William Wordsworth

The Prelude, Book 11

Residence In France

FROM that time forth, Authority in France Put on a milder face; Terror had ceased, Yet everything was wanting that might give Courage to them who looked for good by light Of rational Experience, for the shoots And hopeful blossoms of a second spring: Yet, in me, confidence was unimpaired; The Senate's language, and the public acts And measures of the Government, though both Weak, and of heartless omen, had not power To daunt me; in the People was my trust: And, in the virtues which mine eyes had seen, I knew that wound external could not take Life from the young Republic; that new foes Would only follow, in the path of shame, Their brethren, and her triumphs be in the end Great, universal, irresistible. This intuition led me to confound One victory with another, higher far,-- Triumphs of unambitious peace at home, And noiseless fortitude. Beholding still Resistance strong as heretofore, I thought That what was in degree the same was likewise The same in quality,--that, as the worse Of the two spirits then at strife remained Untired, the better, surely, would preserve The heart that first had roused him. Youth maintains, In all conditions of society, Communion more direct and intimate With Nature,--hence, ofttimes, with reason too-- Than age or manhood, even. To Nature, then, Power had reverted: habit, custom, law, Had left an interregnum's open space For 'her' to move about in, uncontrolled. Hence could I see how Babel-like their task, Who, by the recent deluge stupified, With their whole souls went culling from the day Its petty promises, to build a tower For their own safety; laughed with my compeers At gravest heads, by enmity to France Distempered, till they found, in every blast Forced from the street-disturbing newsman's horn, For her great cause record or prophecy Of utter ruin. How might we believe That wisdom could, in any shape, come near Men clinging to delusions so insane? And thus, experience proving that no few Of our opinions had been just, we took Like credit to ourselves where less was due, And thought that other notions were as sound Yea, could not but be right, because we saw That foolish men opposed them. To a strain More animated I might here give way, And tell, since juvenile errors are my theme, What in those days, through Britain, was performed To turn 'all' judgments out of their right course; But this is passion over-near ourselves, Reality too close and too intense, And intermixed with something, in my mind, Of scorn and condemnation personal, That would profane the sanctity of verse. Our Shepherds, this say merely, at that time Acted, or seemed at least to act, like men Thirsting to make the guardian crook of law A tool of murder; they who ruled the State-- Though with such awful proof before their eyes That he, who would sow death, reaps death, or worse, And can reap nothing better--child-like longed To imitate, not wise enough to avoid; Or left (by mere timidity betrayed) The plain straight road, for one no better chosen Than if their wish had been to undermine Justice, and make an end of Liberty. But from these bitter truths I must return To my own history. It hath been told That I was led to take an eager part In arguments of civil polity, Abruptly, and indeed before my time: I had approached, like other youths, the shield Of human nature from the golden side, And would have fought, even to the death, to attest The quality of the metal which I saw. What there is best in individual man, Of wise in passion, and sublime in power, Benevolent in small societies, And great in large ones, I had oft revolved, Felt deeply, but not thoroughly understood By reason: nay, far from it; they were yet, As cause was given me afterwards to learn, Not proof against the injuries of the day; Lodged only at the sanctuary's door, Not safe within its bosom. Thus prepared, And with such general insight into evil, And of the bounds which sever it from good, As books and common intercourse with life Must needs have given--to the inexperienced mind, When the world travels in a beaten road, Guide faithful as is needed--I began To meditate with ardour on the rule And management of nations; what it is And ought to be; and strove to learn how far Their power or weakness, wealth or poverty, Their happiness or misery, depends Upon their laws, and fashion of the State. O pleasant exercise of hope and joy! For mighty were the auxiliars which then stood Upon our side, us who were strong in love! Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, But to be young was very Heaven! O times, In which the meagre, stale, forbidding ways Of custom, law, and statute, took at once The attraction of a country in romance! When Reason seemed the most to assert her rights When most intent on making of herself A prime enchantress--to assist the work, Which then was going forward in her name! Not favoured spots alone, but the whole Earth, The beauty wore of promise--that which sets (As at some moments might not be unfelt Among the bowers of Paradise itself) The budding rose above the rose full blown. What temper at the prospect did not wake To happiness unthought of? The inert Were roused, and lively natures rapt away! They who had fed their childhood upon dreams, The play-fellows of fancy, who had made All powers of swiftness, subtilty, and strength Their ministers,--who in lordly wise had stirred Among the grandest objects of the sense, And dealt with whatsoever they found there As if they had within some lurking right To wield it;--they, too, who of gentle mood Had watched all gentle motions, and to these Had fitted their own thoughts, schemers more mild, And in the region of their peaceful selves;-- Now was it that 'both' found, the meek and lofty Did both find, helpers to their hearts' desire, And stuff at hand, plastic as they could wish,-- Were called upon to exercise their skill, Not in Utopia,--subterranean fields,-- Or some secreted island, Heaven knows where! But in the very world, which is the world Of all of us,--the place where, in the end, We find our happiness, or not at all! Why should I not confess that Earth was then To me, what an inheritance, new-fallen, Seems, when the first time visited, to one Who thither comes to find in it his home? He walks about and looks upon the spot With cordial transport, moulds it and remoulds, And is half-pleased with things that are amiss, 'Twill be such joy to see them disappear. An active partisan, I thus convoked From every object pleasant circumstance To suit my ends; I moved among mankind With genial feelings still predominant; When erring, erring on the better part, And in the kinder spirit; placable, Indulgent, as not uninformed that men See as they have been taught--Antiquity Gives rights to error; and aware, no less That throwing off oppression must be work As well of License as of Liberty; And above all--for this was more than all-- Not caring if the wind did now and then Blow keen upon an eminence that gave Prospect so large into futurity; In brief, a child of Nature, as at first, Diffusing only those affections wider That from the cradle had grown up with me, And losing, in no other way than light Is lost in light, the weak in the more strong. In the main outline, such it might be said Was my condition, till with open war Britain opposed the liberties of France. This threw me first out of the pale of love; Soured and corrupted, upwards to the source, My sentiments; was not, as hitherto, A swallowing up of lesser things in great, But change of them into their contraries; And thus a way was opened for mistakes And false conclusions, in degree as gross, In kind more dangerous. What had been a pride, Was now a shame; my likings and my loves Ran in new channels, leaving old ones dry; And hence a blow that, in maturer age, Would but have touched the judgment, struck more deep Into sensations near the heart: meantime, As from the first, wild theories were afloat, To whose pretensions, sedulously urged, I had but lent a careless ear, assured That time was ready to set all things right, And that the multitude, so long oppressed, Would be oppressed no more. But when events Brought less encouragement, and unto these The immediate proof of principles no more Could be entrusted, while the events themselves, Worn out in greatness, stripped of novelty, Less occupied the mind, and sentiments Could through my understanding's natural growth No longer keep their ground, by faith maintained Of inward consciousness, and hope that laid Her hand upon her object--evidence Safer, of universal application, such As could not be impeached, was sought elsewhere. But now, become oppressors in their turn, Frenchmen had changed a war of self-defence For one of conquest, losing sight of all Which they had struggled for: up mounted now, Openly in the eye of earth and heaven, The scale of liberty. I read her doom, With anger vexed, with disappointment sore, But not dismayed, nor taking to the shame Of a false prophet. While resentment rose Striving to hide, what nought could heal, the wounds Of mortified presumption, I adhered More firmly to old tenets, and, to prove Their temper, strained them more; and thus, in heat Of contest, did opinions every day Grow into consequence, till round my mind They clung, as if they were its life, nay more, The very being of the immortal soul. This was the time, when, all things tending fast To depravation, speculative schemes-- That promised to abstract the hopes of Man Out of his feelings, to be fixed thenceforth For ever in a purer element-- Found ready welcome. Tempting region 'that' For Zeal to enter and refresh herself, Where passions had the privilege to work, And never hear the sound of their own names. But, speaking more in charity, the dream Flattered the young, pleased with extremes, nor least With that which makes our Reason's naked self The object of its fervour. What