Please note that the poems and essays on this site are copyright and may not be reproduced without the author's permission.

Thursday, 26 May 2011

William Wordsworth: A Disappearing Line


View from the footpath up Watch Hill, Cockermouth, Cumbria
: photo by Edwin Seppings, 4 November 2007

I love a public road: few sights there are
That please me more: such object hath had power
O'er my imagination since the dawn
Of childhood, when its disappearing line,
Seen daily afar off, on one bare steep
Beyond the limits that my feet had trod,
Was like a guide into eternity,
At least to things unknown and without bound.
Even something of the grandeur which invests
The Mariner who sails the roaring sea
Through storm and darkness early in my mind
Surrounded, too, the Wanderers of the Earth,
Grandeur as much, and loveliness far more;
Awed have I been by strolling Bedlamites,
From many other uncouth Vagrants pass'd
In fear, have walked with quicker step; but why
Take note of this? When I began to inquire,
To watch and question those I met, and held
Familiar talk with them, the lonely roads
Were schools to me in which I daily read
With most delight the passions of mankind,
There saw into the depth of human souls,
Souls that appear to have no depth at all
To vulgar eyes. And now convinced at heart
How little that to which alone we give
The name of education hath to do
With real feeling and just sense, how vain
A correspondence with the talking world
Proves to the most, and call'd to make good search
If man's estate, by doom of Nature yoked
With toil, is therefore yoked with ignorance,
If virtue be indeed so hard to rear,
And intellectual strength so rare a boon
I prized such walks still more; for there I found
Hope to my hope, and to my pleasure peace
And steadiness; and healing and repose
To every angry passion. There I heard,
From mouths of lowly men and of obscure
A tale of honour; sounds in unison
With loftiest promises of good and fair.

Watch Hill, from the entrance to Greenlands Farm, Cockermouth, Cumbria: photo by Nigel Monckton, 18 September 2005

File:The River Derwent. Cockermouth - - 5818.jpg

The River Derwent, seen from the footpath behind Wordsworth House, Cockermouth, Cumbria: photo by Anna Hodgson, 7 June 2003

Wordsworth: The Prelude, or Growth of a Poet's Mind, from Book Twelfth, lines 145-184, in text of the poem as completed in May 1805 and read to Coleridge at Coleorton, in the winter after his return from Malta,1806-7; edited from the poet's manuscripts by Ernest de Selincourt, 1926

149-150 one bare steep Beyond the limits which my feet had trod: i.e. the road to the village of Isel over the Hay or Watch Hill, which can be seen from the garden and the back of the house at Cockermouth, where Wordsworth passed the first years of his life. (de Selincourt)

And see also: "Th[e] garden [of Wordsworth's House] extends from the house to the river Derwent, from which it is separated by a wall, with a raised terraced walk on the inner side, and nearly on a level with the top. I understand that this terrace was in existence in the poet's time.... Its direction is nearly due east and west; and looking eastward from it, there is a hill which bounds the view in that direction, and which fully corresponds to the description in The Prelude. It is from one and a half to two miles distant, of considerable height, is bare and destitute of trees, and has a road going directly over its summit, as seen from the terrace in Wordsworth's garden. This road is now used only as a footpath; but, fifty or sixty years ago it was the highroad to Isel, a hamlet on the Derwent, about three and a half miles from Cockermouth, in the direction of Bassenthwaite Lake. The hill is locally called the Hay, but on the Ordnance map it is marked Watch Hill."-- Dr. Henry Dodgson of Cockermouth, quoted in a note in Wordsworth's Poetical Works, Volume 3: The Prelude, ed. William Knight, 1896

File:The Setmurthy Common Track - - 79945.jpg

The Setworthy Common track, Cockermouth, Cumbria: photo by John Holmes, 17 November 2005


TC said...

