William Wordsworth: “This parliament of monsters” – Living in London

 

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Throughout the summer I hope to post my favorite bits from Wordsworth’s 1805 Prelude. Book 7 is about his time living in London, and reading these long (sometimes nightmarish, sometimes merely sociological) passages of the crowding & confusion he found in the big city, we understand even more why he preferred to be the poet of Nature. Other excerpts are here.

 


Above all, one thought
Baffled my understanding, how men lived
Even next-door neighbours, as we say, yet still
Strangers, and not knowing each other’s names.

Book 7, 117-120

 

Shall I give way,
Copying the impression of the memory –
Though things remembered idly do half seem
The work of fancy – shall I, as the mood
Inclines me, here describe for pastime’s sake,
Some portion of that motley imagery,
A vivid pleasure of my youth, and now,
Among the lonely places that I love,
A frequent daydream for my riper mind?
And first, the look and aspect of the place –
The broad highway appearance, as it strikes
On strangers of all ages, the quick dance
Of colours, lights and forms, the Babel din,
The endless stream of men and moving things,
From hour to hour the illimitable walk
Still among streets, with clouds and sky above,
The wealth, the bustle and the eagerness,
The glittering chariots with their pampered steeds,
Stalls, barrows, porters, midway in the street
The scavenger that begs with hat in hand,
The laboring hackney-coaches, the rash speed
Of coaches travelling far, whirled on with horn
Loud blowing, and the sturdy drayman’s team
Ascending from some alley of the Thames
And striking right across the crowded Strand
Till the fore-horse veer round with punctual skill:
Here, there, and everywhere, a weary throng,
The comers and the goers face to face –
Face after face – the string of dazzling wares,
Shop after shop, with symbols, blazoned names,
And the tradesman’s honours overhead:
Here, fronts of houses, like a title-pages
With letters huge inscribed from top to toe;
Stationed above the door like guardian saints,
There, allegoric shapes, female or male,
Or physiognomies of real men,
Land-warriors, kings, or admirals of the sea,
Boyle, Shakespear, Newton, or the attractive head
Of some quack-doctor, famous in his day.

Meanwhile the roar continues, till at length,
Escaped as from an enemy, we turn
Abruptly into some sequestered nook,
Still as a sheltered place where wind’s blow loud.
At leisure thence, through tracts of thin resort,
And sights and sounds that come at intervals,
We take our way – a raree-show is here
With children gathered round, another street
Presents a company of dancing dogs,
Or dromedary with an antic pair
Of monkies on his back, a minstrel-band
Of Savoyards, single and alone,
An English ballad-singer. Private courts,
Gloomy as coffins, and unsightly lanes
Thrilled by some female vendor’s scream – belike
The very shrillest of all London cries –
May then entangle us awhile,
Conducted through those labyrinths unawares
To privileged regions and inviolate,
Where from their aery lodges studious lawyers
Look out on waters, walks, and garden green.

Book 7, 145-204

 

O friend, one feeling was there which belonged
To this great city by exclusive right:
How often in the overflowing streets
Have I gone forwards with the crowd, and said
Unto myself, “The face of every one
That passes by me is a mystery.”
Thus have I looked, nor ceased to look, oppressed
By thoughts of what, and whither, when and how,
Until the shapes before my eyes became
A second-sight procession, such as glides
Over still mountains, or appears in dreams,
And all the ballast of familiar life –
The present, the past, hope, fear, all stays,
All laws of acting, thinking, speaking men –
Went from me, neither knowing me, nor known.
And once, far travelled in such mood, beyond
The reach of common indications, lost
Amid the moving pageant, ’twas my chance
Abruptly to be smitten with the view
Of a blind beggar, who, with upright face,
Stood propped against a wall, upon his chest
Wearing a written paper, to explain
The story of the man, and who he was.
My mind did at this spectacle turn round
As with the might of waters, and it seemed
To me that in this label was a type
Or emblem of the utmost that we know
Both of ourselves and of the universe,
And on the shape of this unmoving man,
His fixèd face and sightless eyes, I looked,
As if admonished from another world.

Book 7, 593-623

 

What say you then
To times when half the city shall break out
Full of one passion – vengeance, rage, or fear –
To executions, to a street on fire,
Mobs, riots, or rejoicings? From those sights
Take one, an annual festival, the fair
Holden where martyrs suffered in past time,
And named of St. Bartholomew, there see
A work that’s finished to our hands, that lays,
If any spectacle on earth can do,
The whole creative powers of man asleep.
For once the Muse’s help will we implore,
And she shall lodge us – wafted on her wings
Above the press and danger of the crowd –
Upon some showman’s platform. What a hell
For eyes and ears, what anarchy and din
Barbarian and infernal – ’tis a dream
Monstrous in colour, motion, shape, sight, sound.
Below, the open space, through every nook
Of the wide area, twinkles, is alive
With heads; the midway region and above
Is thronged with staring pictures and huge scrolls,
Dumb proclamations of the prodigies;
And chattering monkeys dangling from their poles,
And children whirling in their roundabouts;
With those that stretch the neck, and strain the eyes,
And crack the voice in rivalship, the crowd
Inviting; with buffoons against buffoons
Grimacing, writhing, screaming; him who grinds
The hurdy-gurdy, at the fiddle weaves,
Rattles the salt-box, thumps the kettle-drum,
And him who at the trumpet puffs his cheeks,
The silver-collared negro with his timbrel,
Equestrians, tumblers, women, girls, and boys,
Blue-breeched, pink-vested, and with towering plumes.
All moveables of wonder from all parts
Are here, albinos, painted Indians, dwarfs,
The horse of knowledge, and the learned pig,
The stone-eater, the man that swallows fire,
Giants, ventriloquists, the invisible girl,
The bust that speaks and moves its goggling eyes,
The waxwork, clockwork, all the marvellous craft
Of modern Merlins, wild beasts, puppet-shows,
All out-o’-th’-way, far-fetched, perverted things,
All freaks of Nature, all Promethean thoughts
Of man – his dulness, madness, and their feats,
All jumbled up together to make up
This parliament of monsters. Tents and booths
Meanwhile – as if the whole were one vast mill –
Are vomiting, receiving, on all sides,
Men, women, three-years’ children, babes in arms.

Book 7, 645-696

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