The Excursion (Wordsworth)/Book 8

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The pensive Sceptic of the lonely Vale
To those acknowledgments subscribed his own
With a sedate compliance, which the Priest
Failed not to notice inly pleased, and said,
"If Ye, by whom invited I commenced
Those Naratives of calm and humble life,
Be satisfied, 'tis well,—the end is gained;
And, in return for sympathy bestowed
And patient listening, thanks accept from me.
—Life, Death, Eternity! momentous themes
Are these—and might demand a Seraph's tongue,
Were they not equal to their own support;
And therefore no incompetence of mine
Could do them wrong. The universal Forms
Of human nature, in a Spot like this,
Present themselves, at once, to all Men's view:
Ye wished for act and circumstance, that make
The Individual known and understood;
And such as my best judgment could select
From what the Place afforded have been given;
Though apprehensions crossed me, in the course
Of this self-pleasing exercise, that Ye
My zeal to his would liken, who, possessed
Of some rare gems, or pictures finely wrought,
Unlocks his Cabinet, and draws them forth
One after one,—soliciting regard
To this—and this, as worthier than the last,
Till the Spectator, who a while was pleased
More than the Exhibitor himself, becomes
Weary and faint, and longs to be released.
—But let us hence! my Dwelling is in sight,
And there—"
At this the Solitary shrunk
With backward will; but, wanting not address
That inward motion to disguise, he said
To his Compatriot, smiling as he spake;
—"The peaceable Remains of this good Knight
Would be disturbed, I fear, with wrathful scorn,
If consciousness could reach him where he lies
That One, albeit of these degenerate times,
Deploring changes past, or dreading change
Foreseen, had dared to couple, even in thought,
The fine Vocation of the sword and lance
With the gross aims and body-bending toil
Of a poor Brotherhood who walk the earth
Pitied, and where they are not known, despised.
—Yet, by the good Knight's leave, the two Estates
Are graced with some resemblance. Errant Those,
Exiles and Wanderers—and the like are These;
Who, with their burthen, traverse hill and dale,
Carrying relief for Nature's simple wants.
—What though no higher recompence they seek
Than honest maintenance, by irksome toil
Full oft procured! Yet Such may claim respect,
Among the Intelligent, for what this course
Enables them to be, and to perform.
Their tardy steps give leisure to observe;
While solitude permits the mind to feel;
And doth instruct her to supply defects
By the division of her inward self,
For grateful converse: and to these poor Men,
(As I have heard you boast with honest pride)
Nature is bountiful, where'er they go;
Kind Nature's various wealth is all their own.
Versed in the characters of men; and bound,
By tie of daily interest, to maintain
Conciliatory manners and smooth speech;
Such have been, and still are in their degree,
Examples efficacious to refine
Rude intercourse; apt Instruments to excite,
By importation of unlooked-for Arts,
Barbarian torpor, and blind prejudice;
Raising, through just gradation, savage life
To rustic, and the rustic to urbane.
—Within their moving magazines is lodged
Power that comes forth to quicken and exalt
The affections seated in the Mother's breast,
And in the Lover's fancy; and to feed
The sober sympathies of long tried Friends.
—By these Itinerants, as experienced Men,
Counsel is given; contention they appease
With healing words; and in remotest Wilds
Tears wipe away, and pleasant tidings bring;
Could the proud quest of Chivalry do more?"

