“ON THE FARM”: R.S.THOMAS -NATURE AND REDEMPTION.

           On the Farm

There was Dai Puw. He was no good.
They put him in the fields to dock swedes,
And took the knife from him, when he came home
At late evening with a grin
Like the slash of a knife on his face.

There was Llew Puw, and he was no good.
Every evening after ploughing
With the big tractor he would sit in  his chair,
And stare into the tangled fire garden,
Opening his slow lips like a snail

There was Huw Puw, too. What shall I say?
I have heard him whistling in the hedges
On and on, as though winter
Would never again leave these fields, 
And all the trees deformed.

And lastly there was the girl:
Beauty under some spell of beast.
Her pale face was the lantern
By which they read in life's dark book
The shrill sentence: God is love.

R.S. Thomas.

 

Early June with the sun shining, trees, blossoms , birds’ nest and song how easy it is to see Nature as genial and a blessing. “You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars, you have a right to be here” went the Max Ehrmann poem ” Desiderata”. Popular in the sixties it sounded ever so romantic!

Wordsworth in a poem like “Tintern Abbey” treats Nature as a blessed power which when contemplated can have a redemptive effect on us. In his famous “Preface to the Lyrical Ballads” he states his aim to “use language such as men do use” particularly those whose speech has been shaped in rural settings such as the Lake District. It would be simplistic to say that Wordsworth’s attitude to the rural enviromnent is idealistic. He shows the reality of rural poverty and suffering unforgettably in poems like The Ruined Cottage, Michael The Thorn and rural stoicism in a poem like “Resolution and Independence”; yet there is nothing in Wordworth I can think of that presents the rural character so bleakly as the poetry of the Welsh priest R.S. Thomas, featuring the lives of the Welsh peasantry and small farmers living in the Welsh uplands representative of the endurance and fortitude of people who have lived there for generations.

This is the stark environment in which Thomas worked as a priest, serving from 1936 to 1978 in six different Welsh parishes. What ever Thomas is as a poet he is not romantic.

“On the Farm” presents (we presume) three brothers and one sister. Two brothers are “no good” and the third worse even than that. There is nothing attractive about any of them or their lives. The poem exposes their blatant mental vacancy: two of them with little or no ability to do productive work, one debilitated by the work he does do so he is unfit for anything else.

In the final stanza we are made aware what Thomas is doing. The sister as “lantern” gives a light which rescues the brothers from darkness. In her they could read what otherwise they would be incapable of understanding. For “life’s dark book” is unreadable to them, only she can represent it in person:

And lastly there was the girl:
Beauty under some spell of the beast.
Her pale face was the lantern
By which they read in life's dark book
The shrill sentence "God is love".


    

What she represents is the meaning of the book otherwise “dark” to them: ” God is love”. The phrase is shrill because to make sense to them, to get through to them, her voice has no doubt become shrill to overcome thir obdurate emptiness but nevertheless she gives the love they need.

It reminds me- on a small scale- of Dickens’ great novel Little Dorrit -possibly the greatest novel in the language -in which Amy Dorrit alone brings to her father incarcerated in prison and her empty-headed brother and her vain sister, both with their “mind -forg’d manacles”- the love without which they would be as nothing.

Thomas is right: you cannot romanticise the peasant life he shows. Nature of itself cannot redeem the empty mind, the universe does not save them; what alone has the possibility to get through and give them lives to live is signified by a sister who shows them by action and “shrill voice”the love, which is the love of God.

RIME OF THE ANCIENT MARINER: PART VI

FIRST VOICE
"But tell me,tell me! speak again,
Thy soft response renewing-
What makes that ship drive on so fast? 
What is the ocean doing?" 

SECOND VOICE 
Still as slave before his lord, 
The ocean hath no blast; 
His great bright eye most silently 
Up to the moon is cast-

If he may know which way to go; 
For she guides him smooth or grim. 
See, brother, see! how graciously 
She looketh down on him." 

FIRST VOICE 
"But why drives on that ship so fast, 
Without or wave or wind?"
SECOND VOICE 
"The air is cut away before, 
And closes from behind. 

Fly, brother fly! more high,more high! 
Or we shall be belated: 
For slow and slow that ship will go,
When the Mariner's trance is abated. 

