385. (William Wordsworth)

It is a beauteous evening, calm and free,

The holy time is quiet as a Nun

Breathless with adoration; the broad sun

Is sinking down in its tranquility;

The gentleness of heaven broods o’er the Sea;

Listen! the mighty Being is awake,

And doth with his eternal motion make

A sound like thunder—everlastingly.

Dear child! dear Girl! that walkest with me here,

If thou appear untouched by solemn thought,

Thy nature is not therefore less divine:

Thou liest in Abraham’s bosom all the year;

And worshipp’st at the Temple’s inner shrine,

God being with thee when we know it not.

“Beauteous” and not “beautiful”—a hint of “glorious” and also lacking the fullness of “beautiful,” which matters in a poem, and to a poet, who expands horizons and sees into depths without presuming to fathom or fill them. “Calm,” ok, but “free”: for whom, of what? Of even the thought of what might otherwise encumber or enclose it, and these displaced, set by a comma after “evening,” rather than in a list before where they would load the phrase with too much adjectival ore. Appearing where they do, they are not afterthoughts but consummations of the thought of what it is to be beauteous; appearing where they do, they are freed both from syntactical bustle, and can be felt to stand sufficient, calm on their own, applying to all things at that moment, and not just the evening, freed themselves from the adjectival service; appearing where they do, they permit an ambiguity, so that their surrounding commas lend them both detachment from “evening” and “holy time,” as well as continuity with both,  so that what unites “evening” and “holy time” is these two adjectives, holding both lines in a span without breaking the arc with a pause greater than a comma, suspending, calmly, the syntactical possibilities, and not placing strain on either; appearing where they do, they look out, in characteristic Wordsworth fashion, onto the blank space of a line-ending; and appearing where they do, they suggest, without the interruption of a first person, who has been sublimated into the open expanse of the evening, the presence of the poet, applying as much to him as to the evening or the holy time.

The simile is slippery and subtle; it is the quiet that is chief in the poet’s mind, and most important about the experience, and the hushed Nun in breathless prayer is very quiet, but the real work is of course between “holy” and “Nun. The simile invites but also preserves distance between the “holy time” and Christianity, since “as a Nun,” by telling us that the evening is holy in a way that a Nun is holy also invites us to see that it holy in another way, too. Nuns are Catholic, also, and decidedly foreign, and so we are being asked to compare the holiness of the evening to a holiness that would not be found in Westminster, or even in Revolutionary France (which might be relevant on account of its anti-Clerical policies); this is a nostalgic or alien notion of holiness, but the Nun really serves as a standard of holiness, an imaginative measure, and not a definition of it; it is the same quantity, but a different quality or substance altogether. She is “breathless” but “breathless” is also the absence of a spirit (the holy breath), but it also draws attention to her not needing to breathe; her inner breath is subsumed in the greater breath and spirit without her, as the evening dissolves the interior and exterior senses. “Adoration” is not admiration, the “ora” of the former suggesting a vocal outcry towards something; voiced or sung praise. But here too the simile has so many byways as to connect back to the other parts of the poem even where the syntax does not insist on such connections: Wordsworth’s poem is also an act of adoration, quiet because on the page, but voice because in language; just as “calm and free” seemed to be both describing the poet and the evening, though, the quiet of the evening is here compared to an act of adoration, though it would seem to be adoring what is holy in its own presence; it reveres and reveres itself, and this sufficiency is itself a source of calm. “Being” is the most pagan of notes in the poem so far, since it is “the” and not “a”: this comes close to the pantheism of all being resembling a Being, with “mighty” suggesting will and strength. It does not descend from the heavens; it is coincident to all that has come before. If it is awake, it is because Wordsworth has found within himself the calm and quiet to see the calm and quiet this way; he has opened himself up to its possibility.

The sun is broad because on the horizon, magnified, but it is broad also because its light illuminates the horizon, which is broad. The word both contrasts to the image of the narrow cloistered existence of the nun, but it also seems to be the root of the image, hard not to hold in mind, of a wide-open expanse of sky. “Sinking down in its tranquillity” generates ambiguity from a pronoun: because is it tranquil, it sinks down; it is tranquilly sinking down; it is also sinking down into its tranquillity, settling into tranquillity. “Down” is, though less powerful, analogous to “up” in “raise up a single stone” in “Michael”: analogous because unnecessary for the sense, but insisting on direction. The effect is mysterious.

