The Dream of the Arab and Euclid

The profound difficulty of The Prelude is, sometimes, trying to excerpt it.  There is nothing extraneous, nothing extra--every word plays its role, every sentence has its place.  That is true of any well-constructed work of art.  So I suppose I should caution the reader (although at this late date it may come as too little too late), the selection of passages is not to indicate in any way that these are the only ones worth reading, nor even that these are the great highlights of the work.  Rather, they should be read merely as a record of things that struck me as I was reading--struck me enough to note them and want to come back to them.  My real commonplace book would be completely full of nothing but Wordsworth were I to transcribe to them everything I felt worthy of transcription.  And so this is necessarily a skip over the surface--a skip that I hope encourages more readers to take up this work and to challenge themselves with tackling a book-length work of poetry.

The passage I quote from today is rather lengthy--for which I apologize in advance--but it is necessarily so, in order to give you the whole sense of the parable that Wordsworth has composed.

To refresh your memory of where we are, you may want to look at the previous Wordsworthian Entry.

from The Prelude Book V
William Wordsworth

One day, when from my lips a like complaint
Had fallen in presence of a studious friend,
He with a smile made answer, that in truth
'Twas going far to seek disquietude;
But on the front of his reproof confessed
That he himself had oftentimes given way
To kindred hauntings. Whereupon I told,
That once in the stillness of a summer's noon,
While I was seated in a rocky cave
By the sea-side, perusing, so it chanced,
The famous history of the errant knight
Recorded by Cervantes, these same thoughts
Beset me, and to height unusual rose,
While listlessly I sate, and, having closed
The book, had turned my eyes toward the wide sea.
On poetry and geometric truth,
And their high privilege of lasting life,
From all internal injury exempt,
I mused, upon these chiefly: and at length,
My senses yielding to the sultry air,
Sleep seized me, and I passed into a dream.
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. At the sight
Much I rejoiced, not doubting but a guide
Was present, one who with unerring skill
Would through the desert lead me; and while yet
I looked and looked, self-questioned what this freight
Which the new-comer carried through the waste
Could mean, the Arab told me that the stone
(To give it in the language of the dream)
Was "Euclid's Elements;" and "This," said he,
"Is something of more worth;" and at the word
Stretched forth the shell, so beautiful in shape,
In colour so resplendent, with command
That I should hold it to my ear. I did so,
And heard that instant in an unknown tongue,
Which yet I understood, 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. No sooner ceased
The song, than the Arab with calm look declared
That all would come to pass of which the voice
Had given forewarning, and that he himself
Was going then to bury those two books:
The one that held acquaintance with the stars,
And wedded soul to soul in purest bond
Of reason, undisturbed by space or time;
The other that was a god, yea many gods,
Had voices more than all the winds, with power
To exhilarate the spirit, and to soothe,
Through every clime, the heart of human kind.
While this was uttering, strange as it may seem,
I wondered not, although I plainly saw
The one to be a stone, the other a shell;
Nor doubted once but that they both were books,
Having a perfect faith in all that passed.
Far stronger, now, grew the desire I felt
To cleave unto this man; but when I prayed
To share his enterprise, he hurried on
Reckless of me: I followed, not unseen,
For oftentimes he cast a backward look,
Grasping his twofold treasure.—Lance in rest,
He rode, I keeping pace with him; and now
He, to my fancy, had become the knight
Whose tale Cervantes tells; yet not the knight,
But was an Arab of the desert too;
Of these was neither, and was both at once.
His countenance, meanwhile, grew more disturbed;
And, looking backwards when he looked, mine eyes
Saw, over half the wilderness diffused,
A bed of glittering light: I asked the cause:
"It is," said he, "the waters of the deep
Gathering upon us;" quickening then the pace
Of the unwieldy creature he bestrode,
He left me: I called after him aloud;
He heeded not; but, with his twofold charge
Still in his grasp, before me, full in view,
Went hurrying o'er the illimitable waste,
With the fleet waters of a drowning world
In chase of him; whereat I waked in terror,
And saw the sea before me, and the book,
In which I had been reading, at my side.

The passage continues with further thoughts about this Arab Quixote carrying a stone and a shell.  What then the meaning of these?  Well Wordsworth forecasts it for us in his thoughts before sleep:

On poetry and geometric truth,
And their high privilege of lasting life,
From all internal injury exempt,
I mused, upon these chiefly

Wordsworth dreams of his Arabian Quixote who finds himself in the unlikely position of riding a horse with a lance and under one arm a stone and in the other hand a shell--quite a juggling act.  Of course, each of these elements has its own meaning in the context of the dream, which the Arab quite obligingly explains:

the Arab told me that the stone
(To give it in the language of the dream)
Was "Euclid's Elements;" and "This," said he,
"Is something of more worth;" and at the word
Stretched forth the shell, so beautiful in shape,
In colour so resplendent, with command
That I should hold it to my ear.

What then is this object of more worth than Geometry--lovelier than the laws that dictate symmetry and convergence?

I did so,
And heard that instant in an unknown tongue,
Which yet I understood, 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.

And we are told the apocalypse announced and understood in tongues is soon to occur and so the Arab is on a mission to preserve these two loveliest things.  First geometry:

he himself
Was going then to bury those two books:
The one that held acquaintance with the stars,
And wedded soul to soul in purest bond
Of reason, undisturbed by space or time;

And then what we must take from the furor of his love for it as poetry:

The other that was a god, yea many gods,
Had voices more than all the winds, with power
To exhilarate the spirit, and to soothe,
Through every clime, the heart of human kind.
 These two, then, were in the eyes of the Arab important to preserve from the coming flood, which for the remainder of this passage, he rides away from--Wordsworth following, desiring to take part in the endeavor to preserve some great part of humankind's noble endeavor.

The story speaks powerfully and the dream is told most lucidly.  But most important of all, it shows that reading poetry is not that much more difficult than reading prose if one wishes to undertake the challenge.  It requires merely persistence and determination and a willingness to be with a voice that will lead you to places wild and strange and pull from any event a meaning. 

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Another Queen of Night

Lewis Carroll and James Joyce