Wordsworth and those ‘Spots of Time’


Picture of books - Wordsworth's The Prelude & Lyrical Ballads

There are in our existence spots of time,
That with distinct pre-eminence retain
A renovating virtue, whence, depressed
By false opinion and contentious thought,
Or aught of heavier or more deadly weight,
In trivial occupations, and the round
Of ordinary intercourse, our minds
Are nourished and invisibly repaired;
A virtue, by which pleasure is enhanced,
That penetrates, enables us to mount,
When high, more high, and lifts us up when fallen

– William Wordsworth, The Prelude. Book 12. 208-218 (1850 edition)

I’ve been re-visiting bits of Wordsworth’s The Prelude recently – plus several of his shorter poems – and am finding, more than ever, what an antidote to jaded feeling those poems are. There’s something about Wordsworth’s poetry that stirs up your inner world – swirls through  the heart of your thoughts and self – and settles everything back down in its rightful place, refreshed and restored.

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers

 – William Wordsworth, The World Is Too Much with Us – (1807)

We need an inner restorative against the ‘fretful stir’ and ‘fever of the world’; a place where memory connects us to the moments when we felt most alive (and perhaps most connected to wider Nature); where we felt the narrative of our truest self – or the self we most want to be – shift into place, take shape. Where maybe, even, we felt that ‘serene and blessed mood’ described by Wordsworth in Tintern Abbey:

In which the burthen of the mystery,
In which the heavy and weary weight
Of all this unintelligible world,
Is lightened…

and ‘We see into the life of things.’

Memory facilitates our own stories and, the older I get, the more active and busy my own ‘spots of time’ seem to be. There is a more insistent chiming, too, of these memories, new events, things said and things read. All the time, there are connections. Multiplying, reaching further – increasing in resonance.

In Tintern Abbey, Wordsworth writes of his return, after an absence of five years, to his ‘wild and secluded scene’ where the ‘steep and lofty cliffs…connect/ The landscape with the quiet of the sky’ and delights in that landscape and his personal connection to it:

                                These beauteous forms,
Through long absence have not been to me
As is a landscape to a blind man’s eye;
But oft, in lonely rooms, and ’mid the din
Of towns and cities, I have owned to them
In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,
Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart

A ‘renovating’ moment my mind has often turned to in times of dead-end ‘weariness,’ is a special, snowy day spent with my husband when we first met. We escaped the city, and wandered Padley and Yarncliff Woods in the Peak District. Those woods were magical places, full of mossy rocks and gnarled, ancient oaks; a place from a fairy tale or from Middle Earth. I loved their atmosphere of deep age and waiting – enhanced that day by the silence of snow. Recently, I met that woodland again (well…one that, though not exactly alike, echoed with reminders of it) within the pages of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight:

 …a deep forest, densely overgrown,
with ancient oaks in huddles of hundreds
and vaulting hills above each half of the valley.
Hazel and hawthorn are interwoven,
decked and draped in damp, shaggy moss…

– (Fitt II, 741-5, translated by Simon Armitage – published by Faber and Faber Ltd)

                                    … Such moments
Are scattered everywhere, taking their date
From our first childhood

 – The Prelude, Book 12, 223-4 (1850 ed.) 

From my earliest years, there are the deep memories of the North Downs. Mind pictures of the astonishingly huge Roman snails, clinging to the rain washed chalk; of the towering beech trees and shadowed yews, watching like knowing ancients. When I was a child, those hills seemed outside the rest of the world; an old, magic land wrapped close round the modern housing estate where we lived.

Just a step away from the pavements, rows of front doors, kids on bikes – there was this place of glimpses; hidden, hushed and full of happening. It was a land of wild creatures, and of stories – and the overlap of Time. There, I could wonder at the dart and slink of a fox, peer along trails made by badgers, and follow the ghosts of travellers along the old hollow ways; my steps falling on footprints hidden in layers long since worn away. Pilgrims had passed that way for centuries en route to Canterbury; and when, years later, I came to read the vivid tales of the Miller, the Wife of Bath and their ‘..compaignye/ Of sundry folk’ – I accompanied those characters on ‘my’ path along ‘my’ Downs, whilst Chaucer wove his magic.

Frequently now, whilst mind-drifting through ‘trivial occupations,’ scenes from novels (often those read many years ago) will unexpectedly pop into my head. Some secret synaptic connection between recent life events, and those past bookish moments, will fire into life; sometimes with flashes of new understanding and relevance; sometimes as a fond reflection on old favourites, to lighten the task in hand. Certain books are melded to various stages of life – they are the shapers and the keepers, forever related to those ‘spots of time.’ But they also endlessly make new connections; bringing new significance as experience grows, and as life and page continually overlap. Books, in several ways, become spots of time themselves.

Often, when in (a kind of) ‘vacant…mood,’ loading the washing machine, or during some other automatic-pilot task (there never seems to be much opportunity for lying on couches!) a special memory will ‘flash,’ like Wordsworth’s daffodils, upon my ‘inward eye.’ A mind-vision of a well-loved clearing in an ancient wood in Kent – a place to stand in wonder, surrounded by ‘hosts’ of wild orchids:

Picture of a Lady Orchid

Lady Orchid, Orchis purpurea

Picture of a Greater Butterfly Orchid

Greater Butterfly Orchid, Platanthera chlorantha

A few years ago, when I returned to that wood (after a twelve year absence and a lot of life changes) it was for me, in my own small way, a Tintern Abbey moment; an emotional collide of my past and present self, in a place that means so much to me. That day contained, like Wordsworth’s return to the hills above Tintern Abbey, a complex comfort; a celebration and a ‘sad perplexity’ – and something perhaps, ‘Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns.’ A moment where the self settles with a feeling of both homecoming and significant change; a complex, emotional interplay of past and present – and a tug between loss and gain, limits and possibilities, regrets and inspirations.

And so it goes on. Moments constantly chime – across life and literature, interweaving in memory and experience; in what we ‘half create/ And what perceive.’ A constantly developing process of connections that ‘spread like day.’