Archive for the ‘William Wordsworth’ Category


poem is on first tier of plant shelf

Forgive the unpolished copies of these poems and quotes, the yellow notepaper, the terrible handwriting, though I did try my best. This is what happens when Poem Elf has an idea but no printer, no scotch tape and no finesse with a pen.


My idea was to honor two people who are gone and much missed. This post is a memorial of sorts for a friend’s brother who died six years ago today and for another friend’s sister who died just three days ago.


My friend’s brother was an exceedingly kind man. He liked to leave quarters here and there for people to find and also liked to tuck them in birthday cards to his many nieces and nephews. My friend’s sister, an illustrious and national figure, was known for mentoring countless people. She was never too busy to meet with those trying to get a foothold in her field, including, once, my own niece, who described her as “very kind and interesting.” Which is an excellent way to be remembered. Much better than being remembered as “kind of interesting.”


So I left quarters and poems around my local grocery store to remember them. The random placement of quarters was the one’s habit and the other’s avocation (allow me to stretch the metaphor a little), best expressed by Dolly Levi in Hello, Dolly!: “Money, pardon the expression, is like manure,” she says. “It’s not worth a thing unless it’s spread around, encouraging young things to grow.” (Just substitute “kindness” for “money” and you have a tribute to a great mentor.)


poem is on stone ledge by bush

This next one I may have mentioned before, but it’s a favorite of mine, often coming to the forefront of my thoughts. It’s from Emile by Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

poem is on curb in foreground


If you have a quarter, leave it somewhere. Leave behind a “little, nameless, unremembered act.”

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Last weekend I went on a spending spree in New York City.  Unfortunately for the economy, it was a poem-elfing kind of spending spree.  I hoard poems for future occasions the way some people keep money in special accounts for emergencies.  I decided to “spend” my poems in our most literary of cities.


Here’s my Sunday in New York, in reverse order.


Walking back to my hotel from Central Park, I came across an enormous, street-closing parade celebrating El Salvador.  And here was this little sweetie, just finished with her gig on a parade float.  I handed her Byron’s “She Walks in Beauty” and asked if I could take her picture.  Living in New York, she is surely used to nutcases and was agreeable to my request.  I told her the poem was about a rare beauty.  I hope she hangs on to it her whole life.


I love that little mouth, so serious above the poem.  “A mind at peace with all below/ A heart whose love is innocent!”


Earlier in Central Park I left Grace Paley’s “Whistlers” on a tree by the Bethesda Fountain.

poem is on tree in foreground


I’ve had this poem for years and years and find it funny but I still don’t completely understand the last stanza.


Near the stairs above the fountain I left Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “Pied Beauty.”

poem is in the shadows on the right-hand side of picture, halfway up


Hopkins poem is about nature.  But putting it here made me think of why I love New York.  “All things counter, original, spare, strange” : could there be a better description of New Yorkers?


The other great thing about New York is that no one bats an eye when behavior is unusual.  Even so, I was a little self-conscious taping a poem to a seat on the subway.  It was a rush job (just before I exited) and the photo didn’t come out well.


Richard Frost’s “For a Brother” is one of the first poems I collected.  Why I was drawn to it, I’m not entirely sure, because I have four wonderful brothers and I would never call any one of them “a sack of black rats’ balls”  or “a tank of piss.”  Anyway, Frost’s  long-buried feelings seemed to belong in a New York subway.


I began the day at the Ground Zero Memorial.  My picture does it no justice.  The footprints of the two towers have been transformed into two sunken pools.  Water cascades over the black walls in a beautiful metaphor of healing.  I hope those who lost loved ones on 9/11 find it a peaceful place.  Art and beauty that come from tragedy are not necessarily consolations but surely companions to suffering.  For that reason I left Elizabeth Bishop’s “I Am in Need of Music.”

poem is on wall between the two people


The poem is music itself:  “Of some song sung to rest the tired dead / A song to fall like water on my head.”


