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Who is the drowned man of Esthwaite? Where does he come from, and where does he take us? That enigmatic figure may be found at the centre of the first of the Prelude spots of time, which describes an incident dating from Wordsworth's first week at Hawkshead, in May 1779.

 Ere I had seen

Eight summers - and 'twas in the very week

When I was first transplanted to thy vale,

Beloved Hawkshead; when thy paths, thy shores

And brooks, were like a dream of novelty

To my half-infant mind - I chanced to cross

One of those open fields which, shaped like ears,

Make green peninsulas on Esthwaite's lake.

Twilight was coming on, yet through the gloom

I saw distinctly on the opposite shore,

Beneath a tree and close by the lake side,

A heap of garments, as if left by one

Who there was bathing. Half an hour I watched

And no one owned them; meanwhile the calm lake

Grew dark with all the shadows on its breast,

And now and then a leaping fish disturbed

The breathless stillness. The succeeding day

There came a company, and in their boat

Sounded with iron hooks and with long poles.

At length the dead man, mid that beauteous scene

Of trees and hills and water, bolt upright

Rose with his ghastly face.

The Two-Part Prelude i 258-79 [1]

It may be that the drowned man of Esthwaite never exists as a 'living being' - at least within the poem - but it is hard to avoid the feeling that he resurfaces as something other than what once he was. He is, in a way, a paradox. That 'ghastly face' distinguishes him from the living, while affirming his likeness to us. All the while we know, as well as the poet, that he is no longer human.

Full fadom five thy father lies,

Of his bones are coral made:

Those are the pearls that were his eyes:

Nothing of him that doth fade,

But doth suffer a sea-change

Into something rich and strange [2]

At first glance the drowned man and the subject of Shakespeare's song have much in common. Both enjoy a kind of immortality, undergoing not the expected disintegration but instead a magical translation into 'something rich and strange'. There is an added dimension to Wordsworth's drowned man, however. He is part of an experience beyond time. When Wordsworth tells us that the 'breast' of the calm lake darkens as the young poet waits for the owner of the 'heap of garments' to return, he is doing more than merely filling in the narrative; in fact, he is not telling a story but sabotaging it. The young poet's interminable wait does not advance the 'drama' at all. In those terms, it is an irrelevance - because the story (if there is one) is not dependent on event.

Twilight was coming on, yet through the gloom

I saw distinctly on the opposite shore,

Beneath a tree and close by the lake side,

A heap of garments, as if left by one

Who there was bathing. Half an hour I watched

And no one owned them; meanwhile the calm lake

Grew dark with all the shadows on its breast,

And now and then a leaping fish disturbed

The breathless stillness.

The use of the word 'breast' in describing the lake may prompt us to ask why the water should be so humanized. One possible answer lies in the observation that it anticipates the infant babe in Part II of the poem, who 'sleeps / Upon his mother's breast' (Two-Part Prelude ii 270-1). That resonance might lead us to wonder whether the infant's mother - effectively that of the poet - is somehow present in the Esthwaite landscape, perhaps in the underworld beneath the water's surface; or perhaps the 'calm lake', as it darkens, brings the watching boy closer to her, affirming the primal bond forged when he was an infant. If the recollected landscape manages to admit Wordsworth to the underworld, it does so through the stillness that characterizes the no man's land on the borders of life and death - a state that describes not so much the landscape but the mood of the young boy as recollected by the mature poet.

So far the experience as it is, imbued with emotion, has been spatial. But the drowned man is part of a psychological complex: the 'breast' of the lake, and its 'breathless stillness', indicate that in some obscure sense he has come to pervade the scene. And that persistent sense of his dissipated continuation is only compounded by Wordsworth's casual reference to the passing of time: 'Half an hour I watched . . .' Who are the 'company' that floats out into the lake with hooks and poles? The fact is, Wordsworth is not concerned with the trivia of narrative; he is right to leave such things to the annotator, randy, to use Larkin's phrase, for antique. And yet, contrived by someone so shamelessly indifferent to the mechanics of linear narrative, the recollection climaxes, surprisingly, with a denouement that seems to satisfy the quest for a corpse:

At length the dead man, mid that beauteous scene

Of trees and hills and water, bolt upright

Rose with his ghastly face.