I woke, and we were sailing on 
As in a gentle weather; 
Twas night, calm night, the moon was high;
The dead men stood together. 

All stood together on the deck, 
For a charnel-dungeon fitter:
All fixed on me their stony eyes, 
That in the moon did glitter. 

The pang, the curse, with which they died, 
Had never passed away: 
I could not draw my eyes from theirs, 
Nor turn them up to pray.

And now this spell was snapt: once more 
 I viewed the ocean green, 
And looked far forth, yet little saw 
Of what had else been seen-

Like one that on a lonesome road 
Doth walk in fear and dread, 
And having once turned round walks on, 
And turns no more his head; 
Because he knows a frightful fiend 
Doth close behind him tread.

But soon there breathed a wind on me, 
Nor sound nor motion made: 
Its path was not upon the sea, 
In ripple or in shade.

It raised my hair, it fanned my cheek 
Like a meadow gale of spring- 
It mingled strangely with my fears, 
Yet it felt like a welcoming. 

Swiftly, swiftly flew the ship,
Yet she sailed softly too: 
Sweetly, sweetly blew the breeze-
On me alone it blew.

Oh! dream of joy is this indeed 
The light-house top I see? 
Is this the hill? Is this the kirk? 
Is this mine  own countree?

We drifted o'er the harbour-bar, 
And I with sobs did pray-
Oh let me be awake, my God! 
Or let me sleep alway. 

The harbour-bar was clear as glass,
So smoothly it was strewn! 
And on the bay the moonlight lay, 
And the shadow of the Moon. 

The rock shone bright, the kirk no less, 
That stands above the rock:
The moonlight steeped in silentness 
The steady weathercock. 

And the bay was white with silent light,
Till rising from the same, 
Full many shapes, that shadows were, 
In crimson colours came. 

A little distance from the prow 
Those crimson shadows were: 
I turned my eyes upon the deck-
Oh, Christ what saw I there! 

Each corse flat, lifeless and flat, 
And by the holy rood! 
A man all light, a seraph-man, 
On every corse there stood. 

This seraph- band, each waved his hand, 
No voice did they impart-
No voice;but oh, the silence sank 
Like music on my heart. 
But soon I heard the dash of oars, 
I heard the Pilot's cheer; 
My head was turned perforce away 
And I saw the boat appear. 

The Pilot and the pilot's boy, 
I heard them coming fast: 
Dear Lord in heaven! it was a joy 
The dead men could not blast. 

I saw a third- I heard his voice: 
It is the Hermit good! 
He singeth loud his godly hymns 
That he makes in the wood. 
He'll shrieve my soul, he'll wash away 
The Albatross's blood.

 

  
  

It seems to me there are two ways readers might regard Part VI. If the poem is seen as simply story, plotting a development from a wicked misdeed, with gothic incident, spells, supernatural visitations thrown in to create a tale of fantastic incident, then the ending of the poem over this part and the next might seem a malingering. What has to be done is after all becoming clear: the mariner has to be got home, an exit has to be arranged for the corpses, a moral neatly relayed. For such readers Part VI might seem unduly extended. But increasingly I have become aware that this is a spiritual poem in every sense, that it is an organic poetic unity and I am more and more impressed by the way in which mythological and cosmic elements give depth to the redemptive process. The mariner- and we along with him -has to learn that his crime is meaningless destruction; it is something that goes against not only the natural order but the spiritual interconnectedness of living beings. The conclusion has therefore to be given time for working out.

In terms of the poem’s unity note how effects are repeated. Stanzas and phrases are repeated, recalling earlier stages of the (spiritual) journey. The mariner although on the way towards home and redemption has flashbacks which threaten to immerse him. Once again he cannot escape the accusing eyes of the dead, he is trapped by the inability to pray, he is, as before ( in Part 1), like one pursued by a foe. In effect, Coleridge is maintaining dramatic interest as we shift between the possibilities of the mariner being trapped and finding escape. An example of this is the invocation of Christ ( another echo, this time from Part 2) which leads us to expect the worst when in fact, this time, it leads to a wondrous seraphic visitation.