Also by this poet:

William Wordsworth: "A slumber did my spirit seal"

William Wordsworth: City



What calm to walk in WW's thoughts along the road up Watch Hill, its "disappearing line/ Seen daily afar off. . ."


pink light in cloud above still shadowed
ridge, blue jay landing on redwood fence
in foreground, waves sounding in channel

vanishing condition that is,
contraction of second

“stationary” system, notion
which, in relation to

grey white clouds against top of ridge,
shadowed green pine on tip of sandspit

TC said...


The climate of Cockermouth where WW was born and grew up is cold and wet,

not unfamiliar as we look up into the attempt of day to break its way through this latest

“stationary” system, notion
which, in relation to

grey white clouds --

feels like home?

Michael K. Gause said...

Tom, love the blog. Hey, I am interested in using one of your fine photos as a visual to accompany one of MY blog entries. Not sure how to contact you.

Barry Taylor said...

'Awed have I been by strolling Bedlamites'

Tom - Surprised again by Wordsworth's ability to spring the sheer weird drama of a line like that in such close proximity to the near bathos and - no, I can't resist - pedestrian quality of his 'I love a public road' moments. What an extraordinary range of responses he provokes - I'm never sure how I'm going to find myself taking him - line by line, sometimes.



Yes, completely ("feels like home" -- WW's "disappearing line" is the road up Watch Hill of course, but also his line (of words), disappearing into the past -- and brought forward here to live a little bit longer, still today in our minds. . . .


grey whiteness of fog against invisible
top of ridge, fox walking across bricks
in foreground, sound of wave in channel

painting part, things being
described as physical

internal, pictorial surface
inadequate, some such

whiteness of waves breaking in channel,
cormorant flapping across toward ridge

TC said...

Yes, the way we take him, and the way we take the past, and what we can make out of the future, and for that matter the way the present keeps disappearing over the hill...

The fox walking across the bricks is welcome here.

But, sad to say, I have not been, over the past two days in which Google has with its inimitable whimsical playfulness, locked me out of this blog, crashed our browser, and created serious doubt in the agèd mind as to the wisdom (if any) of toiling up this hill.

Talking as we were of disappearing lines.

(Michael, sorry no contact email given for the simple reason I don't have one of my own, all this folly is strictly and entirely a temporary privilege, which has probably already strained the patience of the universe unduly...)

Issa's Untidy Hut said...

"I love a public road" ... what a wonderful line.

The Prelude is truly one of the stunning poetical works. I, who prefer three or less brief lines, could live with this as the only poetry book if forced to choose one only.

Thanks for the reminder, Tom.

I do hope your problems resolve. The universe, or at least our small section of it, has not worn thin on the wonder you bring.

Though I certainly have had much the same feeling many a time when it comes to things electronic ...


TC said...


Yes, what a moving (and disappearing) line that is.

In my mind this passage stands as a sort of answer to the shock and bewilderment the poet experienced upon his early experience of the streets of London. (See the post I've linked to above, as "City"). I take Wordsworth to be speaking here of a knowable community, the community that had been familiar to him as a child, the terms of which he could recognize and understand, as opposed to the confusing, alienating, ultimately unknowable spectacle of the great metropolitan hive, that vast crowd of strangers, as first encountered in the section of the poem titled "Residence in London".

This passage from the 1805 version of the poem was dismantled and rewritten (and to my mind, destroyed) in the later revised version of the poem which appeared in 1850. That latter, revised version has long stood as WW's "authorized" version. But I believe sometimes it's in everyone's better interest that the poet be saved from him/her self.

Issa's Untidy Hut said...

"But I believe sometimes it's in everyone's better interest that the poet be saved from him/her self." Oh, my, from personal experience, I know how very true that can be.

One thing I had wanted to do last year (and look, half of this year is almost gone!) was to go back to "The Prelude" and I never managed to. Your observation about the early version is very helpful, indeed. I intend to try and read the original with revisions and so this will shed some much needed light.

I remember being swept away by the book ten years ago and have been anxious to revisit it ever since.

Whenever I've read Blyth over the last 10 years I always feel him gently pointing me back to Wordsworth ...

TC said...


