Spots of Earth
George Soule and the late Richard Wordsworth in England's Lake District
"Spots of Earth" in Wordsworth's Excursion
by George Soule
The Excursion is a complex poem even when it seems most straight-forward, as in the stories of Books Six and Seven. Though often slighted by commentators, these stories play an important part of one web of what Kenneth Johnston calls the poem's "buried assumptions."1 Earlier in the poem, three of its central characters-the Wanderer, the Poet, and the Solitary-have a long and serious discussion at Blea Tarn, a quiet and lonely upland pond surrounded by some of the Lake District's most majestic peaks. They discuss the Solitary's unhappiness, for he has been brought to despair by the death of his wife and children and by the failure of the French Revolution to live up to his ideals. After this discussion, Wordsworth magically catapults them down and a few miles east to Grasmere churchyard, where they meet a Pastor who tells them stories of people who are buried there.
Although Harold Bloom says these stories mainly reveal Wordsworth's inability to face the recent deaths of two of his children, most readers find a place for the stories within The Excursion's larger narrative: these stories are supposed to cure the Solitary of his despair. Some critics think he is to be cured by adopting a simple uplifting piety or by attaining "universal commiseration." Geoffrey Hartman more optimistically maintains that the stories teach how to face death.2 These orthodox messages are often said to be typical of the older Wordsworth. But I would argue that the stories reflect the poet's lifelong concerns and that they speak to the Solitary's problems in ways quite different from those I have summarized. I would argue too that curing the Solitary is an important task: his problems were those of Wordsworth's generation.
To understand The Excursion, we must see it in the context of all the poet's work. The transcendental side of Wordsworth is what most readers remember most vividly: his famous "spots of time," moments when his mind apprehends forces beyond everyday experience.3 The moments are not only wonderful to Wordsworth when they happen, but when he remembers them, they allow him to feel those forces again. Readers remember these moments too: the beautiful field of daffodils and the poet's lovely splashings in the Derwent, the sublime terror of the a "huge Cliff" striding after a boy and of "black drizzling crags," and the "visionary dreariness" of a girl walking against the wind.4 "Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey" is more explicit; a spirit resides outside of mankind in "the light of setting suns" and also "in the mind of man."5 To the transcendental Wordsworth, without this vitality we must live in a "universe of death"--the echo of Milton's hell is unmistakable.6
Wordsworth's verse is not always so uplifting. From the beginning of his career Wordsworth writes many poems about living a life in a world without transcendence. "The Old Cumberland Beggar," "Simon Lee," "Goody Blake and Harry Gill"-the list of poems set in this mundane world goes on and on. In The Excursion, both outlooks are present, but although the Wanderer tried to cure the Solitary by invoking transcendent forces in Book 4, most of the action takes place in a world without transcendence. It is as if in The Excursion Wordsworth were limiting himself to such a
world-that he was writing The Excursion in such a genre--so that it could complement the more transcendent worlds of the other portions of The Recluse he had written and was intending to write.
Yet Wordsworth's poetry of this mundane world does not usually show a simple universe of death. Its world can be alive in a non-transcendental, a less overwhelming way. The poet shows over and over how every day, just as in "Tintern Abbey" the mind sends out forces to combine with the outside spirit, we perform other sorts of acts that give significance to the world about us. Using terms from speech-act theory will help us here, for one of these acts is naming. Wordsworth's poems often describe the act of naming (yet seldom are the speech-act of naming itself). He tells of naming John's Grove, Emma's Dell, Point Rash-Judgement, Glow-worm Rock, The Wishing-Gate, Leonard's Rock, not to mention The Joyful Elm, Lord's Oak and Prior's Oak, and the Joyful Tree. Many of these names were in fact bestowed in an on-going, playful but serious game by Wordsworth, his sister Dorothy, his brother John, and his wife Mary in the early joyful years at Dove Cottage. By living in an every-day world in which many natural things are named, the poet lives in a world that is vital because full of significant objects.
Besides naming, we can give significance--perhaps more permanent significance-- by inscribing objects so that when we read the inscriptions they can speak to us. In Wordsworth's poetry, some things like monuments or stones are literally inscribed by pencil or chisel. Although some of the inscriptions in the poems are fictional, many are real-that is, the poems were really inscribed on real objects.