"Happy," rejoined the Wanderer, "They who gain
A panegyric from your generous tongue!
But, if to these Wayfarers once pertained
Aught of romantic interest, 'tis gone;
Their purer service, in this realm at least,
Is past for ever.—An inventive Age
Has wrought, if not with speed of magic, yet
To most strange issues. I have lived to mark
A new and unforeseen Creation rise
From out the labours of a peaceful Land,
Wielding her potent Enginery to frame
And to produce, with appetite as keen
As that of War, which rests not night or day,
Industrious to destroy! With fruitless pains
Might One like me now visit many a tract
Which, in his youth, he trod, and trod again,
A lone Pedestrian with a scanty freight,
Wished for, or welcome, wheresoe'er he came,
Among the Tenantry of Thorpe and Vill;
Or straggling Burgh, of ancient charter proud,
And dignified by battlements and towers
Of some stern Castle, mouldering on the brow
Of a green hill or bank of rugged stream.
The foot-path faintly marked, the horse-track wild,
And formidable length of plashy lane,
(Prized avenues ere others had been shaped
Or easier links connecting place with place)
Have vanished,—swallowed up by stately roads
Easy and bold, that penetrate the gloom
Of England's farthest Glens. The Earth has lent
Her waters, Air her breezes; and the Sail
Of traffic glides with ceaseless interchange,
Glistening along the low and woody dale,
Or on the naked mountain's lofty side.
Meanwhile, at social Industry's command,
How quick, how vast an increase! From the germ
Of some poor Hamlet, rapidly produced
Here a huge Town, continuous and compact,
Hiding the face of earth for leagues—and there,
Where not a Habitation stood before,
The Abodes of men irregularly massed
Like trees in forests—spread through spacious tracts,
O'er which the smoke of unremitting fires
Hangs permanent, and plentiful as wreaths
Of vapour glittering in the morning sun.
And, wheresoe'er the Traveller turns his steps,
He sees the barren wilderness erased,
Or disappearing; triumph that proclaims
How much the mild Directress of the plough
Owes to alliance with these new-born Arts!
—Hence is the wide Sea peopled,—and the Shores
Of Britain are resorted to by Ships
Freighted from every climate of the world
With the world's choicest produce. Hence that sum
Of Keels that rest within her crowded ports,
Or ride at anchor in her sounds and bays;
That animating spectacle of Sails
Which through her inland regions, to and fro
Pass with the respirations of the tide,
Perpetual, multitudinous! Finally,
Hence a dread arm of floating Power, a voice
Of Thunder, daunting those who would approach
With hostile purposes the blessed Isle,
Truth's consecrated residence, the seat
Impregnable, of Liberty and Peace.

And yet, O happy Pastor of a Flock
Faithfully watched, and by that loving care
And heaven's good providence preserved from taint!
With You I grieve, when on the darker side
Of this great change I look; and there behold,
Through strong temptation of those gainful Arts,
Such outrage done to Nature as compels
The indignant Power to justify herself;
Yea to avenge her violated rights
For England's bane.—When soothing darkness spreads
O'er hill and vale," the Wanderer thus expressed
His recollections, "and the punctual stars,
While all things else are gathering to their homes,
Advance, and in the firmament of heaven
Glitter—but undisturbing, undisturbed,
As if their silent company were charged
With peaceful admonitions for the heart
Of all-beholding Man, earth's thoughtful Lord;
Then, in full many a region, once like this
The assured domain of calm simplicity
And pensive quiet, an unnatural light,
Prepared for never-resting Labour's eyes,
Breaks from a many-windowed Fabric huge;
And at the appointed hour a Bell is heard—
Of harsher import than the Curfew-knoll
That spake the Norman Conqueror's stern behest,
A local summons to unceasing toil!
Disgorged are now the Ministers of day;
And, as they issue from the illumined Pile,
A fresh Band meets them, at the crowded door,—
And in the Courts—and where the rumbling Stream,
That turns the multitude of dizzy wheels,
Glares, like a troubled Spirit, in its bed
Among the rocks below. Men, Maidens, Youths,
Mother and little Children, Boys and Girls,
Enter, and each the wonted task resumes
Within this Temple—where is offered up
To Gain—the Master Idol of the Realm,
Perpetual sacrifice. Even thus of old
Our Ancestors, within the still domain
Of vast Cathedral or Conventual Church,
Their vigils kept; where tapers day and night
On the dim altar burned continually,
In token that the House was evermore
Watching to God. Religious Men were they;
Nor would their Reason, tutored to aspire
Above this transitory world, allow
That there should pass a moment of the year,
When in their land the Almighty's Service ceased.

