On the College Front

Now a few words from Wordsworth on the college experience.  To start he tells us about the transformation from country bumpkin to college lad and all that entailed.

from The Prelude Book III
William Wordsworth

It hath been told, that when the first delight
That flashed upon me from this novel show
Had failed, the mind returned into herself;
Yet true it is, that I had made a change
In climate, and my nature's outward coat
Changed also slowly and insensibly.
Full oft the quiet and exalted thoughts
Of loneliness gave way to empty noise
And superficial pastimes; now and then
Forced labour, and more frequently forced hopes;
And, worst of all, a treasonable growth
Of indecisive judgments, that impaired
And shook the mind's simplicity.

Simply enough--when the novelty of the sights and sounds of the Cambridge campus wore off, Wordsworth found himself a fish out of water--quiet thoughts now churning with new noise--meditation and deep thinking giving was to frivolous pastimes that slowly eroded simplicity and confidence.  Welcome to college late 18th Century.  It is fascinating to see that there is nothing new in the experience.  And even more so:

We sauntered, played, or rioted; we talked
Unprofitable talk at morning hours;
Drifted about along the streets and walks,
Read lazily in trivial books, went forth
To gallop through the country in blind zeal
Of senseless horsemanship, or on the breast
Of Cam sailed boisterously, and let the stars
Come forth, perhaps without one quiet thought.

"Read lazily in trivial books,"  what a great line both for college and for the majority of us who would like to make something of the reading life.  Too often I find myself with some "trivial" opus in hand, wiling away time that would be better served with better books.  And yet it is this palate cleanser that makes the appreciation of better books possible (I tell myself, because, of course, I want to read what I want to read and not what I think I ought to read.)  But the hidden tragedy of it for Wordsworth and for us all is in that last line, "perhaps without one quiet thought."  When we thrash through our reading speeding from one book to the next, whether trivial or serious, have we given the book time to work its magic and make itself know to us.  I can say that often I miss much in reading that comes back to me upon reflection--but if I'm stuffing my head with yet another book, where is the time for the "must give us pause. There's the respect."

And another result--perhaps tragic, perhaps not so if we consider that such slumber eventually gave rise to the work we have before us:

Imagination slept,
And yet not utterly. I could not print
Ground where the grass had yielded to the steps
Of generations of illustrious men,
Unmoved. I could not always lightly pass
Through the same gateways, sleep where they had slept,
Wake where they waked, range that inclosure old,
That garden of great intellects, undisturbed.
Place also by the side of this dark sense
Of noble feeling, that those spiritual men,
Even the great Newton's own ethereal self,
Seemed humbled in these precincts thence to be
The more endeared.

You would have to be a stone to have imagination sleep in a place where so many scholars, so many famous people had walked and left their imprint.  You would have to be dry as a river-bed not to see them at moments and not feel their ineluctable pull.

I'll pause here for the day, because the next little bit I want to cover deals with Milton, college drinking, and other aspects of college life.


  1. Great Wordworthian lines - I've just come across them in my own reading and highlighted them.

    Nice exposition!


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Structures--Ulysses and Mrs. Dalloway

Another Queen of Night

Lewis Carroll and James Joyce