Coleridge knew -if anyone knew-that the road to spiritual redemption is not linear. Malcolm Guite in his marvellous book on the poem (Mariner) and Coleridge’s life which I would encourage every reader interested in this series of posts to read, links these reversions to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Guite connects this condition with the agonies and self- recriminations the opium- addicted Coleridge had to contend with. It is true when Coleridge first wrote the poem (which appeared with Wordsworth’s in the first edition of the Lyrical Ballads) he was not an addict but Guite argues that imaginative fore-seeing is one of the powers at work within the poem. It is certainly remarkable the extent to which the mariner’s journey towards redemption reflects that of the great poet. as Guite so effectively shows..

The Part re-invokes the spiritual and redemptive qualities the Moon retains throughout the poem (see earlier parts of the discussion):

See, brother,see! how graciously 
She looketh down on him.

  

The supernatural aspect is brought out by the seraphic -band:

A man all light, a seraph-man, 
On every corse there stood. 

This seraph -band, each waved his hand, 
No voice did they impart- 
No voice; but oh! the silence sank 
Like music on my heart.   

This has a spiritual beauty underlined by the redemptive effect of a silence compared with the power of music. The passage seems to me to possess a wondrous quality which is nevertheless connected with a practical purpose. The ship having reached the harbour-bay would normally signal by light to the harbour pilot for guidance for entering the harbour walls.

The Part then continues the marvellous interplay of story with spiritual symbolism, with the regressive pull of defeat mixed with the progressive urge towards redemption encouraged by the ever present gracious Moon and the startling supernatural sublimity of the seraphic presence. It ends with a note of hope- on the mariner spying the Hermit on the pilot boat with the inevitable final recall of the last stanza to the (always capitalised) Albatross:

He'll shrieve my soul, he'll wash away 
The Albatross's blood.

RIME OF THE ANCIENT MARINER: PART 5. COLERIDGE’S MYTHOLOGY.

O sleep ! it is a gentle thing.
Beloved from pole to pole!
To Mary Queen the praise be given!
She sent the gentle sleep from Heaven
That slid into my soul.

The silly buckets on the deck,
That had so long remained,
I dreamt that they were filled with dew;
And when I awoke, it rained.

My lips were wet, my throat was cold,
My garments all were dank;
Sure I had drunken in my dreams,
And still my body drank.

I moved and could not feel my limbs:
I was so light- almost
I thought I had died in sleep,
And was a blessed ghost.

And soon I heard a roaring wind;
It did not come anear;
But with its sound it shook the sails,
That were so thin and sere.

The upper air burst into life!
And a hundred fire-flags sheen,
To and fro they were hurried about!
And to and fro and in and out,
The wan stars danced between.

And the coming wind did roar more loud, 
And the sails did sigh like sedge;
And the rain poured down from one black cloud;
The Moon was at its edge.

The thick black cloud was cleft, and still
The Moon was at its side:
Like waters shot from some high crag,
The lightning fell with never a jag,
A river steep and wide.

The loud wind never reached the ship,
Yet now the ship moved on!
Beneath the lightning and the Moon
The dead men gave a groan.

They groaned, they stirred, they all uprose,
Nor spake, nor moved their eyes:
It had been strange, even in a dream,
To have seen the dead men rise.

The helmsman steered, the ship moved on;
Yet never a breeze up-blew;
The mariners all 'gan work the ropes,
Where they were wont to do;
They raised their limbs like lifeless tools-
We were a ghastly crew.

The body of my brother's son
Stood by me knee to knee:
The body and I pulled at one rope,
But he said nought to me.

"I fear thee ancient Mariner!"
Be calm thou Wedding-Guest!
Twas not those souls that fled in  pain,
Which to the corses came again,
But a troop of spirits blessed.

For when it dawned -they dropped their arms,
And clustered round the mast;
Sweet sounds rose slowly from their mouths,
And from their bodies passed. 

Around,around, flew each sweet sound,
Then darted to the Sun;
Slowly the sounds came back again, 
Now mixed, now one by one.

Sometimes a dropping from the sky
I heard the sky-lark sing;
Sometimes all little birds that are,
How they seemed to fill the sea and air
With their sweet jargoning!

