I’m still finding little time for my own reading as I work on the Romantics. So I thought I’d share here a piece I’ve adapted from something I’ve been preparing for my students to work on:
Wordsworth: The Prelude. The childhood boat-stealing scene
A central theme in Wordsworth’s epic blank verse ‘autobiography’ or history of the development of the poet’s mind, The Prelude, is that our identity and character are shaped by what he called “spots of time”. These significantly punctuate our lives, providing a “renovating virtue” by which “our minds / Are nourished and invisibly repaired.” They usually occur in the poem as an epiphany experienced arising from an incident or sight in the natural world.
One famous instance is the boat-stealing episode in Book I, ll. 372-441 from the 1805 edition (the first, 1799, and the third, 1850, are slightly different. Text from the Poetry Foundation
One evening (surely I was led by her) [ie Nature]
I went alone into a Shepherd’s Boat,
A Skiff that to a Willow tree was tied
Within a rocky Cave, its usual home. 375
‘Twas by the shores of Patterdale, a Vale
Wherein I was a Stranger, thither come
A School-boy Traveller, at the Holidays.
Forth rambled from the Village Inn alone
No sooner had I sight of this small Skiff, 380
Discover’d thus by unexpected chance,
Than I unloos’d her tether and embark’d.
The moon was up, the Lake was shining clear
Among the hoary mountains; from the Shore
I push’d, and struck the oars and struck again 385
In cadence, and my little Boat mov’d on
Even like a Man who walks with stately step
Though bent on speed. It was an act of stealth
And troubled pleasure; not without the voice
Of mountain-echoes did my Boat move on, 390
Leaving behind her still on either side
Small circles glittering idly in the moon,
Until they melted all into one track
Of sparkling light. A rocky Steep uprose
Above the Cavern of the Willow tree 395
And now, as suited one who proudly row’d
With his best skill, I fix’d a steady view
Upon the top of that same craggy ridge,
The bound of the horizon, for behind
Was nothing but the stars and the grey sky. 400
She was an elfin Pinnace; lustily
I dipp’d 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 405
The bound of the horizon, a huge Cliff,
As if with voluntary power instinct,
Uprear’d its head. I struck, and struck again
And, growing still in stature, the huge Cliff
Rose up between me and the stars, and still, 410
With measur’d motion, like a living thing,
Strode after me. With trembling hands I turn’d,
And through the silent water stole my way
Back to the Cavern of the Willow tree.
There, in her mooring-place, I left my Bark, 415
And, through the meadows homeward went, with grave
And serious thoughts; and after I had seen
That spectacle, for many days, my brain
Work’d with a dim and undetermin’d sense
Of unknown modes of being; in my thoughts 420
There was a darkness, call it solitude,
Or blank desertion, no familiar shapes
Of hourly objects, images of trees,
Of sea or sky, no colours of green fields;
But huge and mighty Forms that do not live 425
Like living men mov’d slowly through the mind
By day and were the trouble of my dreams.
Wisdom and Spirit of the universe!
Thou Soul that art the eternity of thought!
That giv’st to forms and images a breath 430
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, 435
But with high objects, with enduring things,
With life and nature, purifying thus
The elements of feeling and of thought,
And sanctifying, by such discipline,
Both pain and fear, until we recognize 440
A grandeur in the beatings of the heart.
The location for this incident is usually identified as Black Crag, west of Ullswater in the English Lake District, Cumbria, which would have been seen behind the nearer ridge, Stybarrow Crag; the ‘huge cliff’ as Glenridding Dod; Mary R. Wedd suggests an alternative site near Blowick; the ‘huge cliff’ would be Place Fell (The Wordsworth Critic, 11 : 248).
The BL site has an interesting illustrated piece on a text by T. H. Fielding and J. Walton, who spent two years in the Lake District making drawings and collecting information and ‘extracts from admired poets’ to produce their magnificent A Picturesque Tour of the English Lakes, Containing a Description of the Most Romantic Scenery of Cumberland, Westmoreland, and Lancashire…(London, 1821). The text and beautiful design and illustrations indicate that this was a book for dedicated tourists wanting to plan informed tours of the area. The book contains forty-eight hand-coloured aquatints made from the original drawings by Fielding and Walton. There are several references to Wordsworth and locations referred to in his poetry, including this boating scene.