Earlier self is other
Our being, as it was at an earlier time in life, especially childhood, can seem like another self who has died but whom we feel is somehow still alive; or is a self whose live presence we think we feel inside ourselves, even though we know that she or he is chronologically dead. I think the first person who has left a record of such a feeling in poetry is William Wordsworth, in his early poem “There Was a Boy,” which he published originally in the second edition of Lyrical Ballads (1800). A few years later Wordsworth used this poem in a different way, including it with slight alterations in Book 5 of the second version of his long poem, The Prelude (1805). The first published version reads as follows:
There was a Boy; ye knew him well, ye Cliffs
And Islands of Winander! many a time, [Winander=lake Windermere]
At evening, when the stars had just begun ["earliest stars began" in 1815]
To move along the edges of the hills,
Rising or setting, would he stand alone,
Beneath the trees, or by the glimmering lake,
And there, with fingers interwoven, both hands
Press’d closely palm to palm and to his mouth
Uplifted, he, as through an instrument,
Blew mimic hootings to the silent owls
That they might answer him. And they would shout
Across the wat’ry vale and shout again,
Responsive to his call, with quivering peals,
And long halloos, and screams, and echoes loud
Redoubled and redoubled, a wild scene
Of mirth and jocund din! And, when it chanced
That pauses of deep silence mock’d his skill,
Then, sometimes, in that silence, while he hung
Listening, a gentle shock of mild surprize
Has carried far into his heart the voice
Of mountain-torrents; or the visible scene
Would enter unawares into his mind
With all its solemn imagery, its rocks,
Its woods, and that uncertain heaven receiv’d
Into the bosom of the steady lake.
Fair are the woods, and beauteous is the spot,
The vale where he was born: the Church-yard hangs
Upon a slope above the village school;
And there along that bank where I have pass’d
At evening, I believe, that near his grave
A full half-hour together have I stood,
Mute–for he died when he was ten years old.
We do not look to such a poem for rapid movement; in the blank verse of this poem and The Prelude, Wordsworth is rather slow-paced and relaxed in his delivery, despite the intensity of his feeling. He writes without narrative urgency, as if he had all the time in the world, but he does sometimes achieve sudden and striking motion on a larger scale. The moment he describes in this poem is most notable not for the accuracy of its detail or the vividness of its imagery, but for its presentation of a psychological movement.
And in fact Wordsworth’s goal in describing this moment was explained to us by his friend (for a while) Thomas de Quincey; it was to capture a kind of psychological phenomenon that Wordsworth may have noticed in advance of any other thinker. In Wordsworth’s words, as reported by De Quincey: “I have remarked from my earliest days that if, under any circumstances, the attention is energetically braced up to an act of steady observation or of steady expectation, then, if this intense condition of vigilance should suddenly relax, at that moment any beautiful, any impressive visual object, or collection of objects, falling upon the eye, is carried to the heart with a power not known under other circumstances.”
De Quincey reports that Wordsworth gave him two examples–the first, from a midnight walk in the Lake Country when Wordsworth knelt and put his ear to the ground to try to hear whether, beyond their sight, the wagon bringing mail might be approaching; he gave up and only then he noticed a bright star that “fell suddenly upon my eye, and penetrated my capacity of apprehension with a pathos and a sense of the infinite that would not have arrested me under other circumstances.” The second example, Wordsworth drew from the poem I have quoted above. Reading De Quincey we recover some of the freshness of what was apparently a new metaphor in Wordsworth’s lines, one that we no longer perceive as fresh; De Quincey (mis)quotes the poem and then comments upon it as follows. When the boy stops listening for the owls,
then, at that instant, the scene actually before him, the visible scene, would enter unawares, “With all its solemn imagery.” This complex scenery was–what?
Was carried far into his heart
With all its pomp, and that uncertain heav’n received
Into the bosom of the steady lake.
This very expression, “far,” by which space and its infinities are attributed to the human heart, and to its capacities of re-echoing the sublimities of nature, has always struck me as with a flash of sublime revelation.
I think it’s worth noting that Wordsworth feminizes the receptivity of the boy by making it analogous to the receptivity of the lake to the light of the stars; the lake is subtly feminine simply because it is a body of water (with many unconscious associations with the feminine established through centuries of art, literature, and thought). The boy’s sudden perception, in the moment of release from his concentration on listening for owls, of the sound of water and of the scene around him, including the reflection of the stars in the still waters of the lake, ends with this latter image, and so does this main portion of the poem.