And now 'twas like all instruments,
Now like a lonely flute;
And now it is an angel's song,
That makes the heavens be mute.

It ceased; yet still the sails made on 
A pleasant noise till noon,
A noise like of a hidden brook
In the leafy month of June,
That to the sleeping woods all night
Singeth a quiet tune.

Till noon we quietly sailed on,
Yet never a breeze did breathe:
Slowly and smoothly went the ship,
Moved onward from beneath.

Under the keel nine fathom deep,
From the land of mist and snow,
The Spirit slid : and it was he
That made the ship to go.
The sails at noon left off their tune,
And the ship stood still also.

The Sun right up above the mast,
Had fixed her to the ocean:
But in a minute she 'gan stir,
With a short uneasy motion-
Backwards and forwards half her length
With a short uneasy motion.

Then like a pawing horse let go,
She made a sudden bound:
It flung the blood into my head,
And I fell down in a swound.

How long in that same fit I lay,
I have not to declare;
But e'er my living life returned,
I heard and in my soul discerned
Two voices in the air.

"Is it he?" quoth one, "Is this the man?
By him who died on cross,
With his cruel bow he laid full low 
The harmless Albatross.

The Spirit who bideth by himself
In the land of mist and snow,
He loved the bird that loved the man
Who shot him with his bow."

The other was a softer voice,
As soft as honey-dew:
Quoth he" The man hath penance done,
And penance more will do."

  
  

Coleridge’s universe is vital: full of stir and movement and spiritual presences. The eighteenth century, by way of Newtonian physics, had presented a mechanical universe, run like clockwork, according to “regular motions” . The Deist God existed as a distant applicator of the workings of the machine, the Divine Clockmaker who designed the clock and left it to run. So when Coleridge writes:

The upper air burst into life!
And a hundred fire-flags sheen,
To and fro they were hurried about!
And to and fro and in and out,
The wan stars danced about.

he is consciously reacting against the mechanical lifelessness of the Newtonian heavens.

The Romantics were fascinated by Science; for instance, by the new understanding of electricity and electro-magnetism.. The idea re-emerging in the poetry of Wordsworth, Coleridge and Shelley was of spirit interacting with matter. The discovery of Electricity, an unseen power with material effects, suggested the complementary association of universal Spirit with created Nature acting upon the mind. Wordsworth gives the idea expression in “Tintern Abbey” in these wonderful lines:

"                       And I have felt 
 A presence that disturbs me with the joy 
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime 
Of something far more deeply interfused, 
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns, 
And the round ocean and the living air, 
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man: 
A motion and a spirit that impels 
All thinking things, all objects of all thought, 
And rolls through all things.

What Coleridge does in “The Rime ” is to particularise within the unfolding of the poem what Wordsworth gives expression to in these lines of the interfusion of spirit, Nature and human thought; this is done by underlaying the story of the poem with a mythic depth. There is a bringing together of Christian and pagan elements ; or, perhaps more truly by demonstrating the development of Christian thought from pagan ideas. The Pagan worshipped- Sun, that which creates life, is made to symbolise the Christian God; the “moving” Moon of pagan mythology is given renewed life expressing the redemptive powers of the Blessed Virgin. (Male and female, it might be said, are given a living connection within the godhead which they lack in Milton’s Protestant epic “Paradise Lost”). Towards the end of Part 5 we are introduced to conversing spirits of the Polar region as a further element of the poem’s mythology.

It is the quality of the poetry that gives potent power to the mythology. This is invoked by the opening stanzas in explaining the renewing sleep of the mariner:

To Mary, Queen the praise be given! 
She sent the gentle sleep from Heaven, 
That slid into my soul.

We notice the way in which the restorative power of sleep is created by the preponderance of s-sounds and especially by the alliterative “slid” that suggests the gradual peaceful movement of restoration. The redemptive movement that brought the previous part to and end with the water-snakes being blessed by the “Spring of love gushed through my heart” is confirmed first by sleep , then dreams of moisture and then the blessing of rain. Given that one of the most powerful effects of the mariners’ physical condition has been that of a desperate feeling of thirst ( “with throats unslaked, with black lips baked”) we empathise as readers with the joyful release of the rain on the mariner. And the release from burden is emphasised by turning the fearful implications of ghostliness to one of blessing:

I was so light- almost 
I thought that I had died in sleep,
And was a blessed ghost.