The dove broods on the unformed heavens; “the gentleness of heaven broods o’er the sea”: brood menaces but also nurtures, a brooding hen and a contemplative intensity, and “gentleness of heaven” admits that heaven has other aspects, whether it is the sky or god; it broods “o’er” and not “upon,” its gentleness forbearing touch, the gentleness distant but everywhere. Maybe one effect of “down” is to pull against “o’er” (another, come to think of it, might be to give a sense of the depth through which it sinks, as “into” deepens the human heart in “Tintern Abbey”). “Broods” can mean both nurture and contemplate, with the “Listen” breaking out of both the proverbial egg and the process of thought. Such a line of thought supposes what is consistently implied: that the “gentleness of heaven” is as much in Wordsworth as without, so that “Listen” is the consequence of Wordsworth’s own brooding thought. “Sea” is not a pun, but the move from “Sea” to “Listen” shifts the poem from the hitherto silent visual to the sound of the next three lines; the interruption breaks also the octet, unevenly. In the next line, “his” is lower-case, against God. These lines are naked in their vision, but they imply also some sort of article of faith in “eternal” and “everlastingly.” How could Wordsworth know? The latter word makes sense of why it can only be a sound like thunder: thunder passes. So it is not very like thunder at all. But “like thunder” also leaves open that it might be different in other ways too—namely, even though Wordsworth has said “Listen,” we are justified in wondering if this is something that can be heard without. “Like thunder” would seem to suggest that it is like thunder but not necessarily a sound interrupting the gentleness of the heavens, but instead a sound heard within their gentleness; something Wordsworth hears without by listening within.

“Listen!” has already alerted us to audience or companionship, the “dear Child” of the final sestet. With her appearance, the poem is “placed,” and grounded, so that he does what we assumed him to be doing, walking, but does it “here.” That word would seem entirely unnecessary: where else would she be. But that question of necessity raises the possibility that he could have otherwise been addressing an absent companion who walks with him here. But then, that in turn, suggests that it might nonetheless be the case that she is absent, and that she walks with him there, “here,” but not elsewhere; that it is really being in that place, on that particular evening, that has made her appear to him, and that what she represents is the real payoff of the evening—it’s not the “mighty Being” but her, though she can only appear  when, or her appearance in his mind, her imagined or remembered presence, suggests that, the mighty Being is awake.  With the possibility that she is really there or only remembered held in suspense, we can read the next line as ambiguous: “If thou appear untouched by solemn thought” can be read “if you appear to me to be without a solemn thought in your head,” or it can be “if you appear before me, suddenly, in mind, untouched by my solemn thoughts” or it can be “if you appear before me, suddenly, in my mind, as if you were  untouched by any solemn thoughts.” The second half of the conditional raises another question: why it would be that her having a solemn thought would be a sign of her divinity. Are solemn thoughts divine? This is one reason why I think “untouched by solemn thought” might refer to Wordsworth’s own thoughts touching her: he does not need to be solemn to respect her divinity. But if it is her own thoughts, and if Wordsworth suggests that solemn thoughts make nature more divine, then it is perhaps because this entire poem suggests that the presence of divinity cannot be separated from how one things and how one sees the world, so that a solemn sense of things, or a sense of the solemnity of things, is itself a mark of divinity. The line is also interesting because it is the first time the poem seems to overtly argue: someone has suggested she is less divine if less touched by solemn thoughts. The obvious candidate is of course Wordsworth himself, and that is a pleasing thought since the “solemn” might be thought too valued by Wordsworth, too much his own inclination. Here, he pulls against it. It might also be that he himself cannot bring himself to touch her with one of the solemn thoughts that issued forth in, say, the lines immediately preceding, about the very solemn mighty Being, but that he nonetheless does not want anyone to think—or even to let himself think—that she is less divine as a consequence.