The discovery itself is treated with the same contempt meted out to the mechanicals responsible for it, dispatched in two and a half lines. What counts is the manner of the man's appearance, 'bolt upright', as if, despite being dead, he were coarsely parodying the ways of the living. It is shocking not because it is sensational, but because, in spite of his apparent vitality, he has been so ruthlessly stripped of life and humanity. 'Bolt upright', he may mimic the hungry generations of which he was once part, but he is also horribly reminiscent of the hooks and poles that have fetched him from the deep. His face is 'ghastly', and therefore drained of colour amidst the 'trees and hills and water'; it is also, by a shift of vowel, 'ghostly'. His fate has been to suffer translation into an object; he is the inhabitant not of the vale of Esthwaite, but of the underworld into which Wordsworth's mother had passed years before.

All of which may be said to have taken place in May 1779. The reason why such particulars, so important to the harmless drudge, are nonetheless so insignificant to Wordsworth (he himself miscalculates his age at the time, telling us that he was seven when in fact he was nine), is that the entire episode is re-enacted not in realistic terms, but in the heightened world of his adult imagination. Matters of fact have been filtered out so as to highlight the spirit of the event, infinitely susceptible to the abstracting powers of the poet's mind. Which is why the episode takes place beyond time, in an Esthwaite that exists more intensely and vividly in the imagination than its real-life counterpart ever could. Everything has undergone change. The energies once contained in the drowned man have passed into the landscape into which he has mysteriously disappeared. Why? Because redemption is integral to Wordsworth's vision. Death does not result in nothingness; it triggers an imaginative response in the living, anxious to affirm the survival of those who are gone. If indeed this is redemption, it is pagan. Wordsworth wants it here and now, mediated through the human mind, rather than through an afterlife. That emphasis on the mind explains why the drowned man episode - like the other spots of time - is not merely about, but contained by, an act of perception. We might say that the real, if not very helpful, answer to the enquiring detective, asking who might be the victim and who the culprit - is Wordsworth himself.

There are in our existence spots of time, and it is in their nature that what was lost will be retrieved. This is true also in the second of this group of recollections, where Wordsworth's younger self becomes separated from his grandparents' servant, 'honest James', who was escorting him home from school.

 I remember well

('Tis of an early season that I speak,

The twilight of rememberable life),

While I was yet an urchin, one who scarce

Could hold a bridle, with ambitious hopes

I mounted, and we rode towards the hills.

We were a pair of horsemen: honest James

Was with me, my encourager and guide.

We had not travelled long ere some mischance

Disjoined me from my comrade, and, through fear

Dismounting, down the rough and stony moor

I led my horse, and stumbling on, at length

Came to a bottom where in former times

A man, the murderer of his wife, was hung

In irons. Mouldered was the gibbet-mast;

The bones were gone, the iron and the wood;

Only a long green ridge of turf remained

Whose shape was like a grave. I left the spot,

And reascending the bare slope I saw

A naked pool that lay beneath the hills,

The beacon on the summit, and more near

A girl who bore a pitcher on her head

And seemed with difficult steps to force her way

Against the blowing wind. It was in truth

An ordinary sight, but I should need

Colours and words that are unknown to man

To paint the visionary dreariness

Which, while I looked all round for my lost guide,

Did at that time invest the naked pool,

The beacon on the lonely eminence,

The woman and her garments vexed and tossed

By the strong wind.

Two-Part Prelude i 296-327

As Wordsworth recalls his descent 'down the rough and stony moor', he conducts us into the landscape of the mind. His passage downwards parallels that of the drowned man beneath the surface of the lake, and, rather pertinently, echoes that of Orpheus. But what marks Wordsworth out as a genius is that nothing he writes is predictable - and if we were half expecting him to find his Eurydice, we are disappointed. So, oddly enough, is the boy:

Mouldered was the gibbet-mast;

The bones were gone, the iron and the wood;

Only a long green ridge of turf remained

Whose shape was like a grave.

