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Helvellyn from the North West, engraved by Thomas Allom

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poem and analysis

composed 1800 (30)

Written at Grasmere. The effect of her laugh is an extravagance; though the effect of the reverberation of voices in some parts of the mountains is very striking. There is, in the Excursion, an allusion to the bleat of a lamb thus re-echoed, and described without any exaggeration, as I heard it, on the side of Stickle Tarn, from the precipice that stretches on to Langdale Pikes.

AMID the smoke of cities did you pass
The time of early youth; and there you learned,
From years of quiet industry, to love
The living Beings by your own fireside,
With such a strong devotion, that your heart
Is slow to meet the sympathies of them
Who look upon the hills with tenderness,
And make dear friendships with the streams and groves.
Yet we, who are transgressors in this kind,
Dwelling retired in our simplicity
Among the woods and fields, we love you well,
Joanna! and I guess, since you have been
So distant from us now for two long years,
That you will gladly listen to discourse,
However trivial, if you thence be taught
That they, with whom you once were happy, talk
Familiarly of you and of old times.
While I was seated, now some ten days past,
Beneath those lofty firs, that overtop
Their ancient neighbour, the old steeple-tower,
The Vicar from his gloomy house hard by
Came forth to greet me; and when he had asked,
"How fares Joanna, that wild-hearted Maid!
And when will she return to us?" he paused;
And, after short exchange of village news,
He with grave looks demanded, for what cause,
Reviving obsolete idolatry,
I, like a Runic Priest, in characters
Of formidable size had chiselled out
Some uncouth name upon the native rock,
Above the Rotha, by the forest-side.
--Now, by those dear immunities of heart
Engendered between malice and true love,
I was not loth to be so catechised,
And this was my reply:--"As it befell,
One summer morning we had walked abroad
At break of day, Joanna and myself.
--'Twas that delightful season when the broom,
Full-flowered, and visible on every steep,
Along the copses runs in veins of gold.
Our pathway led us on to Rotha's banks;
And when we came in front of that tall rock
That eastward looks, I there stopped short--and stood
Tracing the lofty barrier with my eye
From base to summit; such delight I found
To note in shrub and tree, in stone and flower
That intermixture of delicious hues,
Along so vast a surface, all at once,
In one impression, by connecting force
Of their own beauty, imaged in the heart.
--When I had gazed perhaps two minutes' space,
Joanna, looking in my eyes, beheld
That ravishment of mine, and laughed aloud.
The Rock, like something starting from a sleep,
Took up the Lady's voice, and laughed again;
That ancient Woman seated on Helm-crag
Was ready with her cavern; Hammar-scar,
And the tall Steep of Silver-how, sent forth
A noise of laughter; southern Loughrigg heard,
And Fairfield answered with a mountain tone;
Helvellyn far into the clear blue sky
Carried the Lady's voice,--old Skiddaw blew
His speaking-trumpet;--back out of the clouds
Of Glaramara southward came the voice;
And Kirkstone tossed it from his misty head.
--Now whether (said I to our cordial Friend,
Who in the hey-day of astonishment
Smiled in my face) this were in simple truth
A work accomplished by the brotherhood
Of ancient mountains, or my ear was touched
With dreams and visionary impulses
To me alone imparted, sure I am
That there was a loud uproar in the hills.
And, while we both were listening, to my side
The fair Joanna drew, as if she wished
To shelter from some object of her fear.
--And hence, long afterwards, when eighteen moons
Were wasted, as I chanced to walk alone
Beneath this rock, at sunrise, on a calm
And silent morning, I sat down, and there,
In memory of affections old and true,
I chiselled out in those rude characters
Joanna's name deep in the living stone:--
And I, and all who dwell by my fireside,
Have called the lovely rock, JOANNA'S ROCK."

NOTE:--In Cumberland and Westmoreland are several Inscriptions, upon
the native rock, which, from the wasting of time, and the rudeness
of the workmanship, have been mistaken for Runic. They are without
doubt Roman.

The Rotha, mentioned in this poem, is the River which, flowing
through the lakes of Grasmere and Rydale, falls into Wynandermere.
On Helm-crag, that impressive single mountain at the head of the
Vale of Grasmere, is a rock which from most points of view bears a
striking resemblance to an old Woman cowering. Close by this rock
is one of those fissures or caverns, which in the language of the
country are called dungeons. Most of the mountains here mentioned
immediately surround the Vale of Grasmere; of the others, some are
at a considerable distance, but they belong to the same cluster.

