Wordsworth’s 1805 Prelude, Book 10: “In the very world which is the world of all of us, the place in which, in the end, we find our happiness, or not at all “

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Excerpts from Book 10 of Wordsworth’s 1805 Prelude, where he concludes his story of being in France during the Revolution. Other excerpts are here.

 


A poor mistaken and bewildered offering,
Should to the breast of Nature have gone back,
With all my resolutions, all my hopes,
A poet only to myself, to men
Useless, and even, beloved friend, a soul
To thee unknown.

Book 10, 197-201

How could I believe
That wisdom could in any shape come near
Men clinging to delusions to insane?

Book 10, 627-629

…Were called upon to exercise their skill
Not in Utopia – subterraneous fields,
Or some secreted island, heaven knows where –
But in the very world which is the world
Of all of us, the place in which, in the end,
We find our happiness, or not at all.

Book 10, 722-726

In France, the men who for their desperate ends
Had plucked up mercy by the roots were glad
Of this new enemy. Tyrants, strong before
In devilish pleas, were ten times stronger now,
And thus beset with foes on every side,
The goaded land waxed mad; the crimes of few
Spread into madness of the many; blasts
From hell came sanctified like airs from heaven.
The sternness of the just, the faith of those
Who doubted not that Providence had times
Of anger and of vengeance, theirs who throned
The human understanding paramount
And made of that their god, the hopes of those
Who were content to barter short-lived pangs
For a paradise of ages, the blind rage
Of insolent tempers, the light vanity
Of intermeddlers, steady purposes
Of the suspicious, slips of the indiscreet,
And all the accidents of life, were pressed
Into one service, busy with one work.
The Senate was heart-stricken, not a voice
Uplifted, none to oppose or mitigate.
Domestic carnage now filled all the year
With feast-days: the old man from the chimney-nook,
The maiden from the bosom of her love,
The mother from the cradle of her babe,
The warriors from the field – all perished, all –
Friends, enemies, of all parties, ages, ranks,
Head after head, and never heads enough
For those who bade them fall. They found their joy,
They made it, ever thirsty, as a child –
If light desires of innocent little ones
May with such heinous appetites be matched –
Having a toy, a windmill, though the air
Do of itself blow fresh and makes the van
Spin in his eyesight, he is not content,
But with the plaything at arm’s length he sets
His front again the blast, and runs amain
To make it whirl the faster.

                                                 In the depth
Of these enormities, even thinking minds
Forgot at seasons whence they had their being –
Forgot that such a sound was ever heard
As Liberty upon earth – yet all beneath
Her innocent authority was wrought,
Nor could have been, without her blessèd name.
The illustrious wife of Roland, in the hour
Of her composure, felt that agony
And gave it vent in her last words. O friend,
It was a lamentable time for man,
Whether a hope had e’er been his or not;
A woeful time for them whose hopes did still
Outlast the shock; most woeful for those few –
They had the deepest feeling of the grief –
Who still were flattered, and had trust in man.
Meanwhile the invaders fared as they deserved:
The herculean Commonwealth had put forth her arms,
And throttled with an infant godhead’s might
The snakes about her cradle – that was well,
And as it should be, yet no cure for those
Whose souls were sick with pain of what would be
Hereafter brought in charge against mankind.
Most melancholy at that time, O friend,
Were my day-thoughts, my dreams were miserable;
Through months, through years, long after the last beat
Of those atrocities (I speak bare truth,
As if to thee alone in private talk)
I scarcely had one night of quiet sleep,
Such ghastly visions had I of despair,
And tyranny, and implements of death,
And long orations which in dreams I pleaded
Before unjust tribunals, with a voice
Labouring, a brain confounded, and a sense
Of treachery and desertion in the place
That holiest I knew of – my own soul.

When I began at first, in early youth,
To yield myself to Nature – when that strong
And holy passion overcame me first –
Neither day nor night, evening or morn,
Were free from the oppression, but, great God,
Who send’st thyself into this breathing world
Through Nature and through every kind of life,
And mak’st man what he is, creature divine,
In single or in social eminence,
Above all these raised infinite ascents
When reason, which enables him to be,
Is not sequestered – what a change is here!
How different ritual for this after-worship,
What countenance to promote this second love!
That first was service but to things which lie
At rest, within the bosom of thy will:
Therefore to serve was high beatitude;
The tumult was a gladness, and the fear
Ennobling, venerable; sleep secure,
And waking thoughts more rich than happiest dreams.
But as the ancient prophets were enflamed,
Nor wanted consolations of their own
And majesty of mind, when they denounced
On towns and cities, wallowing in the abyss
Of their offences, punishment to come;
Or saw like other men with bodily eyes
Before them in some desolated place
The consummation of the wrath of Heaven;
So did some portion of that spirit fall
On me to uphold me through those evil times,
And in their rage and dog-day heat I found
Something to glory in, as just and fit,
And in the order of sublimest laws.
And even if that were not, amid the awe
Of unintelligible chastisement
I felt a kind of sympathy with power –
Motions raised up within me, nevertheless,
Which had relationship to highest things.
Wild blasts of music thus did find their way
Into the midst of terrible events,
So that worst tempests might be listened to:
Then was the truth received into my heart
That under heaviest sorrow earth can bring,
Griefs bitterest of ourselves or of our kind,
If from the affliction somewhere do not grow
Honour which could not else have been – a faith,
An elevation, and a sanctity –
If new strength be not given, or old restored,
The blame is ours, not Nature’s. When a taunt
Was taken up by scoffers in their pride,
Saying, “Behold the harvest which we reap
From popular government and equality”,
I saw that it was neither these nor aught
Of wild belief engrafted on their names
By false philosophy, that caused the woe,
But that it was a reservoir of guilt
And ignorance, filled up from age to age,
That could no longer hold its loathsome charge,
Burst and spread in deluge upon the land.

