“There Was a Boy” by William Wordsworth

Some time ago, deciding that I needed to write more about poetry in this blog (though not quite certain how to go about it), I started a series that I called, rather foolishly, “Poem of the Month”. The intentions were good: I really had meant to write about a poem each month. However, since that first Poem of the Month back in April, I have been most remiss on the matter. I suppose this blog is too freewheeling in nature – I tend to write about whatever takes my fancy, really – for any regular series such as this to be viable. However, I don’t want to give up on the idea altogether. So “The Poem of the Month” continues – as long as it is understood that it does not imply that I’ll be writing about a poem every month.

***

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 there
A long half-hour together I have stood
Mute—looking at the grave in which he lies!

Wordsworth’s blank verse is based on underlying iambic pentameters, as is the blank verse of the two other undisputed masters of the form in English – Shakespeare and Milton. But Wordsworth sounds very unlike either: his tone is almost invariably conversational. While Shakespeare’s blank verse has an irresistible dramatic impulse (hardly surprising, given that it occurs in his dramas); and while Milton’s blank verse is grand and sonorous; Wordsworth’s blank verse seems to give the impression that he is sitting next to us, not orating grandly, but conversing – conversing in a voice that is gentle, quiet, but firm. This conversational effect is achieved partly through his avoidance of words not generally used in everyday speech (although when he does from time to time break this rule and introduces words such as “vicissitude” or “diurnal”, the effect can be electric); and also through a simulation of the kind of thing we tend to do in conversation – drifting off from one subject to another, parenthetical comments leading on to other matters so that the original subject is forgotten, and so on.

Consider, for instance, the sonnet “Surprised by Joy”, Wordsworth’s infinitely touching lament for his dead daughter. The opening line strikingly tells us that he has come across an unexpected joy, but almost as soon as he starts to tell us about this, another thought – that his daughter, with whom he had instinctively wished to share this joy, is no longer there – overtakes it. The rest of the sonnet is about his loss: whatever joy it was that is referred to in the first line is now seemingly forgotten. Only seemingly, of course: a poem, especially a poem as tightly knit as a sonnet must be, cannot be as rambling as our conversation often is. But in simulating this rambling that is typical of conversation, Wordsworth gives us the impression of conversation. And he also, vitally, I think, uses this conversational mode to leave certain things unsaid. He leaves unsaid what this “joy” is that is mentioned in the opening line; however, the word “joy”, so strikingly introduced, resonates in our mind even as we go on to read of the most inconsolable grief. And the impression is conveyed of a certain joy that is present even in the midst of heartbreak – a joy that cannot be spoken about directly because our language is not designed to communicate directly matters so intangible.

Much of greatest poetry does seem to me to communicate various matters that language, as commonly used, is not designed to communicate. The poet uses any feature of language he can – sounds, sonorities, syntax, and rhythm; imagery and symbolism; and so on – to communicate these various matters. Wordsworth adds to this armoury things that are mentioned as if in passing before being seemingly forgotten, but allowing these passing references to colour the rest in the reader’s mind.

This particular poem, “There Was a Boy”, appeared in the 1798 edition of Lyrical Ballads, and later, in an expanded form (the form given above), in the 1805 edition. It was later incorporated into the posthumously published 1850 text of The Prelude (V, 364, et seq.) but it seems to me more effective as a standalone fragment, purely because its fragmentary nature itself communicates something important. The tone, as so often with Wordsworth, is conversational, and the opening line gives the impression that we are coming in in the middle of a conversation, and that much has already been said to which we have not been privy.

There was a boy…

It’s almost as if Wordsworth is giving a specific example of a general principle. This general principle he has presumably been discussing earlier, but that was before we had started listening, and so, we don’t know what it is. We are only allowed to hear this specific example, of this boy who had once been (and who presumably is no more), and from this specific example, we must try to infer as best we can the general principle that it illustrates.

Immediately after these first four words, Wordsworth seems to drift off for a while, addressing not us, but nature itself:

…. ye knew him well, ye cliffs
And islands of Winander!

And then, in the next few lines, Wordsworth describes how this boy, in the evening, would mimic the hooting of the owls, encouraging them to answer him. Whatever the general principle was that Wordsworth might have been talking about before the poem starts, it is the specific that he details, lingering lovingly on each specific point. The vocabulary used is almost without exception the vocabulary we would use in everyday conversation, with the occasional word thrown in, such as “interwoven”, reminding us that, for all its everyday speech, this is, after all, a poem. No, not “thrown in”: carefully placed. But the conversational tone gives the impression of its just being “thrown in”.

