Word & Song by Anthony Esolen
Poem of the Week
Excerpt from The Excursion [Book First]

Excerpt from The Excursion [Book First]

William Wordsworth, 1814 (first edition)

When my mind returns to my childhood, I can’t say that I ever enjoyed the scenes that built up the soul of the young William Wordsworth, the author of our Poem of the Week, a short passage from his lifelong work, The Excursion. I was never a shepherd on the mountains. I never enjoyed day after day outdoors, from dawn to dusk, in any season but the summer, and even in the summer my days were too often broken up into small pieces, and spent too near the house. And still, what do I remember from that childhood?

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I remember the vacant lot near our house, where one day I picked wild cornflowers, to give them to my best girl, my mother. I remember the fruit trees in the back yard where we lived for two years, and picking apricots soft and fresh from the tree. I remember the low blueberry bushes that covered the bald top of a glacial outcrop, where I’d go in the summer with a big pail and pick the berries, while my dog was idling about, sometimes tugging a couple right from the bush.

I remember the fine sharp smell of the tomato vines in my grandfather’s garden, and the warmth of the fruit in summer, when I’d go and choose a couple for my mother, liking them best while there was still a little orange and green toward the stem. I remember the glint of the snow-crystals, tiny prisms, when the day was clear and cold, and the very shadows were blue. I remember the mellow orange of the sassafras leaves in the fall, and pulling up a shoot, cleaning away the dirt from the roots, and chewing on what tasted like mint and root beer. I remember the spiky branches of the quince tree from over the fence to our neighbor’s yard, and I remember thinking that it must be a cherry tree, so wonderfully red were its blossoms in the spring. I remember how the snow and the mud crusted over the ditch that drained a little creek from the woods in our neighborhood, with the water flowing freely beneath it.

I have not a single memory of the natural world that is anything but a comfort to me, and as I grow old, I want to sit in the sun and read a book, or shut my eyes and think of nothing but the people the good God has given me to know, and the things I have seen. I don’t mean things like the Washington Monument, or Michelangelo’s David, or the Eiffel Tower, though I have seen them and I am glad of it. I mean the cornflowers.

It’s odd to consider, though, how rich the created world is, and how foreign it is to most of us now. It’s there; it is full of quiet wonders; the cardinal still sings What-Cheer-Cheer-Cheer; the wintergreen still gives its fine scent to the summer sun; the sumac tree still sprouts its cones of fuzzy purple seeds that the deer like to eat; creeks warble away till they reach the housing development and its drains; and the sky still arches above.

And all these things are like balm to the soul. Man did not make them. They are the results of no government plan. They market no products. They are not for sale. They are gifts, simple and sure.

“David in the Wilderness, with Sheep,” William Dyce. Public domain.
Such was the Boy -- but for the growing Youth
What soul was his, when, from the naked top
Of some bold headland, he beheld the sun
Rise up, and bathe the world in light! He looked--
Ocean and earth, the solid frame of earth
And ocean's liquid mass, in gladness lay
Beneath him: -- Far and wide the clouds were touched,
And in their silent faces could he read
Unutterable love. Sound needed none,
Nor any voice of joy; his spirit drank
The spectacle: sensation, soul, and form,
All melted into him; they swallowed up
His animal being; in them did he live,
And by them did he live; they were his life.
In such access of mind, in such high hour
Of visitation from the living God,
Thought was not; in enjoyment it expired.
No thanks he breathed, he proffered no request;
Rapt into still communion that transcends
The imperfect offices of prayer and praise,
His mind was a thanksgiving to the power
That made him; it was blessedness and love!

  A Herdsman on the lonely mountain tops,
Such intercourse was his, and in this sort
Was his existence oftentimes possessed.
O then how beautiful, how bright, appeared
The written promise! Early had he learned
To reverence the volume that displays
The mystery, the life which cannot die;
But in the mountains did he feel his faith.
All things, responsive to the writing, there
Breathed immortality, revolving life,
And greatness still revolving; infinite:
There littleness was not; the least of things
Seemed infinite; and there his spirit shaped
Her prospects, nor did he believe, -- he saw.
What wonder if his being thus became
Sublime and comprehensive! Low desires,
Low thoughts had there no place; yet was his heart
Lowly; for he was meek in gratitude,
Oft as he called those ecstasies to mind,
And whence they flowed; and from them he acquired
Wisdom, which works through patience; thence he learned
In oft-recurring hours of sober thought
To look on Nature with a humble heart,
Self-questioned where it did not understand,
And with a superstitious eye of love.                   

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Word & Song by Anthony Esolen is an online magazine devoted to reclaiming the good, the beautiful, and the true. We publish six essays each week, on words, classic hymns, poems, films, and popular songs, as well a weekly podcast for paid subscribers, alternately Poetry Aloud or Anthony Esolen Speaks. Paid subscribers also receive audio-enhanced posts and on-demand access to our full archive, and may add their comments to our posts and discussions. To support this project, please join us as a free or paid subscriber. We value all of our subscribers, and we thank you for reading Word and Song!

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Word & Song by Anthony Esolen
Poem of the Week
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