A Star for Navigation
Every work begins as an intimation and discovery. Like the first time as a child we walk to the edge of a Yorkshire field, glimpse a new horizon, and immediately want to go there. We do not know where the horizon will take us. We have a glimmering, an inclination, a notion that somehow we will find something beyond our present knowledge. The excitement is palpable and belongs to the horizon and our young anticipatory bodies at the same time. We run toward it, glad and unthinking, the mere presence of horizon itself grants us a sense of freedom. This sense of freedom is not confined to physical landscape. I remember the absolute sense of excitement at nine years old, when I picked up my first book of poetry and read it as if I had discovered a secret code to my future life—which, as it turned out, I had. In it I glimpsed an imaginative, literate horizon which was worth taking a lifetime to reach. I had the same experience at twelve years old when I first saw Jacques Cousteau on our tiny black-and-white television screen and conceived the strange notion of studying marine biology. To my young mind, the small, rounded square of the television set on which he and his ship Calypso appeared, represented an unaccountable vastness; it gave me a feeling that there was work in the world that could sail you off the small screen of your present life into something astonishing and indescribable, a world inhabited by creatures and tidal forces unfamiliar and deliciously wild. It was life as horizon and excitement.
Each of us, somewhere in the biography of our childhood, remembers a moment where we felt a portion of the world calling and beckoning to us. We are creatures of belonging, and as our growing consciousness as a child forms we look for the expressions of our belonging in every quarter. Out of this sense of belonging, the world seems to call to us, to recognize us, and to speak to us directly, the voice itself an embodiment of our particular nature and the way that nature finds a home in the world. At best, this conversation between ourselves and the world becomes our work. Sometimes we are able to remember and follow the flow of this conversation, but sometimes as a child we were made to feel powerless by the enclosing adult world, and were bullied into forgetting the horizon it represented. Later, in the middle of the road of our adult lives, in a state of utter forgetfulness, we may wake like Dante, in a dark wood, looking for some inner compass bearing that will steer us to the freedom of that horizon again. The inner compass almost always leads us back toward that childhood we have spent so much time trying to leave behind. We return there not to become a child again but to remember those instinctual joys which filled our imaginations and growing bodies and set our enthusiastic course into the world. There is something trustable about the original enthusiasms of the very young that point directly toward the way we are made.
The poet Wordsworth is probably the most famous investigator of this phenomenon. At twenty-eight, snowbound in the winter of 1798-1799, in a small and unwelcoming German hill town with his sister, Dorothy, Wordsworth felt as far from his work and vocation as he ever would: lost, directionless, bereft of inspiration, all of his previous youthful enthusiasm burned down to nothing. In that frozen winter they had for company only their landlady, a French priest, and a deaf neighbor with bad teeth. He later lamented to a friend about the awfulness of the situation: “With bad German, bad English, bad French, bad hearing and bad utterance you will imagine we have had very pretty dialogues.” In the midst of this chilly, inarticulate exile, with the direct emotional help of his sister, he began to call on the only resource available to him: his own physical memories of what it had meant as a child to grow amid the mountains and lakes of his native Cumbria.
He began with the memory of himself as a five-year-old child by the river Derwent: “A naked savage, in the thunder shower.” Then, as Stephen Gill says in his biography of the poet,
Wordsworth releases memories of birds nesting among the perilous crags, of snaring woodcocks in the moonlight, of hooting to the owls across Windemere, and of stealing a rowing boat on Ullswater. The tone of the verse is awed, reverent, above all grateful for the process by which a ten-year-old could hold
With eternal beauty drinking in
A pure organic pleasure from the lines
Of curling mist, or from the smooth expanse
Of waters coloured by the cloudless moon.
Through the physical aliveness of deep memory, Wordsworth not only kept faith with his newly forming identity as a poet but, by winter’s end, had composed 400 lines of blank verse. Lines which were to form the core of his adult poetic voice and the basis of his greatest work, The Prelude.