Triumph who will in these profaner rites
Which We, a generation self-extolled,
As zealously perform! I cannot share
His proud complacency; yet I exult,
Casting reserve away, exult to see
An Intellectual mastery exercised
O'er the blind Elements; a purpose given,
A perseverance fed; almost a soul
Imparted—to brute Matter. I rejoice,
Measuring the force of those gigantic powers,
Which by the thinking Mind have been compelled
To serve the Will of feeble-bodied Man.
For with the sense of admiration blends
The animating hope that time may come
When strengthened, yet not dazzled, by the might
Of this dominion over Nature gained,
Men of all lands shall exercise the same
In due proportion to their Country's need;
Learning, though late, that all true glory rests,
All praise, all safety, and all happiness,
Upon the Moral law. Egyptian Thebes;
Tyre by the margin of the sounding waves;
Palmyra, central in the Desart, fell;
And the Arts died by which they had been raised.
—Call Archimedes from his buried Tomb
Upon the plain of vanished Syracuse,
And feelingly the Sage shall make report
How insecure, how baseless in itself,
Is that Philosophy, whose sway is framed
For mere material instruments:—how weak
Those Arts, and high Inventions, if unpropped
By Virtue.—He with sighs of pensive grief,
Amid his calm abstractions, would admit
That not the slender privilege is theirs
To save themselves from blank forgetfulness!"

When from the Wanderer's lips these words had fallen,
I said, "And, did in truth these vaunted Arts
Possess such privilege, how could we escape
Regret and painful sadness, who revere,
And would preserve as things above all price,
The old domestic morals of the land,
Her simple manners, and the stable worth
That dignified and cheered a low estate.
Oh! where is now the character of peace,
Sobriety, and order, and chaste love,
And honest dealing, and untainted speech,
And pure good-will, and hospitable cheer;
That made the very thought of Country-life
A thought of refuge, for a Mind detained
Reluctantly amid the bustling crowd?
Where now the beauty of the Sabbath kept
With conscientious reverence, as a day
By the Almighty Law-giver pronounced
Holy and blest? and where the winning grace
Of all the lighter ornaments attached
To time and season, as the year rolled round?"