The word “interwoven” seems important to me. It is used here to describe the boy’s fingers as he makes the sound of the owls, but it has, I think, other associations. It reminds me of the similar word “interfused”, that Wordsworth used so unforgettably in the “Tintern Abbey” poem, written at roughly the same time as this one:

…And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused…

The boy, in mimicking the sound of nature, becomes interwoven with it; and nature itself seems interwoven with something else. This sense of interweaving becomes clearer in the following lines; for once the noise of the birds dies down, there follows “a silence that baffles his best skill”. “Baffle” of course has multiple meanings – to frustrate; to impede progress; and various other shades of meaning in between. All of these must be considered. The boy is “baffled” – he is perplexed by this silence; and at the same time, this silence impedes his skill in mimicking the owls, for it contains within it something that is greater – something, perhaps, “more deeply interfused”. For it isn’t complete silence. As the boy listens to this silence, he perceives in it “with a gentle shock of mild surprise … the voice of the mountain torrents”. And, moving from the aural to the visual, the “visible scene would enter unawares into his mind”. Nature itself invades the boy’s being, with “all its solemn imagery”. But if Nature itself is an image of something else, Wordsworth is again silent on what it is an image of.

The “voice of the mountain torrents” has now entered into the “heart” of the boy; and now, the “visible scene” is received into the bosom … not of the boy, as may be expected, but of the “steady lake”:

…. received
Into the bosom of the steady lake.

The boy is at this stage so much part of the Nature around him, there is no reason to distinguish any more between them.

But what is received into the bosom of the steady lake is startling – so startling, indeed, that it seems to me to lie at the very heart of this poem:

…and that uncertain heaven received
Into the bosom of the steady lake.

“Uncertain heaven”. What does Wordsworth mean by this? That we are uncertain whether or not the scene described really is heaven? Or that we know this to be heaven, but are uncertain about the nature of what we experience here? This ambiguity lies at the very heart of this remarkable poem, but Wordsworth, having dropped his hints, moves on. As we generally tend to do in conversation.

In many ways, this poem seems to me a sort of expanded sonnet. In a regular sonnet, the last six lines tend to give us a somewhat different perspective on what we had read in the first eight: we get something similar here – the last, shorter section of the poem giving us a different perspective on what we have read so far. Wordsworth had shown us the boy when he had been alive; but, as the past tense used in the opening line had told us, that boy is no more. And he is no more not because he has grown up and become an adult, but because he is dead. He died, Wordsworth tells us quite directly, before his twelfth birthday, and is buried in a churchyard that “hangs” on a slope above the village school. The verb used here is interesting, as it has been used strikingly in the earlier section in the poem:

Then, sometimes, in that silence, while he hung
Listening…

He had “hung” listening to the silence, and had allowed himself to become part of the Nature that was around him. Now, he “hangs” again, in death; and in death, as in life, he is become a part of, and at one with, Nature, with the “rocks and stones and trees”.

The last four lines are almost prosaic: these lines could very easily be used in conversation. But what we have read so far imparts to these lines a tremendous depth of feeling:

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!

So great is the discrepancy here between the everyday nature of these words and the intensity of feeling communicated by them, it is hard to imagine anything more laconic and understated. And more Wordsworth will not say – presumably because more cannot be said: language is after all limited in what it can directly express. Beyond what Wordsworth has already said, he is “mute”, as mute as he is by the boy’s grave. But enough has been said to allow us a glimpse of something – something that the poet may have been talking about before we joined his conversation.

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18 responses to this post.

  1. Conversational tone, yes. Reminds me of Robert Frost, or perhaps reading Wordsworth reminded Frost to be Robert Frost.

    Don’t bind yourself to Poem of the Month. Call it rather Poem for Today and then the poem is for whatever day it may happen to be.

    Reply

    • Thanks for that. I would certainly like to write more about poems, although, as I say, I am not too sure how best to write about them. I always feel rather sad that poetry is so little read: one sometimes gets the impression that there is nothing further to literature than novels. I suppose i can only write about poems the way I see them, and hope some dialogue develops as a consequence!

      Wordsworth was one of those towering figures whom no subsequent poet in the English language could ignore. His influence, i am sure, is enormous.

      Reply

      • He had significant impact on nineteenth-century Australian poetry, if the books I’ve read are a reliable indication. Milton as well.

        That break between “stood” and “mute” is wonderful punctuation. The period of incapability comes before before the word that circumscribes it.

      • That enjambment is perfectly judged, isn’t it? “Stood” is a strong syllable, and its pacing at the end of the line gives us pause. But the next line starts with an even stronger monosyllables, “mute”, and this is followed immediately with a caesura, slating the word and giving t aximum force. Wonderful.

