Wordsworth’s Prelude: Stealing a Boat on Derwent Water

Wordsworth is a key figure in Reggie’s understanding of dharma. Strange that a 19th Century Cumbrian poet should feature so strongly in a 20th Century American Buddhist scholar’s worldview but he does. 

I studied Wordsworth’s autobiographical poem, ‘The Prelude’, at school and was always struck by some of his childhood recollections of moments of sublime awe. Moments when the state of Pure Awareness that Reggie talks about breaks through and we are jarred into a new relationship with the World around us. 

In this section from the first book, he recalls stealing a boat and rowing out into the centre of  Derwent Water…

One summer evening (led by her) I found

A little boat tied to a willow tree

Within a rocky cave, its usual home.

Straight I unloosed her chain, and stepping in

Pushed from the shore. It was an act of stealth

And troubled pleasure, nor without the voice

Of mountain-echoes did my boat move on;

Leaving behind her still, on either side,

Small circles glittering idly in the moon,

Until they melted all into one track

Of sparkling light. But now, like one who rows,

Proud of his skill, to reach a chosen point

With an unswerving line, I fixed my view

Upon the summit of a craggy ridge,

The horizon’s utmost boundary; far above

Was nothing but the stars and the grey sky.

She was an elfin pinnace; lustily

I dipped my oars into the silent lake,

And, as I rose upon the stroke, my boat

Went heaving through the water like a swan;

When, from behind that craggy steep till then

The horizon’s bound, a huge peak, black and huge, 

As if with voluntary power instinct,

Upreared its head. I struck and struck again,

And growing still in stature the grim shape

Towered up between me and the stars, and still,

For so it seemed, with purpose of its own

And measured motion like a living thing,

Strode after me. With trembling oars I turned,

And through the silent water stole my way

Back to the covert of the willow tree;

There in her mooring-place I left my bark,—

And through the meadows homeward went, in grave

And serious mood; but after I had seen

That spectacle, for many days, my brain

Worked with a dim and undetermined sense

Of unknown modes of being; o’er my thoughts

There hung a darkness, call it solitude

Or blank desertion. No familiar shapes

Remained, no pleasant images of trees,

Of sea or sky, no colours of green fields;

But huge and mighty forms, that do not live

Like living men, moved slowly through the mind

By day, and were a trouble to my dreams.

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1 Comment

  • Jane Bell says:

    I wonder if Reggie ever came to my home town, Cockermouth, his birthplace!
    I would have gladly hosted him!
    And belated birthday wishes to you!

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