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poem, commentary, criticism, analysis


William Wordsworth, Complete Poetical Works (1888, d38)
composed 1798 (28)

-----------The sky is overcast 
With a continuous cloud of texture close, 
Heavy and wan, all whitened by the Moon, 
Which through that veil is indistinctly seen, 
A dull, contracted circle, yielding light 
So feebly spread, that not a shadow falls, 
Chequering the ground- from rock, plant, tree, or tower. 
At length a pleasant instantaneous gleam 
Startles the pensive traveller while he treads 
His lonesome path, with unobserving eye 
Bent earthwards; he looks up -the clouds are split 
Asunder,--- and above his head he sees 
The clear Moon, and the glory of the heavens. 
There, in a black-blue vault she sails along, 
Followed by multitudes of stars, that, small 
And sharp, and bright, along the dark abyss 
Drive as she drives: how fast they wheel away, 
Yet vanish not! --- The wind is in the tree, 
But they are silent; still they roll along 
Immeasurably distant; and the vault, 
Built round by those white clouds, enormous clouds, 
Still deepens its unfathomable depth. 
At length the Vision closes; and the mind, 
Not undisturbed by the delight it feels, 
Which slowly settles into peaceful calm, 
Is left to muse upon the solemn scene.



A Night Piece goes some way towards demonstrating Wordsworth's idea that poetry is a strong emotion recalled later in tranquillity.

The poem is based in common experience, a man walking at night, presumably the poet, but equally well ourselves, who is surprised by the sudden appearance of the moon through an opening in the clouds. He observes the moon, and a multitude of stars which appear to be moving: 'how fast they wheel away, / Yet vanish not!' The paradox can be simply explained by the fact that the clouds are moving, and this gives a sense of movement to the moon and stars, but it nevertheless makes us reflect for a moment, and, in finding the solution to the apparent paradox, in arriving at an understanding, we begin to make the poem our own. The observer, gazing upwards, hears the same wind that is blowing the clouds across the sky in the tree nearby. But no sound comes from the vision above. He is left with a feeling of 'unfathomable depth', 'delight' and, finally, 'peaceful calm'.

 The poem forms a subtle dynamic between the narrator, the vision of the moon and stars seen through the clouds, and the reader, three points of reference which focus attention on, on the one hand, the immensity of the universe, and, on the other, the common experience of sentient beings, who are nonetheless part of that universe, and who are joined together in their insignificance and wonderment.

It describes an experience with which we can immediately identify, making the transition between the perception of the poet and our own understanding easy. We have walked on just such a night under the stars. We have seen the distant galaxies framed between the clouds, and felt the movement, and the immensity, the distance and the proximity, stood momentarily in awe at the magnificence of the universe, which we can take in so easily with a glance. Then our consciousness of a sound close at hand breaks the spell, 'the wind is in the tree', but reflection sends the mind back to the source of its inspiration, 'but they [the stars] are silent', and a second access of wonderment takes us into the vortex of the clouds and the moon and the stars and the 'unfathomable depth' until 'at length the Vision closes'.

 In this way, from this simple observation of the stars, the mind 'not undisturbed by the delight it feels, which slowly settles into peaceful calm', experiences what Wordsworth sees as the central experience of poetry: a strong emotion, followed by delight, followed by peaceful calm.

 In the Preface to the 1800 edition of Lyrical Ballads, we read

Now the music of harmonious metrical language, the sense of difficulty overcome, and the blind association of pleasure which has been previously received from works of rhyme or metre of the same or similar construction, all these imperceptibly make up a complex feeling of delight, which is of the most important use in tempering the painful feeling which will always be found intermingled with powerful descriptions of the deeper passions. This effect is always produced in pathetic and impassioned poetry; while in lighter compositions the ease and gracefulness with which the Poet manages his numbers are themselves confessedly a principal source of the gratification of the Reader.