The most surprising display at the memorial plaza was the Survivor Tree.  One single tree, a Callery pear, survived the attack.  Nowhere else would so many people crowd to take pictures of an ordinary tree.  Good place to leave Wordsworth’s “She Dwelt Among Untrodden Ways.”

poem is on silver railing around the tree, behind the gal in black


“Half hidden from the eye” could describe the tree before the attack and the last lines could speak to all the “ordinary” people lost on that day—dishwashers in the Windows of the World, receptionists at Cantor Fitzgerald, office cleaners, elevator operators, underperforming traders—and to those who loved them, love them still.


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first I left the poem here

then I moved it here. Couldn't decide which viewing platform was more beautiful!


Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802

Written on the roof of a coach, on my way to France




Earth has not anything to show more fair:

Dull would he be of soul who could pass by

A sight so touching in its majesty:

This City now doth, like a garment, wear

The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,

Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie

Open unto the fields, and to the sky;

All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.

Never did sun more beautifully steep

In his first splendour, valley, rock, or hill;

Ne’er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!

The river glideth at his own sweet will:

Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;

And all that mighty heart is lying still!



Request to my housemates:  from now on, instead of the usual silences and mumbles in the morning, please greet me, as you behold my person in its crusty and ungroomed state, by saying, “Earth has not anything to show more fair.” And no smirking or snorting.


Anyway, it’s a good line to store away for those moments when beauty takes us by surprise.  The next time you encounter great beauty—holding a new baby, lying in grass on a Henry James kind of summer afternoon, gazing at the moon in late September—try saying Earth has not anything to show more fair. And voila! The desire to articulate transcendent experiences is satisfied.


Finding words to capture beauty is one reason to turn to poets (they would like to be useful people), and that’s what I did when I discovered the view pictured above.  I had hiked up 2 ½ miles to the top of a hill just outside of Boyne City.  Boyne City is a nice little northern Michigan town with a very good deli and three ice cream shops, but not bright and glittering by any standards.  I wasn’t expecting much of a view, but when I arrived at the end of the trail and saw Lake Charlevoix spread before me in the sunlight, I laughed out loud.  It was so magnificent and so splendid, and I was without a companion to whom I could make exclamations, so I laughed.


And then I thought about who else I could share the experience with, and of course that got me thinking about what poem belonged there, and soon enough I settled on Wordsworth. No one better than he, that chronicler of the sublime, that  “lover of the meadows and the woods,/ and the mountains,” as he calls himself in an earlier poem, “Lines Written Above Tintern Abbey.” A few days later I hiked back up the hill armed with scotch tape and “Composed Upon Westminster Bridge.”  After a week’s time the poem was still there (hooray) but was gone the week after that.


The poem, as the title tells us, was written atop a coach travelling across  Westminster Bridge in the City of London early in the morning.  Wordsworth seems astounded to be so moved by the view.  He’s a nature poet, not an urban one, and suddenly a city he formerly found to have a “heavy and weary weight” (“Tintern” again) moves him to exclamations like “Dear God!” (Can’t you just hear William Shatner’s Captain Kirk reciting this poem, perspiring and writhing in a froth of passion?)   Wordsworth’s disbelief plays out in a slew of negatives, beginning with the first line, and then, “Never did sun more beautifully steep”  and “Ne’er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep.”


Is it just me and my naughty thoughts or is something deeply sensual going on here?  The City before him seems female, a beautiful woman wearing a garment.  The garment is bare and she’s lying about “open” to the valley and sky. The sun, which is identified as male, infuses her with light like a great big teabag while the river, also male, runs through her.  That City sure is having a busy morning.



Ah well, it’s probably best that I don’t analyze this poem too much.  I’m in over my head with Wordsworth and his pals.  I never finished the “Prelude” or understood negative capability and am irked to remember the B I got in Romantic poetry in college.


Wordsworth was born in 1770 in England’s beautiful Lake District.  After a happy childhood in one of the many beautiful homes he lived in throughout his life (be sure to look at Rydal Mount), he lost both parents by the time he was 13.  When he was 20 he took a walking tour of Europe.  Funny to think of these august poets as real people, footloose and fancy-free, no different than the unbathed backpackers of today seeking transcendent experiences in Amsterdam with dog-eared copies of Let’s Go Europe.