In the real world as well, you can still see the initials Wordsworth carved into a desk at the Hawkshead Grammar School. The most impressive of Wordsworth's non-poetic inscriptions are on the "Rock of Names," a rock beside the road from Grasmere to Keswick on which Wordsworth, Coleridge, Dorothy, John, Mary, and Mary's sister Sara carved their initials in 1801-2. That Wordsworth felt the inscribed rock had a kind of power can be seen in his poem in a passage he omitted from "The Waggoner."7 Benjamin the Waggoner himself comes upon the Rock, whose power takes the form of water descending from a pure spring to refresh travelers. A more personal reflection follows, when Wordsworth addresses the Rock of Names. The initials were carved by the persons Wordsworth loved best. Although they first expressed their youthful loves, the Rock's power to express is also the power to heal, and it will survive after they all are gone. (He was right. The relocated "Rock of Names" may now been seen and touched behind the Wordsworth Museum in Grasmere.)
As Geoffrey Hartman explains in Beyond Formalism, Wordsworth's inscriptions often recall classical ones: everywhere we find admonitions for travelers or strangers to look, stop, read, pause, or rest in order to let inscriptions speak to them.8 Wordsworth wrote or noted inscriptions on stones located on islands in both Grasmere and Rydal Water and on the aforementioned Glow-worm Rock at Windy Brow. Other inscriptions are to be left on a Seat in a Yew Tree and are written for the Moss Hut at Dove Cottage, for Dora's field at Rydal (I have seen these), for bells in Churches, for the blank leaves of many books, and for monuments to Reynolds, Lamb, Southey, the heroes of Waterloo, a pastor in Langdale, and his own son. He used the classical formula all his life. In what may have been the last poem he wrote, he calls on a "Stranger" to contemplate a "rocky stream."9 Wordsworth inscribed; the inscriptions spoke and still speak. A world full of speaking inscriptions may not be suffused with transcendence, but it is alive.
We should note in passing that another form of inscribing, another form of giving significance to real objects, is gardening. The poet helped create three very different gardens: at Dove Cottage with Dorothy, at Rydal Mount, and at Sir George Beaumont's estate at Coleorton in Leicestershire. Although these gardens speak quite different messages, they were and still are vital places.
One important aspect of Wordsworth's naming and inscribing is that, as elsewhere, he is egalitarian. The usual formula of the speech-act of naming is something like "I dub thee." This sentence implies that the "I' has the right and the power to perform the act of dubbing. For example, because I am not The Queen, I cannot dub anybody; likewise I cannot pronounce people Bachelors of Arts or man and wife, though I know people who can. The sentence also implies that the "thee" can properly receive the dubbing. As a citizen of the United States, I cannot be dubbed, but Wordsworth could have been dubbed; Tennyson was dubbed. Terry Eagleton has admitted that he cannot baptize a badger.10 It is significant that Wordsworth does not worry much about these technicalities. In his poetry, almost anyone can name a place; anyone can inscribe almost any message on any object. More about egalitarianism later.
In sum, we give significance to the world by inscribing and by naming things, and the world speaks our messages back to us. That is to say, it is a comforting and energizing experience to live in a world in which the objects and places that we see every day are associated with other days, other events, and other people. As Wordsworth walked the lanes about Dove Cottage, he constantly saw things that were alive with associations that he and the persons to whom he was closest had created by naming or inscribing. I think the metaphor of speech describes this process well. It is not too much to say that many of the objects and places he saw every day spoke to him, just as the objects and places we see in our daily lives speak to many of us as well.
