by Sarah Coley, The Reader magazine’s deputy editor.
If you want the company of a great soul, read The Prelude slowly and eagerly, as if for the main news of the day. Now I come to think of it, I’d like the news better and trust the world more if the paragraph or newscaster began, ‘There is a blessing in this gentle breeze’. ‘There is…’ Wordsworth’s literalism does you good even when you can’t believe it.
Wordsworth’s autobiographical poem, The Prelude is rambling, ramshackle and unevenly sublime. He knows very well what matters to him but he cannot predict its presence nor summon it. In a very real sense The Prelude is about the actual power of memory – not the associative recall that goes, ‘Ah, I know this happened because I was listening to the Shipping News at the time, and you were wearing yellow…’, and not the memory that holds onto the past with an unbroken tenacity. The kind of memory that Wordsworth wants is the supplanting and powerful kind that knocks you off your feet with the unchanged impact of the original experience. This memory depends upon a kind of forgetfulness – as if you had to burn off the thoughts you’ve saved (the thoughts that protect you) in order to get back to experience itself. So he writes of his ‘spots of time’:
Oh! mystery of Man, from what a depth
Proceed thy honours! I am lost, but see
In simple childhood something of the base
On which thy greatness stands, but this I feel
That from thyself it is that thou must give,
Else never canst receive. The days gone by
Come back upon me from the dawn almost
Of life: the hiding-places of my power
Seem open; I approach, and then they close;
I see by glimpses now; when age comes on,
May scarcely see at all, and I would give,
While yet we may, as far as words can give,
A substance and a life to what I feel:
I would enshrine the spirit of the past
For future restoration.
It’s as if the thought itself – the thing beyond recall – almost pushes the mind that thinks it out of the way in order to be thought, ‘I am lost, but see…’ You cannot hold onto the world of sense if you’re to search this mystery from the depths. I love how the senses tumble from sight to feeling: I am lost but see… but this I feel… It sounds almost like Bible-talk when his realisation gathers impetus, ‘But this I feel, / That from thyself it is that thou must give, / Else never canst receive’.
If you’ve just finished reading Howard Jacobson in The Reader 29 and are sharing his near-rebellion against the safe and modern atheism, look to Wordsworth for guidance and be persuaded (almost) that there is a mystery amongst us. Wordsworth is great because he believes you can find almost unspeakably profound thoughts and feelings in ordinary places, with ordinary lives. The ‘future restoration’ that he speaks of at the end means not only the recovery of the memory (in the words of the song, ‘Ah yes, I remember it well’) but the greater fact – the restoration (or even creation) of a self able to feel it. And that in a nutshell is what Jane’s Get Into Reading is all about.