  2. Posted by Jeff on July 20, 2014 at 11:08 pm

    The American professor Willard Spiegelman, in a lecture for the Teaching Company, took “‘There Was a Boy” and then, in turn, Frost’s “The Most of It”, Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Moose”, and John Hollander’s “For Elizabeth Bishop”, and showed how the later poets (through these later poems) were responding to the predecessor poems, “echoing” and reinterpreting them in various ways. He credits Hollander with coining the phrase “the figure of echo” and I suppose he follows a trail laid by a Hollander essay in putting these poems together to make that point. Interesting, huh, to think of these poets in artistic dialogue with WW and one another?

    Reply

    • Hello Jeff, of the three poems you mention, I had only known “The Moose” by Elizabeth Bishop. I re-read that, but I must admit I couldn’t see the connection with Wordsworth’s poem. The poem by Frost – yes, I can see how similar themes may be found. The John Hollander poem I couldn’t find on the net.

      I suppose one shouldn’t be surprised by influence. Anyone who takes poetry seriously will be aware of Wordsworth’s body of work, and are likely, indeed, to have absorbed his poetic sensibiiity. So their own poetry comes from their selves – but their own selves have already absorbed so many things – especially the works of their predecessors! It is interesting, though, to trace patterns of thought in the works of different poets.

      Reply

  3. I wonder whether George Alexander Aberle (aka Eden Ahbez) had this poem in mind when he wrote the opening line of the song “Nature Boy”: “There was a boy, A very strange enchanted boy etc.)

    Reply

    • Hello Shimona, I am afraid I’ll have to own up to my ignorance here: I had to look up Eden Ahbez and “Nature Boy”, and now I feel a bit embarrassed about not knowing about them!

      I suppose the opening line of Wordsworth’s poem is really a standard opening, but with “Once upon a time” omitted – (“Once upon a time there was a boy”).

      Reply

      • Posted by witwoud on July 24, 2014 at 10:47 pm

        Funny, it’s also how the ancient mariner starts his tale: ‘”There was a ship,” quoth he.’

        I suppose, as you say, it was a standard opening, although I wonder if Coleridge and Wordsworth would have added a ‘once’ at least — ‘There once was a boy/ship’ — had it not been for the metre.

        Goldsmith does something similar: ‘In Islington there was a man…’

      • And of course, The Ancient Mariner first appeared in the same collection as “There Was a Boy”. But Coleridge’s poem really is a ballad, of course, unlike Wordsworth’s. But as you say, the word “once” would have put the scanning out – both in Coleridge’s ballad form, and also in Wordsworth’s blank verse. Itsounds better without it in both cases, I think!

        The Goldsmith poem I don’t know. Actually, it strikes me that I don’t really know the poets who preceded Wordsworth and Coleridge a bitof Blake, some Burns (I grew up in Scotland after all) … and that’s it, really!

  4. Another fine reading, Himadri, following the close-reading style of the New Critics, which is how most common readers still respond to poetry I think, myself included. I really enjoy your poetry criticism perhaps especially because it reads like on the spot criticism and we can join in more readily than with a long novel.

    I’ve always thought of this boy as a sort of young hero for Wordsworth, an ordinary local boy now lost to the world but who communicated with the mysteries of Nature while he was here – though the experiences imputed to him during the ‘silences’ are I think (necessarily) Wordsworth’s own, imagined with a sympathetic sense of community with him.

    ‘that uncertain heaven’ I think refers back the turning stars beautifully described in the opening lines – which create an alert sense of edges and detail as the poem begins, but the phrase has the further possible resonances you mention. As I read the poem again this phrase was the most startling and memorable, and I think you are right to focus on it as the heart of the poem. It reminds me of another scene in The Prelude where Wordsworth listens to the flute player on the rocks and there is the same fleeting apprehension of what seems like paradise:

    then, the calm
    And dead still water lay upon my mind
    Even with a weight of pleasure, and the sky,
    Never before so beautiful, sank down
    Into my heart, and held me like a dream!

    Though Wordsworth’s was obviously an extraordinary intelligence, it’s interesting that he seems to be suggesting such experiences as he imagines for the boy are possible for everyone, though it takes a Wordsworth to evoke them.

    btw the particular use of ‘hang’ I recall was picked out by Wordsworth as an specific example of imaginative language in the Preface to the Ballads, though he used examples from Shakespeare and (I think) Milton.

    Reply

    • Hello Chris, you know – it’s strange that i must have read that poem … goodness knows how many times! – but I never thought of linking “uncertain heaven” back to the moving stars of those opening lines! Of course, that makes perfect sense.

      Wordsworth’s poetry in general – and “The Prelude” in particular – contains many passages where he communicates a sense of divinity not as something that is transcendent – i.e. something that transcends, and is, hence, outside the material world of nature – but is something that is immanent in nature itself. Of course, we identify this sort of thing now with “Romanticism”, but I do wonder where this came from: i don’t think there had been anything like this in earlier Western thought – at least, not that I’m aware of- although, from what little I know of Hinduism, such a conception of divinity was (and remains) a prominent feature in various strands of Hinduism. It is hardly surprising that the early translations from the Sanskrit made such an impact on so many of the early Romantic generations.