Although so far I have mainly been considering how we ourselves name or inscribe, the world also speaks to us as the result of of other people's acts. Sometimes no inscriptions are necessary: specific objects can speak messages, like Margaret's wooden bowl in The Excursion and Wordsworth's friend's spade.11 Sometimes other people inscribe monuments, and we can get from these monuments an energizing sense of their past life. The poet tells of one interesting kind of monument when he describes the Countess and her Pillar near Penrith; the inscription tells us that each year money is given to the poor at the pillar, making it a kind of reverse wishing-well.12 In "Hart-Leap Well," the Knight commemorates killing a stag by naming the spot of death and by erecting a monument-a negative monument, for its "spot is curst," and nature helps it to decay.13 Often specific places are connected by to stories of what has happened there: her cottage and Margaret's demise, the Dove and Olive-Bough and "the famous SWAN" with Benjamin the Waggoner's ride, the Brownie's Cell, Rydal and its wren.14
Wordsworth often hears the world speak, not from specific monuments, but though the spirit of a place (or genius loci), spirits created by anonymous persons ages ago. He finds spirits of place at the "nun's well, Brigham," at most old abbeys and ancient druid and Roman remains, and at Kilchurn Castle: "Powers . . ./That touch each other to the quick in modes/Which the gross world no sense hath to perceive."15 The Prelude is full of such spirits, defining them in Book I as the "souls of lonely places." The poet never stopped invoking them. One of The Prelude's most famous evocations of a genius loci concerns Furness Abbey, and in one of his last poems, Wordsworth tells how in 1845 workers on the new railway relax among the Furness ruins and "seem to feel the spirit of the place."16
Wordsworth is always interested in hearing stories about particular persons connected to particular places. He explains why in the lovely sonnet "Fancy and Tradition" from Yarrow Revisited of 1833:17
The Lovers took within this ancient grove
Their last embrace; besides those crystal springs
The Hermit saw the Angel spread his wings
For instant flight; the Sage in yon alcove
Sate musing; on that hill the Bard would rove,
Not mute, where now the linnet only sings:
Thus everywhere to truth Tradition clings,
Or Fancy localizes Powers we love.
Were only History licensed to take note
Of things gone by, her meager monuments
Would ill suffice for persons and events:
There is an ampler page for man to quote,
A readier book of manifold contents,
Studied alike in palace and in cot.
If only official history were admitted as evidence of what happened in the past, its "meager" written records ("monuments") would not be sufficient to preserve the full story of what happened to lovers, hermits, sages, and bards. Fortunately, we have an "a readier book" than the official history: the groves, hills, and alcoves of the world itself. Part of what we read in this "readier book" results from our fancy's localizing the "Powers we love"-that is, from our (figuratively) inscribing upon the world. Another part of what we read is made possible because tradition clings to truth-that is, because the stories of what people like lovers and sages have done are traditionally and truthfully associated with particular places.
Let us talk now of graves and epitaphs, graves with and without monumental headstones, and headstones that may have epitaphs inscribed on them. (Wordsworth was always interested in epitaphs; he wrote a three-part essay on the subject.) Now a grave contains the body of a dead person. If it has a monument, it can speak because it has been inscribed by someone other than ourselves, and it may attract our attention by using the classical formula of "Pause, Stranger." In contrast, if a grave is without a monument, it speaks to us of a person's life only if we already know who is buried there or if there is someone to
tell us. (Very often in Wordsworth's poems, these tellers call attention to graves by pointing at them; the verse at these moments is filled with a flurry of demonstrative adjectives.) In sum, a grave can tell its story in several ways. And like the associations we have with named places and the information supplied by other inscriptions, these stories can give significance and vitality to the world we live in.
Wordsworth always knew that graves could speak. Early on, he gives us two extreme instances. In "We are Seven," the cottage girl lives next to the graves of her brother and sister and communes with them perfectly. The poem's speaker/stranger cannot understand: perhaps the child is not skilled enough to tell the story well or perhaps some people cannot respond to genii loci. The grave in "A Slumber Did My Spirit Steal" shows the opposite effect: the dead Lucy has neither force nor speech. We see her from a chilling cosmic perspective and hear nothing as she silently rolls round with rocks and stones. I don't think the "trees" makes the situation more heartening.18
Most graves fall somewhere in between these two examples, and in Wordsworth's poetry they speak over and over again. In the cloister at Worcester Cathedral, a stone says only "Miserrimus!" and Wordsworth admonishes, "Stranger, pass/Softly." More is communicated, even without a monument, when Wordsworth "hears" angels at Burns' grave (I 590), when he praises another Scots tomb near Langholme (II 712), and when he reflects on the graves of the Greens in Grasmere churchyard. Much is communicated when he wonders about the graves of Ossian, "Andrew there, and Susan here," and (with a simple inscription) the "lovely Ellen." In "The Brothers," Leonard's hopes are dashed when James's grave is pointed out to him: "there he lies!"