"Fled!" was the Wanderer's passionate response,
"Fled utterly! or only to be traced
In a few fortunate Retreats like this;
Which I behold with trembling, when I think
What lamentable change, a year—a month—
May bring; that Brook converting as it runs
Into an Instrument of deadly bane
For those, who, yet untempted to forsake
The simple occupations of their Sires,
Drink the pure water of its innocent stream
With lip almost as pure.—Domestic bliss,
(Or call it comfort, by a humbler name,)
How art thou blighted for the poor Man's heart!
Lo! in such neighbourhood, from morn to eve,
The Habitations empty! or perchance
The Mother left alone,—no helping hand
To rock the cradle of her peevish babe;
No daughters round her, busy at the wheel,
Or in dispatch of each day's little growth
Of household occupation; no nice arts
Of needle-work; no bustle at the fire,
Where once the dinner was prepared with pride;
Nothing to speed the day, or cheer the mind;
Nothing to praise, to teach, or to command!
—The Father, if perchance he still retain
His old employments, goes to field or wood,
No longer led or followed by his Sons;
Idlers perchance they were,—but in his sight;
Breathing fresh air, and treading the green earth;
'Till their short holiday of childhood ceased,
Ne'er to return! That birth-right now is lost.
Economists will tell you that the State
Thrives by the forfeiture—unfeeling thought,
And false as monstrous! Can the Mother thrive
By the destruction of her innocent Sons?
In whom a premature Necessity
Blocks out the forms of Nature, preconsumes
The reason, famishes the heart, shuts up
The infant Being in itself, and makes
Its very spring a season of decay?
The lot is wretched, the condition sad,
Whether a pining discontent survive,
And thirst for change; or habit hath subdued
The soul depressed; dejected—even to love
Of her dull tasks, and close captivity.
—Oh, banish far such Wisdom as condemns
A native Briton to these inward chains,
Fixed in his soul, so early and so deep,
Without his own consent, or knowledge, fixed!
He is a Slave to whom release comes not,
And cannot come. The Boy, where'er he turns,
Is still a prisoner; when the wind is up
Among the clouds and in the ancient woods;
Or when the sun is rising in the heavens,
Quiet and calm. Behold him—in the school
Of his attainments? no; but with the air
Fanning his temples under heaven's blue arch.
His raiment, whitened o'er with cotton flakes,
Or locks of wool, announces whence he comes.
Creeping his gait and cowering—his lip pale—
His respiration quick and audible;
And scarcely could you fancy that a gleam
From out those languid eyes could break, or blush
Mantle upon his cheek. Is this the form,
Is that the countenance, and such the port,
Of no mean Being? One who should be clothed
With dignity befitting his proud hope;
Who, in his very childhood, should appear
Sublime—from present purity and joy!
The limbs increase; but, liberty of mind
Thus gone for ever, this organic Frame,
Which from heaven's bounty we receive, instinct
With light, and gladsome motions, soon becomes
Dull, to the joy of her own motions dead;
And even the Touch, so exquisitely poured
Through the whole body, with a languid Will
Performs its functions; rarely competent
To impress a vivid feeling on the mind
Of what there is delightful in the breeze,
The gentle visitations of the sun,
Or lapse of liquid element—by hand,
Or foot, or lip, in summer's warmth—perceived.
—Can hope look forward to a manhood raised
On such foundations?"
"Hope is none for him,"
The pale Recluse indignantly exclaimed,
"And tens of thousands suffer wrong as deep.
Yet be it asked, in justice to our age,
If there were not, before those Arts appeared,
These Structures rose, commingling old and young,
And unripe sex with sex, for mutual taint;
Then, if there were not, in our far-famed Isle,
Multitudes, who from infancy had breathed
Air unimprisoned, and had lived at large;
Yet walked beneath the sun, in human shape,
As abject, as degraded? At this day,
Who shall enumerate the crazy huts
And tottering hovels, whence do issue forth
A ragged Offspring, with their own blanched hair
Crowned like the image of fantastic Fear;
Or wearing, we might say, in that white growth
An ill-adjusted turban, for defence
Or fierceness, wreathed around their sun-burnt brows,
By savage Nature's unassisted care.
Naked and coloured like the soil, the feet
On which they stand; as if thereby they drew
Some nourishment, as Trees do by their roots,
From Earth the common Mother of us all.
Figure and mien, complexion and attire,
Are framed to strike dismay, but the outstretched hand
And whining voice denote them Supplicants
For the least boon that pity can bestow.
Such on the breast of darksome heaths are found;
And with their Parents dwell upon the skirts
Of furze-clad commons; and are born and reared
At the mine's mouth, beneath impending rocks,
Or in the chambers of some natural cave;
And where their Ancestors erected huts,
For the convenience of unlawful gain,
In forest purlieus; and the like are bred,
All England through, where nooks and slips of ground,
Purloined in times less jealous than our own,
From the green margin of the public way,
A residence afford them, mid the bloom
And gaiety of cultivated fields.
—Such (we will hope the lowest in the scale)
Do I remember oft-times to have seen
'Mid Buxton's dreary heights. Upon the watch,
Till the swift vehicle approach, they stand;
Then, following closely with the cloud of dust,
An uncouth feat exhibit, and are gone
Heels over head like Tumblers on a Stage.
—Up from the ground they snatch the copper coin,
And, on the freight of merry Passengers
Fixing a steady eye, maintain their speed;
And spin—and pant—and overhead again,
Wild Pursuivants! until their breath is lost,
Or bounty tires,—and every face, that smiled
Encouragement, hath ceased to look that way.
—But, like the Vagrants of the Gypsy tribe,
These, bred to little pleasure in themselves,
Are profitless to others. Turn we then
To Britons born and bred within the pale
Of civil polity, and early trained
To earn, by wholesome labour in the field,
The bread they eat. A sample should I give
Of what this stock produces to enrich
And beautify the tender age of life,
A sample fairly culled, ye would exclaim,
"Is this the whistling Plough-boy whose shrill notes
Impart new gladness to the morning air?"
"Forgive me! if I venture to suspect
That many, sweet to hear of in soft verse,
Are of no finer frame:—his joints are stiff;
Beneath a cumbrous frock that to the knees
Invests the thriving churl, his legs appear,
Fellows to those which lustily upheld
The wooden stools, for everlasting use,
On which our Fathers sate. And mark his brow!
Under whose shaggy canopy are set
Two eyes, not dim, but of a healthy stare;
Wide, sluggish, blank, and ignorant, and strange;
Proclaiming boldly that they never drew
A look or motion of intelligence
From infant conning of the Christ-cross-row,
Or puzzling through a Primer, line by line,
Till perfect mastery crown the pains at last.
—What kindly warmth from touch of fostering hand,
What penetrating power of sun or breeze,
Shall e'er dissolve the crust wherein his soul
Sleeps, like a caterpillar sheathed in ice?
This torpor is no pitiable work
Of modern ingenuity; no Town
Nor crowded City may be taxed with aught
Of sottish vice or desperate breach of law,
To which in after years he may be rouzed.
—This Boy the Fields produce: his spade and hoe,
The Carter's whip which on his shoulder rests
In air high-towering with a boorish pomp,
The sceptre of his sway; his Country's name,
Her equal rights, her churches and her schools,
What have they done for him? And, let me ask,
For tens of thousands uninformed as he?
In brief, what liberty of mind is here?"

