Wordsworth the Slacker

Yesterday we witnessed Wordsworth partying with Milton's shade.  Today we see Wordsworth talking about the Cambridge experience:

from The Prelude Book III
William Wordsworth

The thirst of living praise,
Fit reverence for the glorious Dead, the sight
Of those long vistas, sacred catacombs,
Where mighty minds lie visibly entombed,
Have often stirred the heart of youth, and bred
A fervent love of rigorous discipline.—
Alas! such high emotion touched not me.
Look was there none within these walls to shame
My easy spirits, and discountenance
Their light composure, far less to instil
A calm resolve of mind, firmly addressed
To puissant efforts. Nor was this the blame
Of others, but my own;
So--these things have inspired students in the past, but gosh, I was immune from them.  "Alas! such high emotion touched not me."  And for this, we should be eternally grateful, for if he had been so inspired, we might not have some very, very fine poetry.

In the notes on the page from which I derive my daily excerpts there is a note from the writings of Dorothy Wordsworth (she speaks first of her brother Christopher and then of William:

"His abilities, though not so great, perhaps, as his brother's, may be of more use to him, as he has not fixed his mind upon any particular species of reading or conceived an aversion to any. He is not fond of mathematics, but has resolution sufficient to study them; because it will be impossible for him to obtain a fellowship without them. William lost the chance, indeed the certainty, of a fellowship, by not combating his inclinations. He gave way to his natural dislike to studies so dry as many parts of the mathematics, consequently could not succeed in Cambridge. He reads Italian, Spanish, French, Greek, Latin, and English; but never opens a mathematical book.... Do not think from what I have said that he reads not at all; for he does read a great deal, and not only poetry, in these languages he is acquainted with, but History also," etc. etc.   [source]
 And Wordsworth himself is glad to confirm as we move on through the poem:

from The Prelude Book III
William Wordsworth

For I, bred up 'mid Nature's luxuries,
Was a spoiled child, and rambling like the wind,
As I had done in daily intercourse
With those crystalline rivers, solemn heights,
And mountains, ranging like a fowl of the air,
I was ill-tutored for captivity;
To quit my pleasure, and, from month to month,
Take up a station calmly on the perch
Of sedentary peace. . . .

Not that I slighted books,—that were to lack
All sense,—but other passions in me ruled,
Passions more fervent, making me less prompt
To in-door study than was wise or well,
Or suited to those years.
I was too busy with the things I was interested in to be interested in the new things that were introduced to me.  I love how he likens himself to a "spoiled child" because his sister makes clear that it is true--this self-indulgent side of Wordsworth makes him much more in the Romantic mode than might otherwise be inferred from his work.  He couldn't trouble himself with what wasn't intrinsic to his nature--so at last we see a glimpse of Wordsworth's rebellion.  It expressed itself chiefly in the failure to get through Cambridge.  Of course, if one is busy running through the streets of Cambridge after the ghost of stripling Milton, it hardly comes as a surprise.

Yet I, though used
In magisterial liberty to rove,
Culling such flowers of learning as might tempt
Not what one would call every professor's dream student.  But true ultimately to himself and to his vision of things.  It is good to see that sometimes that can work in the real world.


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