delight! How glorious! in self-knowledge and self-rule, To look through all the frailties of the world, And, with a resolute mastery shaking off Infirmities of nature, time, and place, Build social upon personal Liberty, Which, to the blind restraints of general laws, Superior, magisterially adopts One guide, the light of circumstances, flashed Upon an independent intellect. Thus expectation rose again; thus hope, From her first ground expelled, grew proud once more. Oft, as my thoughts were turned to human kind, I scorned indifference; but, inflamed with thirst Of a secure intelligence, and sick Of other longing, I pursued what seemed A more exalted nature; wished that Man Should start out of his earthy, worm-like state, And spread abroad the wings of Liberty, Lord of himself, in undisturbed delight-- A noble aspiration! 'yet' I feel (Sustained by worthier as by wiser thoughts) The aspiration, nor shall ever cease To feel it;--but return we to our course. Enough, 'tis true--could such a plea excuse Those aberrations--had the clamorous friends Of ancient Institutions said and done To bring disgrace upon their very names; Disgrace, of which, custom and written law, And sundry moral sentiments as props Or emanations of those institutes, Too justly bore a part. A veil had been Uplifted; why deceive ourselves? in sooth, 'Twas even so; and sorrow for the man Who either had not eyes wherewith to see, Or, seeing, had forgotten! A strong shock Was given to old opinions; all men's minds Had felt its power, and mine was both let loose, Let loose and goaded. After what hath been Already said of patriotic love, Suffice it here to add, that, somewhat stern In temperament, withal a happy man, And therefore bold to look on painful things, Free likewise of the world, and thence more bold, I summoned my best skill, and toiled, intent To anatomise the frame of social life; Yea, the whole body of society Searched to its heart. Share with me, Friend! the wish That some dramatic tale, endued with shapes Livelier, and flinging out less guarded words Than suit the work we fashion, might set forth What then I learned, or think I learned, of truth, And the errors into which I fell, betrayed By present objects, and by reasonings false From their beginnings, inasmuch as drawn Out of a heart that had been turned aside From Nature's way by outward accidents, And which was thus confounded, more and more Misguided, and misguiding. So I fared, Dragging all precepts, judgments, maxims, creeds, Like culprits to the bar; calling the mind, Suspiciously, to establish in plain day Her titles and her honours; now believing, Now disbelieving; endlessly perplexed With impulse, motive, right and wrong, the ground Of obligation, what the rule and whence The sanction; till, demanding formal 'proof', And seeking it in every thing, I lost All feeling of conviction, and, in fine, Sick, wearied out with contrarieties, Yielded up moral questions in despair. This was the crisis of that strong disease, This the soul's last and lowest ebb; I drooped, Deeming our blessed reason of least use Where wanted most: "The lordly attributes Of will and choice," I bitterly exclaimed "What are they but a mockery of a Being Who hath in no concerns of his a test Of good and evil; knows not what to fear Or hope for, what to covet or to shun; And who, if those could be discerned, would yet Be little profited, would see, and ask Where is the obligation to enforce? And, to acknowledged law rebellious, still, As selfish passion urged, would act amiss; The dupe of folly, or the slave of crime." Depressed, bewildered thus, I did not walk With scoffers, seeking light and gay revenge From indiscriminate laughter, nor sate down In reconcilement with an utter waste Of intellect; such sloth I could not brook, (Too well I loved, in that my spring of life, Pains-taking thoughts, and truth, their dear reward) But turned to abstract science, and there sought Work for the reasoning faculty enthroned Where the disturbances of space and time-- Whether in matters various, properties Inherent, or from human will and power Derived--find no admission. Then it was-- Thanks to the bounteous Giver of all good!-- That the beloved Sister in whose sight Those days were passed, now speaking in a voice Of sudden admonition--like a brook That did but 'cross' a lonely road, and now Is seen, heard, felt, and caught at every turn, Companion never lost through many a league-- Maintained for me a saving intercourse With my true self; for, though bedimmed and changed Much, as it seemed, I was no further changed Than as a clouded and a waning moon: She whispered still that brightness would return; She, in the midst of all, preserved me still A Poet, made me seek beneath that name, And that alone, my office upon earth; And, lastly, as hereafter will be shown, If willing audience fail not, Nature's self, By all varieties of human love Assisted, led me back through opening day To those sweet counsels