I once enjoyed a gamboling lamb as much as the next pastoralist, and hiking, too—through forests, over peaks—but Wordsworth, laureate of the Lakes, has maddened me. In life and verse, he set an irresistible but inaccessible standard of contact: of enlivening intimacy with wind, water, earth, and sun—a marriage of mind and matter in which mind never feels abandoned.
Depressed and isolated, I have craved this union. I have studied Wordsworth assiduously. I have become an expert in the Romantic school of which he is the prime exemplar. For twenty years, I have taught his poetry. I have memorized the daffodil poem, “I Wandered Lonely As a Cloud.” This flower I have pressed into a book of his poems. I’ve already undertaken two pilgrimages to the Lakes.
But poet’s abundance has mocked my poverty. When I glimpse the blooms he immortalized, and so gorgeously described—buttery, frilly, dancing in the breeze—they hiss to me: loser. They make the hurt worse, my self-loathing sharper. I’d kill Wordsworth if I saw him on the road.
April 2012. I’m leading a group of students from my American university to the Lakes. We check into a hostel in Grasmere. Within hours, many claim to have been transformed, as the poet was, by the landscape’s grandeur. They speak of epiphanies, conversions. I nod, professorially. But I don’t believe it: twenty-year-old greenhorns entering blissfully the twilight’s pomegranate glow, opening to the tender, cool air, and becoming In Touch with Nature. After all, if I, professional Wordsworth guru, can’t blend with the evening’s tints, then surely they can’t. Why should they imbibe the currents while I suffocate in my own gasses? Resentment, I find, is gross, like adult acne.
Pitifully, I retain hope. Maybe this time, I think. I sneak away and squat by Lake Grasmere, gazing at the swells, how they rise gleaming from the ancient dark water and then felicitously glissade. I labor to purge my mind’s miasma, to expose arteries for these streams to traverse. But my brain won’t stop fuming words and more words. say, Dry up. The cerebrum huffs about failure, huffs about huffing about failure; puffs into dissertations on my inferiority; taunts me (“You might as well have been a banker”); tempts me (“Have a scotch”). The panting of the overzealous hunter scares away the game.
I blame Gilpin as much as Wordsworth. In the late eighteenth century, William Gilpin published a travel guide on the picturesque scenes of the Lake District: rugged cliffs crisscrossed in periwinkle; the half-ruined cottage on the gusty heath. His inspiration was the artist Claude. The landscapes of this seventeenth-century Italian were extremely fashionable in Gilpin’s Britain, sending urbanites in search of rustic panoramas. Many traded their monocles for the “Claude Glass,” a convex mirror, tinted black, size of a goose egg, in which they could view reflections of their favorite prospects, rounded, muted, and concentrated to resemble their beloved paintings.
A man summits a mountain. In the valley below, close to a copse, decays a medieval abbey. He removes from his knapsack a tinted disk. He turns his back to the vista and gazes into the glass. Nature turns art, more haunting in the somber mirror than ever in the naked eye.
This climber is simply taking to an extreme all deliberate attempts to catch nature’s glamour. When we go outdoors in pursuit of the aesthetic, we want the wild to turn pretty as a picture, and we don’t need an actual Claude glass to contort the world to fit our fancy. The Wordsworth verses lodged in our brains are specula that shape our sights to the Romantic’s temper, excluding elements that won’t glimmer in the glass, accentuating those that do. Once the glass is inserted—and it is, from the first perusal of Wordsworth’s verse—you can’t get it out again. Christians might call this institution of self-awareness the fall of man: realizing you’re naked, hastening to hide the flesh. To be east of Eden is to enjoy no more animated experience, spontaneity, communion; there is only the awkwardness of the mind watching itself watch itself.
My final day in the District, I hustled from Grasmere to Helm Crag, three miles of climbing. It was still dark. I had relinquished revelation; this was just some quick cardio before the drive back to London. I stood on the crag long enough to catch my breath, and then I started my descent of the rocky slope. I missed a switchback, found myself in boggy grass. A triangle-shaped stone rested in the middle, size of an ax head. I squished over, thinking my ten-year-old daughter, who was traveling with me, might find it interesting. I got close: no stone, instead a sheep skull.
Jade-colored mold mottles the snout bone, crocodile tapered, color of chalk rubble. Teeth jagged underneath, sad chipped molars. Behind the hollowed-out eyes, grayish caverns, rough-smooth like desert pumice, days ago stained with brain rot. I touch the thing, skittish. Then I pull back my fingers; leave the head where it lies. I stand. I inhale. I tilt to take in the sky. It is like I’ve never seen it before, ashen, seeming on the edge of committing an act not executed before: dangerous, conclusive. I feel myself somewhere between premonition and déjà vu: something awful will happen; it’s occurred before. My child flashes into my head. I need to return before breakfast. She’ll be hungry. I push away the feelings of dread and regret and go down to the valley. It is buried in fog. I find the trail again. At every switch I glance back in the direction the skull, up to the portentous firmament, and think, I should have tarried.
When I enter the hostel’s lobby, I come across some of my students. They have returned from their own jaunts. Each gushes about how she greeted the sunrise by reciting Wordsworth. One chose the daffodil poem.
Sheltered now from the sky, I tense into the professor. I almost say, with faux pretense, “Ah,” and then quote the final stanza about the “bliss of solitude.” Before I can open my mouth, another of the poet’s passages slides into my throat, from “The Prelude,” where he describes how, when a youth, after stealing a boat, he heard the surrounding peaks rasp indecipherable admonishments. For several days after, his brain “Worked with a dim and undetermined sense / Of unknown modes of being,” and over his thoughts there “hung a darkness, call it solitude / Or blank desertion.” Then “huge and mighty forms, that do not live / Like living men, moved slowly through the mind / By day, and were a trouble to [his] dreams.”
In the silence at the end of these lines, my students stared at the floor. Unaware, I had spoken with unseemly fervor on matters strange to them. As they stepped away, I realized that they favored Wordsworth when their inner mirrors were smooth and polished, reflecting what they desired, sweetly, to believe: we can know this world and love it. But when their teacher’s own mirror cracked and the jag ripped through the horizon—they wanted nothing of this. I went to find my daughter.
Sometimes we are lucky, as I was that morning. Vigilance flags. We stop guarding the glass, and a stray shard fractures the surface. All goes slant for a moment. And in that moment, there is a kind of grace, painful as it is ecstatic: we sense something more and feel in our marrow, This is what I’ve been missing, raw, unspeakable, grotesque, necessary, the eerie is-ness we try to hide, the reality that must be real because no one in his right mind would want it to be. We might find this opening once or twice and glimpse the forbidden inside. Then the authorities appear. Learning is not fun. Wordsworth is better than the lambs that made his reputation. He tripped over some sheep skulls in his time. I bet he killed some of these beasts himself, when they were still young. Just for the hell of it. He smote them with stones, rough, oval, more opaque than earth.
Eric G. Wilson is the Thomas H. Pritchard Professor of English at Wake Forest University and author of several books, including Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy, Everyone Loves a Good Train Wreck: Why We Can’t Look Away, and The Mercy of Eternity: A Memoir of Depression and Grace.