode (another form, like the sonnet, in which Wordsworth outdid just about everyone—short perhaps of Horace and Hölderlin) gives Wordsworth’s most famous engagement with the Rousseauan idea of the natural insight and purity of the child—a doctrine which we still somewhat entertain today, even after the desecrations of Freud. Wordsworth treated this theme constantly, particularly in his early poetry, but this is his best attempt. He begins with a short epigraph to the poem which sums up his deep feelings on the matter:

‘The child is father of the man;
And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.’

This epigraph—which Wordsworth extracted from another of his poems, ‘My Heart Leaps Up’—was added to the later, longer version of the poem (written 1804, published 1807), which is of 11 substantial stanzas in length. The first version (written 1802) is only three, and poses the problem: the fading away of the sense of the divine in nature with the coming of age:

‘There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth and every common sight,
To me did seem
Appareled in celestial light,
The glory and freshness of a dream.
It is not now as it hath been of yore;—
Turn wheresoe’er I may,
By night or day,
The things which I have seen I now can see no more.’

Despite the almost childlike simplicity of the words (save for the wonderful line, ‘Apparelled in celestial light’), It is of an aching sadness, and a beautiful sound. It also shows in its changing metres (shown in the line lengths and brought out by the rhyme) Wordsworth’s most diverse and interesting use of metre—something in which he was not tremendously adventurous. (However, most great poets—in whatever languages I can think of—tend to excel in one metre. The only exceptions I can think of are Goethe and Horace, who excelled in a variety.) The form is taken indirectly from Pindar’s Odes in Greek, though via the English versions by Cowley and Gray. However, these, and Wordsworth’s, are much more polite and clear in sense than the phenomenal complexity of metre, grammar, and subject in Pindar’s Greek.

The next two stanzas elaborate on the fading of this ‘celestial light’, though in the third, the poet cheers, concluding that, ‘No more shall grief of mine the season wrong’. Next comes the addition of 1804, making the poem 11 stanzas in length. Stanza 4 picks up the joyful measures of 3 in a way which sounds truly symphonic, and the metres get rougher and (I dare say) for all that, more exciting (no matter how much I yearn to tidy some of them into neat iambs):

‘Ye blessèd creatures, I have heard the call
Ye to each other make; I see
The heavens laugh with you in your jubilee;
My heart is at your festival,
My head hath its coronal,
The fullness of your bliss, I feel—I feel it all.’

But at that stanza’s conclusion, the sorrow persists:

‘Whither is fled the visionary gleam?
Where is it now, the glory and the dream?’

Stanza 5 brings in a rather learned topic for Wordsworth, who usually like to wear his considerable learning much more lightly, in alluding to the Platonic (really, pre-Platonic, probably Orphic) idea of amanuesis (the pre-existent human soul’s forgetting of the divine as it enters into earthly, bodily life):

‘Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star
Hath elsewhere had its setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home’.

The argument of the remainder of this section is that the heavenly stays with us in youth, and ebbs away as we age. Again, although grand, the feeling is also a little doctrinal, and I think Wordsworth, had he wished this to be taken seriously as doctrine, ought to have adopted the systematic philosophical prose treatise. But never mind: we have a fine poem in order to recompense us of the absence of the former.

The following stanzas elaborate further on the argument. There are some lovely lines in these sections. Thereafter, stanzas ten and eleven bring us to the conclusion with the pleasant crashes of the end of a symphony:

‘Not for these I raise
The song of thanks and praise
But for those obstinate questionings
Of sense and outward things,
Fallings from us, vanishings’;

and:

‘Uphold us, cherish, and have power to make
Our noisy years seem moments in the being
of the eternal Silence’.

The final stanza slows the pace, adopts something closer to the organ-swell of Wordsworth’s favourite pentameter metre, as we are brought to a concluding prayer of thanksgiving:

‘Thanks to the human heart by which we live,
Thanks to its tenderness, its joys and fears;
To me the meanest flower that blows can give
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.’

2. The Prelude

Visit here to read ‘The Prelude’ in its entirety.

