unknown modes of being

Scavella excerpts in the comments to yesterday’s post on Wordsworth lines 351 – 400 of the first book of his Prelude. I’ve repeated them below, because they are stunning and keep dragging you back to them. A  lot going on, but two sections I found particularly compelling:

for many days my brain
Worked with a dim and undetermined sense
Of unknown modes of being; o’er my thoughts
There hung a darkness

and:

But huge and mighty forms, that do not live
Like living men, moved slowly through the mind
By day, and were a trouble to my dreams.

They made me think of this from The Second Coming:

a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs

And this from Paradise Lost:

Earth trembl’d from her entrails, as again
In pangs, and Nature gave a second groan

The common linkage in my mind is something like that spiritus mundi thing Yeats went on about (although I’m guessing both Wordsworth and Milton would argue with that).

Anyhow, here’s the excerpt (thanks, Scavella!):

One summer evening (led by her) I found
A little boat tied to a willow tree
Within a rocky cave, its usual home.
Straight I unloosed her chain, and stepping in
Pushed from the shore. It was an act of stealth
And troubled pleasure, nor without the voice
Of mountain-echoes did my boat move on;
Leaving behind her still, on either side,
Small circles glittering idly in the moon,
Until they melted all into one track
Of sparkling light. But now, like one who rows,
Proud of his skill, to reach a chosen point
With an unswerving line, I fixed my view
Upon the summit of a craggy ridge,
The horizon’s utmost boundary; far above
Was nothing but the stars and the grey sky.
She was an elfin pinnace; lustily
I dipped my oars into the silent lake,
And, as I rose upon the stroke, my boat
Went heaving through the water like a swan;
When, from behind that craggy steep till then
The horizon’s bound, a huge peak, black and huge,
As if with voluntary power instinct,
Upreared its head. I struck and struck again,
And growing still in stature the grim shape
Towered up between me and the stars, and still,
For so it seemed, with purpose of its own
And measured motion like a living thing,
Strode after me. With trembling oars I turned,
And through the silent water stole my way
Back to the covert of the willow tree;
There in her mooring-place I left my bark,–
And through the meadows homeward went, in grave
And serious mood; but after I had seen
That spectacle, for many days, my brain
Worked with a dim and undetermined sense
Of unknown modes of being; o’er my thoughts
There hung a darkness, call it solitude
Or blank desertion. No familiar shapes
Remained, no pleasant images of trees,
Of sea or sky, no colours of green fields;
But huge and mighty forms, that do not live
Like living men, moved slowly through the mind
By day, and were a trouble to my dreams.

– William Wordsworth, The Prelude, Book I, l. 351-400

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2 thoughts on “unknown modes of being

  1. Harry says:

    There’s a great anecdote in the second volume of the Richard Holmes biography of Coleridge; at a dinner party when both STC and WW were present (but at a time when their relationship wasn’t good), one of the guests noticed that they were both reciting poetry at the same time at different ends of the room. He listened in on Coleridge, who turned out to be quoting Wordsworth’s poetry by heart. Then he went over to Wordsworth, who was quoting… his own poetry.

    That’s my feeling about Wordsworth: it’s not a surprise that his greatest work should be a several thousand line investigation of his own navel, since the subject was obviously one that he found sympathetic.

  2. Heh. I got a kick out of this wiki entry on the Prelude: “Whilst Milton (mentioned by name in line 169 of Book One) in Paradise Lost rewrites God’s creation and The Fall of Man so as to “justify the wayes of God to man,” Wordsworth chooses his own mind and imagination as a subject worthy of epic.”

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