And as the desert hath green spots, the sea
Small islands in the midst of stormy ways,
So that disastrous period did not want
Such sprinklings of all human excellence
As were a joy to hear of. Yet – nor less
For those bright spots, those fair examples given
Of fortitude, and energy, and love,
And human nature faithful to itself
Under worst trials – was I impelled to think
Of the glad time when first I traversed in France,
A youthful pilgrim; above all remembered
That day when through an arch that spanned the street,
A rainbow made of garish ornaments
(Triumphal pomp for Liberty confirmed)
We walked, a pair of weary travellers,
Along the town of Arras – place from which
Issued that Robespierre, who afterwards
Wielded the scepter of the atheist crew.
When the calamity spread far and wide,
And this same city, which had even appeared
To outrun the rest in exultation, groaned
Under the vengeance of her cruel son,
As Lear reproached the winds, I could almost
Have quarrelled with that blameless spectacle
For being yet an image in my mind
To mock me under such a strange reverse.

O friend, few happier moments have been mine
Through my whole life than that when first I heard
That this foul tribe of Moloch was o’erthrown,
And their chief regent levelled with the dust,
The day was one which haply may deserve
A separate chronicle. Having gone abroad
From a small village where I tarried then,
To the same far-secluded privacy
I was returning. Over the smooth sands
Of Leven’s ample aestuary lay
My journey, and beneath a genial sun,
With distant prospect among gleams of sky
And clouds, and intermingled mountain-tops,
In one inseparable glory clad –
Creatures of one ethereal substance, met
In consistory, like a diadem
Or crown of burning seraphs, as they sit
In the empyrean. Underneath this show
Lay, as I knew, the nest of pastoral vales
Among whose happy fields I had grown up
From childhood. On the fulgent spectacle,
Which neither changed, nor stirred, nor passed away,
I gazed, and with a fancy more alive
On this account – that I had chanced to find
That morning, ranging through the churchyard graves
Of Cartmell’s rural town, the place in which
An honored teacher of my youth was laid.
While we were schoolboys he had died among us,
And was born hither, as I knew, to rest
With his own family. A plain stone, inscribed
With name, date, office, pointed out the spot,
To which a slip of verses was subjoined –
By his desire, as afterwards I learned –
A fragment from the Elegy of Gray.
A week, or little less, before his death
He had said to me, “My head will soon lie low”;
And when I saw that turf that covered him,
After the lapse of full eight years, those words,
With sound of voice, and countenance of the man,
Came back upon me, so that some few tears
Fell from me in my own despite. And now,
Thus travelling smoothly o’er the level sands,
I thought with pleasure of the verses graven
Upon his tombstone, saying to myself,
“He loved the poets, and if now alive
Would have loved me, as one not destitute
Of promise, nor belying the kind hope
Which he had formed when I at his command
Began to spin, at first, my toilsome songs.”

Without me and within as I advanced
All that I saw, or felt, or communed with,
Was gentleness and peace. Upon a small
And rocky island near, a fragment stood –
Itself like a sea rock – of what had been
A Romish chapel, where in ancient times
Masses were said at the hour which suited those
Who crossed the sands with ebb of morning tide.
Not far from this still ruin all the plain
Was spotted with a variegated crowd
Of coaches, wains, and travellers, horse and foot,
Wading, beneath the conduct of their guide,
In loose procession through the shallow stream
Of inland water; the great sea meanwhile
Was at safe distance, far retired. I paused,
Unwilling to proceed, the scene appeared
So gay and chearful – when a traveller
Chancing to pass, I carelessly inquired
If any news were stirring, he replied
In the familiar language of the day
That, Robespierre was dead. Nor was a doubt,
On further question, left within my mind
But that the tidings were substantial truth –
That he and his supporters were fallen.

Great was my glee of spirit, great my joy
In vengeance, and eternal justice, thus
Made manifest. “Come now, ye golden times”,
Said I, forth-breathing on those open sands
A hymn of triumph, “as the morning comes
Out of the bosom of the night, come ye.
Thus far our trust is verified: behold,
They who with clumsy desperation brought
Rivers of blood, and preached that nothing else
Could cleanse the Augean stable, by the might
Of their own helper have been swept away.
Their madness is declared and visible;
Elsewhere will safety now be sought, and earth
March firmly towards righteousness and peace.”
Then schemes I framed more calmly, when and how
The madding factions might be tranquilized,
And – though through hardships manifold and long –
The mighty renovation would proceed.
Thus, interrupted by uneasy bursts
Of exultation, I pursued my way
Along that very shore which I had skimmed
In former times, when, spurring from the Vale
Of Nightshade, and St. Mary’s mouldering fane,
And the stone abbot, after circuit made
In wantonness of heart, a joyous crew
Of schoolboys, hastening to their distant home,
Along the margin of the moonlight sea,
We beat with thundering hoofs the level sand.

Book 10, 307-566

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