Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Scholarship, Spontaneity, and the Excursion Book IV

Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Scholarship, Spontaneity, and the Excursion Book IV

Article excerpt

Wordsworth's contemporaries were profoundly influenced by the accounts of early religious practices outlined by the Wanderer in Book IV of The Excursion. But they often treated the accounts themselves as incidental to the universal form of natural inspiration they seemed to exemplify. William Hazlitt described Wordsworth as "tracing the fictions of Eastern mythology to the immediate intercourse of the imagination with Nature" (Woof 373). Charles Lamb understood both "those illusions of the imaginative faculty to which the peasantry in solitary districts are peculiarly subject" and "the operation of that same faculty in producing the several fictions of Chaldean, Persian, and Grecian idolatry" as part of the same "general tendency of the argument" (Woof 412). Both implied that the specific forms of knowledge represented in and by these passages were no more significant than anything else that might have made Wordsworth's point. In doing so, they took the Wanderer at his word. In Book IV, the Wanderer introduces "Superstition," apparently spontaneously, as something like a harmless hobby; he explains that everything, even superstition, leads to the same end: "And those Illusions, which excite the scorn / Or move the pity of unthinking minds, / Are they not mainly outward Ministers / Of inward Conscience?" (IV.595-607, IV.830-33). He therefore eschews "minute and speculative pains" and the scholarly attention to detail that a history of early religious practices might be expected to involve (IV. 1124). "This rather would I do," he claims as he introduces that history, than have to encounter anything so wearisome as "formal inference" or "uninspired research" (IV.608-26).

But since the Wanderer rejects "uninspired research" in favour of a history of inspiration that forms the most overtly researched part of the poem, there are reasons not to take his antipathy to scholarship as Wordsworth's own. As the editors of the Cornell Excursion propose (398), Wordsworth drew the Wanderer's description of the temple of Bolus from the Rydal Mount copy of Isaac Littlebury's translation of The History of Herodotus (Wu, 1800-1815, 108-9). The Wanderer explains that the Babylonians

   from the Plain, with toil immense, upreared
   Tower eight times planted on the top of Tower;
   That Belus, nightly to his splendid Couch
   Descending, there might rest; and, from that Height
   Pure and serene, the Godhead overlook
   Winding Euphrates, and the City vast
   Of his devoted Worshippers, far-stretched;
   With grove, and field, and garden, interspersed;
   Their Town, and foodful Region for support
   Against the pressure of beleaguering war.
   (IV.680-89)

Littlebury's translation also features a "spacious Plain," details of vast measurements and laborious construction, eight towers built on top of each other with a "magnificent Bed" at the top, Belus who "comes by Night and lies in the Bed," and the Euphrates, with "many various Windings" added for defence against the threat of war (I, 112-17). The Cornell editors suggest that Wordsworth put his copy of Thomas Taylor's translation of Pausanius's Description of Greece to equally good account for the Wanderer's description of the Greek votary (398-99). Hazlitt ascribed the Wanderer's habits to The Excursion entire: "All accidental varieties and individual contrasts are lost in an endless continuity of feeling," he wrote in his review (Woof 370). But Wordsworth himself seems to have devoted the "minute and speculative pains" that the Wanderer dislikes to distinguishing varieties of religious practice from each other.

In print, moreover, Wordsworth indicated some of those pains quite markedly. "'Tis, by comparison, an easy task / Earth to despise; but to converse with Heaven, / This is not easy," declares the Wanderer (IV. 130-32); Wordsworth offers an endnote that provides a source for the sentiment and asks readers to do some source-hunting themselves, in his own brother's writing: "See, upon this subject, Baxter's most interesting review of his own opinions and sentiments in the decline of life. …

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