Week 374: Surprised by Joy, by William Wordsworth

This week I attended the funeral service of an ex-work colleague, dead before her sixtieth birthday. I know that perceptions of age are relative – nine-year-old Daisy Ashford in ‘The Young Visitors’ writes of ‘an elderly gentleman of 42’ – but certainly from my own present perspective fifty-nine seems way too young to die. Not, of course, as young as Wordsworth’s daughter, but still, it was his great poem of bereavement that came to my mind during the service, so I dedicate this week’s choice to the memory of one I knew as a lively young woman, and to her husband, left like Wordsworth without his ‘heart’s best treasure’.

Surprised by joy

Surprised by joy – impatient as the Wind
I turned to share the transport – Oh! with whom
But Thee, deep buried in the silent tomb,
That spot which no vicissitude can find?
Love, faithful love, recalled thee to my mind –
But how could I forget thee? Through what power,
Even for the least division of an hour,
Have I been so beguiled as to be blind
To my most grievous loss! – That thought’s return
Was the worst pang that sorrow ever bore,
Save one, one only, when I stood forlorn,
Knowing my heart’s best treasure was no more;
That neither present time, nor years unborn
Could to my sight that heavenly face restore.

William Wordsworth

Week 242: From ‘The Prelude’, by William Wordsworth

Wordsworth was, as far as I recall, the first of my poetic influences: I read ‘The Prelude’ in my early teens and admired it greatly, the more so because it chimed so well with the kind of wandering, reflective, close to nature childhood that it was still just about possible to have back then, and which I had myself enjoyed, though in a rather less rugged environment than Wordsworth’s Lake District. Later I came to be not exactly disenchanted with Wordsworth, but to feel that he was no longer quite what I wanted or needed: what he offered, it seemed to me, was a leisurely ramble in the hills that offered you great views at some points but also involved a lot of slightly tedious plodding in between, and I was beginning to feel that a poem should be more like a fell run, taut and unrelenting all the way to the top. But here, for the sake of that early admiration, is my favourite passage from ‘The Prelude’, that I think shows the poet at his vivid, immediate best, and if I now wish that overall his gait were just a little less leisurely, I remain grateful for those visionary viewpoints that from time to time it takes us to.

From ‘The Prelude’

And in the frosty season, when the sun
Was set, and visible for many a mile
The cottage windows blazed through twilight gloom,
I heeded not their summons: happy time
It was indeed for all of us – for me
It was a time of rapture! Clear and loud
The village clock tolled six, – I wheeled about,
Proud and exulting like an untired horse
That cares not for his home. All shod with steel,
We hissed along the polished ice in games
Confederate, imitative of the chase
And woodland pleasures, – the resounding horn,
The pack loud chiming, and the hunted hare.
So through the darkness and the cold we flew,
And not a voice was idle; with the din
Smitten, the precipices rang aloud;
The leafless trees and every icy crag
Tinkled like iron; while far distant hills
Into the tumult sent an alien sound
Of melancholy not unnoticed, while the stars
Eastward were sparkling clear, and in the west
The orange sky of evening died away.
Not seldom from the uproar I retired
Into a silent bay, or sportively
Glanced sideway, leaving the tumultuous throng,
To cut across the reflex of a star
That fled, and, flying still before me, gleamed
Upon the glassy plain; and oftentimes,
When we had given our bodies to the wind,
And all the shadowy banks on either side
Came sweeping through the darkness, spinning still
The rapid line of motion, then at once
Have I, reclining back upon my heels,
Stopped short; yet still the solitary cliffs
Wheeled by me – even as if the earth had rolled
With visible motion her diurnal round!
Behind me did they stretch in solemn train,
Feebler and feebler, and I stood and watched
Till all was tranquil as a dreamless sleep.

William Wordsworth