This poem was initially written as a separate one and then was later incorporated in “The Prelude” (Book5), the long autobiographical poem in twelve books, which Wordsworth subtitled “Growth of a Poet’s Mind” The work in these early books, as in this poem here, follows Wordsworth’s early development and his boyhood love of Nature in the Lake District where he was brought up, before moving in later books to his student days at Cambridge, his walking tours in the Alps, and the record of being caught up in the French Revolution and its effects on his understanding. Fascinating as the whole work is, it is probably the early books on childhood that readers find most appealing.
There was a Boy: ye knew him well, ye cliffs And islands of Winnander!-many a time At evening when the earliest stars began To move along the edges of the hills, Rising or setting, would he stand alone Beneath the trees or by the glimmering lake, And there, with fingers interwoven, both hands Pressed closely palm to palm, and to his mouth Uplifted, he, as through an instrument, With mimic hootings to the silent owls, That they might answer him; and they would shout Across the watery vale, and shout again, Responsive to his call, with quivering peals, And long halloos and screams, and echoes loud, Redoubled and redoubled, concourse wild Of jocund din; and when a lenghthened pause Of silence came and baffled his best skill , Then sometimes, in that silence while he hung Listening, a gentle shock of mild surprise Has carried far into his heart the voice Of mountain torrents; or the visible scene Would enter unawares into his mind, With all its solemn imagery, its rocks, Its woods, and that uncertain heaven receive Into the bosom of the steady lake. The Boy was taken from his mates, and died In childhood, ere he was full twelve years old. Fair is the spot, most beautiful the vale Where he was born; the grassy churchyard hangs Upon a slope above the village school, And through the churchyard when my way has led On summer evenings, I believe that there A long half hour together I have stood Mute, looking at the grave in which he lies.
William Wordsworth, The Prelude Bk5
Whisling, hooting, mimicking are all second nature to many boys. The Boy of this poem has obviously become expert at owl-hooting and loves the effect it creates. The poem invites us to identify and enjoy the boy’s creative gift and the resulting “wild concourse” of sound. It does so, not simply by description of the outer effects, but by entering the consciousness of the boy in relation to the wider surroundings.
What is given by the poem in the opening sequence is shared experience with a reflection on the significance of that experience. The poem calls to something within us- certainly, at least, if we are lovers of wild natural beauty.
You may read this verse and think of it at first as simple and prosaic in expression. Actually it is neither. The form is blank verse, the traditional narrative form of Miltonic epic and Shakespearian drama. It lends itself to the speaking voice. And the movement of the reflective speaking voice-not the dramatic voice like Shakespeare or the exalted one of the epic -is Wordsworth’s distinctive speaking voice in his narrative poems.
If you want best to get into reading William Wordsworth-if you want truly to recognise what a great poet he is-it is best , I think,- at least this was my advice to my students -to follow the movement of his sentences. The Wordsworth sentence is a marvel of meander, but it is a progressive meander, a delaying of its ultimate development to enable a deeper and wider perspective, a more profound possession of and inwardness with what is being described.
So, look at the start! It begins with a simple straightforward statement with a suggestion of portent : “There was a Boy” but , then there follows a delay of five lines before we have a verb connected to this subject : “would he stand alone” with another pause before the nature of the activity : “He”,- further delay- “blew mimic hootings”. We cannot read Wordsworth in a hurry. In our day we epect sentences to be linear, to move directly from subject to verb to object. Wordsworth does not do linear. Correction: when Wordsworth does linear, because it is exceptional, it has exceptional power.
The delays enable the reader to place the setting and the Boy’s habitual place within it (” ye knew him well, ye cliffs and islands of Winnander”-Winnander is the name given to Lake Windermere , perhaps the most famous of the English Lakes.) added to place is time of day, with the movement of the stars, causing the glimmer on the lake, so expanding, universalising our sense of the scene before it moves back to the boy (“would he stand alone”-this is no showing off in company-” Beneath the trees, or by the glimmering lake”) before at last the action . Note again the interjections, clause by clause, creating the precision of preparation. And so it goes on, wonderfully, to show the reaction of the birds building up to “concourse wild, of jocund din.”
But, curiously, that is not the finale being aimed at: leaving the reader with a beautiful picture and an appealing image of the boy and the build up of the owls’ responding. It is what Wordsworth goes on to do that makes him a special poet, one of the great poets. The outer effect has been described. Now, the verse takes the reader into the consciousness of the boy and by doing so extends our consciousness as readers:
Then sometimes in that silence, while he hung Listening, a gentle shock of mild surprise Has carried far into his heart the voice Of mountain torrents; or the visible scene Would enter unawares into his mind With all its solemn imagery, its rocks, Its woods and that uncertain heaven received Into the bosom of the steady lake.
There is so much that could be said of this passage that this post could be three times longer. Look at the effect of the enjambement in the first quoted line (“enjambement”: continuing the sense of a line beyond its end without a punctuated pause) creating that pause of intense listening has led to the hearing of what was before unnoticed: “Can I really hear that? Gosh!”- that is the far away sound of the mountain torrents up in the hills and the peacefulness that enables that far sound to be heard enters deep: “Carried far into his heart”. “Or” we are given an alternative potential (unconscious) absorption in the beauty of the scene.
A possible criticism of Wordsworth here might be we cannot be sure he is not transposing upon the boy his own subjective reaction. Yet the conjecture of the poet is based on what is likely to have penetrated the listener’s focus on the barest sound he can hear, as he is listening for sounds, and the “unawares” does point to whar we know to be a common experience-the apprehension of natural beauty, even if at an unconscious level. Wordsworth’s interest is , I think, likely to be shared by every reader who finds the poem moving: that the awareness of natural sounds and beauty of landscape is something we prize especially if we have been opened to the experience of it ( and what is the owl -hooting boy who is on his own doing if that potential is not there within him?)
The final stanza is as it were prepare for by the wonderful finale of the previous stanza, which is beautifully fitting in itself, but with its use of the phrase “uncertain heaven”- “uncertain” refers to the shadows of the sky reflected in the waters of the lake but there is a carry-over of the wider meanings of the two words -uncertainty held by the “steady lake” (Arnold’s phrase comes to mind ” to see life steady and to see it whole” as reflecting Wordsworth’s endeavour) to the recording of the death of the boy stated here in stark, (linear), plain, simplicity. We are left at the end of the poem with the poet thinking of the significance of that young life-seeking to hold it in “steady” view where the the loss of the boy’s future is balanced by the quality and meaning of the boy’s actual experience as glimpsed through this wonderful poem.
The reader feels he has known him and can celebrate the fact!