The turf is merely like a grave - which is not to say that it was one. The gibbet, bones, and iron have vanished too - but were they ever there? One approach would be simply to say that the child's frightened imagination was summoning ghosts out of air. And we know from Goody Blake and Harry Gill that Wordsworth was fascinated by the ability to generate alternative realities. But that explanation does not go quite far enough. The 'rough and stony moor' closely parallels the 'heap of garments' in the preceding episode. In themselves, mundane enough, they are extrapolated into evidence of the thing by which the boy's mind is most preoccupied at that time: death. It is in the belief that he has seen a grave (as opposed to an innocent ridge of turf) that he staggers back out of the bottom to see nothing out of the ordinary - a girl with a pitcher, the Penrith beacon, a pool of water - all infused with an intensity that does not desert him. It is emphatically not the objects themselves that are in any way peculiar ('It was in truth / An ordinary sight'), but the way in which they are perceived - and, later, described.

. . . I should need

Colours and words that are unknown to man

To paint the visionary dreariness

Which, while I looked all round for my lost guide,

Did at that time invest the naked pool,

The beacon on the lonely eminence,

The woman and her garments vexed and tossed

By the strong wind.

The 'vision' is distinguished by the manner in which external objects acquire human qualities: the pool is 'naked'; the eminence 'lonely'. If their vulnerability reminds us of the boy's desperation in being separated from honest James, it is worth bearing in mind that the poet states that it was not him but James who was lost: 'while I looked all round for my lost guide'. Although alienated from his surroundings, the boy has arrived in a landscape that is oddly familiar, full of features that seem to mirror his state of mind. They are, in a sense, produced by it. It is nearly the landscape of dream, but is nonetheless connected to a reality that never loses its concreteness, its 'dreariness'. What this adds up to is that even though Wordsworth has climbed out of the bottom, he remains the inhabitant of a psychological underworld. By which time all hope of a conclusion to the narrative is wrecked; he does not bother to tell us how he was reunited with honest James, got home, etc. Story matters less than our own translation into an experience necessarily mythologised by its re-enactment in the poet's mind - and, by implication, in our own.

These patterns, familiar to readers of this poet, are foreshadowed in the poetry of his early youth. At the age of 16 Wordsworth composed a poem entitled The Dog: An Idyllium, ostensibly an elegy composed in the manner of Lycidas for the dog belonging to his landlady at Hawkshead, Ann Tyson.

Where were ye nymphs, when the remorseless deep

Clos'd o'er your little favourite's hapless head?

For neither did ye mark, with solemn dread

In Derwent's rocky woods, the white Moon's beam

Pace like a Druid o'er the haunted steep,

Nor in Winander's stream;

Then did ye swim with sportive smile

From fairy-templ'd isle to isle,

Which hear her far-off ditty sweet

Yet feel not ev'n the milkmaid's feet.

What tho' he still was by my side

When lurking near I there have seen

Your faces white, your tresses green,

Like water lillies floating on the tide?

He saw not, bark'd not, he was still

As the soft moonbeam sleeping on the hill,

Or when, ah! cruel maids, ye stretch'd him stiff and chill!

If, while I gazed (to Nature blind)

On the calm Ocean of my mind,

Some new-created Image rose

In full-grown beauty at its birth,

Lovely as Venus from the sea;

Then, while my glad hand sprung to thee,

We were the happiest pair on earth! [3]

The extended meditation directed at the water-nymphs of Windermere - a product of the neoclassicism which permeated much contemporary literature, in most of which the young Wordsworth was well-versed - gives way in the final paragraph to something original and unexpected. Moving from the exterior reality - the 'remorseless deep' into which the dog has disappeared - he takes us into 'the calm Ocean of my mind', out of which the 'new-created Image' of his four-legged friend rises up, 'Lovely as Venus from the sea'. In terms of the mature poetry, it is an imaginative act. It is in the first place meditative, and is thus similar in kind to the mystic trance of Tintern Abbey , where we are told that the 'beauteous forms' of the Wye valley were responsible for 'sensations sweet, / Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart'. What is so extraordinary about 'The Dog' is that the imaginative process leads directly to the animal's resurrection:

Then, while my glad hand sprung to thee,

We were the happiest pair on earth!