In France he fell in love with a woman and fathered a child but left before the birth.   Lack of money and the Reign of Terror kept him from returning to France, but he did provide financial support to his daughter.  “Composed Upon Westminster Bridge” was written when he was on his way back to France ten years later to meet her for the first time and to make a settlement with his former lover so that he was free to marry his childhood friend Mary.


That background information opened up the poem for me.  Here’s Wordsworth rumbling across the bridge on his way to make a new life.   The city is still asleep, its “mighty heart is lying still.”  Nothing has happened yet and anything still could.  He’s bursting with a sense of freedom and possibility.


A giddy sense of freedom and possibility is so often a byproduct of magnificent views.  I think that’s why I laughed out loud atop Boyne City.   All that beauty—life felt so big and grand—-I wanted to take it all in—-fling myself over it—dear God!—-Emotion!  Tranquility!  Daffodils!



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poem is taped to the downspout

The World is Too Much With Us

by William Wordsworth

The world is too much with us; late and soon,

Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:

Little we see in Nature that is ours;

We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!

The Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;

The winds that will be howling at all hours,

And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;

For this, for everything, we are out of tune;

It moves us not.—Great God! I’d rather be

A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;

So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,

Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;

Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;

Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.

There are lots of places I could have posted this poem besides the downspout of a bank:  an office cubicle, grocery cart, dressing room of a clothing store, a subway car during commuting hours, the concierge desk at the mall, or the mouse of my computer.  I’m amazed at how current this 204-year old poem is.  Wouldn’t the phrase “a sordid boon!” be an excellent replacement for the longer and less poetic “BP oil rig disaster”?

(Like the BP oil spill, the poem is STILL THERE!  I’ve walked past the bank three times in the last week and the scotch tape is holding steady.)

Wordsworth was considered revolutionary in his time for tossing aside the elevated language of traditional poetry in favor of everyday diction.  Must have been some pretty fancy chatter in the village square back then because this is the type of poem that causes non-poetry readers to throw up their hands and say, “I don’t understand it.”  So perhaps a short (and shallow, maybe even silly) summary is in order: *

We’re too consumed with material things/We aren’t fully human when we spend all our time earning money and spending it/We’ve don’t see ourselves as part of the natural world/ We’re building a man-made world at the expense of the natural world and the benefits are not worth it/ The ocean at night under the moon and the wind during a storm are like a bouquet given to us, but we fail to see the sublime beauty and power of it/I wish I could believe in the pagan gods of nature/so that when I stand in this beautiful meadow/I’d experience the divine in nature and it would make me feel less lonely/to see the awesome gods of the sea rising up.

Now that’s a 122-word argument for the power of poetry over prose.

Wordsworth wrote during the Industrial Revolution, and with his poems fought against changes that he felt alienated us from nature.  (Imagine!—fighting with poems . . . shelling a city with limericks. . .equipping drones with sonnets. . .) We’ve long gotten used to the industrialized world; our struggle is with the virtual one.  Of course, the phrase “getting and spending, we lay waste our powers” still applies, especially in our uber-consumer culture, but if Wordsworth were writing the sonnet today, he would probably find a better way to say “profiling and surfing, we lay waste our powers.”

If we stop for one minute to consider the proportion of our time given over to getting and spending (or web-surfing or updating our facebook profile), an existential terror creeps in. What would we do with all our time if we weren’t getting and spending?  An unlikely source provides an answer:  Frank Gilbreth, an efficiency expert, a real life champion of industrialization, and hero of Cheaper by the Dozen.

Cheaper by the Dozen was a favorite book of mine as a young girl.  (It has nothing to do with the movie!  Repeat:  nothing to do with the terrible movie!) I related to the huge family and the gruff but sweet father, and for some reason I’ve remembered the last line of the book. Someone asks Frank Gilbreth, who’s always trying to find the shortest, most productive way to perform tasks, what he’s saving time for.  Here’s his answer:

“’For work, if you love that best,” said Dad. “For education, for beauty, for art, for pleasure.” He looked over the top of his pince-nez. “For mumblety-peg, if that’s where your heart lies.’”

*(for an alternative and much more intelligent reading of this poem, link to http://poemshape.wordpress.com/2010/05/30/the-world-is-too-much-with-us-❧-william-wordsworth/

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