Around 1798–9, Coleridge began bothering Wordsworth about writing a long philosophical poem. This was to be called ‘The Recluse’. Sadly, it was never produced, but two other book-length poems were: ‘The Prelude’, published in 1850 by Wordsworth’s widow a few months after his death (the title is hers), and ‘The Excursion’, which was published in Wordsworth’s lifetime and was often considered, as the scholar Bushell notes in Re-Reading The Excursion, to be Wordsworth’s greatest poem during his lifetime. (It was appreciated by the late Victorians as equal in worth with the famous Prelude; but today it has dwindled to the point of hardly being read at all. However, Book I of the poem, first written in 1797–8 (often considered Wordsworth’s finest years) as an independent poem, The Ruined Cottage, is still read by ardent Wordsworthians.) A colleague of a colleague apparently once wittily remarked that Wordsworth couldn’t write ‘The Recluse’, but could write a Prelude to it and an Excursion from it.

It is more or less universally agreed that this book-length, autobiographical poem is Wordsworth’s greatest work. It exists in several versions. There are two book-length versions, 1805 and 1850; a five-book Prelude of 1805; and a two-part Prelude of 1799. There is also a fragment from (probably) 1798 which is effectively just the start of the two-book version of 1799. For a reader without the leisure to commit to the vast later Preludes, I would very much recommend the two-book of 1799. This is full of curious moments—including one or two that might surprise a too-narrow understanding of Wordsworth—and soaring, beautiful language and description. Needless to say, this is no substitute for the full richness of the long Preludes, so the reader might then try the five-book, or, if desiring a longer read, the full 1805 or 1850. Ernest de Selincourt, the great Wordsworthian, famously discovered, preferred, and published the more youthful and simple 1805. I think there is plenty to love in both the 1805 and the 1850, and that here we have an embarrassment of riches. Fortunately, the two versions have been put together (with the two-book 1799 Prelude and the 1798 fragment) in one affordable and attractive Penguin edition edited by Jonathan Wordsworth. The 1805 and 1850 are side-by-side, with the former on the left-hand pages, the latter on the right, so that one can choose one text, and make easy comparisons as they go.

Opening this volume, one is met with the achingly beautiful fragment which was to become the great later work:

‘Was it for this
That one, the fairest of all rivers, loved
To blend his murmurs with my nurse’s song,
And from his alder shades and rocky falls.
And from his fords and shallows, sent a voice
To intertwine my dreams?’

By 1805 a new beginning has fallen into place, one of Wordsworth’s most beautiful openings:

‘Oh there is a blessing in this gentle breeze
That blows from the green fields and from the clouds
And from the sky; it beats against my cheek,
And seems half-conscious of the joy it gives.’

This vast and beautiful poem then ranges over Wordsworth’s childhood, school, university, his intellectual life, travels, life in London, France in the time of the Revolution, and concludes on a note of exaltation as Wordsworth addresses, one-by-one, his closest relatives and friends. Being a poem to Coleridge, the poem ends by addressing him, and with some of the finest lines he (or anyone else) ever wrote:

‘what we have loved
Others will love, and we will teach them how;
Instruct them how the mind of man becomes
A thousand times more beautiful than the earth
On which he dwells, above this frame of things
(Which, ‘mid all revolution in the hopes
And fears of men, doth still remain unchanged)
In beauty exalted, as it is itself
Of quality and fabric more divine.’

For some background on The Prelude, I would very much recommend to any interested readers Stephen Gill’s William Wordsworth: The Prelude, a short, 100-page introduction produced for the ‘Landmarks of World Literature’ series in the 80s and 90s. It manages to be light and graceful in tone whilst remaining truly substantial and informative. Its detailing of the rather tragic Coleridge and Wordsworth relationship also makes truly moving reading—and this important aspect is almost completely absent from The Prelude itself.

1. ‘Tintern Abbey’ (with some notes on Lyrical Ballads)

Five years have passed; five summers, with the length
Of five long winters! and again I hear
These waters, rolling from their mountain-springs
With a sweet inland murmur. —Once again
Do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs,
Which on a wild secluded scene impress
Thoughts of more deep seclusion; and connect
The landscape with the quiet of the sky.
The day is come when I again repose
Here, under this dark sycamore, and view
These plots of cottage-ground, these orchard-tufts,
Which, at this season, with their unripe fruits,
Among the woods and copses lose themselves,
Nor, with their green and simple hue, disturb
The wild green landscape. Once again I see
These hedge-rows, hardly hedge-rows, little lines
Of sportive wood run wild; these pastoral farms
Green to the very door; and wreathes of smoke
Sent up, in silence, from among the trees,
With some uncertain notice, as might seem,
Of vagrant dwellers in the houseless woods,
Or of some hermit’s cave, where by his fire
The hermit sits alone.

