William Wordsworth: “A weight of ages did at once descend upon my heart”

8 thoughts on “William Wordsworth: “A weight of ages did at once descend upon my heart””

  1. If you want to still think about the piece, and don’t want someone else’s analysis to get in the way, skip this. I’m just taking a stab at this section of the 1805 Prelude to see what I can come up with.

    Of course he extols the virtues of the natural world and order of things. A source of inspiration and of comity to all things. But there’s an ambivalence peaking out in every direction. It seems the mere thought of/presence of God can elevate his spirit from the squalid side of life. But, in fact, he is really as isolated from a God-infused nature as he is from the squalid life of the city. The inspiration is from God, true, but it extends itself into to the impulse to embrace the human and the power that resides there as well,

    “noticeable kindliness of heart,
    Love human to the creature in himself
    As he appeared, a stranger in my path,
    Before my eyes a brother of this world –
    Thou didst with those emotions of delight
    Inspire me”

    So this inspiration is really attached to both sides, and it is precisely when he enters the thicket of the vulgar (“the very moment that I seemed to know”), when he seems overcome with with the weight of teeming humanity, that he also enters the gate to the city “Great God!” as if the divine were a ringing bell announcing his arrival.

    One might take that “Great God!” as a simple cry of disbelief and horror. But It seems to me, there is an equal recognition that some incredible force of inspiration is also at work in this place of vice and “mean shapes.”

    “no thought embodied, no
    Distinct remembrances, but weight and power,
    Power growing with the weight.”

    “Power growing with the weight.” Is it the power of something bringing him down? Something godless, The weight of it distasteful and unbearable? Or, perhaps another power arising from the very thing he detests? Hardly does it come upon him than it morphs into something else,

    “…that took place within me came and went
    As in a moment, and I only now
    Remember that it was a thing divine.”

    Are we dealing with the divine or the mundane? Which is calling out to Wordsworth now? And what is to follow that? A pastoral scene that is filled with a great assortment of very mundane things; shepherds eating lunch, toilsome burdens and steep waste, craggy ways, hazard and hard labor. Doesn’t sound much like playing in the fields of the Lord to me. Yet there it is, that power again,

    ” ’Twas thy power
    That raised the first complacency in me,
    And noticeable kindliness of heart,”

    What I think is going on, amidst many other cues, is that it is not so much the play between the delights of the divine and the squalor of life contesting for Wordsworth’s thought, but rather what mediates both those states and brings them to him in a fever of inspiration, regardless of their origin. I suggest the question is, what mediates those estates? And, I think the answer is twofold. First, he clearly credits the whole thing as happening in his mind. His mind, his thought, is the real instrument where the power of nature and of man are to be displayed and sorted out, whether as weights or as inspired thoughts, for both seem to dip into the well of inspiration.

    That, however, does not seem to be the only point of mediation. If it were, we could wrap it up by saying it was the subject and his perceptions, self and other, that contested for Wordworth’s loyalty. But there is another mediating surface in the poem, a sense of place, which appears to happen upon the walls of Goslar.

    For that part, it helps to know a little bit about those walls. Goslar, at the time Wordsworth resided there in 1798-1799 was a rather dreary little medieval mining town. It had little social life or anything else to recommend it, other than goods, though meager, were cheap. Once a resort town for Roman emperors, by the 18th c. it had become a decaying town, and a bit on the rough side as mining towns tend to be.

    Of the pastoral settings, Where God abided, and the vulgar little town where Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy resided that winter, both were somewhat fictional, separated by a defensive wall that surrounded the town. Dorothy and William detested the town and gave little thought to it other than it made the miserable. But it was the brutal long winter that year that made the whole experience in Goslar really unpleasant, one of the worst on record. Still, Dorothy described William’s mood as inspired and one of the most productive of his life. If inspiration was what he sought, he certainly didn’t seem to lack for it while he was in Goslar.

    The fields beyond the wall were a fiction altogether. That didn’t exist, except in his mind (or perhaps some boyhood memories.) What existed was the parapet of the walls of Goslar, which Wordsworth walked almost daily to escape the squalor inside those walls. In short he was miserable and homesick, except for those walks, where his imagination seemed to take off and free him from the burden of where he was. He might as well have been talking about himself when he wrote,

    “A freeman, wedded to his life of hope
    And hazard, and hard labour interchanged
    With that majestic indolence so dear
    To native man.”

    That, I suggest, was where inspiration really happened for him, where the powers he wrote about actually took form. Walking the parapet, I think was a second point of mediation, a point of place that put him somewhere between God and humanity. As his mind, his thought, was the mediator inspired delight, so that parapet (and perhaps the little pond nearby) was the mediator of its form. It would make this poem fragment much more than a simple argument between the beauty and the beastly.

    What the poem becomes is a weave power that arises from both of these points of mediation, the spirit and the place. And, it is the tension between them that I think are the real subject of the fragment. More than a simple philosophical work, then, it turns out to be an excursion into what, in a few years, would become the 1805 Prelude, a much fuller expression of the Romanticism which his earlier Lyrical Ballads had unleashed on the Enlightenment.

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  2. Sorry for this belated reply, Red. I did go through & smooth out a few typos. Yr right to question the seeming dichotomy of nature vs. city in Wordsworth, since, maybe like Milton’s Satan (& so despite himself) Wordsworth gathers great force & even sympathy from his catalogue of the city. It’s very nearly like Whitman, who is more unabashedly enthusiastic for the urban; it’s almost as an afterthought that you realize, especially when reading the entirety of bk 7 & 8 & not just these extracts, that he’s supposed to be coming out *against* cities here. But he’s clearly inspired by them.

    …You know more about Wordsworth’s life than me, but I do remember a remark, probably somewhere in the Prelude, where he apologizes for making such a long poem about himself, that he’s nearly embarassed by it. So I’m in agreement that it’s not really a philosophical poem. The philosophical poem that Coleridge wanted him to writed, could probably only have been written by STC, & it’s telling that he couldn’t do it, & seemed to know it. The philosophical poem Wordsworth could write ended up as anything but, at least if we think of a philosophical poem laying out a kind of list for how to live one’s life. He’s merely telling us how he lived his life, or rather how remembers living his life; the title that the intimation ode eventually took on, “Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood,” is telling: certainly the early childhood as lived is important, but even more so is the recollection of it, the arrangement of it, the deriving meaning from it.

    It must be intentional that you used the word Excursion towards the end of yr comment, I wonder if you’ve read any of that poem? I haven’t yet, but think it may be time soon.

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  3. Book 8, 347-390. Wordsworth relates with great imagery the beauty within the snows, frozen streams and bitter winds of winter. Unforgiving and life-giving. Those who step-out in the depths of winter know the hardships and feel the wonderment contained within this harshest of seasons. Truly, one “feels himself,/In those vast regions where his service is,/A freeman, wedded to his life of hope/And hazard.” Such poetry!

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