Suggested Reading For Analytical Philosophers: Wordsworth’s Prelude


This modest offering stems from two provocations.  One is Richard Cocks’ piquant disquisition at The People of Shambhala, referenced here at The Orthosphere, concerning the limitations inherent in the modern school of thought that calls itself Logical Positivism or Analytical Philosophy; the other is a pedagogical necessity that befell me last week to explicate in class for the students of my “Writing about Literature” course a famous passage from William Wordsworth’s Prelude, Book I.  My title must obviously be taken cum grano salis, as logical positivists and analytical philosophers would immediately reduce Wordsworth’s  observations and arguments to their own insipid categories.  Frankly, I cannot imagine the logical positivists or analytical philosophers, or howsoever they dub themselves, making any sense whatsoever of Wordsworths verses or, for that matter, being interested in or aware of them.  Wordsworth’s fundamental assumptions must be opaque to such people.

I have written up my lecture-outline as a short essay.  I append the text on which I comment at the end of the essay.  Those sufficiently generous to feel curiosity about the essay might want to read the excerpt first.  I take for my illustration the fourth panel of The Voyage of Life (1842) by Thomas Cole, one of the founders of the Hudson Valley School.


A Brief Essay on the Adventure of the Boat at Night: It is an observation of natural philosophy that ontogeny repeats phylogeny: That is, the gestation and maturation of the individual repeat the gestation and maturation of the family, genus, or the species.  More generally speaking, everything that exists is an effect that research – or introspection – can trace back to a cause until the procedure finds its destination in a First Cause.  These facts entail any number of paradoxes, not least the poet William Wordsworth’s contention, found in his little poem “My Heart Leaps Up” (1802), that “the child is the father of the man”:


Wordsworth averred often in his prosaic self-explanations that his every line of verse belonged to one great conjectural poem such that each smaller poem was but part of a transcendent whole, which could perhaps never be completed in the poet’s lifetime.  That one Wordsworthian poem should  comment on another should come therefore as no surprise.  The few short lines, almost throwaway verse, of “My heart leaps up” indeed suggest much concerning a crucial passage from one of the early books of one of Wordsworth’s most ambitious poems – the epic-length verse-autobiography The Prelude, begun by the poet as early as 1798 but never published until after his death in 1850.  In the episode in question, Wordsworth recounts one of the adventures of his boyhood, in the Lake District of Northwest England just below the Scottish Border, the native locale where he spent his childhood and to which he returned to live later in life after the peregrinations of his young adulthood.

In this much-commented-on episode the young Wordsworth steals a boat at night to take it for a row on a lake.  The furtive excursion begins pleasantly enough, as only such an illicit enterprise can, but swiftly becomes nightmarish.  Wordsworth discloses to his readers that this incident profoundly affected his development, quickening his spiritual maturation, and remaining fixed in memory like a signpost ever afterwards.  Recalling it, he experiences again the sublime emotions that it provoked in its moment.  The boyhood incident is therefore constitutive of Wordsworth’s adult sense of identity – using the word identity in its profoundest possible meaning, not only as the social person William Wordsworth, but as a sentient creature taking his place in Nature-as-Creation, and responding to the transcendent pull of the Spirit in Nature that seems to mediate for the volition of the Creator.

These terms creature, creation, and creator, although not used by Wordsworth nevertheless find their critical justification in the opening lines of the episode, with its proposition, at once philosophical and theological, that “Dust as we are, the immortal spirit grows / Like harmony in music” (Lines 340-341).  The word dust furnishes readers with an allusion to Genesis, where God, on the final day of Creation, creates Adam by breathing his divine spirit into the dust and thereby drawing forth from mere matter the Image of Man.  The succeeding lines emphasize the allusion, referring as they do to the “dark / Inscrutable workmanship that reconciles / discordant elements, makes them cling together / In one society” (341-343).  The word “society” bears especial importance because it implies mutual self-awareness in a community and the deliberate, sustained collaboration of the parts to form and uphold their wholeness.