                                       Though absent long,
These forms of beauty have not been to me,
As is a landscape to a blind man’s eye:
But oft, in lonely rooms, and mid the din
Of towns and cities, I have owed to them,
In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,
Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart,
And passing even into my purer mind
With tranquil restoration:—feelings too
Of unremembered pleasure; such, perhaps,
As may have had no trivial influence
On that best portion of a good man’s life;
His little, nameless, unremembered acts
Of kindness and of love. Nor less, I trust,
To them I may have owed another gift,
Of aspect more sublime; that blessed mood,
In which the burthen of the mystery,
In which the heavy and the weary weight
Of all this unintelligible world
Is lighten’d:—that serene and blessed mood,
In which the affections gently lead us on,
Until, the breath of this corporeal frame,
And even the motion of our human blood
Almost suspended, we are laid asleep
In body, and become a living soul:
While with an eye made quiet by the power
Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,
We see into the life of things.

                                                   If this
Be but a vain belief, yet, oh! how oft,
In darkness, and amid the many shapes
Of joyless day-light; when the fretful stir
Unprofitable, and the fever of the world,
Have hung upon the beatings of my heart,
How oft, in spirit, have I turned to thee
O sylvan Wye! Thou wanderer through the woods,
How often has my spirit turned to thee!

And now, with gleams of half-extinguish’d thought,
With many recognitions dim and faint,
And somewhat of a sad perplexity,
The picture of the mind revives again:
While here I stand, not only with the sense
Of present pleasure, but with pleasing thoughts
That in this moment there is life and food
For future years. And so I dare to hope
Though changed, no doubt, from what I was, when first
I came among these hills; when like a roe
I bounded o’er the mountains, by the sides
Of the deep rivers, and the lonely streams,
Wherever nature led; more like a man
Flying from something that he dreads, than one
Who sought the thing he loved. For nature then
(The coarser pleasures of my boyish days,
And their glad animal movements all gone by,)
To me was all in all.—I cannot paint
What then I was. The sounding cataract
Haunted me like a passion: the tall rock,
The mountain, and the deep and gloomy wood,
Their colours and their forms, were then to me
An appetite: a feeling and a love,
That had no need of a remoter charm,
By thought supplied, or any interest
Unborrowed from the eye.—That time is past,
And all its aching joys are now no more,
And all its dizzy raptures. Not for this
Faint I, nor mourn nor murmur: other gifts
Have followed, for such loss, I would believe,
Abundant recompence. For I have learned
To look on nature, not as in the hour
Of thoughtless youth, but hearing oftentimes
The still, sad music of humanity,
Not harsh nor grating, though of ample power
To chasten and subdue. And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean, and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man,
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things. Therefore am I still
A lover of the meadows and the woods,
And mountains; and of all that we behold
From this green earth; of all the mighty world
Of eye and ear, both what they half-create,
And what perceive; well pleased to recognize
In nature and the language of the sense,
The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse,
The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul
Of all my moral being.

                                        Nor, perchance,
If I were not thus taught, should I the more
Suffer my genial spirits to decay:
For thou art with me, here, upon the banks
Of this fair river; thou, my dearest Friend,
My dear, dear Friend, and in thy voice I catch
The language of my former heart, and read
My former pleasures in the shooting lights
Of thy wild eyes. Oh! yet a little while
May I behold in thee what I was once,
My dear, dear Sister! And this prayer I make,
Knowing that Nature never did betray
The heart that loved her; ’tis her privilege,
Through all the years of this our life, to lead
From joy to joy: for she can so inform
The mind that is within us, so impress
With quietness and beauty, and so feed
With lofty thoughts, that neither evil tongues,
Rash judgments, nor the sneers of selfish men,
Nor greetings where no kindness is, nor all
The dreary intercourse of daily life,
Shall e’er prevail against us, or disturb
Our chearful faith that all which we behold
Is full of blessings. Therefore let the moon
Shine on thee in thy solitary walk;
And let the misty mountain winds be free
To blow against thee: and in after years,
When these wild ecstasies shall be matured
Into a sober pleasure, when thy mind
Shall be a mansion for all lovely forms,
Thy memory be as a dwelling-place
For all sweet sounds and harmonies; Oh! then,
If solitude, or fear, or pain, or grief,
Should be thy portion, with what healing thoughts
Of tender joy wilt thou remember me,
And these my exhortations! Nor, perchance,
If I should be, where I no more can hear
Thy voice, nor catch from thy wild eyes these gleams
Of past existence, wilt thou then forget
That on the banks of this delightful stream
We stood together; and that I, so long
A worshipper of Nature, hither came,
Unwearied in that service: rather say
With warmer love, oh! with far deeper zeal
Of holier love. Nor wilt thou then forget,
That after many wanderings, many years
Of absence, these steep woods and lofty cliffs,
And this green pastoral landscape, were to me
More dear, both for themselves, and for thy sake.