In other words, the final paragraph of The Dog: An Idyllium describes a spot of time, twelve years prior to the composition of those in The Prelude . Its teenage author countenances the dog's demise only so that he may redeem him through an imaginative act. As in the Prelude spots of time, retrieval occurs in this world, through an emphatically human, rather than divine, agency.

The psychological and emotional patterns embedded in the Prelude originate in Wordsworth's early verse. Their template is to be found in his translations from Virgil's Georgics , composed during his first year at St John's College, Cambridge. He was still only 18. It can be no surprise that the section on which he spent most time was the Orpheus and Eurydice episode from Book IV. As it is little known, I would like to present my text of the translation here, edited from the manuscripts in the Wordsworth Library. The earliest extant part begins after Eurydice has died after being bitten by a water-snake, and describes how Orpheus descends the underworld to retrieve her.

He, wandering far along the lonely main,

Sooth'd with the hollow shell his sickly pain:

'Thee, thee, dear wife', he sung forlorn

From morn to eve, and 'thee', from eve to morn.

He pierced the grove where death-like darkness flings

A cold black horror from his [dusky] wings,

To where hell's King in griesly state appears,

And round him hearts unmov'd by hum[an] tears.

On as he pass'd and struck the plaintive shell,

Ambrosial music fill'd the ear of hell;

[Arising] from the lowest bound

Of Erebus the shadows flock'd around

As birds unnumber'd seek their leafy bow'r

Driv'n by the twilight dark, or mountain shower -

Boys, men, and matrons old, the tender maid

And mighty heroes' more majestic shade.

Significantly, Orpheus' descent is accompanied by his lament for Eurydice, the passage into the underworld being essentially part of an imaginative act: '"Thee, thee, dear wife", he sung forlorn / From morn to eve, and "thee", from eve to morn.' His grief at her passing is no less passionate for his repetitions. The editions of Virgil from which Wordsworth was translating commended the technique, but the mature poet is known for his own distinctive use of it; as he points out in his 1800 note to The Thorn : 'now every man must know that an attempt is rarely made to communicate impassioned feelings without something of an accompanying consciousness of the inadequateness of our own powers, or the deficiencies of language. During such efforts there will be a craving in the mind, and as long as it is unsatisfied the Speaker will cling to the same words, or words of the same character' [4] He pinpoints with characteristic shrewdness the psychological hinge on which the spots of time turn: in each there is at some profound level an unsatisfied craving in the mind - a yearning for what has been taken away. And so it is at this early moment in the translation from Virgil. Driven by his passion for Eurydice, Orpheus finds himself, in the throes of grief, unable to move beyond that one syllable - thee. There is a correlative to the act of repetition in the later poetry - again one that springs directly out of Wordsworth's flawless grasp of human psychology. When he began work on The Ruined Cottage in 1797, he started not at the opening of the poem, but with its conclusion, where the Pedlar describes Margaret's increasing depression at the disappearance of her husband and the deaths of her children:

I have heard, my friend,

That in that broken arbour she would sit

The idle length of half a sabbath day -

There, where you see the toadstool's lazy head -

And when a dog passed by she still would quit

The shade and look abroad. On this old bench

For hours she sate, and evermore her eye

Was busy in the distance, shaping things

Which made her heart beat quick. [5]

Like Orpheus, Margaret is engaged in an imaginative act, as her mind shapes what she sees in the far distance in the hope that it might be her long-lost husband. The solecism is deliberate and effective. Although her eye has not detached itself from the rest of her body in order to travel to the far horizon, it might have done so, so intense is her unsatisfied craving for what she has lost. That act of perception is foreshadowed by the 'calm ocean of the mind' into which the 16 year old poet had 'gazed' in the hope of seeing his dog; it also looks forward to the drowned man episode, where he remembers staring across Esthwaite for half an hour into the lake's 'breathless stillness'. The act of staring for a long time into the middle distance, searching for what has been lost, is, I would suggest, precisely analogous both in psychological and poetic terms to the use of tautology. Both lead to imaginative retrieval: Orpheus indeed takes possession, though for a short time, of Eurydice, just as young Wordsworth extends his hand to retrieve his dog. In each case, Wordsworth is, to use the expression given resonance by Seamus Heaney, seeing things: not merely a matter of observing, but of responding to the overpowering compulsions that betray the traumas of the past. The act of seeing, in other words, is inextricably connected with psychological need. That said, Wordsworth's consistency in this respect should not confuse our reading of each work. Whatever is shaped in the distance, Margaret is not reunited with Robert, although the young Wordsworth does find the dog: The Ruined Cottage is about loss; The Dog is about recovery. The point is that in thinking as she does - in allowing her imagination free play with the shapes seen dimly on the horizon - Margaret engages with the possibility of Robert's redemption, if not its actuality. That redemptive possibility lies at the centre of Wordsworth's comments to De Quincey on the road between Grasmere and Keswick:

