Verse > William Wordsworth > Complete Poetical Works
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THE PRELUDE

BOOK FIRST

INTRODUCTION--CHILDHOOD AND SCHOOL-TIME

 OH there is blessing in this gentle breeze, A visitant that while it fans my cheek Doth seem half-conscious of the joy it brings From the green fields, and from yon azure sky. Whate'er its mission, the soft breeze can come To none more grateful than to me; escaped From the vast city, where I long had pined A discontented sojourner: now free, Free as a bird to settle where I will. What dwelling shall receive me? in what vale 10 Shall be my harbour? underneath what grove Shall I take up my home? and what clear stream Shall with its murmur lull me into rest? The earth is all before me. With a heart Joyous, nor scared at its own liberty, I look about; and should the chosen guide Be nothing better than a wandering cloud, I cannot miss my way. I breathe again! Trances of thought and mountings of the mind Come fast upon me: it is shaken off, 20 That burthen of my own unnatural self, The heavy weight of many a weary day Not mine, and such as were not made for me. Long months of peace (if such bold word accord With any promises of human life), Long months of ease and undisturbed delight Are mine in prospect; whither shall I turn, By road or pathway, or through trackless field, Up hill or down, or shall some floating thing Upon the river point me out my course? 30 Dear Liberty! Yet what would it avail But for a gift that consecrates the joy? For I, methought, while the sweet breath of heaven Was blowing on my body, felt within A correspondent breeze, that gently moved With quickening virtue, but is now become A tempest, a redundant energy, Vexing its own creation. Thanks to both, And their congenial powers, that, while they join In breaking up a long-continued frost, 40 Bring with them vernal promises, the hope Of active days urged on by flying hours,-- Days of sweet leisure, taxed with patient thought Abstruse, nor wanting punctual service high, Matins and vespers of harmonious verse! Thus far, O Friend! did I, not used to make A present joy the matter of a song, Pour forth that day my soul in measured strains That would not be forgotten, and are here Recorded: to the open fields I told 50 A prophecy: poetic numbers came Spontaneously to clothe in priestly robe A renovated spirit singled out, Such hope was mine, for holy services. My own voice cheered me, and, far more, the mind's Internal echo of the imperfect sound; To both I listened, drawing from them both A cheerful confidence in things to come. Content and not unwilling now to give A respite to this passion, I paced on 60 With brisk and eager steps; and came, at length, To a green shady place, where down I sate Beneath a tree, slackening my thoughts by choice And settling into gentler happiness. 'Twas autumn, and a clear and placid day, With warmth, as much as needed, from a sun Two hours declined towards the west; a day With silver clouds, and sunshine on the grass, And in the sheltered and the sheltering grove A perfect stillness. Many were the thoughts 70 Encouraged and dismissed, till choice was made Of a known Vale, whither my feet should turn, Nor rest till they had reached the very door Of the one cottage which methought I saw. No picture of mere memory ever looked So fair; and while upon the fancied scene I gazed with growing love, a higher power Than Fancy gave assurance of some work Of glory there forthwith to be begun, Perhaps too there performed. Thus long I mused, 80 Nor e'er lost sight of what I mused upon, Save when, amid the stately grove of oaks, Now here, now there, an acorn, from its cup Dislodged, through sere leaves rustled, or at once To the bare earth dropped with a startling sound. From that soft couch I rose not, till the sun Had almost touched the horizon; casting then A backward glance upon the curling cloud Of city smoke, by distance ruralised; Keen as a Truant or a Fugitive, 90 But as a Pilgrim resolute, I took, Even with the chance equipment of that hour, The road that pointed toward the chosen Vale. It was a splendid evening, and my soul Once more made trial of her strength, nor lacked Aeolian visitations; but the harp Was soon defrauded, and the banded host Of harmony dispersed in straggling sounds, And lastly utter silence! "Be it so; Why think of anything but present good?" 100 So, like a home-bound labourer, I pursued My way beneath the mellowing sun, that shed Mild influence; nor left in me one wish Again to bend the Sabbath of that time To a servile yoke. What need of many words? A pleasant loitering journey, through three days Continued, brought me to my hermitage. I spare to tell of what ensued, the life In common things--the endless store of things, Rare, or at least so seeming, every day 110 Found all about me in one neighbourhood-- The self-congratulation, and, from morn To night, unbroken cheerfulness serene. But speedily an earnest longing rose To brace myself to some determined aim, Reading or thinking; either to lay up New stores, or rescue from decay the old By timely interference: and therewith Came hopes still higher, that with outward life I might endue some airy phantasies 120 That had been floating