Perhaps the most terrifying graves are the one in "The Thorn" that shakes when threatened and those at Waterloo in 1820, where even without the monuments the poet senses "the horror breathing from the silent ground."19
What Wordsworth is talking about may be more clear if we look at what Seamus Heaney writes about Ireland-a country not too far away from Wordsworth's Cumbria. He says that the Irish landscape is sacramental, magical, waiting to be read.20
For a particularly fine example of how the world can speak, let us look at that happy time in 1799-1800 when Wordsworth and Dorothy found their "Home at Grasmere." Even though they were not well-acquainted in the district, the poet assured his sister that they were "not alone" or "desolate" in their new abode:21
Look where we will, some human hand has been
Before us with its offering; not a tree
Sprinkles these little pastures but the same
Hath furnished matter for a thought; perchance
For someone serves as a familiar friend.
Joy spreads and sorrow spreads; and this whole Vale,
Home of untutored Shepherds as it is,
Swarms with sensation, as with gleams of sunshine,
Shadows or breezes, scents or sounds.
The vale "swarms" with what men and women have felt at particular trees or in particular pastures. Note that the poet emphasizes that these are places are associated with not only joy but with sorrow as well. The Wordsworths are made happy by the vitality imparted by all kinds of stories.
The Excursion tells a story in which the Wanderer, the Poet, and the Pastor try to convince The Solitary that life is worth living. In Book IV, the Wanderer tries to do the job as he and the Poet and the Solitary sit peacefully at the upland pond, Blea Tarn-"the fixed centre of a troubled world" (5.16).22 When the Wanderer's message of transcendence does not convince the Solitary, they all descend figuratively and literally into the ordinary world, a world without obvious transcendence, the place I have been told some Wordsworthians label "descendental."23 The ordinary world in this case turns out to be Wordsworth's own village of Grasmere.
The heart of this poem--Books 6 and 7--will make more sense if we read it in light of what I have described as Wordsworth's insistence that the world's surface is alive with stories and messages. The most significant aspect of how this poem relates to all the phenomena I have considered in the opening section of this essay is that The Excursion describes very little naming and inscribing of any sort. Naming and inscribing are intentional and creative acts, and the world of The Excursion does not encompass much creativity. The Excursion is a poem about a world made vital, not so much by intentional acts, but by the unintentional acts of others. In comparison to the worlds of many of Wordsworth's other poems, it is a limited one, but even so Wordsworth will insist on its value.
So the poem focuses almost exclusively upon the messages which are left behind or may be left behind by others-and there are potentially a great many of them. In Book 6, the Pastor indicates what happens at the heart of the poem (though with a gloomy emphasis):
Ah! what a warning for a thoughtless man,
Could field or grove, could any spot of earth,
Show to his eye an image of the pangs
Which it hath witnessed; render back an echo
Of the sad steps by which it hath been trod!
(vi 806-10; my italics)
To paraphrase, any man would know a great deal about suffering if only he could see and feel the pain that has been felt in one small place. The Pastor will endeavor to do just that by focusing on many spots of earth. To put it more succintly:
Spots of earth are to The Excursion what spots of time are to The Prelude.
Spots of time exist in the mind as transcendental intimations and memories clustered about a specific personal experience. In contrast, spots of earth are literal places which are related to specific stories of what has happened there, to other people as well as to one's self. In another sense, spots of earth are also mental events in which stories concerning our fellow men and women are called up in our mind by our seeing specific places. In The Excursion, Wordsworth asks us to see each spot (or nook or niche-he uses all these words) on the surface of the earth as pregnant with the past, alive with stories of what has been enjoyed or suffered there. These are not, as in other Wordsworth poems, still sad strains or plaintive melodies heard from far away. They are messages from spots of earth we sit beside and walk upon.
In Books 6 and 7, The Pastor tells sixteen stories drawn from approximately twenty graves, mainly un-marked, in Grasmere churchyard. (Not everyone he describes is actually dead, and not every grave was or is actually there.) Members of the Pastor's audience are to look at the graves, for they are referred to vividly (mould, sod, turf, grassy heap, hillock), and the Pastor's pointing is implied by repeated clusters of adjectives and demonstrative pronouns (this, there, here, that, yon). As elsewhere in Wordsworth, pointing-some kind of assistance-is often necessary for unmarked graves to speak and help the onlooker, in this case the despairing Solitary in particular.
When graves speak, what do they say? With reference to The Excursion, we have seen that many simple theories have been advanced. Many critics often the churchyard dead as a uniformly drab and uninteresting lot, and these critics like to produce tidy schemes and categories.24 But viewed with a sympathetic and egalitarian eye, The Excursion's dead speak many different messages (some frightening, some pathetic), and to Wordsworth they led lives that were anything but uniform and uninteresting. In their variety, their stories are not simply the occasion for pious mediation, nor do they make any consistent moral point.