Just now, my ear was placed upon the stretch, in order to catch any sound of wheels that might come down upon the Lake of Wythburn from the Keswick road; at the very instant when I raised my head from the ground, in final abandonment of hope for this night, at the very instant when the organs of attention were all once relaxing from their tension, the bright star hanging in the air above those outlines of massy blackness, fell suddenly upon my eye, and penetrated my capacity of apprehension with a pathos and a sense of the Infinite, that would not have arrested me under other circumstances [6]

De Quincey uses Wordsworth's remarks to interpret There was a boy (though, as W. J. B. Owen has pointed out, the intervening moment of relaxation mentioned by the poet plays no part in the poem) [7] What I want to note here is that the placing of the senses `on the stretch' is a physical and mental enactment of the emotional need that underlies the poetry. In the Dunmail Raise episode the need is comparatively trivial - the two men are waiting for the mailcoach to bring Southey's copies of The Courier from Keswick - though it could be argued that, despite that, the intensity with which the poet listens is itself evidence of what psychologists call displacement.

Margaret's deepest impulse is to retrieve her lost husband; in The Dog , the young poet wants to reclaim his drowned pet; Orpheus pines repeatedly for his deceased lover - but what does the protagonist of the spots of time want? The oddity of the Prelude spots of time is that the question of the poet's underlying compulsions is elided. Admittedly, loss is alluded to in both: in the first a man drowns, and in the second the boy is separated from his encourager and guide. But they contain no emotional relation of the kind posited in The Dog, the Orpheus translation, or The Ruined Cottage . That reluctance to reveal his hand breaks down in the third of the spots of time, which takes us back to December 1783, when the young poet waited for horses to take him and his brothers from Hawkshead Grammar School to Cockermouth.

 'Twas a day

Stormy, and rough, and wild, and on the grass

I sate half sheltered by a naked wall.

Upon my right hand was a single sheep.

A whistling hawthorn on my left, and there,

Those two companions at my side, I watched

With eyes intensely straining, as the mist

Gave intermitting prospects of the wood

And plain beneath. Ere I to school returned

That dreary time, ere I had been ten days

A dweller in my father's house, he died,

And I and my two brothers, orphans then,

Followed his body to the grave.

Two-Part Prelude i 341-53

As in the drowned man episode, hints are offered by the vitality of the boy's surroundings: the stone wall that shelters him is 'naked'; the hawthorn 'whistles'. Once again, his own vulnerability is mirrored in the things he perceives - and it is in the act of perception that Wordsworth invests his attention: 'I watched / With eyes intensely straining'. That undeviating focus is precisely analogous with Orpheus' lament, the correlative of tautology. Tautology is integral to the spots of time; it is what makes them so valuable to the poet. Their distinguishing characteristic is that they are

 spectacles and sounds to which

I often would repair, and thence would drink

As at a fountain.

Two-Part Prelude i 368-70

They are not merely sources of inspiration - though they certainly do serve that function - they are the means whereby the central emotional drama of the poet's life may be reiterated. This is paralleled in a very literal way by the evolution of the waiting for the horses episode. It occurs in its earliest form in Wordsworth's The Vale of Esthwaite, composed in 1787 - three and a half years after the event it describes. Although it has often been the focus of critical attention no one has yet, to the best of my knowledge, observed that it contains, in even more explicit form, the psychological configurations traceable in the Prelude . It begins with an observation - that certain places, or, to use the poet's word, 'spots', in the landscape, are inextricably related to intense emotional experiences. Such claims seem unexceptional to those familiar with Wordsworth, but it is necessary to remember that these lines were composed by a 17 year old, at a time when the highly ornamented couplet manner associated with Pope was in vogue, and poetry was expected to deal only with the comparatively superficial emotions related to the eighteenth-century cult of sensibility.