I feel that same link, maybe it's our age. The emphasis on the "gently" -- Blyth's signals are always so wise and unemphatic. How lovely, in this violent time. (What charm he must have possessed to persuade get the Governor of the Bank of Japan to finance the publication of his essential classic, the "Spring" volume in the Haiku series!)

But you know it's funny with WW, as a young fool I always thought of him -- I mean the person behind the poet within the poems -- as impossibly old; whereas now as an impossibly old fool myself, I find in him, as a young (!) poet, both the long-view wisdom that supposedly comes with experience, and the in-the-moment capability that one latterly identifies with the openmindedness of youth...

Reminded here of the Moritake haiku:

It is New Year's Morning;
I think also of the Age
Of the Gods.

And of the connection Blyth draws therefrom, with Tintern Abbey:

...that blessed mood
In which the burthen of the mystery,
In which the heavy and the weary weight
Of all this unintelligible world
Is lightened...
While with an eye made quiet by the power
Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,
We see into the life of things.

Really, as Keats so wonderfully grasped, it's that "burthen of the mystery" which remains also the sacred midden of the poet tribe, as this old fool dimly understands it.

Issa's Untidy Hut said...


We all know the power of the thing itself. The representation of the thing in photography and art, as is so very often illustrated here at this blog, has another powerful effect.

Yet, reading the words of WW, my throat began to tighten a bit and my eyes moisten. "the sacred midden of the poet tribe", indeed.

I often think of how we have poets and artists that are praised for certain times in their lives and derided for other times. I think of Kerouac and Dylan, for all those American novelists who could never live up to that first great book, and of course WW, too. Your reminder of how our perception of various things alters at different ages in (I just typed "in" with my hand one key to the right by mistake and just discoverd it is "om") our lives is so true.

The clarity of the voice never wavers. It is there on the page for us for as long as we are able to reach for it. So what changes is our perception, what we bring to it in youth, in middle age, and as we float gently, gently down to the pond's surface.

It is so fine to be excited about the word. I'm very excited about getting back to Wordsworth now. Thanks.


TC said...


Grateful to be sharing these thoughts. "The power of the thing itself," and of something elemental in the forces of nature, and of time -- I think it may be the access it offers to these areas of reality that keeps poetry always in the moment. Though of course that can never quite be caught up with, maybe it's the trying keeps us conscious... or it just the not knowing when or how to give up?

William Wordsworth: "Three years she grew in sun and shower..."

Issa's Untidy Hut said...

"I think it may be the access it offers to these areas of reality that keeps poetry always in the moment."

As fine a definition of haiku as there is ...

All poetry, all poets, of course, give us this (access to the moment), what we pass everyday, unseeing, unknowing, thought obsessed, hardly even breathing, most of us.

Of course, I include myself, and bless the few moments of clarity that come to me.

Poetry helps. Poetry heals. Poetry as a Way.

One can see why it is so very, very hard, and yet so very, very easy, to love this thick skulled, thin skinned beast, the human animal.

I imagine I hear Dean Swift laughing at my silly little ass right now ...

Anonymous said...

Images and words, this post gives me the kind of peace and solace I only find in Nature.

I am haunted by the first image. Those trees so strangely shaped by the wind are typical in southern Patagonia and we call them "árboles bandera" (flag trees). What an unusual way to refer to a tree, isn't it?

TC said...


I'm with you, on all counts.

Without any disrespect to the spirit of Dean Swift, I would very much like to think that, at this moment, his ghost is laughing with us, rather than at us.

But then, to paraphrase the wisdom of Zippy the Pinhead, are we laughing yet?

(Asked the old sourpuss, forgetting that to live is the only pleasure... and that it helps, when possible, to view human life as a comedy... though not quite divine, these days, if it ever was.)


A bent tree as a weather flag, allowing us to "read" the history of the elements, in a given place. What a beautiful idea that is.

If there is any place left on earth that still possesses the particular majesty (and magic) of the Lake District in which Wordsworth was born and grew up, it must be your Patagonia!