Whether through personal folly or as a result of the heartlessness of others, there are times in the journey of life when desperation strikes, when all that ever brought meaning is demolished, when existence itself, or its worth, is called into question and there is no apparent path to healing or recovery.
No doubt William Wordsworth endured such from time to time, though his works give no hint that this was the case.
Yet any supposition that he was a pretty poet for pretty places is dispelled upon a reading of his autobiographical epic which came to be known as The Prelude. For a work of this genius, one reading is not enough, and its magnitude increases with every visit, reaching into the knowledge of ourselves and our experiences and bringing to consciousness permanent truths and realities. The poet holds a mystical sway with words, for words themselves have a destiny and purpose of their own which he uncovers, drawing us back again and again so that they form part of our own being. Inasmuch as words may be uttered, or sung or sculpted, the muse may reside as well in music or in the graphic arts.
To all appearances, Wordsworth’s life was of exceptional advantage. There were times of poverty, unhappiness and grief, his father died when he was twelve and his mother when he was eight but his otherwise idyllic childhood, the influences of Nature in his beautiful Cumbrian birthplace and home, sufficient resources to attend grammar school at Hawkshead, to study at St John’s College, Cambridge and to embark upon a tour of Europe single him out as one of the few whom the travails of the times largely bypassed.
Inevitably, then, his time in France before, during and after the French Revolution and the reign of terror wrought a soul-searching revision of his assumptions about human life, its struggles and its relation to Nature.
Always, his homeland restores him and gives him comfort in the face of such agonies for there he was a participant. Never do we find him subjected to the whims, sufferings and misfortunes he undoubtedly understands and describes in his ceaseless iambic pentameters of blank verse, for he is a mere observer. An inspired observer, but an observer nonetheless.
Here he contrasts with that supreme genius of those same times, Ludwig van Beethoven, who was robbed of his hearing, the only vehicle for his muse, and who persisted in defiance to achieve heights of the soul, far exceeding those of Helvellyn that so enthralled Wordsworth.
Given all the spiritual beauties and calms to which I have been exposed, I was once uniquely, unexpectedly and momentarily felt uplifted as never before or since in a place displaying a quite different aspect from that in the poet’s lifetime -Westminster Bridge. Grant me the indulgence to quote some lines of the poet, lines written with his knowledge of everywhere he had visited and lived in: the bustle and variety of London, stilted Cambridge, intoxicating France, overbearing Alps, Scotland, Wales and, above all his beloved Lake District and its people. May I say in all humility that it was the precise feelings he gives voice to that I recognise in my moment of magic. I was twenty, the sun was setting over the river and I had just emerged from the Royal Festival Hall after watching a recital of a Beethoven quartet.
Composed upon Westminster Bridge
Earth has not any thing to show more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty:
This City now doth like a garment wear
The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
Open unto fields, and to the sky;
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
Never did sun more beautifully steep
In his first splendor valley, rock or hill;
Ne’er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
The river glideth at his own sweet will:
Dear God! The very houses seem asleep;
And all that mighty heart is lying still.
(William Wordsworth, 1802)