Turning then in another direction, Wordsworth intervenes in the first person to describe the boy’s birthplace and, surprisingly, his grave, noting that “he died when he was ten years old.”
In the version of this poem that Wordsworth used in this (the thirteen-book) version of The Prelude (5.389-422), the last section is slightly different. Wordsworth announces the boy’s death immediately after the image of the star-reflecting lake, and emphasizes this boy’s isolation from other children.
This boy was taken from his mates, and died
In childhood ere he was full ten years old.
Fair are the woods, and beauteous is the spot,
The vale where he was born. The churchyard hangs
Upon a slope above the village school,
And there, along that bank, when I have passed
At evening, I believe that oftentimes
A full half-hour together I have stood
Mute, looking at the grave in which he lies.
We cannot help feeling that Wordsworth regards the dead boy as a spirit akin to his own, especially since the village school he mentions near the end was his own childhood school, and since in The Prelude he spends so much time recounting his own childhood responsiveness to nature–an education apart from and deeper than the education he received in schools. So to me the most interesting thing about this poem is that in fact it was drafted by Wordsworth in an uncertain mixture of third- and first-person narration.
That is, it was himself as a boy whom Wordsworth originally presented in this poem, a boy who cleverly imitated the calls of owls and eagerly listened for their reply and into whom the natural scene penetrated, producing in him a kind of mystical experience of nature. First-person lines in Wordsworth’s manuscript notebooks include line 13, “Responsive to my call with tremulous sobs”; line 17, “That pauses of deep silence mock’d my skill”; and line 22, “Would enter unawares into my mind.” Wordsworth commented in later life, “Written in Germany, 1799. This is an extract from the Poem on my own poetical education.”
That Wordsworth would recast his own experience in the third person does not seem as unusual as his way of seeing himself as either a now dead, half-imagined, half-real childhood companion of himself, or as himself, truly, as he once was, but now dead to himself. Wordsworth the writer is another person, not the boy. In fact, Wordsworth’s rewriting of line 3 for an edition in 1815 seems, in this light, to be an almost wistful suppressed (“unconscious” we would now say) echo of an idea now expunged from the poem, repressed–that he in his own childhood was one of the “earliest stars,” and can now only be seen from afar.
There’s another sign of Wordsworth’s attempt to grasp this uncanny feeling about himself, this uncanny aspect of our being, in the way that in the three different versions of this poem, the boy is given three different ages. In the first version he is ten years old. In the second version (1805) he is not yet a “full ten years old”–that is, he is nine. In the last version of The Prelude, published in 1850, Wordsworth again changed the last stanza in several small ways, one of them being the age of the child. Here he dies “ere he was full twelve years old”–that is, he is eleven. If the story were based on some other boy, real or imagined, then tinkering with the age of the boy would seem superfluous; but we know that Wordsworth is thinking of himself here as another person, a child who is alien to himself the adult. That is, Wordsworth seems to be groping for a sense of exactly when the psychic death of the boy occurred–and this would of course be a very difficult thing to pin down in anyone, perhaps above all in oneself. In 1850, Wordsworth also deletes the woods and calls the churchyard “grassy”–as if to suggest a certain openness of the space around the grave of his child-self. (And in this meditation in several sections, I have earlier meditated a little on the grass that is mowed, that is a “math.”)
By far the most interesting poem here is an imaginary composite that we ourselves can construct, in which we can see the daring of Wordsworth’s deep poetic logic. In this composite poem, the poet describes his own experience in the first person, in lines 1-25, then sees himself as a dead boy whom he describes in the third person, in lines 26-32. That is, Wordsworth uses poetry as the site of a psychological experiment, seeing his earlier self as an other, presenting the idea that the boy’s responsiveness to nature died, although the boy grew into a man who then sought for that responsiveness in himself again and again, perhaps willing within the poem what he could not experience in life.
The boy is dead; Wordsworth knows himself as that boy, still alive; or the boy is still alive in the man, yet Wordsworth knows that in some deep sense he is dead; his responsiveness to nature is now inaccessible to the man. It would be 75 years later and in another language, the language par excellence of modern European rationality (Descartes) and yet of feeling, too (Rousseau), that the French poet Arthur Rimbaud completed this thought and explicitly stated that the self is multiple and implied that writing inherently, unavoidably alienates the writer from himself or herself in a way that may shock the self but is also very productive.