This cheerful sally pleased the mild good Man,
To whom the appeal couched in those closing words
Was pointedly addressed; and to the thoughts
Which, in assent or opposition, rose
Within his mind, he seemed prepared to give
Prompt utterance; but, rising from our seat,
The hospitable Vicar interposed
With invitation earnestly renewed.
—We followed, taking as he led, a Path
Along a Hedge of stately hollies framed,
Whose flexile boughs, descending with a weight
Of leafy spray, concealed the stems and roots
That gave them nourishment. How sweet methought,
When the fierce wind comes howling from the north,
How grateful, this impenetrable screen!
Not shaped by simple wearing of the foot
On rural business passing to and fro
Was the commodious Walk; a careful hand
Had marked the line, and strewn the surface o'er
With pure cerulean gravel, from the heights
Fetched by the neighbouring brook.—Across the Vale
The stately Fence accompanied our steps;
And thus the Pathway, by perennial green
Guarded and graced, seemed fashioned to unite,
As by a beautiful yet solemn chain,
The Pastor's Mansion with the House of Prayer.

Like Image of solemnity conjoined
With feminine allurement soft and fair
The Mansion's self displayed;—a reverend Pile
With bold projections and recesses deep;
Shadowy, yet gay and lightsome as it stood
Fronting the noon-tide Sun. We paused to admire
The pillared Porch, elaborately embossed;
The low wide windows with their mullions old;
The cornice richly fretted, of grey stone;
And that smooth slope from which the Dwelling rose,
By beds and banks Arcadian of gay flowers
And flowering shrubs, protected and adorned.
Profusion bright! and every flower assuming
A more than natural vividness of hue,
From unaffected contrast with the gloom
Of sober cypress, and the darker foil
Of yew, in which survived some traces, here
Not unbecoming, of grotesque device
And uncouth fancy. From behind the roof
Rose the slim ash and massy sycamore,
Blending their diverse foliage with the green
Of ivy, flourishing and thick, that clasped
The huge round chimneys, harbour of delight
For wren and red-breast,—where they sit and sing
Their slender ditties when the trees are bare.
Nor must I pass unnoticed (leaving else
The picture incomplete, as it appeared
Before our eyes) a relique of old times
Happily spared, a little gothic niche
Of nicest workmanship; which once had held
The sculptured Image of some Patron Saint,
Or of the blessed Virgin, looking down
On all who entered those religious doors.