between head and heart Whence grew that genuine knowledge, fraught with peace, Which, through the later sinkings of this cause, Hath still upheld me, and upholds me now In the catastrophe (for so they dream, And nothing less), when, finally to close And seal up all the gains of France, a Pope Is summoned in, to crown an Emperor-- This last opprobrium, when we see a people, That once looked up in faith, as if to Heaven For manna, take a lesson from the dog Returning to his vomit; when the sun That rose in splendour, was alive, and moved In exultation with a living pomp Of clouds--his glory's natural retinue-- Hath dropped all functions by the gods bestowed, And, turned into a gewgaw, a machine, Sets like an Opera phantom. Thus, O Friend! Through times of honour and through times of shame Descending, have I faithfully retraced The perturbations of a youthful mind Under a long-lived storm of great events-- A story destined for thy ear, who now, Among the fallen of nations, dost abide Where Etna, over hill and valley, casts His shadow stretching towards Syracuse, The city of Timoleon! Righteous Heaven! How are the mighty prostrated! They first, They first of all that breathe should have awaked When the great voice was heard from out the tombs Of ancient heroes. If I suffered grief For ill-requited France, by many deemed A trifler only in her proudest day; Have been distressed to think of what she once Promised, now is; a far more sober cause Thine eyes must see of sorrow in a land, To the reanimating influence lost Of memory, to virtue lost and hope, Though with the wreck of loftier years bestrewn. But indignation works where hope is not, And thou, O Friend! wilt be refreshed. There is One great society alone on earth: The noble Living and the noble Dead. Thine be such converse strong and sanative, A ladder for thy spirit to reascend To health and joy and pure contentedness; To me the grief confined, that thou art gone From this last spot of earth, where Freedom now Stands single in her only sanctuary; A lonely wanderer, art gone, by pain Compelled and sickness, at this latter day, This sorrowful reverse for all mankind. I feel for thee, must utter what I feel: The sympathies erewhile in part discharged, Gather afresh, and will have vent again: My own delights do scarcely seem to me My own delights; the lordly Alps themselves, Those rosy peaks, from which the Morning looks Abroad on many nations, are no more For me that image of pure gladsomeness Which they were wont to be. Through kindred scenes, For purpose, at a time, how different! Thou tak'st thy way, carrying the heart and soul That Nature gives to Poets, now by thought Matured, and in the summer of their strength. Oh! wrap him in your shades, ye giant woods, On Etna's side; and thou, O flowery field Of Enna! is there not some nook of thine, From the first play-time of the infant world Kept sacred to restorative delight, When from afar invoked by anxious love? Child of the mountains, among shepherds reared, Ere yet familiar with the classic page, I learnt to dream of Sicily; and lo, The gloom, that, but a moment past, was deepened At thy command, at her command gives way; A pleasant promise, wafted from her shores, Comes o'er my heart: in fancy I behold Her seas yet smiling, her once happy vales; Nor can my tongue give utterance to a name Of note belonging to that honoured isle, Philosopher or Bard, Empedocles, Or Archimedes, pure abstracted soul! That doth not yield a solace to my grief: And, O Theocritus, so far have some Prevailed among the powers of heaven and earth, By their endowments, good or great, that they Have had, as thou reportest, miracles Wrought for them in old time: yea, not unmoved, When thinking on my own beloved friend, I hear thee tell how bees with honey fed Divine Comates, by his impious lord Within a chest imprisoned; how they came Laden from blooming grove or flowery field, And fed him there, alive, month after month, Because the goatherd, blessed man! had lips Wet with the Muses' nectar. Thus I soothe The pensive moments by this calm fire-side, And find a thousand bounteous images To cheer the thoughts of those I love, and mine. Our prayers have been accepted; thou wilt stand On Etna's summit, above earth and sea, Triumphant, winning from the invaded heavens Thoughts without bound, magnificent designs, Worthy of poets who attuned their harps In wood or echoing cave, for discipline Of heroes; or, in reverence to the gods, 'Mid temples, served by sapient priests, and choirs Of virgins crowned with roses. Not in vain Those temples, where they in their ruins yet Survive for inspiration, shall attract Thy solitary steps: and on the brink Thou wilt recline of pastoral Arethuse; Or, if that fountain be in truth no more, Then, near some other spring--which, by the name Thou gratulatest, willingly deceived-- I see thee linger a glad votary, And not a captive pining for his home.

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