Alluding to the first man Adam, also makes sense in context.  Just as the individual owes nearly everything to the society in which he is born – that society having pre-existed him – so too any society taken whole owes nearly everything to the continuum of societies that have come before it and endowed it with their millennial archives of trial-and-error.  Wordsworth sees man as a microcosm in relation to his environment, which then bears the relation to man of a macrocosm.  An individual’s growth will be shaped by the macrocosmic growth of the social hence also conscious environment.

In the remainder of the first stanza of the episode, Wordsworth makes reference to his night on the lake as belonging to “the means which Nature deigned to employ” (351) to urge his boyish counterpart in the direction of development that she deemed best in her “ministry” (355) over him.  Such a Nature is very much a Mother Nature.  It is worth remarking that the adventure recounted in the episode takes place on water, an element usually assigned to the grand category of the female.  Like a schoolteacher, Mother Nature can call on the brawny assistance of the school janitor when necessary – and this indeed happens in the episode.

In the story of Genesis, God gives Adam a mate, Eve, and then gives them leave in the Garden to live without labor and do as they will except for one thing – not to eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge.  In the “Happy Fall” of the theologians, the couple does eat of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge and Adam and Eve come to know of themselves, first of all, as lawbreakers and trespassers.  That recognition is the beginning of human self-awareness or consciousness, which has an indissoluble relation to taboos and injunctions.  The boyish Wordsworth unconsciously imitates his primordial ancestors when he trespasses.  The boat, after all, is the property of someone else.  Like all property the boat carries with it a prohibition against theft.  The young Wordsworth thieves against that prohibition: “It was an act of stealth, / And troubled pleasure” (360-361), as he writes.

The details of the scene speak in metaphors precisely of the boy’s emerging self-awareness.  The surface of the lake, mirror-like, reflects the sky above with its stars and clouds, just as, by gleaning its stuff from the senses, the constitutive mind frames in images the blooming and buzzing chaos of the external world.  The surface of the lake is by no means the entirety of the lake, however; the lake has depth, although that depth is not always visible, or accessible, and yet it is eternally present.  How does a shallow self-awareness acquire depth?  Wordsworth tells his readers how this happens – it happens through rebuke and even through the terror of rebuke.  The precondition of the rebuke, moreover, is the commission of a disorderly act.

Rowing with purpose, the boy’s sense of his environment expands: He becomes imaginatively an Odysseus or a Leif Erikson.  He looks up toward “the summit of a craggy ridge” (370) far beyond the lake.  The little boat becomes “an elfin pinnace” (373), a type of magical vessel, transfigured.  Now comes the sublime moment.  From behind the summit, that is to say, from beyond the horizon, an optical impossibility, a lowering double of the summit appears; it is “a huge peak, black and huge” (378), which becomes a “grim shape” looming “between me and the stars” (381-382).  The shape is the supernatural depth of Nature; it is Nature-as-Spirit, and it is the moral structure of the cosmos, as seen under the sign of, and at the same time as, Creation, in the form of an avenging angel or Titan.  The order of being imposes limits and resists transgression.  In such moments as these, Wordsworth resembles William Blake, whose poetry is replete with gigantic personifications of the structure of existence and the order of being.

The towering gigantesque apparition strides after the young Wordsworth like an avenging angel.  Affrighted, the miscreant boy returns meekly to the safety of the shore, as if repenting the boldness of his stealth.  What had previously been a paradisiacal scene has now transformed itself into a wasteland of “blank desertion” (395), such that “No familiar shapes / Remained, no pleasant images of trees, / Of sea or sky, no colours of green fields” (395-397).  It is as if the innocent boy, by his trespass, had been expelled from the naïve paradise of childhood into the fallen world.  What the subject retains – and what, apparently, will eventually redeem him from the “desert” that his trespass has brought about – are those “huge and mighty forms, / That do not live like living men” (398-399), which have now become the ineradicable background of every conscious thought, to be perpetually recalled.  Man’s “natural piety,” as Wordsworth calls it in “My Heart Leaps Up,” is invariably guilt-ridden and a bit terrified.  O felix culpa!