    

A similar transformation is made of the crew members where their corpses become spirits guiding the ship. The astonishing development here is to show these spirits not just in action but as a worshipping gathering. Hence, the wonderful lines:

"Sweet sounds rose slowly through their mouths,
And from their bodies passed.

Around,around, flew each sweet sound,
Then darted to the Sun; 
Slowly the sounds came back again, 
Now mixed, now, one by one."

A wondrous sense is created of sound being circulated and rising to the Sun and then being renewed and returned. To emphasise the importance of what he is seeking to convey Coleridge adds two stanzas on the nature of the sound, comparing it to a profusion of bird song and then to a sounding orchestra followed by the single note of a flute. This rises to the finale of “an angel’s song That makes the heavens be mute”. Coleridge is creating not so much a poetry of spiritual enchantment but a poetry in which transcendent spiritual life, extended throughout the universe, is given expression, so that we as humans are made receptive to other spiritual possibilities within a universe radiated by spiritual life.

Towards the end of the Part there is a further development in the mythological aspect with the re-introduction of the Polar Spirit. This spirit is linked to the Southern Ocean where the ship had earlier ventured when it was visited by the Albatross and it is this Spirit which seeks vengeance for the killing of the Albatross. In his marginal gloss which he added to the poem for further elucidation Coleridge has written alongside the conversation between spirits ending the part:

The Polar spirit’s fellow daemons, the invisible inhabitants of the element, take part in his wrong; and two of them relate, one to the other, that penance, long and heavy for the ancient Mariner hath been accorded to the Polar Spirit who returneth southward.

This conversation enables the ending of the part to bring together the mythological element with the spiritual direction of the poem. The two spirits in their talk bring out not only the need of accountability for evil but also of mercy for the redeemed soul performing penance, with the concluding stanza bringing out with a beautiful image, the tender compassion of the merciful spirit.

"The other was a softer voice, 
As soft as honey-dew: 
Quoth he: "The man hath penance done, 
And penance more will do." 

FURTHER THOUGHTS ON PART 3

headpiece vignette to part 3 herbert cole. boston 1900 archives.org

Coleridge in his young twenties was an active supporter of the anti-slavery movement. Editing a radical newsletter, The Watchman, which argued for anti- slavery legislation and other causes raised by the French Revolution he would go round Bristol Harbour talking to ships’ captains and their crews about their experiences of the slave trade as well as their wider sea-going experiences. (A post on Coleridge and the Slave Trade will follow sometime soon). During these discussions he would hear tales about vanishing ships.

Perhaps you have heard of ghost ships You may remember Wagner’s opera called The Flying Dutchman. It tells the story of a legendary ghost ship which never makes it to port and is doomed to sail the seas for ever. The sighting of such ships is taken as a doom for the crew of the viewing ship. Such stories were traditional in sea-going areas; which is hardly surprising given the likelihood of visionary experiences for seamen, used to long sea voyages, with exhausted and thirsty crews.

However, it was Wordsworth who both supplied the seed of the actual story of the poem by relating to Coleridge a story of the shooting of an albatross from Shevlocke’s book (see post on Rime of the Ancient Mariner” Part 1) and then a friend John Cruikshank who told him of a nightmare he experienced in which he saw a ” skeleton ship with figures in it” which helped to inspire this part of the poem. In addition Coleridge heard of a very relevant Dutch story of one Falkenberg:

Who for murder done is doomed forever to wander on the sea, accompanied by two spectral forms, one white, one black. And in a ship with all sails set the two forms play at dice for the wanderer’s soul. Mariners that sail on the North Sea often meet the infernal vessel. (See Note below).

We can see how these ideas and stories helped form the development of Part 3 and indeed they changed my attitude towards it. For I must confess when I first read “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” I felt some disappointment in reading Part 3. It seemed to me the supernatural additions brought in material that stretched too far what had been up to that point a narrative, within the limits of realist convention allowing for a deep symbolic associations to develop. The supernatural machinery of Part 3 seemed at first a somewhat overwrought elaboration and machination perhaps necessary for the movement of the narrative (Coleridge had the problem for the ongoing narrative of detaching the crew from the narrator’s tale so that the focus would be on his isolated experience) but excessively Gothic.