What the stories do communicate is made clear when we note what the Wanderer asks the Pastor to do in relating them:
. . . . May I entreat
Your further help? The mine of real life
Dig for us; and present us, in the shape
Of virgin ore, that gold which we . . .
Seek from the torturing crucible.
. . . As we stand on holy earth,
And have the dead around us, take from them
Your instances. . . . pronounce, you can,
Authentic epitaphs on some of these
Who, from their lowly mansions hither brought,
Beneath this turf lie mouldering at our feet:
So, by your records, may our doubts be solved;
And so, not searching hither, we may learn
To prize the breath we share with human kind;
And look upon the dust of man with awe.
(5.630-57; italics Wordsworth's)
The Wanderer asks: dig gold for us-that is, give us words of great value-not from far away, but from the graves of lowly people buried here in Grasmere churchyard. We will be helped by these stories, for they teach us to prize mankind's common breath and to look with awe on their remains. No sorting the dead people into categories, no pious lessons here about right and wrong.
What exactly does the Wanderer say we will prize? The Excursion asks us to revere those qualities that the people in the graveyard had in common. All lived simple lives in Grasmere or nearby; with a few exceptions, they were country people of no very high class. Many were lowly indeed: landless agricultural laborers, uneducated and even degenerate. Most were as lonely in life as they are solitary in the grave. They worked hard; they showed great energy, sometimes a pathetic energy based on hope, sometimes sheer dogged persistence. It is very important to note that these energies could also be expressed in nastiness, folly, obsessions, and destructiveness.
The energies of the people the Pastor describes, morally admirable or not, persisted till death approached, at which time most accepted their fate, some with better grace than others. Often they showed a kind of generosity, for they left something behind, a sundial or just a worn path. In sum, when The Wanderer hopes "To prize the breath we share," he wishes for the Solitary simply to prize humankind's common persistent energies. (Shades of "The Old Man Travelling.")
We can see now why The Excursion does not have many inscriptions. In Book 6, The Poet talks of elegant graveyards in which inscribed monuments tell idealized stories of virtue and innocence (6.624-45). Although the Pastor sympathizes, he insists on including in his stories the kind of damning details which are not appropriate for an inscription. The Parson knows that "the native grandeur of the human soul" can show itself even in "the perverseness of a selfish course" (6.665-68). Inscriptions require some idealization, and The Excursion does not idealize.
What is left by the people buried in the Grasmere churchyard is not only a sundial or path. They leave stories associated with particular spots of earth living on in the memory of the community--in this case, the Pastor. The function of tale-teller has been important earlier in this poem. The Wanderer tells Margaret's story to the Poet in Book 1, and he collects other tales associated with places: most villages and houses "yield to him / Remembrances; or from his tongue call forth / Some way-beguiling tale" (2.35-37). The Poet is learning why these tales are important, and this is what the Solitary needs to learn.
Teaching him is not an easy task, for he is always at odds with his teachers. He disagrees with the Wanderer and with the Pastor about the importance of stories connected with spots of earth. We are not surprised that he dislikes telling stories and is glad when his one long tale is over (2.896-7). He is like the speaker of "We Are Seven," for graves do not speak to him: after a brief time of anguish, those of his own family cause only "an uncomplaining apathy" (2.206). Even if graves could speak (and they cannot), the Solitary thinks we would only "recoil" (5.254) at how corrupt, deluded, and perverse mankind is. To him, the graveyard is but "a subterraneous magazine of bones, / In whose dark vaults my own shall soon be laid"-that and no more (5.344-46).
It is also difficult to teach the Solitary because he is searching for stability, peace, and permanence, whereas The Excursion insists on mutability, on the impermanence even of deeds memorialized by local legends or by poets. Margaret's cottage decays, the remembrance of the Wonderful may last only a century, clouds dislimn, Sir Alfred's house disappears (1.30, 7.352-55, 9.759-60, 7.957-66).25 When the Pastor has finished his graveyard stories in Book 7, the Wanderer summarizes the poem's insistence:
So fail, so languishes, grows dim, and dies . . .