loose about for years, And to such beings temperately deal forth The many feelings that oppressed my heart. That hope hath been discouraged; welcome light Dawns from the east, but dawns to disappear And mock me with a sky that ripens not Into a steady morning: if my mind, Remembering the bold promise of the past, Would gladly grapple with some noble theme, Vain is her wish; where'er she turns she finds 130 Impediments from day to day renewed. And now it would content me to yield up Those lofty hopes awhile, for present gifts Of humbler industry. But, oh, dear Friend! The Poet, gentle creature as he is, Hath, like the Lover, his unruly times; His fits when he is neither sick nor well, Though no distress be near him but his own Unmanageable thoughts: his mind, best pleased While she as duteous as the mother dove 140 Sits brooding, lives not always to that end, But like the innocent bird, hath goadings on That drive her as in trouble through the groves; With me is now such passion, to be blamed No otherwise than as it lasts too long. When, as becomes a man who would prepare For such an arduous work, I through myself Make rigorous inquisition, the report Is often cheering; for I neither seem To lack that first great gift, the vital soul, 150 Nor general Truths, which are themselves a sort Of Elements and Agents, Under-powers, Subordinate helpers of the living mind: Nor am I naked of external things, Forms, images, nor numerous other aids Of less regard, though won perhaps with toil And needful to build up a Poet's praise. Time, place, and manners do I seek, and these Are found in plenteous store, but nowhere such As may be singled out with steady choice; 160 No little band of yet remembered names Whom I, in perfect confidence, might hope To summon back from lonesome banishment, And make them dwellers in the hearts of men Now living, or to live in future years. Sometimes the ambitious Power of choice, mistaking Proud spring-tide swellings for a regular sea, Will settle on some British theme, some old Romantic tale by Milton left unsung; More often turning to some gentle place 170 Within the groves of Chivalry, I pipe To shepherd swains, or seated harp in hand, Amid reposing knights by a river side Or fountain, listen to the grave reports Of dire enchantments faced and overcome By the strong mind, and tales of warlike feats, Where spear encountered spear, and sword with sword Fought, as if conscious of the blazonry That the shield bore, so glorious was the strife; Whence inspiration for a song that winds 180 Through ever-changing scenes of votive quest Wrongs to redress, harmonious tribute paid To patient courage and unblemished truth, To firm devotion, zeal unquenchable, And Christian meekness hallowing faithful loves. Sometimes, more sternly moved, I would relate How vanquished Mithridates northward passed, And, hidden in the cloud of years, became Odin, the Father of a race by whom Perished the Roman Empire: how the friends 190 And followers of Sertorius, out of Spain Flying, found shelter in the Fortunate Isles, And left their usages, their arts and laws, To disappear by a slow gradual death, To dwindle and to perish one by one, Starved in those narrow bounds: but not the soul Of Liberty, which fifteen hundred years Survived, and, when the European came With skill and power that might not be withstood, Did, like a pestilence, maintain its hold 200 And wasted down by glorious death that race Of natural heroes: or I would record How, in tyrannic times, some high-souled man, Unnamed among the chronicles of kings, Suffered in silence for Truth's sake: or tell, How that one Frenchman, through continued force Of meditation on the inhuman deeds Of those who conquered first the Indian Isles, Went single in his ministry across The Ocean; not to comfort the oppressed, 210 But, like a thirsty wind, to roam about Withering the Oppressor: how Gustavus sought Help at his need in Dalecarlia's mines: How Wallace fought for Scotland; left the name Of Wallace to be found, like a wild flower, All over his dear Country; left the deeds Of Wallace, like a family of Ghosts, To people the steep rocks and river banks, Her natural sanctuaries, with a local soul Of independence and stern liberty. 220 Sometimes it suits me better to invent A tale from my own heart, more near akin To my own passions and habitual thoughts; Some variegated story, in the main Lofty, but the unsubstantial structure melts Before the very sun that brightens it, Mist into air dissolving! Then a wish, My last and favourite aspiration, mounts With yearning toward some philosophic song Of Truth that cherishes our daily life; 230 With meditations passionate from deep Recesses in man's heart, immortal verse Thoughtfully fitted to the Orphean lyre; But from this awful burthen I full soon Take refuge and beguile myself with trust That mellower years will bring a riper mind And clearer insight. Thus my days are past In contradiction; with no skill to part Vague longing, haply bred by want of power, From paramount impulse not to be withstood, 240 A timorous capacity, from prudence, From circumspection, infinite delay. Humility and modest awe, themselves Betray me, serving often for a cloak To a more subtle selfishness; that now Locks every function up in blank reserve, Now dupes me, trusting to an anxious eye That with intrusive restlessness beats off Simplicity and self-presented truth. Ah! better far than this, to stray about 250 Voluptuously through fields and rural walks, And ask no record of the hours, resigned To vacant musing, unreproved neglect Of all things, and deliberate holiday. Far better never to have heard the name Of zeal and just ambition, than to live Baffled and plagued by a mind that every hour Turns recreant to her task; takes heart again, Then feels immediately some hollow thought Hang like an interdict upon her hopes. 