William Wordsworth 
(1770-1850)
The Prelude : Book III : Residence at Cambridge

Wordsworth and Coleridge
Wordsworth and Coleridge, his philosophical dancing master

Book III Residence at Cambridge

Book III is pretty much a straightforward account of his first year at Cambridge, though it is sometimes a challenge to follow some of Wordsworth's more recondite speculations about how the human soul works. At all events, he realises fairly early on that Cambridge was not for him, or he was not for Cambridge.

At first he is enchanted:

Lines 27-34
I was the Dreamer, they the Dream; I roamed
Delighted through the motley spectacle;
Gowns grave or gaudy, Doctors, Students, Streets,
Lamps, Gateways, Flocks of Churches, Courts and Towers:
Strange transformation for a mountain youth,
A northern Villager.

But he soon feels out of place:

Lines 74-81
...even so early, from the first crude days
Of settling time in this my new abode,
Not seldom had I melancholy thoughts,
From personal and family regards,
Wishing to hope without hope; some fears
About my furture worldly maintenance,
And, mor than all, a strangeness in my mind,
A feeling that I was not for that hour,
Nor for that place.

And goes off by himself:

Lines 95-100
When the first glitter of the show was passed,
And the first dazzle of the taper light,
As if with a rebound my mind returned
Into its former self. Oft did I leave
My Comrades, and the Crowd, Buildings and Groves,
And walked along the fields, the level fields,
With Heaven's blue concave reared above my head;

Cambridge Fellow
A Cambridge Fellow

He feels that he 'was ascending now / To such community of highest truth.'

Lines 121-128
A track pursuing not untrod before,
From deep analogies by thought supplied,
Or consciousnesses not to be subdued,
To every natural form, rock, fruit or flower,
Even the loose stones that cover the high-way,
I gave a moral life, I saw them feel,
Or linked them to some feeling: the great mass
Lay bedded in a quickening soul, and all
That I beheld respired with inward meaning.

Here we have an extraordinary thought:

Lines 141-145
Unknown, unthought of, yet I was most rich,
I had a world about me; 'twas my own,
I made it; for it only lived to me,
And to the God who looked into my mind.

And

Lines 156-168 
... I had an eye
Which in my strongest workings, evermore
Was looking for the shades of difference
As they lie hid in all exterior forms,
Near or remote, minute or vast, an eye
Which from a stone, a tree, a withered leaf,
To the broad ocean and the azure heavens,
Spangled with kindred multitudes of stars,
Could find no surface where its power might sleep,
Which spake perpetual logic to my soul,
And by an unrelenting agency
Did bind my feelings, even as in a chain.

None of this was part of the Cambridge curriculum, of course. He concludes this section:

Lines 191-194
there's not a man
That lives who hath not had his godlike hours,
And knows not what majestic sway we have,
As natural beings in the strength of Nature.

But he becomes a prey to a 'treasonable growth / Of indecisive judgements that impaired / And shook the mind's simplicity.' Lines 214-216

He now admits 'for my heart / Was social, and loved idleness and joy.' Lines 236-237

It wasn't a bad life:

Lines 249-258
Companionships,
Friendships, acquaintances, were welcome all;
We sauntered, played, we rioted, we talked
Unprofitable talk at morning hours,
Drifted about along the streets and walks,
Read lazily in lazy books, went forth
To gallop through the country in blind zeal
Of senseless horsmanship, or on the breast
Of Cam sailed boisterously, and let the stars
Come out, perhaps without one quiet thought.

He reflects on the great men who passed through the University: Chaucer, Spenser, Milton, Newton then chastises himself for his empty vanity in thinking himself superior to the Burghers because he is a student.

Queen's College Cambridge by William Westall
Queen's College, Cambridge by William Westall

Lines 339-344 
My life became
A floating island, an amphibious thing,
Unsound, of spungy texture, yet withal,
Not wanting a fair face of water-weeds
And pleasant flowers.

He summarises all this as follows:

Lines 357-365
For I, bred up in Nature's lap, was even
As a spoiled Child; and rambling like the wind
As I had done in daily intercourse
With those delicious rivers, solemn heights,
And mountains; ranging like a fowl of the air,
I was ill tutored for captivity,
To quit my pleasure, and from month to month,
Take up a station calmly on the perch
Of sedentary peace.

We can see why he didn't want to sit down at a desk in a dingy room.

Lines 366-370
Those lovely forms
Had also left less space within my mind,
Which, wrought upon instinctively, had found
A freshness in those objects of its love,
A winning power, beyong all other power.

Can it really be a question of space? Wordsworth's ideas about the soul, the mind, and the spirit are frequently strange. Surprisingly, they quite often follow the outlines of Buddhist philosophy, where, for example, This (the perceiver) becomes That (the perceived), though they are not couched in the same language. But the major difference between Wordsworth's analysis and the Buddhist analysis is that whereas Wordsworth sees these experiences of hyper-perception as marking him out as a great poet, an extraordinay person, and spends eight thousand words of The Prelude trying to convince himself, Coleridge and us that this is so, the Buddhist analysis recognises that every human being is capable of the same thing using the same methods.

He imagines a Cambridge that might have been conducive to fostering his talents, and he reflects on Cambridge as it was, or as he imagines it to have been, in centuries past, then compares it to Cambridge as it is in this 'recreant age'.

He goes on to comment that this 'deep vacation' was not a complete waste of time, reflecting that if he had been thrown out directly on the world it would have been more difficult for him to develop in the way of truth and virtue.

A Professor from Ackermann History of Cambridge
A professor from Ackerman's History of Cambridge

Lines 572-578
Nor wanted we rich pastime of this kind,
Found everywhere, but chiefly, in the ring
Of the grave elders, Men unscoured, grotesque
In character, tricked out like aged trees
Which, through the lapse of their infirmity,
Give ready place to any random seed
That chuses to be reared upon their trunks.

He regards it as an interesting exercise to compare these old fools with the old people of the lakes, a comparison which Nature holds up before the eye of Youth / In her great School..... teaching comprehension with delight, / And mingling playful with pathetic thoughts.

He makes a lively sketch of the Cambridge he knew, a world in its own right, reflecting the larger world:

Lines 624-644
And yet this Spectacle may well demand
A more substantial name, no mimic shew,
Itself a living part of a live whole,
A creek of the vast sea. For all Degrees
And Shapes of spurious fame and short-lived praise
Here sate in state, and fed with daily alms,
Retainers won away from solid good.
And here was Labout, his own Bond-slave; Hope
That never set the pains against the prize;
Idleness, halting with his weary clog;
And poor misguided Shame, and witless Fear,
And simple Pleasure, foraging for Death,
Honour misplaced, and Dignity astray;
Feuds, Factions, Flatteries, Enmity, and Guile,
Murmuring submission, and bald Government;
The Idol weak as the Idolater;
And Decency and Custom starving Truth;
And blind Authority, beating with his staff
The Child that might have led him; Emptiness
Followed, as of good omen; and meek Worth
Left to itself unheard of, and unknown.

There were, nevertheless some advantages which accrued:

Lines 661-668
Meanwhile, amid this gaudy Congress, framed
Of things by nature most unneighbourly,
The head turns round, and cannot right itself;
And, though an aching and a barren sense
Of gay confusion still be uppermost,
With few wise longings and but little love,
Yet something to the memory sticks at last,
Whence profit may be drawn in times to come.

Thus he spent nine months in 'submissive idleness' before returning to his native mountains.

book II

book IV

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