After a fairly ‘directionless’ youth (to quote the Stephen Gill study cited above), which Wordsworth himself described in ‘The Prelude’ as a period of ‘shapeless eagerness’, the poet eventually, at twenty-eight, published Lyrical Ballads. The short but revolutionary set of poems—and this sort of poetic revolution met Wordsworth’s ideals far better than the political revolution in France—was co-authored with Coleridge. Stefan Zweig wrote in Der Kampf mit der Dämon (‘The Struggle with the Daemon’) that the great minds of the Romantic age frequently suffered (and benefitted) from something like a daemonic possession. Looking at his case studies—Kleist, Nietzsche—he does seem to have a point, though I would disagree with him on his third case study, Hölderlin. Coleridge was much possessed with the daemon of opium himself, but I occasionally reflect that perhaps Coleridge was Wordsworth’s daemon. He nourished his poetry through close friendship and advocacy, but put enormous pressure on that friendship through disagreements and, ultimately fatally (for the friendship and the friend) Coleridge’s addiction.

The collection began with Coleridge’s famous ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, a curious tale in a curious attempt at balladic form and stress-based metre. It then cycled through a number of ballads and ballad-like poems celebrating the common humanity of what we might call ‘low’ characters—a reaction to the heroic tradition of the eighteenth century. (However, let me emphasise that this cliché is far from the total truth. Wordsworth read copious amounts of eighteenth-century poetry, and there is much of the style of the time—albeit deeply transformed—in his writing, too. For this side of Wordsworth, read ‘An Evening Walk’, or the wonderful ‘Descriptive Sketches’.)

The Lyrical Ballads of 1798 was a revolutionary book, and contained one of the entries here (no. 6). It enjoyed a quiet early life, and was republished in 1800 with a huge Preface by Wordsworth in which he laid out many of his deep convictions and insightful observations on what the art of poetry is, has been, and what it ought to be. The collection was now almost double its original size, consisting now of two volumes, and many more fine poems were added as a result of Wordsworth’s fury of compositional energy in those years. There are many fine examples in the later edition that are not as well known, such as ‘Hart-Leap Well’, which we have included in this list.

Although full of great moments, Lyrical Ballads’ apex (in both editions) is Wordsworth’s great ode in blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter), ‘Tintern Abbey’ (or, to give it its full original title, ‘Lines, written a few miles above Tintern Abbey’). The Abbey—that is, the place itself—is on the Welsh border. Wordsworth had seen it and its surrounding landscape five years before he wrote the poem and, on revisiting, transmuted his deep feelings on the place into this ode, which is addressed to his beloved sister, Dorothy. I am not alone in thinking this the greatest lyric poem in English. Nor am I alone in being unable to read it without tears:

‘Five years have passed; five summers, with the length
Of five long Winters! and again I hear
These waters, rolling from their mountain-springs
With a soft inland murmur.’

There is in the lines of this Ode a moving, quiet music, which Wordsworth was never to match again, great though his later achievements were. The weaving together of the landscape description and its psychological effect remains unmatched:

‘Once again
Do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs,
That on a wild secluded scene impress
Thoughts of more deep seclusion; and connect
The landscape with the quiet of the sky.’

And again:

‘Once again I see
These hedge-rows, hardly hedge-rows, little lines
Of sportive wood run wild: these pastoral farms,
Green to the very door; and wreaths of smoke
Sent up, in silence, from among the trees!’

From these beautiful descriptions, Wordsworth departs into a meditation on the benison which such scenes are to the memory:

‘These beauteous forms,
Through a long absence, have not been to me
As is a landscape to a blind man’s eye:
But oft, in lonely rooms, and ‘mid the din
Of towns and cities, I have owed to them,
In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,
Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart;
And passing even into my purer mind
With tranquil restoration:—feelings too
Of unremembered pleasure: such, perhaps,
As have no slight or trivial influence
On that best portion of a good man’s life,
His little, nameless, unremembered acts
Of kindness and of love.’

