Wordsworth: As We Plunge Toward the Conclusion of Book III

Wordsworth continues his theme of proper education and elucidates how one should be instructed.

from The Prelude Book III
William Wordsworth

Majestic edifices, should not want
A corresponding dignity within.
The congregating temper that pervades
Our unripe years, not wasted, should be taught
To minister to works of high attempt—
Works which the enthusiast would perform with love.
Youth should be awed, religiously possessed
With a conviction of the power that waits
On knowledge, when sincerely sought and prized
For its own sake, on glory and on praise
If but by labour won, and fit to endure
The passing day; should learn to put aside
Her trappings here, should strip them off abashed
Before antiquity and stedfast truth
And strong book-mindedness; and over all
A healthy sound simplicity should reign,
A seemly plainness, name it what you will,
Republican or pious.

"Majestic edifices, should not want//a corresponding dignity within."  The phrase makes one think of "white-washed sepulchres" as the diametric opposite.  Wordsworth argues here that the instinct to gather and to learn should be directed toward works of "high attempt"--challenges that can mean spectacular successes or equally spectacular failures.  One is reminded of a line from another, later poet here:

Ah, but a man's reach must exceed his grasp, or what's a heaven for?  (Robert Browning)

The theme is similar--here Wordsworth argues that the pliable mind, the mind absorbing knowledge must be encouraged to look far beyond, to works that exceed the possibilities of the person and the time--at least seemingly.--"works which the enthusiast would perform with love."  And one cannot help but wonder if Wordsworth is using that term "enthusiast" in the etymologically appropriate sense (to be inspired/possessed by a god).  This reading is perhaps reinforced by a subsequent line in which Wordsworth tells us that "Youth should be awed, religiously possessed//with a conviction that power waits//on knowledge."  But not on knowledge sought for power, but knowledge sought for the glory of knowing.  Here Wordsworth uses the word power not in the governmental or societal sense but in the clear sense of creative power--the ability to make things comes from the desire to know them intimately.  Wordsworth would have the cap of creativity and creative endeavor  be "a healthy sound simplicity. . . a seemly plainness. . . "  and one can't help but wonder if Wordsworth is using the word simplicity here in a Scholastic sense.  Perhaps he wants us to return to the idea of unity and a uniate will.  The simple mind is not the one untroubled by a thought, but the one in which all thought is brought together toward a singular goal--the creative act.  In other words, the greatest creative comes from the mind most like God's.

It is interesting that in the passage immediately following Wordsworth urges against mandatory attendance at chapel.  He has given some thought to the matter.

Was ever known
The witless shepherd who persists to drive
A flock that thirsts not to a pool disliked?
A weight must surely hang on days begun
And ended with such mockery. Be wise,
Ye Presidents and Deans, and, till the spirit
Of ancient times revive, and youth be trained
At home in pious service, to your bells
Give seasonable rest, for 'tis a sound
Hollow as ever vexed the tranquil air;

This could be argued either way, but the points made here have a certain coherence.  If not inclined to go and forced, have you created one way or the other anyone more divinely inclined, more religious, or more Christian?  But it is interesting to see this poised as the counterbalance to divine acts and the drive toward knowledge.

I include the next passage not for any deep meaning it may have in context, but because it is one of the more lovely passages in what has been a long run of philosophical and artistic argument:

A habitation sober and demure
For ruminating creatures; a domain
For quiet things to wander in; a haunt
In which the heron should delight to feed
By the shy rivers, and the pelican
Upon the cypress spire in lonely thought
Might sit and sun himself.
 Back to the pursuit of knowledge--for Wordsworth a single-minded act (simplicity again)  so much so that scholars become mendicants:

And often, starting from some covert place,
Saluted the chance comer on the road,
Crying, "An obolus, a penny give
To a poor scholar!"—when illustrious men,
Lovers of truth, by penury constrained,
Bucer, Erasmus, or Melancthon, read
Before the doors or windows of their cells
By moonshine through mere lack of taper light.

The quotation within the passage above is a specific reference to Belisarius who (apocryphally according to Gibbon) after his disgrace and blinding was said to have begged in the streets of Byzantium.  [Note source]  But my reason for placing it here was the lovely image of Erasmus and other great and ancient scholars so avid in their pursuit of knowledge, they read by moonlight for lack of money for a taper.

Let me conclude this day with one further passage.  I had hoped to conquer book III, but it appears I am forestalled by the terrible possibility of trying the reader's patience--if I have not already done so.

But peace to vain regrets! We see but darkly
Even when we look behind us, and best things
Are not so pure by nature that they needs
Must keep to all, as fondly all believe,
Their highest promise. If the mariner,
When at reluctant distance he hath passed
Some tempting island, could but know the ills
That must have fallen upon him had he brought
His bark to land upon the wished-for shore,
Good cause would oft be his to thank the surf
Whose white belt scared him thence, or wind that blew
Inexorably adverse: for myself
I grieve not; happy is the gown├Ęd youth,
Who only misses what I missed, who falls
No lower than I fell.
 And so Wordsworth brings us to a summary.  While all that has gone before is the ideal and is the way that education SHOULD proceed, it was not so for Wordsworth himself, and so he reflects on his education to say, that perhaps the fact that it did not suit the ideal is not necessarily a bad thing--perhaps there is some good in it.  Posterity, in possession of the opus that is the result of Wordsworth's ignorance can proclaim that, indeed, it was good for all humankind that it should be so.  But Wordsworth could not be so certain.  He had outlived all of the Romantic generation and was seeing his work come to an end with the advent of subsequent Victorian poets who either built on or scattered the remains of the Romantic convictions and impulse.  The conceit of this short passage is one that we have probably all had--sometimes called sour grapes, sometimes called dodging the bullet.    But the line that truly impresses and is worth attention  "Good cause would oft be his to thank the surf//Whose white belt scared him thence. . . "  and "there but for the grace of God go I."

Stay tuned--future episodes will include the real end of Book III and then Wordsworth's return home, his visit to his surrogate mother,  and Wordsworth's face-saving dog.  There's a thrill a minute on this Wordsworthian roller coaster ride.  Be sure to join us in the continuing adventures.


  1. Hi Steven, just wanted you to know that I'm reading your posts on W. with great interest. Thank you! Cheers, Kevin

  2. Dear Kevin,

    Thank you. I know the subject matter is of limited interest; however, it is of completely unlimited interest to me at this time and it will make a nice set of notes to refer back to when I come back to the poem at a future date.

    Thank you for taking the time to let me know. I really appreciate it.




Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Structures--Ulysses and Mrs. Dalloway

Another Queen of Night

Lewis Carroll and James Joyce