260 This is my lot; for either still I find Some imperfection in the chosen theme, Or see of absolute accomplishment Much wanting, so much wanting, in myself, That I recoil and droop, and seek repose In listlessness from vain perplexity, Unprofitably travelling toward the grave, Like a false steward who hath much received And renders nothing back. Was it for this That one, the fairest of all rivers, loved 270 To blend his murmurs with my nurse's song, And, from his alder shades and rocky falls, And from his fords and shallows, sent a voice That flowed along my dreams? For this, didst thou, O Derwent! winding among grassy holms Where I was looking on, a babe in arms, Make ceaseless music that composed my thoughts To more than infant softness, giving me Amid the fretful dwellings of mankind A foretaste, a dim earnest, of the calm 280 That Nature breathes among the hills and groves. When he had left the mountains and received On his smooth breast the shadow of those towers That yet survive, a shattered monument Of feudal sway, the bright blue river passed Along the margin of our terrace walk; A tempting playmate whom we dearly loved. Oh, many a time have I, a five years' child, In a small mill-race severed from his stream, Made one long bathing of a summer's day; 290 Basked in the sun, and plunged and basked again Alternate, all a summer's day, or scoured The sandy fields, leaping through flowery groves Of yellow ragwort; or, when rock and hill, The woods, and distant Skiddaw's lofty height, Were bronzed with deepest radiance, stood alone Beneath the sky, as if I had been born On Indian plains, and from my mother's hut Had run abroad in wantonness, to sport A naked savage, in the thunder shower. 300 Fair seed-time had my soul, and I grew up Fostered alike by beauty and by fear: Much favoured in my birth-place, and no less In that beloved Vale to which erelong We were transplanted;--there were we let loose For sports of wider range. Ere I had told Ten birth-days, when among the mountain slopes Frost, and the breath of frosty wind, had snapped The last autumnal crocus, 'twas my joy With store of springes o'er my shoulder hung 310 To range the open heights where woodcocks run Along the smooth green turf. Through half the night, Scudding away from snare to snare, I plied That anxious visitation;--moon and stars Were shining o'er my head. I was alone, And seemed to be a trouble to the peace That dwelt among them. Sometimes it befell In these night wanderings, that a strong desire O'erpowered my better reason, and the bird Which was the captive of another's toil 320 Became my prey; and when the deed was done I heard among the solitary hills Low breathings coming after me, and sounds Of undistinguishable motion, steps Almost as silent as the turf they trod. Nor less, when spring had warmed the cultured Vale, Moved we as plunderers where the mother-bird Had in high places built her lodge; though mean Our object and inglorious, yet the end Was not ignoble. Oh! when I have hung 330 Above the raven's nest, by knots of grass And half-inch fissures in the slippery rock But ill sustained, and almost (so it seemed) Suspended by the blast that blew amain, Shouldering the naked crag, oh, at that time While on the perilous ridge I hung alone, With what strange utterance did the loud dry wind Blow through my ear! the sky seemed not a sky Of earth--and with what motion moved the clouds! Dust as we are, the immortal spirit grows 340 Like harmony in music; there is a dark Inscrutable workmanship that reconciles Discordant elements, makes them cling together In one society. How strange, that all The terrors, pains, and early miseries, Regrets, vexations, lassitudes interfused Within my mind, should e'er have borne a part, And that a needful part, in making up The calm existence that is mine when I Am worthy of myself! Praise to the end! 350 Thanks to the means which Nature deigned to employ; Whether her fearless visitings, or those That came with soft alarm, like hurtless light Opening the peaceful clouds; or she would use Severer interventions, ministry More palpable, as best might suit her aim. One summer evening (led by her) I found A little boat tied to a willow tree Within a rocky cave, its usual home. Straight I unloosed her chain, and stepping in 360 Pushed from the shore. It was an act of stealth And troubled pleasure, nor without the voice Of mountain-echoes did my boat move on; Leaving behind her still, on either side, Small circles glittering idly in the moon, Until they melted all into one track Of sparkling light. But now, like one who rows, Proud of his skill, to