The Great Pain of Self-Centeredness

If you stand at the center of the circle, it's hard not to think that everything in the world goes about you.

from The Prelude Book V
William Wordsworth

                My drift I fear
Is scarcely obvious; but, that common sense
May try this modern system by its fruits,
Leave let me take to place before her sight
A specimen pourtrayed with faithful hand.
Full early trained to worship seemliness,
This model of a child is never known
To mix in quarrels; that were far beneath
Its dignity; with gifts he bubbles o'er
As generous as a fountain; selfishness
May not come near him, nor the little throng
Of flitting pleasures tempt him from his path;
The wandering beggars propagate his name,
Dumb creatures find him tender as a nun,
And natural or supernatural fear,
Unless it leap upon him in a dream,
Touches him not. To enhance the wonder, see
How arch his notices, how nice his sense
Of the ridiculous; not blind is he
To the broad follies of the licensed world,
Yet innocent himself withal, though shrewd,
And can read lectures upon innocence;
A miracle of scientific lore,
Ships he can guide across the pathless sea,
And tell you all their cunning; he can read
The inside of the earth, and spell the stars;
He knows the policies of foreign lands;
Can string you names of districts, cities, towns,
The whole world over, tight as beads of dew
Upon a gossamer thread; he sifts, he weighs;
All things are put to question; he must live
Knowing that he grows wiser every day
Or else not live at all, and seeing too
Each little drop of wisdom as it falls
Into the dimpling cistern of his heart:
For this unnatural growth the trainer blame,
Pity the tree.—Poor human vanity,
Wert thou extinguished, little would be left
Which he could truly love; but how escape?
For, ever as a thought of purer, birth
Rises to lead him toward a better clime,
Some intermeddler still is on the watch
To drive him back, and pound him, like a stray,
Within the pinfold of his own conceit.
Meanwhile old grandame earth is grieved to find
The playthings, which her love designed for him,
Unthought of: in their woodland beds the flowers
Weep, and the river sides are all forlorn.
Oh! give us once again the wishing cap
Of Fortunatus, and the invisible coat
Of Jack the Giant-killer, Robin Hood,
And Sabra in the forest with St. George!
The child, whose love is here, at least, doth reap
One precious gain, that he forgets himself.

This passage about the "perfect" child shows him in the light of his perfect self-aware and self-centered person.  He knows all, has depth of knowledge beyond bounds.  But as St. Paul would have it--he is a clanging cymbal, a resounding gong because he is without any natural love, "Poor human vanity,//wert thought extinguished, little would be left//Which he could truly love; but how escape?"  How indeed?  Everywhere he turns, with eyes turned in upon himself, he finds himself turned back inward.  And those things of the world, those natural beauties whose contemplation would by their very nature send him out of his bounded self--these things are "unthought of."  The beauties which "grandame earth"  has wrought, "which her love designed for him"  are neglected.  And chief among the virtues of these beauties?  "The child whose love is here, at least, doth reap//One precious gain, that he forgets himself."  And in the world of vanity and conceit there is no greater gift than to leave oneself for even a moment and be able to fix attention on something else.


Popular posts from this blog

Structures--Ulysses and Mrs. Dalloway

Another Queen of Night

Lewis Carroll and James Joyce