No 1 - Spring 2001
A New Version of the Wordsworthian 'Boy'
"There was a boy" – there was indeed, and there still is: we know him from Wordsworth's Prelude (1805: lines 389-413; 1850: lines 364-88). The text was written in Germany in November/December 1798 and published as an independent poem in the 1800 edition of Lyrical Ballads, which already contained the information, added as a kind of epilogue, that the boy (a transformation of the manuscript's "I") died young (lines 414-22/ 389-97).
His after-life, springing into eminence with Coleridge's famous remark in a letter of 4 January, 1799 to Thomas Poole that he would recognise the style as Wordsworth's anywhere,(1) took a most fascinating – and hilarious – turn when Anthony Easthope, stopping to quote at line 407/382 with "Listening …" offered six versions of what might follow, concocted by himself.
These Easthopian versions illustrate (1) a "traditional reading" that places the experience and interpretation in a Christian framework; (2) a possible context of love and romance; (3) "a rendering in terms of a negative theology" in the vein of Eliot's The Waste Land; (4) a version that reflects "the void Mrs Moore in Chapter 14" of Forster's A Passage to India "feels is at the centre of human experience"; (5) a response of nausea inspired by Sartre's Roquentin; and (6) a version expressing – oriented by Wittgenstein and Heidegger, and in the vein, Easthope says, of Wallace Stevens or possibly of the early Charles Tomlinson – the "sense of otherness of the real".(2)
Teaching a seminar on Wordsworth in the summer of 1999, I made haste to acquaint my students with this gem of imaginative and eruditely as well as wittily creative criticism. It provoked what it probably was intended to provoke: thoughtful laughter. And in the spirit of the moment I offered a bottle of good French wine to anyone who would produce a further version of the boy's experience and reaction.
It took a long time, several weeks in fact, but then a group of five – three men and two women – came forward to claim the prize with the following dramatic, teasing and ribald, richly intertextual version, which gives the story a turn in which one could imagine, among others, Rochester, Swift and Henry Miller taking (to use Wordsworth's favourite rhetorical figure) no inconsiderable delight – as opposed, of course, to Wordsworth himself, who would presumably have been horrified and disgusted at this transmogrification of his tale. Yet I feel that this seventh version deserves to be disseminated too:
William Wordsworth: The Prelude (The Apocrypha)
The Boy of Winander
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 and 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 though 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 a lengthened pause
Of silence came and baffled his best skill,
Then one time in that silence while he hung
Listening, a gentle shock of mild surprise
Did carry far into his heart the sound
Of gasping, heavy breathing, giggling too,
And moaning, rustling of the twigs and leaves.
He stopped, he listened, looked around; and then
Walked to the solitary bush. And there
The gentle woodland dress lay, torn apart.
The harsh awareness of this twice unfelt
Sensation struck him, filled with awe his chest.
With trembling hand and innocent, the Boy
Reached out and pulled the barren twigs apart.
O friend! companion! welling spirit! twice
Ignoble was the sight he then beheld.
Betwixt the branches, on the dewy moss,
Nature unfolded there, before his eyes
The mountain torrents, with this visible scene
Which penetrated there his inner eye,
Unseen before, nor ever heard of; now
Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter yet. There was a rustic lad
And maid, her rounded and protruding breasts
Fluttering and dancing in the rhythm of that
So sprightly movement, as continuous as
The stars that shine above. With moisture they
Were glistening. Friend! they boy did not behold
This spectacle any longer; lo! he turned
His back and ran away. It gave to him
Thoughts that did truly lie too deep for tears,
Dim sadness – and blind thoughts he knew not, nor
Could ever name. As he was running fast,
He did not look, he tripped, and then he fell
Into the bosom of the steady lake.
Katharina Irnstorfer, Thomas Lederer, Kevin Mailepors, Iris Schmid,
The other members of the seminar were duly impressed, and I thought for five people one bottle was rather mean and so made it two.
I have long tried to encourage students to complement the analysis and interpretation of literature with attempts at writing of their own (in fact, the editors of The Poet's Voice have already once graciously accepted a product of this kind, written by the spiritus rector of this group of five together with another student some two years ago).(3) It does people a great deal of good and intensifies as well as enlivens their awareness of literature and helps to lend their studies a note of existential commitment.
To be sure, in the present case I had certain vague thoughts and notions, indeed rough outlines of my own as to how one might continue after "Listening"; but not in my wildest dreams (such is the innocence of old age!) were they anywhere near to what eventually emerged from the pen, or rather the keyboard, of these daring and, to wind up with another litotes, certainly not ungifted acolytes of the Muses.
As long as supplies last, a bottle, to be collected in Salzburg, is still the prize for successful further variations.
(1) The Collected Letters, ed. E. L. Griggs (Oxford. Oxford UP, 1956), Vol. I, p. 453.
(2) Anthony Easthope, Wordsworth Now and Then: Romanticism and Contemporary Culture (Buckingham and Philadelphia: Open UP, 1993), pp. 2-4.
(3) See Eve Stainer & Thomas Lederer: "Chloe's Answer" provoked by Matthew Prior's poem "A Better Answer: To Chloe Jealous", The Poet's Voice, 4.1 (Summer 1997), pp. 127-128. "The Making of 'Cloe's Answer'". Ibid.: pp. 128-9.
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