Thursday, October 8, 2009

One book held acquaintance with the stars, the other was a god - visionary Wordsworth

The fifth book of The Prelude is titled "Books". That should be a comfortable place to visit. Let's see.

I saw before me stretched a boundless plain
Of sandy wilderness, all black and void,
And as I looked around, distress and fear
Came creeping over me, when at my side,
Close at my side, an uncouth shape appeared
Upon a dromedary, mounted high.
He seemed an Arab of the Bedouin tribes:
A lance he bore, and underneath one arm
A stone, and in the opposite hand a shell
Of a surpassing brightness. (1850, 5, 71-80)

The stone and shell are both books. The stone, it turns out, is Euclid's Elements, which "held acquaintance with the stars," The shell, when held to the ear, delivers

                          articulate sounds,
A loud prophetic blast of harmony;
An Ode, in passion uttered, which foretold
Destruction to the children of the earth
By deluge, now at hand. (94-8)

This book "was a god, yea many gods." Did I mention that this is a dream of Wordsworth's, a dream he had when he fell asleep reading Don Quixote in a seaside cave? Which sounds a bit like a dream to begin with, The "semi-Quixote" flees into the desert with his books, pursued by  "the waters of the deep gathering upon us." This part of The Prelude is not boring.

Wordsworth recedes from this vision for the rest of the chapter, speaking of actual (you know, paper) books, and complaining about faddish educational theories. He ends with another kind of vision, an account of an Infant Prodigy.

Wordsworth is so often prosaic, so matter-of-fact, that it seems that he's grounded in my world. But in fact, he is a visionary poet, as weird as William Blake, perhaps no more coherent. The actual weaves in and out with the imaginative. Wordsworth is after Truths that are not always of this world. No wonder they're so hard to understand.

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