This theoretical flourish serves to elucidate from a slightly different angle something of what is happening in the Night Piece. The central paradox of apparent movement and actual stillness (though the stars are, of course, all nevertheless really in motion), of the near and the far, of the possibility of registering with a glance a whole galaxy in an instant, and the consequent vertiginous shock of insignificance which this produces, does indeed give us something akin to a 'painful feeling', or at least a disturbing feeling, such as is 'found intermingled with powerful descriptions of the deeper passions', here man's insignificance in the face of the immensity of the universe. But it is the function of rhyme and metre to temper this painful feeling, with 'delight' which transforms into 'peaceful calm'. We have looked on the face of the deep, but Wordsworth has cleverly boxed the experience into a regular metrical form with its manifold pleasant suggestions, and we exit the experience wiser and calmer. In effect, the versification acts like a sugar coating to a bitter pill.

The whole process is, of course, dependent upon the possession of a certain poetic sensibility by the reader, a question also addressed by Wordsworth in the Preface:

.. Poems to which any value can be attached were never produced on any variety of subjects but by a man who, being possessed of more than usual organic sensibility, had also thought long and deeply.

He is here speaking of the poet, but it is clear that the same principles apply to the reader also: it is of little use proposing to a person with little or no poetic sensibility that looking at the stars might cause profound existential questions to arise in one's mind, and, for these people, the whole of Wordsworth's poetry can have little or no significance.

Wordsworth does not address directly what is actually the central issue of his poetry, he rather suggests it for us to experience for ourselves. If the poetic sensibility is not present in the reader, the whole thing fails to work. We are here close to the distinction that the Buddha makes between theoretical and experiential knowledge: to know theoretically that everything disappears and reappears 1027 times a second is one thing, to know from experience is another: to have a map of how to get somewhere is one thing, to have made the journey oneself is another.

Effectively, Wordsworth lays a trail for us to follow: we are walking at night, there is nothing exceptional around us: our attention is on the ground: we are suddenly aware of a light: we look up: we see the moon and stars, wheeling away: we wonder what is causing the movement we perceive: we see the 'dark abyss', the 'immeasurably distant' stars, and the 'unfathomable depth': the scene closes: and the mind, 'not undisturbed by the delight it feels, / .. slowly settles into peaceful calm'. In this way, we are led to the edge of the precipice, and brought back, but it is for us to look over the edge, if we can. Wordsworth leaves this central area completely open, free of the debris of, for example, religious thought. There is no God here, unless we wish to infer one. There is only the suggeston that if we go here, and look at this, and look with poetic sensibility, we might find something important, a Mystery, the Ineffable, the Infinite, something that connects everyone and everything, something which will produce in us disturbance, but also 'delight' and 'peaceful calm'.

Wordsworth talks of 'organic sensibility', but it is not really instructive to follow him into the pseudo-scientific labyrinth where he found the idea. We can understand what is meant far more easily through Blake's observation that for some people a tree is just 'a green thing that stands in the way'. It is simply poetic sensibility that is in question, and it is clear that this is not something that is just intelligence. Some of the most brutish and stupid commentaries on poetry are produced by highly intelligent people. The quality of poetic sensibility is probably much more closely allied to the spiritual quality of those who possess sixth sense, or who are sensitive to the influence of other worlds than our own, or who can see 'a World in a Grain of Sand and a Heaven in a Wild Flower', to use another expression from Blake.

A close parallel to the central experience related in this poem can be found in the Journals of Dorothy Wordsworth. She writes: The sky spread over with one continuous cloud, whitened by the light of the moon, which, though her dim shape was seen, did not throw forth so strong a light as to chequer the earth with shadows. At once the clouds seemed to cleave asunder, and left her in the centre of a black-blue vault. She sailed along, followed by multitudes of stars, small, and bright, and sharp. (JDW p4)

JDW The Journals of Dorothy Wordsworth, ed Helen Darbyshire, Oxford University Press (1958)

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