But lo! where from the rocky garden mount
Crowned by its antique summer-house—descends,
Light as the silver fawn, a radiant Girl;
For she hath recognized her honoured Friend,
The Wanderer ever welcome! A prompt kiss
The gladsome Child bestows at his request,
And, up the flowery lawn as we advance,
Hangs on the Old Man with a happy look,
And with a pretty restless hand of love.
—We enter;—need I tell the courteous guise
In which the Lady of the place received
Our little Band, with salutation meet
To each accorded? Graceful was her port;
A lofty stature undepressed by Time,
Whose visitation had not spared to touch
The finer lineaments of frame and face;
To that complexion brought which prudence trusts in
And wisdom loves.—But when a stately Ship
Sails in smooth weather by the placid coast
On homeward voyage, what—if wind and wave,
And hardship undergone in various climes,
Have caused her to abate the virgin pride,
And that full trim of inexperienced hope
With which she left her haven—not for this,
Should the sun strike her, and the impartial breeze
Play on her streamers, doth she fail to assume
Brightness and touching beauty of her own,
That charm all eyes. So bright to us appeared
This goodly Matron, shining in the beams
Of unexpected pleasure. Soon the board
Was spread, and we partook a plain repast.

Here in cool shelter, while the scorching heat
Oppressed the fields, we sate, and entertained
The mid-day hours with desultory talk;
From trivial themes to general argument
Passing, as accident or fancy led,
Or courtesy prescribed. While question rose
And answer flowed, the fetters of reserve
Dropped from our minds; and even the shy Recluse
Resumed the manners of his happier days.
He in the various conversation bore
A willing, and, at times, a forward part;
Yet with the grace of one who in the world
Had learned the art of pleasing, and had now
Occasion given him to display his skill
Upon the stedfast 'vantage ground of truth.
He gazed with admiration unsuppressed
Upon the landscape of the sun-bright vale,
Seen, from the shady room in which we sate,
In softened perspective; and more than once
Praised the consummate harmony serene
Of gravity and elegance—diffused
Around the Mansion and its whole domain;
Not, doubtless, without help of female taste
And female care.—"A blessed lot is yours!"
He said, and with that exclamation breathed
A tender sigh;—but, suddenly the door
Opening, with eager haste two lusty Boys
Appeared,—confusion checking their delight.
—Not Brothers they in feature or attire,
But fond Companions, so I guessed, in field,
And by the river-side—from which they come,
A pair of Anglers, laden with their spoil.
One bears a willow-pannier on his back,
The Boy of plainer garb, and more abashed
In countenance,—more distant and retired.
Twin might the Other be to that fair Girl
Who bounded tow'rds us from the garden mount.
Triumphant entry this to him!—for see,
Between his hands he holds a smooth blue stone,
On whose capacious surface is outspread
Large store of gleaming crimson-spotted trouts;
Ranged side by side, in regular ascent,
One after one, still lessening by degrees
Up to the dwarf that tops the pinnacle.
Upon the Board he lays the sky-blue stone
With its rich spoil;—their number he proclaims;
Tells from what pool the noblest had been dragged;
And where the very monarch of the brook,
After long struggle, had escaped at last—
Stealing alternately at them and us
(As doth his Comrade too) a look of pride.
And, verily, the silent Creatures made
A splendid sight, together thus exposed;
Dead—but not sullied or deformed by Death,
That seemed to pity what he could not spare.

But oh! the animation in the mien
Of those two Boys! Yea in the very words
With which the young Narrator was inspired,
When, as our questions led, he told at large
Of that day's prowess! Him might I compare,
His look, tones, gestures, eager eloquence,
To a bold Brook which splits for better speed,
And, at the self-same moment, works its way
Through many channels, ever and anon
Parted and reunited: his Compeer
To the still Lake, whose stillness is to the eye
As beautiful, as grateful to the mind.
—But to what object shall the lovely Girl
Be likened? She whose countenance and air
Unite the graceful qualities of both,
Even as she shares the pride and joy of both.

My grey-haired Friend was moved; his vivid eye
Glistened with tenderness; his Mind, I knew,
Was full; and had, I doubted not, returned,
Upon this impulse, to the theme—erewhile
Abruptly broken-off. The ruddy Boys
Did now withdraw to take their well-earned meal;
And he—(to whom all tongues resigned their rights
With willingness, to whom the general ear
Listened with readier patience than to strain
Of music, lute or harp,—a long delight
That ceased not when his voice had ceased) as One
Who from truth's central point serenely views
The compass of his argument,—began
Mildly, and with a clear and steady tone.