All that this world is proud of. From their spheres
The stars of human glory are cast down;
Perish the roses and the flowers of kings,
Princes, and emperors, and the crowns and palms
Of all the mighty, withered and consumed!
Nor is power given to lowliest innocence
Long to protect her own. The man himself
Departs; and soon is spent the line of those
Who, in the bodily image, in the mind,
In heart or soul, in station or pursuit,
Did most resemble him. . . . The vast frame
Of social nature changes evermore
Her organs and her members, with decay
Restless, and restless generations, powers
And functions dying and produced at need. . . .
These powerful lines are central to The Excursion. Only when the Solitary's absolute craving for permanence is cured will he be able open himself to messages from the world about him. He must learn to be content, not with the theodicy he demands (and envisions in Book 3), but with an ordinary world made modestly alive by stories of those who once walked on spots of earth and now are buried under them.
The Wanderer takes the argument further in Book 9. Every form of life has an "active principle" (9.3) that communicates good, or good "with evil mixed" (9.12). In humans, this active principle shows itself in the way we hopefully plan for action, without which "we have no life" (9.26). This kind of hope is the energy, the persistence which the graves of Books 6 and 7 communicate. Hopeful energy knows no class: it is equally at home by a "cottage-hearth" and in "the haughtiest palace" (9.246-247).
Probably it was The Excursion's comparative classlessness that made some early reviewers dislike it so much. Northrop Frye suggests that myths of descents into various underworlds often reveal what a particular society is trying to repress.26 In the nineteenth century, two such descents were Marx and Engel's' into the urban worker's jungle and Freud's into the unconscious. The move from Blea Tarn into the Vale of Grasmere is a similar descent. With the Pastor as guide, the Wanderer, the Poet, and the Solitary discover the underworld graves of the churchyard which yield the pathetic force of stories the efforts and yearnings of ordinary people, often the lowest of the low. In 1814, it must have been hard for a gentleman to acknowledge-let alone to know in his heart--that such persons yearn and suffer the way he does. And Wordsworth must have recognized that his age repressed this knowledge. We have only to look at the first reviewers to find evidence of such repression: Hazlitt intemperately rails against country folk ("All country people hate each other"), and Jeffrey ridicules presumptuous peddlers like the Wanderer and expresses his "disgust" with them.27
The Excursion proceeds from the graves of Books 6 and 7 to scenes with the Pastor and his wholesome family in Books 8 and 9. Although more happens in these books than I can deal with in this article, I must note that much of Book 9 provides a new and more optimistic view of a "decendental" life than did the stories in Books 6 and 7. Added to the vitality we get from spots of earth is a sense of a human communion of a very special kind.
The question is how a number of very different people can achieve such communion, for just as each dead body in the churchyard once lived as a distinct individual, the living individuals in Book 9 are similarly distinct. The Solitary continues to be unlike anyone else; the poem's ending is inconclusive as he leaves without agreeing to anything. The rest of the people are also distinct and separate. The Wanderer, The Poet, The Solitary, The Parson, The Parson's Lady, and their three children leave the vicarage and walk, not as a group, but singly or in pairs along the river Rothay to Grasmere's edge. There follows a vivid illustration of how two people can interpret the same sight differently. The Poet and the Lady see a snow-white ram outlined against the sky and reflected in a pool. Although The Poet responds with enthusiasm to the Miltonic magnificence of the creature's "wreathéd horns superb," the Lady sadly observes that just as the ram's reflection will quickly disappear, the Wanderer's ideas will fade in her mind (9.444, 459-73). The Poet and the Lady have seen the same thing, but they interpret what they saw in vastly different ways.
How can so many people with many different ways of viewing the world achieve anything like communion? The group rows to the Grasmere's island, where they build a fire and eat a "choice repast" (9.530); this is the first communal festivity in The Excursion and suggests harmonies to come. But then they amuse themselves in many quite different ways-skipping stones, singing, gathering flowers-and row across the lake to climb part-way up Loughrigg Fell. In the fading light, they see various distinct sights across the vale: the church, fields, and "habitations" (presumably including the newly-opened Red Lion Hotel). Each person has his or her own vision (9.572-77).
Yet at least to the Poet these individual visions do not remain individual. Each person wishes to communicate his or her own separate joyous discovery to others; each is motivated by "a wish / To impart a joy, imperfect while unshared" (9/586-87) The Poet then exclaims:
That rapturous moment never shall I forget
When these particular interests were effaced
From every mind!