However, on the influence of travellers tales suggests that Coleridge is not so much seeking a form of Gothic sensationalism but drawing upon material that was widely present to those aware of the genre and is suitably linked to the theme of evil and judgement.

Early on in Wordsworth’s and Coleridge’s discussions of their joint enterprises one of the earliest themes for a drama was the wanderings of Cain, the Biblical first murderer. While Coleridge eventually abandoned this, the theme of the origin of evil was very much in his mind as he reviewed various possibilities including the tale of the Wandering Jew and the story of Jonah. We can see connections between these various examples and the great poem he is to produce.

Coleridge of course is not simply writing a poem to illustrate a theme or two. The livingness of the poem-and all discussion of poetry must start with the alive or dead question- does the poem live or does it not? This comes from the depth with which the poet has internalised the themes so that they live for him, as profoundly needing to be worked out for his own sake-and for his readers. What the influences discussed above do suggest, however, is that our “willing suspension of disbelief” is helped- at least mine is- by knowing a little more about the justification for the use of what might be regarded initially as the gothic horror elements of Part 3.

NOTE: I am grateful once again to Malcolm Guite’s excellent study of the poem. This quotation from Mariner 2017 Mariner is further discussed in John Livingstone Lowes The Road to Xanudu 1927.

“Enjambment! Or would You Prefer the French Version, Sir?”

Is there a word the sound of which-whether uttered correctly or incorrectly -makes you wince?

In French -for me, “enjambement” is not like that. It is rather such a sweet sounding, elegant intonation. I love to hear it pronounced by a good French speaker. And I , in turn, attempted, in my rudimentary French to repeat that sound as best I could when I used it teaching in tutorial.

But, turn the beautiful French sound into English and the resulting sound is a crude horror. It certainly does make me wince. “Enjambement” becomes “Enjambment” and with the silent “b” the English jam, then with the “m” doubled becomes your central syllable : so “Enjamment”. In French (la) “jambe ” refers to leg and “enjambement” is the action of straddling, which in verse becomes a meaning crossing two lines. It makes sense. In English “jam” in relation to the meaning makes no sense. “En-jamming” sounds as if it is the word for a trapped child in a lift unable to move or get out because hemmed in by hulking adults. Or it reminds me of that disgustingly cruel ways wasps were lured into a jammy jar filled with water into which intoxicated with the sugar they would inevitably eventually drop trapped and drowned: “Enjam-ment”.

So it was excruciating in poetry discussion having demonstrated the subtlety with which a poet had created a particularly effective way of conveying a meaning by the use of the technique my carefully enunciated French was responded with “Ah you mean “en-jam-(b)ment”!

We noted the subtlety in “There Was a Boy”:

Then sometimes in that silence, while he hung
Listening, a gentle shock of mild surprise 

Here the suspense, the hanging action, listening for a sound is perfectly conveyed by the pause caused in moving from one line to the next.

Another example follows later in the poem:

A long half-hour together I have stood
Mute -looking at the grave in which he lies. 

where the sense of standing long and quiet at the graveside is strengthened by the lengthening of the movement between “stood” and “Mute” (both rhythically accented)

Perhaps the most famous observation on an example of enjambement that first enabled me to understand the power of the technique (before that it was just a word without point) comes where the famous critic F. R. Leavis writing on Keats in Revaluation takes the example of the gleaner in “To Autumn”:

And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across the brook. 

The gleaner’s task is to carry a basket of gleaned grain on their head. Leavis writes of this description:

In the step from the rime-word “keep”, across (so to speak) the pause enforced by the line-division to “Steady” the balancing movement of the gleaner is enacted.

Exactly like the movement of easing your way over stepping stones with a basket on your head, showing perfect balance! Leavis’ comment puts into words perfectly what is being done by the poet to achieve the effect. Once demonstrated we see the kind of enactment that the enjambement brings that enhances our identification with what is happening in the poem.

Such subtle enhancement deserves the pleasingly subtle French intonation of enjambement

“THERE WAS A BOY”

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!