“Abraham’s Bosom” puts us right back into the world of Judeo-Christianity, though it is probably worth stressing the Judeo, so that Wordsworth is even here resisting the Christian; he is going back to something earlier, to a notion of God that, even if singular, is more actively present and presently active as a pagan deity might have been. Abraham’s Bosom is that special seat of the afterlife, a sacred space, but also for the dead. Here is further support for the elegiac reading, wherein her ghostly presence has suddenly appeared to Wordsworth; of course, it is Wordsworth’s son that died, but the Lucy poems are about death, and so it would not be surprising if he invoked a dead presence here, without feeling the need to be true to his own biography. But it might also be that she is inaccessible, that in her childhood, she worships at the Judaic inner temple. I’d stress that the opposition is not between Christianity and Paganism, in the poem, but between his pagan instinct and her Judaic religious experience; Wordsworth would like to cut out Christianity altogether, once the Nun has been given her due. He certainly does not want for the child to be associated with the Nun; her worship is entirely other. I suspect more research would be required to better grasp the significance of the inner shrine. At least one relevant fact, which would have been known to Wordsworth, is that the temple was destroyed; this does align her with the Nun, whose cloisters would have likewise been demolished. But it also is temporally further afield, so that her holiness is all the more impressive because it seems animated by another time, by another history that has been lost. Maybe Wordsworth is inching towards a typology, wherein the child is to be aligned with a figure in the Old Testament; but that cannot be resolved. She is as closed to him as a worshipper in the inner shrine of the Temple.

None of this has been a simile. Wordsworth is not writing that she seems as if she were in Abraham’s bosom or as if she worshipped at the inner shrine of the Temple. Here, the simile is, as the first one is not, implied, since we cannot believe she really is in the latter place, even if we do believe she is dead and in the former (Abraham’s Place). But that possibility even is dislodged by the final line, since God walks with her wherever she goes; she is not bound by place. This is the only “God” in the poem, but the effect of the poem has been to purge it of Christianity, or at least to load it with other religious possibilities, to suggest not just pantheism but a god that contains all. We realize that she can be said directly to lie in Abraham’s Bosom and worship at the Temple’s Inner Shrine because it is the case that God is with her when we know it like. Even the Judaic framework, it seems, was invoked because of the measure or standard it provides—a secrecy, an exclusivity, a sense of place attached to ritual and worship—all of which characterize her relationship to God all of the time, no matter where she is (the Temple’s destruction did not mark the end of Judaism).

“We” is the great mystery of the last line: a “we” of all, including the reader? Or a “we” that encompasses the child, who is herself unaware? Or a “we” of another group? If the former, it is to say that there is a way in which God can be with a person even when we do not know it—though of course the poem does purport to know. If the latter, a sense that God can be with us even when we ourselves are unaware. The latter avoids the contradiction of the former, and unites beautifully her consciousness of herself with her consciousness of her, a final dissolution of self and world, but this time a dissolving of self and other, of I and you. But perhaps the stress is on “know.” We know it not, but feel it, or suspect it. A corollary thought might be to ask whether the entire poem testifies to an experience of the numinous that cannot be fully shared or communicated–even despite the poem–so that all of the imagery of Abraham’s Bosom and the inner shrine are intended as a contrast: not only are these private spaces, but they are publically private spaces, whereas the poem as a whole imagines a religious experience, a sense of a holy presence, that is not contained within, or expressive in terms of, ritualized and communal categorizations of sacred and profane, private and public. God is with him, too, when others know it not; so he trusts in, even if he cannot know, the different sense of God that she carries, even without solemnity of occasion that characterizes the poem’s first five or even eight lines. It becomes a poem of shared solitary undersanding. “Not” gets the final word, is the final word, because the poem settles on negation, on exclusion, on doubt, on the absence of noise, the absence of movement, which has allowed for the presence of the poem to be what it is, and for the presence that is never fully seen, but only felt, in the poem to reveal itself, to the extent that it does. Nonethless, “not” looks back to, not exactly chime, but reach towards a rhyme with “thought.” It is a poem that affirms thought’s power to free, to negate, to carve out a space that is not shared, not knowable, analogous to, but not identifiable with, what we can understand of the world.


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