In Memory, Yet Green

You thought you had been spared.  You thought that the weary blogkeeper had forgotten his lengthy sojourn with the poet and you would hear no more from him (blogkeeper or poet).  Indeed, you thought, it is safe once again to venture by, for it has been many a day since last I saw or sensed a vestige of a poem.  Alas, for you, poor self-deceived reader who so willingly succumbs to that sense of security that creeps in when hazards have been in abeyance for some time.  For once again it is time and more than time for me to trot out the words of Mr. Wordsworth for your delight and edification; this time we sample from Book V, called "Books."

from The Prelude Book V
William Wordsworth

When Contemplation, like the night-calm felt
Through earth and sky, spreads widely, and sends deep
Into the soul its tranquillising power,
Even then I sometimes grieve for thee, O Man,
Earth's paramount Creature! not so much for woes
That thou endurest; heavy though that weight be,
Cloud-like it mounts, or touched with light divine
Doth melt away; but for those palms achieved,
Through length of time, by patient exercise
Of study and hard thought; there, there, it is
That sadness finds its fuel. Hitherto,
In progress through this Verse, my mind hath looked
Upon the speaking face of earth and heaven
As her prime teacher, intercourse with man
Established by the sovereign Intellect,
Who through that bodily image hath diffused,
As might appear to the eye of fleeting time,
A deathless spirit. Thou also, man! hast wrought,
For commerce of thy nature with herself,
Things that aspire to unconquerable life;
And yet we feel—we cannot choose but feel—
That they must perish. Tremblings of the heart
It gives, to think that our immortal being
No more shall need such garments; and yet man,
As long as he shall be the child of earth,
Might almost "weep to have" what he may lose,
Nor be himself extinguished, but survive,
Abject, depressed, forlorn, disconsolate.

The poet, when deep in thought mourns for humankind, and yet not for any of the ordinary sufferings of people.  Those, while they may be bad and certainly feel terrible while happening are often lifted and dissipated with a change of wind, or a touch of light.  Not, the poet mourns for those things hard-won in the intellectual life.  Then a short digression summarizing the work thus far and announcing the theme that shall be the focus of this book. Wordsworth sites "the speaking face of earth and heaven//as her [his mind's] prime teacher." Through intercourse with the intellect the images of earth and heaven have a deathless permanence--what they inspired in Wordsworth's time, they can inspire in any time to any nature so incline as to receive the inspiration.

However, there is another contender vying for that same immortality--that same deathlessness, the "things that aspire to unconquerable life"  that have been wrought by people to communicate some of the same set of impressions from mind to mind and spirit to spirit ("Thou also, man! hast wrought,//for commerce of they nature with herself. . .").

But alas, we know these things that the human spirit has pushed forward have but a momentary life: "And yet we feel--we cannot choose but feel,//that they must perish."  These fumblings of the mind, these products that we make to convey the interior impressions we have captured--the intimations of immortality that are so much a part of the spirit--they do not last like earth and sky and sea (or in Wordsworth's case, lake).  We tremble at the thought that the part of us which is immortal has no need of the mortal trappings and the sense that have been able to perceive the truths that we articulate.

The quotation in the line third to last is the first formal announcement of the theme and reworks the last line of Shakespeare's Sonnet 64:

William Shakespeare

When I have seen by time’s fell hand defaced
The rich proud cost of outworn buried age;
When sometime lofty towers I see down-razed,
And brass eternal slave to mortal rage;
When I have seen the hungry ocean gain
Advantage on the kingdom of the shore,
And the firm soil win of the watery main,
Increasing store with loss, and loss with store;
When I have seen such interchange of state,
Or state itself confounded to decay,
Ruin hath taught me thus to ruminate,
That time will come and take my love away.
  This thought is as a death, which cannot choose
  But weep to have that which it fears to lose.

By embedding this snippet, this briefest of quotations from the Bard, within the poem, Wordsworth at once makes his point about the fabrications of human beings and undermines it.  While they are not immortal, they certainly do last longer than does a person.  And so we launch into our discussion of a second mine of wisdom and revelation--announced in the header to the Book of The Prelude we are reading--books.


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