Posts Tagged ‘Lyrical ballads’

“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.

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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.