In his study of Poetic Diction (1928), the critic and thinker Owen Barfield argues that both the horizontal extent and the depth of consciousness can increase or diminish.  The increases are always gains.  The increases stem, Barfield argues, through the making of new figures of speech – metaphors, similes, symbols, allusions, and all the rest.  The most impressive figures of speech are those that the poet coins in order to bring within the field of awareness things that belong, not so much to direct perception, as to what is called apperception, or intuition.  The Living Mountain that is also the Cosmic Watchman of Moral Propriety is just such a thing.  In his role as Watchman he functions, as well, as one of the pillars of consciousness.  (Latterly he “troubles” Wordsworth’s “dreams” [400].)  In Barfield’s argument, poets, being keenly sensitive, have such experiences.  The poet’s role then becomes to share that experience, as far as possible, with others, perhaps less directly sensitive, who can nevertheless reproduce, at second hand, the originator’s growth in awareness through the borrowing of the new perceptions and apperceptions.  That would be to say, in the form of tuition rather than intuition, which latter term is by definition one of priority.

Not only is the Child the Father of the Man, but because he is a Precursor in Experience and an Author of Tradition, the Poet or Maker is the Father of his humble and sympathetic Reader.

[Thomas Felix yep! – Bertonneau]


5 thoughts on “Suggested Reading For Analytical Philosophers: Wordsworth’s Prelude

  1. Pingback: Suggested Reading for Analytical Philosophers: Wordsworth’s Prelude | Aus-Alt-Right

  2. Pingback: Suggested Reading for Analytical Philosophers: Wordsworth’s Prelude | Reaction Times

  3. This is a noble tribute to a wondrous and elegant text. It’s especially bracing in its recuperation of Wordsworth’s powerful ethical intuitions, which the modern academic world is of course loath to recognize. Wordsworth gives contemporary professors fits: they want to celebrate his view of nature as a premonitory flowering of contemporary eco-consciousness, only to bump into episodes like the stolen boat, in which their would-be flower child highlights nature’s role in fostering moral propriety, and thus identifies himself as one of the bad ones. That he’s still read and taught as much as he is testifies to the undeniable brilliance of his literary gift. Here’s a link to an essay about Wordsworth from a few years back that boldly states what contemporary professors know, but refuse to say:

    • Thank you. There are many details about which I shamefully omitted to comment, such as the “mooring place” where the boyish William Wordsworth returns the pilfered skiff. How much meaning is instinct in that phrase – mooring place? And then there is the premonitory addendum to Eliot’s Wasteland, answering in advance the question what caused the catastrophic tilt into moral desertism. “Blank desertion,” in Wordsworth’s analysis, is caused by sin, even by the peccadilloes, which in their sum make the greater peccati so much easier. It is a pity that Eliot never properly appreciated Wordsworth.

      I recalled having read the Andrew Klavan article after a few paragraphs. I even believe that I read one or two of Klavan’s novels, which although they are thrillers, belonging to commercial fiction, have a strong normative (un-PC) moral structure. In one of them, whose title escapes me, a character obviously based on William Shatner, and whom everyone else in the story despises as a washed-up TV actor and eccentric, succeeds in thwarting a terrorist attack in New York City. The attack is abetted by a character who is probably based on the late Edward Said (whose surname is not pronounced the way it is spelled but ought to be) or perhaps on the equally, but belatedly late Ihab Hassan.

      Once it could be said
      That Ed Said was dead
      While Ihab Hassan
      Did petulantly linger on.
      In the much-awaited sequel
      The two of them prove equal
      But the worms are only cheatingly fed!

  4. The novel you’re thinking of is “Empire of Lies.” It has–like a novel you recommended on another blog, “The Shadow of the Prodigy”–a canny explication of how academic postmodernism could be easily coopted by any number of violent anti-liberal schemes.


Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.