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View Full Version : I just want to write, Chapterl 2



Olly Buckle
October 31st, 2012, 07:49 PM
I am starting with, “There was a boy”, by William Wordsworth.

There was a Boy; ye knew him well, ye cliffs
And islands of Winander! many a time,
At evening, when the earliest stars began
To move along the edges of the hills,
Rising or setting, would he stand alone,
Beneath the trees, or by the glimmering lake;
And there, with fingers interwoven, both hands
Pressed closely palm to palm and to his mouth
Uplifted, he, as through an instrument,
Blew mimic hootings to the silent owls
That they might answer him.—And they would shout
Across the watery vale, and shout again,
Responsive to his call,—with quivering peals,
And long halloos, and screams, and echoes loud
Redoubled and redoubled; concourse wild
Of jocund din! And, when there came a pause
Of silence such as baffled his best skill:
Then, sometimes, in that silence, while he hung
Listening, a gentle shock of mild surprise
Has carried far into his heart the voice
Of mountain-torrents; or the visible scene
Would enter unawares into his mind
With all its solemn imagery, its rocks,
Its woods, and that uncertain heaven received
Into the bosom of the steady lake.

This boy was taken from his mates, and died
In childhood, ere he was full twelve years old.
Pre-eminent in beauty is the vale
Where he was born and bred: the churchyard hangs
Upon a slope above the village-school;
And through that churchyard when my way has led
On summer-evenings, I believe that
A long half-hour together I have stood there
Mute—looking at the grave in which he lies!

Most books about poetry seem to give you principles, then give you poems to apply them to. The author picks their favourite poems, but takes away the title and author so you won’t be influenced. ‘Doh!’ as Homer might say, they won’t give you the rubbish will they? I have gone the other way, I have my reasons. In case anyone is gearing up for an argument that doesn’t mean I think that was rubbish by the way :).

It’s that I want to start with the poetry, that is what it is all about after all. The breaking it down and analysing it means nothing without the poem. Not only that, the constituent parts it can be broken down into are not the whole. I might describe a flower in terms of calyx, pistil, stamens, petals, honey guides, etc., or I might put it in a vase in a Shinto shrine, and, through it, perceive the completeness of being. Both approaches improve understanding, but understanding of different types, these may complement each other, but poetry is, in some ways, the art of describing the indescribable, the second type of understanding is often appropriate to that, so whole poem first.

I am starting off with a poem by Wordsworth partly because he is a famous poet, not because he is a favourite of mine, he isn’t, he uses too much ‘poetic’ language for me and a lot of it seems pretentious and over done.

“ye knew him well, ye cliffs
And islands of Winander.”

What is wrong with ‘you’ or ‘Windermere’; or,

“And long halloos, and screams, and echoes loud
Redoubled and redoubled; concourse wild
Of jocund din”

What species of Owl are these that sound like a party going on? And where, other than in poems like this, are lakes ‘steady’ and have a ‘bosom’?

Wordsworth may be famous, but he was not perfect, he was a big fan of Mrs. Felicia Hemans. She is not very well known nowadays, deservedly so. Coming from Boston, in America, she wrote long poems about a Europe she had never seen, her best known is probably the one Noel Coward parodied,

The stately Homes of England,
How beautiful they stand!
Amidst their tall ancestral trees,
O'er all the pleasant land.
The deer across their greensward bound
Thro' shade and sunny gleam,
And the swan glides past them with the sound
Of some rejoicing stream.

The merry Homes of England!
Around their hearths by night,
What gladsome looks of household love
Meet in the ruddy light! ...

That is not the parody by the way, ‘the ruddy light’ indeed! The fourth verse starts,

The cottage homes of England
By thousands on her plains

Well, we have Sailsbury plain, but it doesn’t quite equate to the Midwest; it goes on verse after verse, page after page like this. I think you get the message, we should take poetry as we find it, in some respects our judgement is as valid as Wordsworth’s.

The way I see it those who invite us to admire ‘Great Poets’ merely because they are renowned might almost as well invite us to reject poetry as ‘not for me’. On the other hand they didn’t get to be known as ‘Great Poets’ for no reason, and even if their poetry is not for us what they wrote, and how they wrote it, can be very interesting.

‘There was a boy’ was written in two parts, not only is there a dividing break after line 25, the following part starting,

‘This boy was taken from his mates and died’

was written at a later date.