By persons resident in the country and attached to rural objects, many places will be found unnamed or of unknown names, where little Incidents will have occurred, or feelings been experienced, which will have given to such places a private and peculiar interest. From a wish to give some sort of record to such Incidents or renew the gratification of such Feelings, Names have been given to Places by the Author and some of his Friends, and the following Poems written in consequence. WW 1800

Commentary

The 'Joanna' referenced here is ostensibly Wordsworth's wife's youngest sister, Joanna Hutchinson, who stayed with the Wordsworths for a time at Town End (now known as Dove Cottage), though the biographical details are not accurate (eg she was not in fact brought up 'amid the smoke of cities'). She is in fact one of the composite people created by Wordsworth in the pursuit of his art.

He first got to know Joanna when he and his sister Dorothy stayed at the Hutchinson's farm near Sockburn from May to December 1799. She was nineteen at the time, and, to judge from her correspondence, truly a 'wild hearted maid', as the vicar has it. They saw each other again when Mary Hutchinson came with a party of her family to stay at her grandparents house in Penrith early in 1800. Joanna, who was of the party, wrote to her brother George, who was himself something of a poet, 'Mr W. came for her. I never was so much in love in my life, as I was with your brother poet', 'her' being her sister Mary whom Wordsworth was to accompany to Town End, where his brother John Wordsworth was already staying. In the cramped conditions (Town End was basically a two up two down cottage), John inevitably fell in love with Mary, who was to marry William in 1802, setting the scene for a later, somewhat complex tragedy.

The idea of composite people and composite events is developed quite explicitly in Wordsworth's poetry and in his commentary on his poems. No doubt it is true of all imaginative writing that it is made up of elements from the real world stuck together with elements from the imagination of the poet in all sorts of combinations. Wordsworth theorises extensively about it. There are many advantages. The re-assembly of elements from the real world gives the end product a verisimilitude which it might otherwise lack. The fact that the poet is not slavishly recording exactly what happened gives latitude to the poetic imagination. And of course, the poet can avoid talking about things that it was not possible to talk about in the late Georgian / early Victorian period, by substituting analogous material and without necessarily stripping out the force of the emotion which stands behind an event. The memory of the real event which gave rise to the strong emotion is always there, but the event itself is transposed to another place, another time, another person, another epoch, or a different context. In all this, it is not necessarily easy for the reader to follow, or understand, and the experience takes on something of the aspect of a puzzle, where some of the pieces are given, and some not. If we accept that the poem is a powerful piece of writing, solving the puzzle is something akin to understanding the functioning of poetry, effectively the answer to the question 'what is poetry' and how does it function in relation to real life? To give a simple example, the story of Cinderalla in which the Prince seeks the girl with the small foot which fits the shoe has all the charm of poetry, but do we know why? If we substitute the literal sexual meaning of this search (ie penis and vagina for foot and shoe), the riddle is solved, but the poetry disappears.

The background and social context of a poem are, of course, quite distinct from the poem itself, which stands as a cultural artefact in its own right, and there comes a point at which one is justified in asking whether an investigation into this background is really necessary to understand the poem. The answer to this question depends partly on the poem. A poem with universal application to all human beings, which speaks across different societies but which is comprehensible in all societies comes closest to this ideal of being sufficient in itself without reference to background or context, if indeed it is an ideal. But there is so much societal baggage here that we are far from arriving at an understanding of the poem without studying its background. Among the questions that we need to answer are: who is Joanna, and what is her relationship to the poet?

There is no record of Joanna Hutchinson visiting Town End at this time, but as she was in fact only twenty miles away in Penrith, it is reasonable to assume that she paid a visit, particularly as her sister Mary was already there, and that the walk in the hills did in fact take place. The moment of eye contact when Joanna sees the poet's 'ravishment' at the prospect of the 'tall rock', and laughs out loud causes an imagined chain reaction in the mountains. Here the previous experience of hearing the bleat of a sheep so repeated in the mountains is grafted into the story. The reaction is seen as frightening Joanna, and she draws closer to the poet.