But this is not the only beneficent influence which the poet has enjoyed; there has been something even deeper than this:

‘Nor less, I trust,
To them I may have owed another gift,
Of aspect more sublime; that blessed mood,
In which the burthen of the mystery,
In which the heavy and the weary weight
Of all this unintelligible world,
Is lightened:—that serene and blessèd mood,
In which the affections gently lead us on,—
Until, the breath of this corporeal frame
And even the motion of our human blood
Almost suspended, we are laid asleep
In body, and become a living soul:
While with an eye made quiet by the power
Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,
We see into the life of things.’

There are not really any words, to my mind, adequate to praise these lines justly. Let us move on therefore. After a few more fine lines, the poem returns to the theme we have seen in the Prelude and the ‘Intimations’ Ode—the loss that comes with growth, and the coattendant sense of some consolation which remains, to make quiet the gentle sorrow:

‘And so I dare to hope,
Though changed, no doubt, from what I was when first
I came among these hills; when like a roe
I bounded o’er the mountains, by the sides
Of the deep rivers, and the lonely streams,
Wherever nature led: more like a man
Flying from something that he dreads, than one
Who sought the thing he loved. For nature then
(The coarse pleasures of my boyish days
And their glad animal movements all gone by)
To me was all in all.—I cannot paint
What then I was.’

Often, Wordsworth’s best poetry proves to be found in those moments in which he fails to say exactly what he wants; in his best work there is a sense of endless yearning and striving. It is dear, and it is tragic. Here he cannot paint what he then was, and so returns to a description of nature’s effect upon him, as if to say, that he and nature, existing so closely, are one. Of course he cannot adequately describe himself: to do so would be to describe nature exhaustively too! Perhaps his most beautiful description of his boyhood pleasure in nature follows, which I shall leave to the reader’s private delectation. For we must move on with the change of the poem’s subject:

‘That time is past,
And all its aching joys are now no more,
And all its dizzy raptures. Not for this
Faint I, nor mourn, nor murmur; other gifts
Have followed; for such loss, I would believe,
Abundant recompense.’

And here we move on to the wisdom of age:

‘For I have learned
To look on nature, not as in the hour
Of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes
The still sad music of humanity,
Not harsh nor grating, though of ample power
To chasten and subdue.’

These last three lines are surely amongst the greatest written by anyone—at least in English. But Wordsworth must always add a sense of the spiritual and sublime to his humane insights, and so follows the impressive passage:

‘And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things.’

Again, this is Wordsworth at his most doctrinal: it is at once the most impressive and least beautiful, because we can find so many objections to its argument for beauty. It is, again, that striving, unsubdued idealism of Wordsworth—exclusive, grand, unreal—and he will go on to address this very objection in a short space in the poem. But for this verse paragraph he is to conclude that he is

‘well pleased to recognise
In nature and the language of the sense
The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse,
The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul
Of all my moral being.’

The most beautiful, and tear-provoking, moment in the poem comes now, as Wordsworth turns to address his silent sister Dorothy:

‘Nor, perchance,
If I were not thus taught, should I the more
Suffer my genial spirits to decay:
For thou art with me, here upon the banks
Of this fair river; thou my dearest Friend,
My dear, dear Friend; and in thy voice I catch
The language of my former heart, and read
My former pleasures in the shooting lights
Of thy wild eyes.’

Loaded with such a sense of due thanksgiving, and weighed with such reflections as we have seen, Wordsworth then makes a prayer to Dorothy:

‘and this prayer I make,
Knowing that nature never did betray
The heart that loved her; ’tis her privilege,
Through all the years of this our life, to lead
From joy to joy: for she can so inform
The mind that is within us, so impress
With quietness and beauty, and so feed
With lofty thoughts, that neither evil tongues,
Rash judgements, nor the sneers of selfish men,
Nor greetings where no kindness is, nor all
The dreary intercourse of daily life,
Shall e’er prevail against us, or disturb
Our chearful faith, that all which we behold
Is full of blessings.’

Stunningly beautiful though this is, it is as nothing but prelude to what comes next. He continues his words to Dorothy:

‘Therefore let the moon
Shine on thee in thy solitary walk;
And let the misty mountain-winds be free
To blow against thee: and in after-years,
When these wild ecstasies shall be matured
Into a sober pleasure; when thy mind
Shall be a mansion for all lovely forms,
Thy memory be as a dwelling-place
For all sweet sounds and harmonies; oh! then,
If solitude, or fear, or pain, or grief,
Should be thy portion, with what healing thoughts
Of tender joy wilt thou remember me,
And these my exhortations!’