reach a chosen point With an unswerving line, I fixed my view Upon the summit of a craggy ridge, 370 The horizon's utmost boundary; far above Was nothing but the stars and the grey sky. She was an elfin pinnace; lustily I dipped my oars into the silent lake, And, as I rose upon the stroke, my boat Went heaving through the water like a swan; When, from behind that craggy steep till then The horizon's bound, a huge peak, black and huge, As if with voluntary power instinct, Upreared its head. I struck and struck again, 380 And growing still in stature the grim shape Towered up between me and the stars, and still, For so it seemed, with purpose of its own And measured motion like a living thing, Strode after me. With trembling oars I turned, And through the silent water stole my way Back to the covert of the willow tree; There in her mooring-place I left my bark,-- And through the meadows homeward went, in grave And serious mood; but after I had seen 390 That spectacle, for many days, my brain Worked with a dim and undetermined sense Of unknown modes of being; o'er my thoughts There hung a darkness, call it solitude Or blank desertion. No familiar shapes Remained, no pleasant images of trees, Of sea or sky, no colours of green fields; But huge and mighty forms, that do not live Like living men, moved slowly through the mind By day, and were a trouble to my dreams. 400 Wisdom and Spirit of the universe! Thou Soul that art the eternity of thought That givest to forms and images a breath And everlasting motion, not in vain By day or star-light thus from my first dawn Of childhood didst thou intertwine for me The passions that build up our human soul; Not with the mean and vulgar works of man, But with high objects, with enduring things-- With life and nature--purifying thus 410 The elements of feeling and of thought, And sanctifying, by such discipline, Both pain and fear, until we recognise A grandeur in the beatings of the heart. Nor was this fellowship vouchsafed to me With stinted kindness. In November days, When vapours rolling down the valley made A lonely scene more lonesome, among woods, At noon and 'mid the calm of summer nights, When, by the margin of the trembling lake, 420 Beneath the gloomy hills homeward I went In solitude, such intercourse was mine; Mine was it in the fields both day and night, And by the waters, all the summer long. 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 430 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; 440 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 450 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! 460 Behind me did they stretch in solemn train, Feebler and feebler, and I stood and watched Till all was tranquil as a dreamless sleep. Ye Presences of Nature in the sky And on the earth! Ye Visions of the hills! And Souls of lonely places! can I think A vulgar hope was yours when ye employed Such ministry, when ye, through many a year Haunting me thus among my boyish sports, On caves and trees, upon the woods and hills, 470 Impressed, upon all forms, the characters Of danger or desire; and thus did make The surface of the universal earth, With triumph and delight, with hope and fear, Work like a sea? Not uselessly employed, Might I pursue this theme through every change Of exercise and play, to which the year Did summon us in his delightful round. We were a noisy crew; the sun in heaven Beheld not vales more beautiful than ours; Nor saw a band in happiness and joy 480 Richer, or worthier of the ground they trod. I could record with no reluctant voice The woods of autumn, and their hazel bowers With milk-white clusters hung; the rod and line, True symbol of hope's foolishness, whose strong And unreproved enchantment led us on By rocks and pools shut out from every star, All the green summer, to forlorn cascades Among the windings hid of mountain brooks. --Unfading recollections! at this hour 490 The heart is almost mine with which I felt, From some hill-top on sunny afternoons, The paper kite high among fleecy clouds Pull at her rein like an impetuous courser; Or, from the meadows sent on gusty days, Beheld her breast the wind, then suddenly Dashed headlong, and rejected by the storm. Ye lowly cottages wherein we dwelt, A ministration of your own was yours; Can I forget you, being as you were 500 So beautiful among the pleasant fields In which ye stood? or can I here forget The plain and seemly countenance with which Ye dealt out your plain comforts? Yet had ye Delights and exultations of your own. Eager and never weary we pursued Our home-amusements by the warm peat-fire At evening, when with pencil, and smooth slate In square divisions parcelled out and all With crosses and with cyphers scribbled o'er, 510 We schemed and puzzled, head opposed to head In strife too humble to be named in verse: Or round the naked table, snow-white deal, Cherry or maple, sate in close array, And to the combat, Loo or Whist, led on A thick-ribbed army; not, as in the world, Neglected and ungratefully thrown by Even for the very service they had wrought, But husbanded through many a long campaign. Uncouth assemblage was it, where no few 520 Had changed their functions: some, plebeian cards Which Fate, beyond the promise