A version of the poem, without that, was written first, probably about Wordsworth’s own, romanticised, boyhood. My first impression was it contains a lot of the self indulgence linguistically there is in Mrs Hemans’ work, though he does it much better than she. There are places where he gets it right for me though,

‘At evening, when the earliest stars began
To move along the edges of the hills,’

for example, well done simplicity appeals to me.

So let’s look at the latter part.

This boy was taken from his mates, and died
In childhood, ere he was full twelve years old.
Pre-eminent in beauty is the vale
Where he was born and bred: the churchyard hangs
Upon a slope above the village-school;
And through that churchyard when my way has led
On summer-evenings, I believe that there
A long half-hour together I have stood
Mute —looking at the grave in which he lies!

Firstly it is in iambic pentameters, five pairs of syllables to a line. You may remember that is supposed to have a natural conversational feel, and that an iamb was defined as an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one. Well, the natural, conversational feel is there alright, finding stressed syllables is a little more challenging. Read it,

This BOY was TAK en FROM his MATES and DIED

with lots of emphasis, and it makes it slightly ludicrous. The line has a quiet, light air to it, despite the nature of the content. Partly that is due to the non-poetic nature of the vocabulary, there are plenty of fancy synonyms for ‘boy’, ‘taken’, ‘mates’ and ‘died’, whose temptation he has resisted. Look at the last line and the last five words, it’s not ‘where in he lies’ but ‘in which he lies’, the ‘ordinary’ language is maintained to the end, in fact the ‘ere he was full’ of the second line is the only bit of ‘poetic language’ in this part of the poem.

The metre is adopted from Shakespeare and Milton, the great writers of the past who used iambic pentameters, but the rhythm is something new, there are almost no heavily stressed syllables there, it’s unstressed and lightly stressed. That also adds to the ‘quiet, light air’, and like a literal ‘light air’ it barely seems to move without gossamer and thistledown trails to show the way. Like the enjambments, the places where the meaning carries past the end of the line.
“A long half-hour together I have stood there
Mute ... “
Or
“ ... the churchyard hangs
Upon a slope above the village-school”
Subtleties like this also help create the ‘voice’, a better word than ‘feel’ in some ways.

The way the ideas are expressed is with simple words in clear and simple sentences, there are no sub-clauses or resonating phrases. What could be more appropriate for a child’s grave in a country churchyard? That made me wonder about the first part of the poem, and reconsider, if it is not all like that then what is is obviously no accident.

Wordsworth was born in 1770, before his time the Lake District, where this poem is based, and where he lived the latter part of his life, was an especially wild area, with cliffs, mountains and lakes to get in the way of travellers, few or no roads and inhabited by outcasts and criminals it was an uncivilised place people avoided and took long detours to go around.

That was the general view civilisation had of nature up ‘til then, Chaucer’s pilgrims were in touch with nature to some degree, they liked the Spring, but they were travelling between small lights of culture in a dark wilderness, and look at this from Paradise lost,
“Rocks, Caves, Lakes, Fens, Bogs, and shades of death”
That’s eight full stresses in a row!

Wordsworth and his colleagues were at the forefront of a new romantic movement which changed the perception of nature, from something to be abhorred as untamed to something to be idealised. The Garden (of Eden) was seen as something tamed and cultivated, separate from ‘The waste’ as common land was called. Even in actual gardening that changed and the wild, chocolate box, cottage garden was recognised by the end of the century when at the beginning all had been formality

He and Mrs. H. were not alone in using ‘poetic’ language, such language was the fashion at the time. France had its revolution going on, the Jacobites were the boys for the grimly practical, In England it was the King’s party, the cavaliers, the Scarlet Pimpernel. Propaganda of the worst sort of course, but it set a mood for the age that suited all that floweriness.

Words worth was as much a child of his time as am I, or, say, Ginsberg, calling his epic “Howl” and starting “I saw ... “. Bearing this in mind I went back over the first part and re-read, I saw how he used it and where he used it, and to what effect he used it. It is deliberate, the quietness and enjambments are still there when I look,
Then, sometimes, in that silence, while he hung
Listening, a gentle shock of mild surprise
Has carried far into his heart the voice
Of mountain-torrents;

It is still not a number one favourite, first impressions count and I am a man of my own age, but respect where it is due, this quiet voice has it’s place and uses, it serves retrospection and perception well, not just the child’s grave and the quiet churchyard.