      After reading your comment above, I spent a couple of evenings reading through Wordsworth’s famous preface to the 1802 edition. (That preface requires a post for itself!) and maybe I missed it, but I couldn’t find any reference there to any particular use of the word “hang”.

      Thanks very much for your encouraging words: I do want to write more about poems: there is much more to literature, after all, than prose fiction!

      Reply

      • I found the correct preface here, which was to the poems of 1815:

        http://www.bartleby.com/39/38.html

        Regarding what is generally referred to as Wordsworth’s ‘pantheism’, the only precedent I can think of is the various examples of deus loci in ancient thought. It’s certainly a peculiar and almost wayward belief, especially given Wordsworth’s later professed Christianity. But then much in Wordsworth, despite his ‘everyday’ language, is in fact extremely peculiar and strange. (Out of interest, years ago I came across a book called “Inglorious Wordsworths” which investigated apparent transcendental experiences within Nature, especially those associated with adolescence. One conclusion I remember is that such experiences are more common than might be supposed.)

        I didn’t know the early translations of Sanskrit came about during this period – Coleridge, for example, I always think of in relation to German philosophy, and I don’t think there’s any mention in Keats’s letters. But then of course it must have been these new translations which were seen by Wordsworth’s near-contemporary Schopenhauer, known as a philosopher with a definite Eastern influence in his thought.

        Best,
        Chris

      • Thanks for the link. I haven’t read this one: I’ll have to find some time later this week to read it.

        As far as I know, the discovery of Sanskrit literature and thought made a huge impact on the German Romantics. Goethe was ecstatic about Kalidasa’s “Sakuntala”, and his “Prologue in the Theatre” at the start of “Faust” – in which the theatre director, actors, etc. discuss the play we are about to see – is more than a nodding glance at the similar “Prologue in the Theatre” at the start of “Sakuntala”. Schubert at the time of his death was planning an opera based on the Sakuntala story. Schopenhauer was devoted to the Upanishads. Wordsworth, like Coleridge, was well acquainted with Germanic thought, and with German Romanticism. I am not claiming, of course, that Wordsworth’s pantheism came to him from Hinduism via the Germans: it is far more likely. perhaps, that it was a strand already developing in Western Romanticism, and that what the German Romantic found in Sanskrit writings struck a particular chord. I’m sure there’s a doctoral thesis in all this somewhere…

        Cheers for now, Himadri

  5. Posted by alan on July 22, 2014 at 10:10 pm

    Given that Wordsworth could not have access to the interior mind of the boy in his poem, I did at first wonder if this was the author talking about the loss of his young self. However, that doesn’t make a lot of sense given the graveyard scene: “Mute, looking at the grave”.
    On the other hand, Wordsworth would have lived at a time of a lot of childhood death, so perhaps he is thinking: I was that kind of person. What if I had not survived to write an echo of it down, and, despite my ability with words, perhaps I am nevertheless somewhat mute for the task?

    Reply

    • I’ve often wondered whether the boy is indeed Wordsworth himself.Of course, as Chris points out above, the boy’s feelings, as described by Wordsworth in the poem, must have been Wordsworth’s own. But is Wordsworth imaginatively transferring his own feelings to the boy? Or is he describing himself in the 3rd person?

      Certainly, the boy’s death seems real enough. But could there be a case, I wonder, for seeing this death as a metaphor? Wordsworth often lamented, most famously in “Ode on the Intimations of Immortality”, that adulthood had robbed him of certain perceptions he has had as a child; that “the things which I have seen I now can see no more”. It is possible that Wordsworth is lamenting the death, the metaphorical death, of his own past self. Or even if the boy of this poem is indeed a separate and distinct person, his physical death is a sort of parallel to the metaphorical death of Wordsworth’s own childhood self.

      Reply

  6. Reblogged this on A Celebration of Reading and commented:
    I spent much of my education career with the Romantics. Wordsworth was the center of the study but remember, he wrote a lot of smarmy crap. Being the sixties I gravitated to William Blake but always maintained a special connection to John Keats. Have you read any of Blake’s longer poems recently?

    Reply

    • Certainly not recently. Indeed, I don’t think I’ve read even his shorter poems recently. I’ve never really felt very close to the poetry of Blake: I suppose i should revisit his work.

      Wordsworth has long been my favourite of the Romantic poets. Yes, he wrote much that was rubbish, but there’s enough of quality to fill up a good-sized volume.

      Keats is perhaps the finest of the later generation of Romantics. Shelley I used to like a lot: I still do, I suppose, but his airy idealism can be a bit wearing at times. Byron is amusing – but he did like putting on poses, didn’t he? But Keats is a bit special.

      Reply

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