The phenomenon of Joanna's laugh echoing through the mountains is false: 'The effect of her laugh is an extravagance; though the effect of the reverberation of voices in some parts of these mountains is very striking. There is in The Excursion the bleat of a lamb thus re-echoed, and described wthout any exaggeration, as I heard it on the side of Stickle Tarn from the precipice that stretches on to Langdale Pikes.' The Fenwick Notes of William Wordsworth ed Jared Curtis (London, 1993)

The fact that the central experience of the poem, the laughter in the mountains, has been grafted in from elsewhere implies that it stands for something else, a different and powerful experience which perhaps the poet cannot talk about directly. Alone on the mountain with a young woman who has already expressed a sexual interest in him and who draws closer to him, Wordsworth would have to be a paradigm of sexual abstinence not to profit from the moment, and this he clearly was not, as evidenced by his previous affair with Annette Vallon, his French lover by whom he had a daughter in 1792. He could not talk about the experience directly: she was the younger sister of his intended bride, and, on top of this, sexual relations outside marriage were completely taboo at this period. So we get instead the story about the laughing mountains.

 The reaction of the surrounding mountains can only be described as orgasmic. He then does what lovers throughout the ages have done: he carves her name in the rock. The vicar takes the gesture to be an antiquarian exercise in rune making, as vicars do.

'Those dear immunities of heart engendered between malice and true love' is a tortuous expression. He is presumably referring to all of the likes and dislikes that do not go to either extreme. They are immune from being too far consumed by the very extreme of the emotion to be pleasant, ie the heart is not badly affected by any like or dislike that is not too extreme, and we can therefore take pleasure in them (both the likes and the dislikes). They are therefore dear to us.

Much of the philosophical background to Wordsworth's poetry was supplied through his association with Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who introduced him to the ideas of David Hartley (1705-1757). A philosopher and practising doctor, Hartley writes about the way in which he believes we come to have memories, thoughts and emotions by a process of sticking together simple sensations, all at the same time, or one after another. Wordsworth seems to have incorporated Hartley's ideas into his own view of the world, often using the schema to analyse moments of significant perception, a 'strong emotion recalled in tranquillity', which forms the core of his poetry. That is to say, an experience is worked up into poetry sometime later, giving the poet every latitude to change, emphasise, moderate, sharpen, compromise, or falsify.

There is clearly some sort of divorce between poetry and truth in following this process of patching together, unless a theory of 'superior' or 'poetic' truth is introduced, where the facts give way to the superior perception of the poet, and there is plenty of matter in Wordsworth's own critical writings to provide this theory, one element of which is the idea of the man of superior 'organic sensibility'.

At all events, it is the quality of the poetry that enables the whole to work: ie the imagery, rhythms, rhymes and facility of expression that convince us that what is described is true, even though it may not be, that turn the account into an organic whole, a work of art.


Arguably a superior craftsman of the poem, Alexander Pope uses his ability to a similar effect, but to rather different ends. Talking of his enemy John Hervey, 2nd Baron Hervey, he writes:

Let Sporus tremble - 'What? that thing of silk,
Sporus, that mere white curd of ass's milk?
Satire or sense, alas! can Sporus feel?
Who breaks a butterfly upon a wheel?
Yet let me flap this bug with gilded wings,
This painted child of dirt that stinks and stings;
Whose buzz the witty and the fair annoys,
Yet wit ne'er tastes, and beauty ne'er enjoys.

from Epistle to Dr Arbuthnot

The slick versification gives the sentiments a certain authenticity. The invective and the wit is remembered, the sour feeling excused, or forgot. In short, we will believe (and repeat) just about anything if it is well put, memorable, and made easy to swallow.

Wordsworth himself expresses the process thus:

 I have said that poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings; it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity; the emotion is contemplated till, by a species of reaction, the tranquillity gradually disappears, and an emotion, kindred to that which was before the subject of contemplation, is gradually produced, and does itself actually exist in the mind. In this mood successful composition generally begins, and in a mood similar to this it is carried on; but the emotion, of whatever kind, and in whatever degree, from various causes, is qualified by various pleasures, so that in describing any passions whatsoever, which are voluntarily described, the mind will, upon the whole, be in a state of enjoyment.

from Prelude to Lyrical Ballads, with Other Poems in Two Volumes (1800)

There is, of course, no mention of falsification, though falsification does in fact take place for various reasons, poetic, philosophic, moral.

He is finally careful to point out that every member of his ménage accepts what has happened: 'I, and all who dwell by my fireside'.

