Commonplace Book: June 2005 Archives

For those interested in what exactly contemplation is or does, you could have no better description than this passage from the first book of The Prelude.

from The Prelude
William Wordsworth

Content and not unwilling now to give
A respite to this passion, I paced on
With brisk and eager steps; and came, at length,
To a green shady place, where down I sate
Beneath a tree, slackening my thoughts by choice
And settling into gentler happiness.
'Twas autumn, and a clear and placid day,
With warmth, as much as needed, from a sun
Two hours declined towards the west; a day
With silver clouds, and sunshine on the grass,
And in the sheltered and the sheltering grove
A perfect stillness. Many were the thoughts
Encouraged and dismissed, till choice was made
Of a known Vale, whither my feet should turn,
Nor rest till they had reached the very door
Of the one cottage which methought I saw.
No picture of mere memory ever looked
So fair; and while upon the fancied scene
I gazed with growing love, a higher power
Than Fancy gave assurance of some work
Of glory there forthwith to be begun,
Perhaps too there performed. Thus long I mused,
Nor e'er lost sight of what I mused upon,
Save when, amid the stately grove of oaks,
Now here, now there, an acorn, from its cup
Dislodged, through sere leaves rustled, or at once
To the bare earth dropped with a startling sound.

We have the poet clearing his mind to focus it, and then focusing it upon such things that the imagination leaves off and

"a higher power
Than Fancy gave assurance of some work
Of glory there forthwith to be begun,
Perhaps too there performed."

This becomes the perfect metaphor for the entry into the state of acquired contemplation. One exercises the imaginative faculty and the will in the course of meditation, until suddenly meditation leaves off and a conversation begins. We start to speak with God almost unknowingly. He has entered quietly through the door we have left open by asking His presence. He sits down and when we are focused enough, we see Him and begin to treat Him as the honored guest He is.

For Wordsworth (and for St. John of the Cross, and though I'm less well versed, for St. Francis of Assisi, as well) nature gave entry into this place. Nature is not the end, but it is in reading the book of nature and accepting its welcome that some can enter the realm of meditation and contemplation.

Add to that vision this:

From that soft couch I rose not, till the sun
Had almost touched the horizon; casting then
A backward glance upon the curling cloud
Of city smoke, by distance ruralised;
Keen as a Truant or a Fugitive,
But as a Pilgrim resolute, I took,
Even with the chance equipment of that hour,
The road that pointed toward the chosen Vale.
It was a splendid evening, and my soul
Once more made trial of her strength, nor lacked
Aeolian visitations; but the harp
Was soon defrauded, and the banded host
Of harmony dispersed in straggling sounds,
And lastly utter silence! "Be it so;
Why think of anything but present good?" 100
So, like a home-bound labourer, I pursued
My way beneath the mellowing sun, that shed
Mild influence; nor left in me one wish
Again to bend the Sabbath of that time
To a servile yoke. What need of many words?

Makes a pretty convincing picture of some of the solace captured in contemplation and some of the trial of emerging from it. And then "of harmony dispersed in straggling sounds,/ and lastly utter silence!" This seems to speak of the time that we leave the consolation of acquired contemplation and move into the realm of infused contemplation and spiritual dryness where we no longer "feel" the consolations and yet we are not deprived of peace. We come to undersand "What need of many words?"

God speaks in so many places. When I first read these words, I had no idea of their weight or their meaning. Now I do, although I am not so close as I would like to be to the experience. I understand more fully what Wordsworth speaks of, and it sounds as if he were a "natural mystic" something akin to an Emerson--which to be speaks profoundly of God's grace and His constant reaching out to us to correct our error and lead us to Him.

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A Prediction from Wordsworth


From one of the great long poems of modern times by a poet for whom I cared little in my college years, but whose attraction grows with each passing year. I am not at the place described below yet, not quite yet dug out from the avalanche that consumes me, however, soon. . .

from The Prelude "Book First--Introduction--Childhood and School-time"
William Wordsworth

OH there is blessing in this gentle breeze,
A visitant that while it fans my cheek
Doth seem half-conscious of the joy it brings
From the green fields, and from yon azure sky.
Whate'er its mission, the soft breeze can come
To none more grateful than to me; escaped
From the vast city, where I long had pined
A discontented sojourner: now free,
Free as a bird to settle where I will.
What dwelling shall receive me? in what vale
Shall be my harbour? underneath what grove
Shall I take up my home? and what clear stream
Shall with its murmur lull me into rest?
The earth is all before me. With a heart
Joyous, nor scared at its own liberty,
I look about; and should the chosen guide
Be nothing better than a wandering cloud,
I cannot miss my way. I breathe again!

It is times like what I am enduring now that I turn to God and to poetry to be sustained. Nothing earthly lasts forever and so this too shall pass. And in this particular instance, it is rather like a kidney stone, once passed it will not be missed.

The Prelude is a poem some 200 pages in length. So far as I know it is the only book-length autobiography in poetry. (One could make arguments for La Vita Nuova but I think that is a different category of things.) When I had to read this in college I thought I would die. I didn't care for Wordworth--to my mind the blandest of the Romantic Poets. But the riches of his thought and poetry become all the more clear as time passes. Wordsworth, unlike Keats, Byron, and Shelley (Coleridge falls into a different class) is not a poet for youth. He is a poet for maturity. The attractions of his poetry are likely to be lost on those who rush from day to day crowding in all that can be done in a day. He is a poet of leisurely, deep thought--a poet who rewards close reading and careful attention. One might wish to start with shorter lyrics--"Tintern Abbey" "Ode on the Intimations of Immortality Recollected from Early Childhood," "Daffodils," and the Lucy poems. But eventually The Prelude looms, like Browning's The Ring and the Book a magnificent epic. Whereas the latter is a chronicle of another life, the former is the chronicle of the poet's life commited to poetry and thus all the stronger a representation of the man.

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John Adams to Abigail Adams, Letter of 3 July 1776

But the day is past. The second day of July, 1776, will be memorable epocha in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations, as the great Anniversary Festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the day of deliverance by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp, shews, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires and illuminations, from one end of the continent to the other, from this time forward forever.

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"Being persuaded that there can be but one true religion taught by Christ, and that the R C is that religion, I conceive it to be my duty to have my grandchildren brought up in it. I feel no ill will or illiberal prejudices against the sectarians which have abandon that faith; if their lives be conformable to the duties and morals prescribed by the Gospel, I have the charity to hope and believe they will be rewarded with eternal happiness, though they may entertain erroneous doctrines in point of faith; the great number in every religion not having the leisure or means to investigate the truth of the doctrines they have been taught, must rest their religious faith on their instructors, and therefore the great body of the people may conscientiously believe that they hold the true faith; but they who, from liberal education, from understanding, from books, not written by one party only, and from leisure, have the means of examining into the truth of the doctrines they have been taught as orthodox, are in my opinion bound to make the examination, nor suffer early instructions and impressions or habits or prejudices to operate against the conviction of what is right. Upon conviction only a change of religion is desirable; on a concern so seriously interesting to all of us no worldly motives should sway our conduct." -- letter to Harriet Chew Carroll, 29 August 1816 (Harriet, or "Hettie," was the daughter-in-law of Charles Carroll)

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About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Commonplace Book category from June 2005.

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