Hearts in Stone

Hearts in Stone

Nature wasn’t mute to William Wordsworth. Shelley was a big fan of the early Wordsworth, and animated nature in a similar way. Byron used to complain about Shelley forcing him to listen to Wordsworth, which claimed to dislike like a bad medicine. However similar images also occur in Byron. In my favorite short poem by Shelley, Mont Blanc, nature was animated with a voice:

Thou hast a voice, great Mountain, to repeal
Large codes of fraud and woe, not understood
By all, but which the wise, and great, and good
Interpret or make felt, or deeply feel. (80-83)

It seems likely that Shelley had Wordsworth in mind when he penned these lines in 1816, but he wouldn’t have known The Prelude. Wordsworth would not allow it to be published until after his death, in the version I’ve been referring to as the 1850. A mountain did more than speak to Wordsworth in the first book of The Prelude. Wordsworth had stolen a boat as a boy and rowed out on the lake. Nature stepped in with her “severe ministry.”

I dipped my oars in the silent lake,
And as I rose upon the stroke of my boat
Went heaving through the water like a swan—
When from behind that rocky steep, till then
The bound of the horizon, a huge cliff,
As if with a voluntary power instinct,
Upreared its head. I struck and struck again,
And growing still in stature, the huge cliff
Rose up between me and the stars, and still
With measured motion, like a living thing
Strode after me. With trembling hands I turned,
And through the silent water stole my way
Back to the cavern of the willow-tree. (1799— 104-116)

I just rolled on the floor the first time I read this. It’s like a Japanese science fiction film, where the huge mountain goes after poor kid Wordsworth. I can’t help but visualize it. There were no major revisions of this section in the later versions, though it was moved to line 400 in 1805, and 370 in the final version. Wordsworth did change “trembling hands” to “trembling oars” in 1850. He only stepped back a bit, in keeping with the far more distant tone of the final cut, and I’m glad. To me it’s one of the funniest things I’ve ever read from Wordsworth.

I’ve done quite a bit of photography in the mountains, waiting for the rocks and trees to speak to me. They never did. I would have loved to have been chased around by a mountain. I wonder if this might have been the inpiration for Zappa’s Billy the Mountain?

* Joseph Duemer stepped up to defend free verse, and wrote some good posts on Blake and Wordsworth. It’s nice to know people are out there!

2 thoughts on “Hearts in Stone”

  1. “I just rolled on the floor the first time I read this”?
    It’s mighty generous to supply a readerly humor to Wordsworth, but I don’t think he has any of his own. It took me a long time to realize that this was why I couldn’t stand reading him: the absence not just of humor but of any of the elements of personality which might promise it would be there in some other context, even if it doesn’t happen to be expressed in this or that particular poem. All the weird allegoresis in Blake and Shelley seem to promise that they’d have a good laugh somewhere when circumstances were right, but Wordsworth? I mean, I’m the last one to demand that everybody be a party animal or be declared subhuman(down with Henry Miller) but I just can’t see William even smiling about anything. On Mont Blanc he stands with arms folded looking at the moon and feeling the frisson along his spine, and then he takes notes. (Okay, that’s unfair. But it’s not that unfair.)
    I’ve always wanted to like Wordsworth, what with all the solitude and nature and meditative contemplation and self-involvement and other things I am generally predisposed to approve of. But the surgical removal of the humor lobe is something I can’t get past; for all its complexity, The Prelude seems humorlessly aphasic to me, like thinking in peanut butter.

  2. True, a reader must find their own humor in Wordsworth. He certainly doesn’t supply it himself.
    TAKE from Wordsworth all which an honest criticism cannot but allow, and what is left will show how truly great he was. He had no humor, no dramatic power, and his temperament was of that dry and juiceless quality, that in all his published correspondence you shall not find a letter, but only essays. If we consider carefully where he was most successful, we shall find that it was not so much in description of natural scenery, or delineation of character, as in vivid expression of the effect produced by external objects and events upon his own mind, and of the shape and hue (perhaps momentary) which they in turn took from his mood or temperament.
    . . . Wordsworth’s absolute want of humor, while it no doubt confirmed his self-confidence by making him insensible both to the comical incongruity into which he was often led by his earlier theory concerning the language of poetry and to the not unnatural ridicule called forth by it, seems to have been indicative of a certain dulness of perception in other directions.
    . . .The normal condition of many poets would seem to approach that temperature to which Wordsworth’s mind could be raised only by the white heat of profoundly inward pas- sion.
    . . . Is it his thought? . It has the shifting inward lustre of diamond. Is it his feeling? It is as delicate as the impressions of fossil ferns. He seems to have caught and fixed forever in immutable grace the most evanescent and intangible of our intuitions, the very ripple-marks on the remotest shores of being.
    But this intensity of mood which insures high quality is by its very nature incapable of prolongation, and Wordsworth, in endeavoring it, falls more below himself, and is, more even than many poets his inferiors in imaginative quality, a poet of passages.
    James Russell Lowell 1876When I first read the romantics, I detested Wordsworth and Keats. I have since tempered my feelings. I appreciate many of Wordsworth’s passages, though I still feel that he edited The Prelude to death, and Keats’s delicate ironies are no longer lost on me. I suppose it required some self-trickery to percieve Wordsworth as something other than “dry as dust” and Keats as something other than a waffling pathetic weasel. I feel much better about both of them now.

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