Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Reading below the Surface: Wordsworth and a Compositional Method

Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Reading below the Surface: Wordsworth and a Compositional Method

Article excerpt

In Wordsworth's The Excursion, the Solitary is the only character to tell his own story. At the conclusion of Book III, he compares his life to "a mountain Brook / In some still passage of its course" and describes:

   Within the depths of its capacious breast,
   Inverted trees, and rocks, and azure sky;
   And on its glassy surface, specks of foam,
   And conglobated bubbles undissolved,
   Numerous as stars; that, by their onward lapse,
   Betray to sight the motion of the stream,
   Else imperceptible; ..." (The Excursio [1814] 139).

This typically Wordsworthian image is both linear, a journey from coast to coast, and vertical; the stillness of the brook creates an illusory depth as if it contained all of the world around it, with the Solitary's life "held" in stasis within. The Solitary's image of himself offers depth, surface, length, but obscures the depths beneath, an accurate representation of his character in the poem: self-alienated and deliberately withdrawn from society. Yet the river is no single object; it is endlessly itself by being part of something greater than itself. So, the silent onward force of the water seems to partly work against the character's own self-representation here. The image of the river asserts the impossibility of absolute withdrawal. The position of this metaphor, as coda at the end of the Solitary's autobiographical tale also links the image of the river, and of life as a river, to narrative, and in this way too it stands potentially as a metaphor for the power of narrative to re-assimilate, and thus for the whole poem's larger intentions in relation to the Solitary himself. The Solitary's metaphor, then, creates a double perspective allowing others (the Wanderer, the Poet, the reader) to interpret the image differently.

Comparison could be made here between the first poetic self of The Prelude and the second self of mediated characterisation in The Excursion. The comparable passage from Book IV of The Prelude is established initially in similar terms as an extended metaphor:

   As one who hangs down-bending from the side
   Of a slow-moving boat upon the breast
   Of a still water, solacing himself
   With such discoveries as his eve can make
   Beneath him in the bottom of the deeps,
   Sees many beauteous sights--weeds, fishes, flowers,
   Grots, pebbles, roots of trees--and fancies more,
   Yet often is perplexed, and cannot part
   The shadow from the substance, rocks and sky ...
   (Prelude 4. 248-255)

In The Prelude, however, the image operates primarily in terms of depth, rather than length, and there is a pleasure to be gained from allowing the merging of perspectives which the Solitary denied. In this passage the key to the image lies in the physicality of the perspective which is re-asserted at the point where the metaphor is finally tied to the poetic act: "Such pleasant office have we long pursued / Incumbent o'er the surface of past time" (4. 262-63). The layered perspective involved in Wordsworth's "task" or "office" here is thus also shared by the reader, allowing the assimilation and merging of the acts of reading and writing within the curved boundaries of the water.

Similarly, in "From a Boat at Coniston," Norman Nicholson looks into "(the lacquered water/ Black with the sunset), watching my own face":

   My sight lengthens its focus; sees the sky
   Laid level upon the glass, the loud
   World of the wind and the map-making clouds and history
   Squinting over the rim of the fell ...

   I wait for the wind to drop, against hope
   Hoping, and against the weather, yet to see
   The water empty, the water full of itself,
   Free of the sky and the cloud and free of me.
   (Collected Poems: The Pot Geranium 195)

Nicholson asserts both the physical surface of the lake and the ways in which it holds simultaneous images upon it, very deliberately, marking the poet's conscious "re-vision" of the scene with the line, "My sight lengthens its focus". …

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