This post is mostly about The Excursion, the massive poem that Wordsworth wrote in middle age, but I've given it a little prelude (ha, ha) about a much better-known poem from fifteen years earlier.
Strange Fits of Passion (1799)
Upon the moon I fixed my eye,
With quickening pace my horse drew nigh
Those paths so dear to me.
And now we reached the orchard plot;
And, as we climbed the hill,
The sinking moon to Lucy’s cot
Came near, and nearer still.
Wordsworth wrote the Lucy poems while in Germany. This one, more than the others, is anecdotal. (Since then we've become so browbeaten by first-person anecdote in poetry that we take the form for granted.)
|Portrait of Wordsworth by William Shuter, 1798|
[Image source: Cornell University Library
, where the portrait now resides. The likeness was taken on 26 April 1798, at Nether Stowey (according to Dorothy's Alfoxden Journal
). William Shuter, a Bristol artist, was staying there; Coleridge must have organized the sitting. Five months later Wordsworth set off for Germany.]
The moon sets every day, but we don’t often see it do so. Canonical
literature, though it's always going on about sunsets, virtually ignores the existence of
moonsets, except in this poem.
We usually notice the moon when it’s full, and the big (or
apparently big) moonrise that occurs soon after sunset is often remarked on.
But a moonset near the full would occur near dawn, the coldest part of the
night when (at least in temperate climes) we tend to sleep on, and even if
we’re out and about the spectacle is usually lost in the mist. The little white
ghost of a waning moon is hardly ever noticed when it sets during the hours of
daylight. The most impressive moonset I've seen was a lazy moon on a cold
winter night which became yellower and bigger, and finally just after midnight
a smoky red as it dropped into the west. So rarely have I noticed a moonset in
my fifty years that it hadn't really occurred to me that the setting moon must
often go through the same colour changes as the setting sun.
If the moon is going to set earlier in the evening, not too
many hours after sunset, it must be a brand-new sliver of a moon, which is
probably not what most readers envisage while they're reading this poem.
However, the hill makes a difference. After crossing the
“wide lea” westwards, with the moon spreading its light, Wordsworth’s lover
starts to ascend rather sharply, and “Lucy’s cot” is on a ridge. Thus the moon
could seem to “set” when still comparatively high in the sky. Wordsworth had
often noticed the sharpness of Lakeland’s
high night-horizons, and e.g. famously written of how “the stars moved along
the edges of the hills”.
My horse moved on; hoof after hoof
He raised, and never stopped:
When down behind the cottage roof,
At once, the bright moon dropped.
To realize the emotional charge of this, it’s worth going
out on a suitable clear evening and making it happen. The roof should be quite
close, perhaps less than a hundred meters away; it happens just as the lover
arrives. The moon falls “at once” because it is the lover’s relatively rapid
approach, not the moon’s own descent, that causes it to drop out of sight. In
those nights without any streetlights, the instantaneous change in the light
would have been dramatic. If you are suitably sensitized, it still can cause a
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Labels: William Wordsworth