No spot but claims the tender tear

By joy or grief to memory dear:

One Evening, when the wintery blast

Through the sharp Hawthorn whistling pass'd;

And the poor flocks, all pinch'd with cold,

Sad-drooping sought the mountain-fold;

Long, Long, upon yon steepy rock,

Alone I bore the bitter shock;

Long, Long, my swimming eyes did roam

For little Horse to bear me home,

To bear me (what avails my tear?)

To sorrow o'er a Father's bier.

Flow on - in vain thou hast not flow'd,

But eas'd me of an heavy load,

For much it gives my soul relief

To pay the mighty debt of Grief.

The similarities between this and the Prelude are so numerous as to suggest that it was before the poet as he composed the later poem. But I would like to offer another explanation: that by the time he composed the Prelude Wordsworth had retraced his steps so many times in his head that he had memorized the features described in the earlier passage. Whatever the case, the most significant feature of the early lines seems to me to be that which has so far been neglected: that, even at the age of seventeen, he is aware that his interminable straining to discern the horses in the mist may be embodied in verbal repetition. In other words, rhetorical style - tautology in this case - is capable of describing the operations of the mind at their deepest level:

Long, Long, upon yon steepy rock,

Alone I bore the bitter shock;

Long, Long, my swimming eyes did roam

For little Horse to bear me home,

To bear me (what avails my tear?)

To sorrow o'er a Father's bier.

It could be argued that the repetition of the word 'long' is purely emphatic - that Wordsworth is saying only that he waited for a long time. But the deliberate use of repetition in the Orpheus translation less than a year later indicates that he was by then aware that it could be an indicator of intense passion. In the Prelude the boy's eyes 'strain'; here they 'swim' - anticipating the tears that will express grief at his father's death. And Wordsworth's treatment of the experience submerges the exterior narrative in precisely the same way as in the Prelude, so that mourning is understood to be the inevitable result of the wait for the horses. In short, the teenage poet understands that the act of perception is the result of intense trauma.

It is commonly supposed that the Lucy poems, composed at the same moment as the spots of time, are concerned only with love. But at least one of them is really concerned with perception - and precisely the kind of perception found in the Prelude . Like the spots of time it comprehends the act of seeing as a tautology, and reaches beyond it as a means of coming to terms with the possibility of loss.

Strange fits of passion I have known,

And I will dare to tell,

But in the lover's ear alone,

What once to me befel.

When she I lov'd, was strong and gay

And like a rose in June,

I to her cottage bent my way,

Beneath the evening moon.

 Upon the moon I fix'd my eye,

All over the wide lea;

My horse trudg'd on, and we drew nigh

Those paths so dear to me.

 And now we reach'd the orchard-plot,

And, as we climb'd the hill,

Towards the roof of Lucy's cot

The moon descended 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 mov'd on; hoof after hoof

He rais'd and never stopp'd:

When down behind the cottage roof

At once the planet dropp'd.

 What fond and wayward thoughts will slide

Into a Lover's head -

'Oh mercy!' to myself I cried,

'If Lucy should be dead!' [8]

The remarks made by the poet of the Dunmail Raise episode fit the poem well; the relaxation of the sense organs is covered by the speaker's daydream at lines 17-20 - a daydream that does not interrupt the concentration with which he `fixes' his eye on the moon. That fixation is evidence of a passionate longing only hinted at by such phrases as `Those paths so dear to me' - and, as such, it is essentially repetitive in its nature. The fond and wayward thought of the final stanza reiterates that feeling, though in an unexpected manner. Although it is the unpredictability, the eccentricity of its expression that interests the poet, it is a repetition nonetheless - a repetition signalled by the trudging of the horses hooves (lines 11, 21) and the `bending' of the speaker's way (line 7). But what is it that is repeated? Everything that has already passed through his head in the course of the poem - all the emotions of love, which contains the power to surprise by the strangeness of its 'fits'.