of their birth, Had dignified, and called to represent The persons of departed potentates. Oh, with what echoes on the board they fell! Ironic diamonds,--clubs, hearts, diamonds, spades, A congregation piteously akin! Cheap matter offered they to boyish wit, Those sooty knaves, precipitated down With scoffs and taunts, like Vulcan out of heaven: 530 The paramount ace, a moon in her eclipse, Queens gleaming through their splendour's last decay, And monarchs surly at the wrongs sustained By royal visages. Meanwhile abroad Incessant rain was falling, or the frost Raged bitterly, with keen and silent tooth; And, interrupting oft that eager game, From under Esthwaite's splitting fields of ice The pent-up air, struggling to free itself, Gave out to meadow grounds and hills a loud 540 Protracted yelling, like the noise of wolves Howling in troops along the Bothnic Main. Nor, sedulous as I have been to trace How Nature by extrinsic passion first Peopled the mind with forms sublime or fair, And made me love them, may I here omit How other pleasures have been mine, and joys Of subtler origin; how I have felt, Not seldom even in that tempestuous time, Those hallowed and pure motions of the sense 550 Which seem, in their simplicity, to own An intellectual charm; that calm delight Which, if I err not, surely must belong To those first-born affinities that fit Our new existence to existing things, And, in our dawn of being, constitute The bond of union between life and joy. Yes, I remember when the changeful earth, And twice five summers on my mind had stamped The faces of the moving year, even then 560 I held unconscious intercourse with beauty Old as creation, drinking in a pure Organic pleasure from the silver wreaths Of curling mist, or from the level plain Of waters coloured by impending clouds. The sands of Westmoreland, the creeks and bays Of Cumbria's rocky limits, they can tell How, when the Sea threw off his evening shade, And to the shepherd's hut on distant hills Sent welcome notice of the rising moon, 570 How I have stood, to fancies such as these A stranger, linking with the spectacle No conscious memory of a kindred sight, And bringing with me no peculiar sense Of quietness or peace; yet have I stood, Even while mine eye hath moved o'er many a league Of shining water, gathering as it seemed, Through every hair-breadth in that field of light, New pleasure like a bee among the flowers. Thus oft amid those fits of vulgar joy 580 Which, through all seasons, on a child's pursuits Are prompt attendants, 'mid that giddy bliss Which, like a tempest, works along the blood And is forgotten; even then I felt Gleams like the flashing of a shield;--the earth And common face of Nature spake to me Rememberable things; sometimes, 'tis true, By chance collisions and quaint accidents (Like those ill-sorted unions, work supposed Of evil-minded fairies), yet not vain 590 Nor profitless, if haply they impressed Collateral objects and appearances, Albeit lifeless then, and doomed to sleep Until maturer seasons called them forth To impregnate and to elevate the mind. --And if the vulgar joy by its own weight Wearied itself out of the memory, The scenes which were a witness of that joy Remained in their substantial lineaments Depicted on the brain, and to the eye 600 Were visible, a daily sight; and thus By the impressive discipline of fear, By pleasure and repeated happiness, So frequently repeated, and by force Of obscure feelings representative Of things forgotten, these same scenes so bright, So beautiful, so majestic in themselves, Though yet the day was distant, did become Habitually dear, and all their forms And changeful colours by invisible links 610 Were fastened to the affections. I began My story early--not misled, I trust, By an infirmity of love for days Disowned by memory--ere the breath of spring Planting my snowdrops among winter snows: Nor will it seem to thee, O Friend! so prompt In sympathy, that I have lengthened out With fond and feeble tongue a tedious tale. Meanwhile, my hope has been, that I might fetch Invigorating thoughts from former years; 620 Might fix the wavering balance of my mind, And haply meet reproaches too, whose power May spur me on, in manhood now mature To honourable toil. Yet should these hopes Prove vain, and thus should neither I be taught To understand myself, nor thou to know With better knowledge how the heart was framed Of him thou lovest; need I dread from thee Harsh judgments, if the song be loth to quit Those recollected hours that have the charm 630 Of visionary things, those lovely forms And sweet sensations that throw back our life, And almost make remotest infancy A visible scene, on which the sun is shining? One end at least hath been attained; my mind Hath been revived, and if this genial mood Desert me not, forthwith shall be brought down Through later years the story of my life. The road lies plain before me;--'tis a theme Single and of determined bounds; and hence 640 I choose it rather at this time, than work Of ampler or more varied argument, Where I might be discomfited and lost: And certain hopes are with me, that to thee This labour will be welcome, honoured Friend! 


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