The divisiveness of individual discoveries is effaced when they are shared; the joys of discovery are made more perfect by sharing; to put it still another way, what is shared is the human energy and joy behind the different discoveries. Like the dead in the churchyard, these living men and women are very different from each other. Unlike the lonely dead, the living can commune, even though they do not necessarily agree.
The day comes to a close. The sunset and its "multitudes" of separate "floating clouds" then becomes an emblem both of how energy is received from an unseen (perhaps ultimately transcendent) source and also of the harmonious, intense, continuing, generous, and reciprocal way this energy is exchanged by separate individuals:
. . . rays of light -
Now suddenly diverging from the orb
Retired behind the mountain-tops or veiled
By the dense air - shot upward to the crown
Of the blue firmament - aloft and wide:
And multitudes of little floating clouds.
Through their ethereal texture pierced
. . . had become
Vivid as fire; clouds separately poised, -
Innumerable multitude of forms
Scattered through half the circle of the sky;
And giving back, and shedding each on each,
With prodigal communion, the bright hues
Which from the unapparent fount of glory
They had imbibed, and ceased not to receive.
Spots of earth reveal and communicate in the present the stories and energies of separate individuals in the past; the "particular interests" and energies of people living in the present can be shared in the present, as they did on the side of the lake. A great part of the vision of The Excursion is that, even when one cannot experience direct contact with a transcendental source, the world can be a vital and hospitable place.
1. Kenneth R. Johnston, Wordsworth and The Recluse (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984) 292.
2. Harold Bloom, The Visionary Company (New York: Doubleday, 1963) 205; Frances Fergusson, Wordsworth: Language as Counter-Spirit (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977) 160; Geoffrey Hartman, Wordsworth's Poetry 1787-1814 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1971) 299-301.
3. The Prelude (1805), 11.257. My quotations from The Prelude are from the 1805 version by book and line number using Arabic numbers and a period from the Norton Critical Edition, The Prelude 1799, 1805, 1850, ed. Jonathan Wordsworth, M. H. Abrams, and Stephen Gill (New York: Norton, 1979). For other poems by Wordsworth, I cite volume and page (using Roman and Arabic numerals without a period, as II 222) from The Poems, ed. John O. Hayden, 2 vols. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981), except in the case of The Excursion, which I cite by book and line number.
4. The Prelude, l.291-96; 6.563; 11.310.
5. I 360.
6. The Prelude, 13.141; Paradise Lost, ed. Merritt Y. Hughes (New York: Odyssey Press, 1962), 2.622.
7. II 1017-18.
8. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1970), 211ff.
9. II 902.
10. Terry Eagleton, Literary Theory (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983) 118.
11. The Excursion, 1.493; I 791.
12. II 724.
13. I 415.
14. I 669; II 40-67, 292, 778.
15. II 748; I 592.
16. 1.492, 2.122ff.; II 895.
17. II 723-24.
18. I 298., 364. In real life, particularly for adults, such perfect communion can be unbearable. The Wordsworths moved from the vicarage at Grasmere because they could not bear to live so close to the new graves of two of their children. See Mary Moorman, William Wordsworth: A Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1965), II 228.
19. II 672; I 590; II 712; I 817, 639, 379, 399, 412, 311; II 421.
20. Preoccupations: Selected Prose 1968-1978 (London: Faber and Faber, 1980), 131-33.
21. I 709.
22. In this section, references to The Excursion will be incorporated by book and line number into the text.
23. My thanks for this term to Professor Marilyn Gaull.
24. See the ingenious but unconvincing attempt made by Kenneth Johnston, 298.
25. In one instance, Wordsworth was wrong. The tombstone of The Wonderful, the Rev. Robert Walker, is located in a churchyard in the Duddon valley. The words on it are legible two centuries later.
26. Northrop Frye, Words With Power (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1990) 238-43.
27. William Hazlitt, Complete Works, ed. P. P. Howe, vol. 19 (London: Dent, 1933), 21-24; Frances Jeffrey, rev. of "The Excursion, being a portion of The Recluse," by William Wordsworth, Edinburgh Review 24 (1814-15): 30.
This is a revised and expanded version of an article first published as "`Spots of Earth' in The Excursion" in The Charles Lamb Bulletin, January, 1994. The revision is dated June 7, 2000.