If we look more closely at the central issue of the falsificatiion of an experience to create poetry, it is evident that the process is similar to that by which a raconteur embellishes his story over time to make it more interesting, or by which individuals elaborate on an experience to add or enhance a paranormal element (visions, seeing ghosts etc). Wordsworth uses a similar process to arrive at what he sees as the central experience of poetry: emotion recalled in tranquillity. As poetry, the experience becomes a synthesis of sense experience, memory and poetic organisation. To those who believe that reliable knowledge of the world does not go beyond the information received by the senses, this will be of no interest. But for those who believe that we are capable of tuning into a world or worlds beyond, the idea is more fruitful, and what is seen initially as simply falsification becomes an adventure in perception and synthesis, no less valid than any other form of synthesis, by which we see, for example, a chair instead of just blocks of wood, or a police car instead of flashing lights: the only difference is that the level and sophistication of the synethesis is much greater, and, in particular, requires greater 'organic sensibility.'*

The process of poetic creation is further elucidated for us by Wordsworth in a manuscript note, and specifically with regard to the composition of this poem. Having explained that his purpose was originally to 'divert or partly play upon the Vicar', he goes on to recount that:

.. my mind partly forgets its purpose, being softened by the images of beauty in the description of the rock, and the delicious morning, and when I come to the 2 lines 'The Rock like something' etc, I am caught in the trap of my own imagination. I entirely lose sight of my first purpose. I take fire in the lines 'that ancient woman'. I go on in that strain of fancy 'Old Skiddaw' and terminate the description in tumult 'And Kirkstone' etc describing what for a moment I believed either actually took place at the time, or when I have been reflecting on what did take place I have had a temporary belief, in some fit of imagination, did really or might have taken place.

Expressed in the language of the generation previous to Wordsworth, it is, of course, the poetic muse that is leading him (his 'fit of imagination'), and the truth that he finds is a poetic truth, not a scientific or everyday truth. This poetic truth is an assemblage of sense experience, memory, imagination, intellect and versification. The fact that it is an assemblage of all these elements is one reason at least why attempts by the intellect to explain poetry inevitably fail, no matter how erudite they may be: in taking it apart, in disassembling it, in the process of intellectual analysis, it ceases to work, and those who follow this path are led into lamentable reductions of their subject, achieving very little other than to turn gold into base matter. Perhaps it may be argued that the intellect, having once broken the work into pieces, may proceed with its Cartesian program to understand and re-synthesize what it knows, but, of course, the process fundamentally alters the nature of what is being studied. In short, it is no longer poetry. The intellect may give clues as to where the central poetic experience is to be found, but it must be experienced, not observed, dissected or analysed, in order to be understood. The best thing to do, and what Wordsworth in fact does repeatedly, is to lead the reader to the point where he may experience for himself the nature of the poetic experience, and there leave him to see for himself, or not.

To recapitulate: Wordsworth's poetry is often the embodiment of the process by which we may come to understand poetic truth. It is first and foremost a truth which we must seize for ourselves. We are led to it by the silken thread of his poetry. It is a process which appeals for its effectiveness as much to the unconscious as to the conscious mind (in other words, the whole mind), and its functioning as poetry depends on the poetic susceptibility of the reader.

Returning again to the poem itself, we see that there are two moments of close physical intimacy. The first occurs in the line:

Joanna, looking in my eyes ...

And it is this first intimacy which triggers the orgasmic reaction in the mountains. The second moment occurs in the lines:

And, while we both were listening, to my side
The fair Joanna drew, as if she wished
To shelter from some object of her fear.

The experience is then suddenly terminated by a gap of 'eighteen moons'. Time for reflection, time for poetic synthesis, for falsification.

We might compare another poem to this one:
Louisa: after accompanying her on a mountain excursion
composed (probably) 1801 - published 1807

I met Louisa in the shade,
And, having seen that lovely maid,
Why should I fear to say
That, nymph-like, she is fleet and strong,
And down the rocks can leap along
Like rivulets in May.

And she has smiles to earth unknown;
Smiles, that with motion of their own
Do spread, and sink, and rise;
That come and go with endless play,
And ever, as they pass away,
Are hidden in her eyes.

She loves her fire, her cottage-home;
Yet o'er the moorland will she roam
In weather rought and bleak;
And, when against the wind she strains,
Oh! might I kiss the mountain rains
That sparkle on her cheek.

Take all that's mine 'beneath the moon,'
If I with her but half a noon
May sit beneath the walls
Of some old cave, or mossy nook,
When up she winds along the brook
To hunt the waterfalls.

It has been noted that the following pseudonyms occur in Wordsworth's poetry: Emmeline for Dorothy (his sister), Laura for Dora (his daughter), Edward for Basil (Montagu) or Johnnie (Wordsworth's eldest son). It will be observed that there is in each case an agreement in the number of syllables, but there is nothing to indicate that Louisa stands for Joanna.(?) And what of 'hunting waterfalls'? She cannot do this sitting in a cave.

* organic sensibility: see Wordsworth's Preface to the 1800 edition of Lyrical Ballads.

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