Beauty and Fear in William Wordsworth’s Early Life

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      In The Prelude, ‘the finest fruit of Wordsworth’s great creative period’, we have the faithful record of the poet’s inner beauty of life and emotional experiences enabling us to have a glimpse of the innermost recesses of his soul. De Quincey gave a very significant title for a passage selected from The Prelude for publication in The Friend: “Growth of genius from the influence of natural objects on the imagination in boyhood and early youth”. And in The Prelude Wordsworth offers us a record of his mental and spiritual growth— ‘growth of genius from the influence of natural objects on the imagination...’ And the record starts from his very infant days when the poet ‘held mute dialogues with his mother’s heart’. ‘It is the full intense life which he lived through his senses as a child and youth that he tries to recapture and record’. Even as a child of five the poet learnt to love the bright and blue Derwent flowing smoothly by side of their terrace walk as ‘a tempting playmate’. As a child the poet came in close contact with nature with all her lovely and sublime sights and sounds, first at Cockermouth, his birth place and subsequently at Hawkshead in the valley of Esthwaite.

Benign Influence of Nature on Child’s Mind

      So in Books I and II, we get an authentic record of Wordsworth’s childhood and boyhood experiences through various boyish sports and pastimes amid the beautiful or awe-inspiring natural surroundings. The benign influence of nature to shape and mold his character and poetic personality had already started:

Fair seed, time had my soul, and I grew up
Fostered alike by beauty and by fear.

      And in these two books, we are lucky to get an unforgettable recreation of his childhood’s involvement in all the exciting sports and pastimes and the joys and fears which were their consequence.

How Nature affected her Discipline

      Let us now see how Nature affected her discipline on the growing boy Wordsworth by providing occasions to evoke the emotions of pleasure and fear. We shall also see that Nature taught him, through experience, three degrees of emotion: ‘unmixed delight, troubled pleasure and pure fright’.

Delightful Experiences

      As regards unmixed delight we find the boy of five enjoying long spells of bathing and basking:

In a small mill-race severed from his stream,
Made one long bathing of a summer’s day;
Basked in the sun, and plunged and basked again
Alternate, all a summer’s day,

      Sometimes he would run about in the sandy fields ‘leaping through flowery graves of yellow rag-wort’. At some other time we find him standing alone under the blue vault of the sky amidst enchanting rocks and hills aglow with the radiant glory of the sun. At such times the boy felt himself to be Red Indian boy who from his mother’s hut:

Had run abroad in Wantonner’s, to sport
A naked savage, in the thunder shower.

      Then the frosty season was perhaps the happiest time for the poet; it was a happy-time for all, but for the poet:

It was a time of rapture.

      The most delightful experience recalled by the poet is the exciting game of skating in the company of other young friends. The ringing sounds of their moving skates would be echoed by the leafless trees and the surrounding hills and the poet:

.....Wheeled about,
Proud and exulting like an untired, horse
That cares not for his home.

      But we also find that from the noise and excitement of even such collective games the boy Wordsworth sometimes tore him away from his companions to chase away the fleeting reflection of a star before him or stand watching the earth and rocks turning round and round when they had stopped their playful whirling movements on the smooth surface of the ice.

Significance of ‘Fear’

      As regards the experience of pure fright or troubled pleasure we have unique passages from the sensitive pen of the poet, passages probably unsurpassed in English literature. But the word ‘fear’ should not be taken in its usual literary sense. Here ‘fear’ is always associated with a feeling of awe and wonder. Wordsworth is not advocating either sensationalism or brutality as an aid to spiritual development. He is thinking rather of the element of fear that may exist in such emotions as awe, bewilderment, wonder and possibly, love.

Discipline of Pain or Fear

      The bird-nesting episode nicely illustrates the experience of pleasure mixed with fright. The poet and his companions used to move about just like robbers in quest of high places to rob birds nests of their eggs. And sometimes he hung alone above the nest of a raven at a high altitude in a very precarious position and then his delight and excitement was much tempered by a sense of great awe of peril:

While on the perilous ridge I hung alone,
With what strange utterance did the loud, dry wind
Blow through my ear! the sky seemed not sky
Of earth—and with what motion moved the cloud!

      In the bird-snaring episode the poet has nicely described his first experience of pure fright. During their night wanderings sometimes a strong desire overpowered his better reason and he would catch hold of a bird which happened to be trapped in the snare of some other person and then came Nature’s severer intervention:

.....and when the deed was done
I heard among the solitary hills
Low breathings coming after me, and sounds
Of undistinguishable motion, steps
Almost as silent as the turf they trod.

      Then we get the superb stolen ‘boat episode’, the best illustration of Nature’s ‘impressive discipline of fear’. This is one of the most celebrated passages from the sensitive pen of the high priest of nature:

It was an act of stealth
And troubled pleasure.

      When the stolen boat started moving over the smooth lake, there came echoing sounds, rather sounds of warning, from the mountain sides. After some time, to his great dismay, he found a huge and black peak rearing its head from behind the uneven range of hills. To the poet it seemed to be an aweful and a strange living being and:

I struck, and struck again,
And growing still in stature the given shape
Towered up between me and the stars and still,
For so it seemed, with purpose of its own
Arid, measured motion like a living thing,
Strode after me.

      And afterward, for a long period, the poet’s mind was haunted during the day as well as at night by huge and powerful forms and shapes whose mode of life seemed mysterious and beyond the knowledge of human beings. All these illustrate how Nature’s impressive discipline of fear has also been molding his personality since the poets childhood clays.

Influence of David Hartley and Associationism

      As regards the discipline of pain and fear, Wordsworth might have been influenced to some extent by the eighteenth-century philosopher David Hartley and his associationism. Hartley and other empiricist philosophers laid great stress on the early background and environment and expressed the view that the character of a man develops during the childhood and youth as a direct result of his physical experiences and the feelings of pleasure and pain from such experiences. Whatever may be the case Wordsworth is a poet first and it seems he might have used associationism to transcend the associationists. To the poet wonder is always associated with fear; and in The Prelude, we often find fear associated with sublime forms. And if these forms or images are grand and beautiful enough they somehow ennoble the emotions they evoke. So towards the end of Book I of The Prelude, we get these illuminating lines that clearly tell us how the poet’s personality was shaped and molded by Nature’s impressive discipline of pain and pleasure:

By the impressive discipline of fear,
By pleasure and repeated happiness,
So frequently repeated, and by force
Of obscure feelings representative
Of things forgotten; these same scenes so bright,
So beautiful, so majestic in themselves,
Though yet the day was distant, did become
Habitually dear, and. all their forms
And changeful colours by invisible links
Were fastened to the affections.
(Book I - 602-12)

University Questions

1. “Fair seed-time had my soul, and I grew up! Fostered alike by beauty and fear.” What do you understand by the value of ‘fear’ in Wordsworth’s life?
2. What is the role played by ‘fear’ and ‘beauty’ in Wordsworth’s The Prelude Books I and II?

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