The final words of the prayer conclude the poem:

‘Nor, perchance—
If I should be where I no more can hear
Thy voice, nor catch from thy wild eyes these gleams
Of past existence—wilt thou then forget
That on the banks of this delightful stream
We stood together; and that I, so long
A worshipper of Nature, hither came
Unwearied in that service: rather say
With warmer love—oh! with far deeper zeal
Of holier love. Nor wilt thou then forget,
That after many wanderings, many years
Of absence, these steep woods and lofty cliffs,
And this green pastoral landscape, were to me
More dear, both for themselves, and for thy sake!’

***

Conclusion, and a note on editions of Wordsworth.

Wordsworth’s corpus is vast, and made doubly vast again by the fact that he substantially revised most of what he wrote at some point in his life. Though many editors prefer Wordsworth’s earliest versions, thinking them ‘better’ (hardly a rigorous criterion for such an important decision!), I go with Wordsworth’s own opinion, which he expressed in a letter to the scholar and editor Alexander Dyce, ‘you know what importance I attach to following strictly the last Copy of the text of an Author’ (19 April 1830). Wordsworth re-wrote and, more importantly, re-thought throughout his life. Of course we need every version he ever made to be on record. But, for reading, I would err towards his latest version first. Taken with these, we are then free to explore the earlier versions if it pleases us to do so.

So, you may wonder, what edition of Wordsworth to read? I am afraid that neither the poet nor the reader is terribly well-served by the available modern editions. However, both editions of Lyrical Ballads (1798, and the much expanded 1800) have been issued in one attractive paperback volume, published by Oxford University Press, and this makes a beautiful, manageable way to begin with the young Wordsworth. However it does only give the young Wordsworth, and I might say for that reason that it is better employed as a volume for someone who already knows his general works since, replete with great poems as Lyrical Ballads is, certain aspects of it may weary the new reader, if he or she does not already have a firmer picture of Wordsworth’s career and his future greatness in mind.

I should like to warn readers away from Oxford’s Wordsworth: The Major Works, edited by Stephen Gill. Although Gill is a great Wordsworthian, as I have implied above, this huge and partial (in both negative senses of the word) edition is not worth the time, effort, or money.

There is an attractive hardback Selected Poems from Everyman; at some 500 pages with a few interesting-looking post- and prefatory essays, it offers an curious, affordable option: most of the major poems are here (with extracts from the long 1805 and 1850 Preludes), and some less well-known but interesting pieces besides. It is a substantial, curious, but partial Wordsworth which this volume offers.

The late Seamus Heaney’s selection of Wordsworth’s verse is more like a gift book: spare, slim—it would suit only the most cursory of investigations into the man’s works, but may be a suitable preliminary for busy people who do not have time to delve into the vast corpus.

In short, modern editions usually waste space on scholarly notes and painstaking notation of Wordsworth’s many substantial revisions—things about which no one but a Wordsworth scholar could possibly care. If there is any poet who has no need of these annotations, it is Wordsworth, the supreme poet of feeling. He is almost completely free of that poetic compulsion (dare I say it, vice) to seem clever, and so hardly ever requires an explanatory note in order to acquire at least a basic understanding of his meaning.

The effect of these gratuitous annotations is that these editors have to leave out the so-called ‘minor works’, making their modern editions weighty, tediously-annotated editions of the ‘greatest hits’. However, George Eliot made the point very well when she wrote: ‘I prefer Moxon’s one-volumed edition of Wordsworth to any selection. No selection gives you the perfect gems to be found in single lines, or in half a dozen lines, which are to be found in the “dull” poems’.

Perhaps the best option then is to search the second-hand market for a good old edition of Wordsworth, from the days when he was understood with a much more general sympathy. I do not know Eliot’s Moxon edition, but since Moxon was a contemporary and friend of Wordsworth, such editions are likely to be very old, rare, and expensive. For this essay I was greatly helped by that of Thomas Hutchinson (1904), revised by Ernest de Selincourt (1936)—although I was not assisted by the missing pages 459–62 which I hope is a feature unique to the copy from Leeds University Library! Generally though, the older you go, the better, and I would have used the unrevised Hutchinson of 1904 if I could.

Charles Eager is a scholar, teacher, and poet in Yorkshire, England. He is co-author of the poetry volume Synkronos (2017) with Vlad Condrin Toma. Although sold-out, it is available to be read freely online. His poetry has been published by EPIZOOTICS! and The Society of Classical Poets. His coming projects include a book on Shakespeare’s gods; books on Wordsworth and Dickens’s religion; compositions for classical guitar; a book on distinctions; and poetry, translated and original.
@sircharleseager
c.eager@leeds.ac.uk

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