From time to time  in this series I will be offering examples of encounters with images from poetry.  What might we learn from the poets about how to better engage with images in our dreams? The first essay in the series focuses on Dante. 

The second in the Encountering Images series is from Wordsworth’s autobiographical poem, THE PRELUDE (1850) an attempt to explore how his experiences in nature shaped his poetic imagination, and really, his soul.  At the end of this note I give the complete passage of the poem intact.

Comment on THE PRELUDE (1850), Book FIRST, ll.340 ff.

Dust as we are, the immortal spirit grows
Like harmony in music; there is a dark
Inscrutable workmanship that reconciles
Discordant elements, makes them cling together
In one society. How strange, that all
The terrors, pains, and early miseries,
Regrets, vexations, lassitudes interfused
Within my mind, should e’er have borne a part,
And that a needful part, in making up
The calm existence that is mine when I

Am worthy of myself! Praise to the end!
Thanks to the means which Nature deigned to employ;
Whether her fearless visitings, or those
That came with soft alarm, like hurtless light
Opening the peaceful clouds; or she would use
Severer interventions, ministry
More palpable, as best might suit her aim.

Wordsworth’s use of “ministry’ here interests me. In a general sense ministry simply means what conveys or ministers the lessons that shaped him as a child, but we can’t help hearing an allusion– and contrast, with religious ministry, of which there is zero mention here or anywhere in his account of childhood. There are no sections of his poetic autobiography, The Prelude,  that talk overmuch about attending church or learning religious precepts, there is nothing to indicate a particular form of Christianity that he might have been exposed to in his childhood in Cumberland. These omissions in a poem written in the early nineteenth century are themselves very indicative of where Wordsworth wants to lead us. (Only much later in his life as he became more conservative did he adopt a specific allegiance to the Church of England.)

So while his purpose is all about the growth of the poetical mind as he says–or as we might say, the growth of the soul, because they are really the same thing– Wordsworth wants to tell us how experiences of nature, in natural settings, can shape us spiritually. These experiences are “intimations of immortality.”

While his language is very measured and calm, what he is suggesting is quite radical though perhaps less so today where organized religion is clearly on the decline in some parts of our world.

Instead of religious precepts or church or synagogue shaping the soul, he believes it happens quite naturally through encounters in nature. If you think about your own upbringing, what you were exposed to, how your soul and mind were shaped by religious teachers and authorities and contrast that to what Wordsworth is proposing, the radical nature in every sense because clear. It is radical etymologically also because the radix is the root– he is going to the root of experience, which is our direct sensual immersion in natural settings as children.

We can also add that even if our own experiences were not shaped at all by religion, if we grew up without any religious formation, church or synagogue or temple attendance whatsoever, nonetheless we are shaped.. but what influences are we shaped by? Cable tv? The media? Twitter and Facebook? The continual turmoil of politics? In today’s world, where the natural world is not so easily available as it was in Wordsworth’s childhood by simply walking a few miles outside the village, may we still be shaped by it? In Wordsworth’s time already the industrial revolution was changing the landscape, but we are at the accelerated end of that whole process. where we are actively destroying the possibility of nature influencing us.

The next part of the poem, is really a particular example of an incident where nature taught him a lesson, ministered to him. An anecdote that precedes this one was about theft, about stealing birds trapped by others, and this one is about stealing a boat. Both thefts are typical childhood incidents in themselves. What’s remarkable here is how an encounter with a natural image produces a strong impression that ministers to Wordsworth, shaping his soul. For those of us working with images in Natural Dreamwork this anecdote of an encounter is certainly worth looking at carefully for something quite similar happens when we encounter certain images in our dreams.

One summer evening (led by her) I found
A little boat tied to a willow tree
Within a rocky cave, its usual home.
Straight I unloosed her chain, and stepping in
Pushed from the shore. It was an act of stealth
And troubled pleasure, nor without the voice
Of mountain-echoes did my boat move on;

The situation is that as a boy he pilfered a boat, ‘an act of stealth/And troubled pleasure” — that is a guilty act. But also, unknowingly at the time, he was “led by her” that is by Nature (as he terms it) to have the experience he now retells.

Leaving behind her still, on either side,
Small circles glittering idly in the moon,
Until they melted all into one track
Of sparkling light. But now, like one who rows,
Proud of his skill, to reach a chosen point
With an unswerving line, I fixed my view
Upon the summit of a craggy ridge,
The horizon’s utmost boundary; far above
Was nothing but the stars and the grey sky.
She was an elfin pinnace*; lustily                                           
I dipped my oars into the silent lake,
And, as I rose upon the stroke, my boat
Went heaving through the water like a swan;

* a small boat

The young boy enjoys his sense of strength and power rowing his little boat “his elfin pinnace” towards the “craggy ridge”.Then in the midst of his own self-contained effort and the great pleasure he gets from it, comes an encounter with–not a person– but a thing that has a presence like a person.

When, from behind that craggy steep till then
The horizon’s bound, a huge peak, black and huge,
As if with voluntary power instinct,
Upreared its head. I struck and struck again,
And growing still in stature the grim shape
Towered up between me and the stars, and still,
For so it seemed, with purpose of its own
And measured motion like a living thing,
Strode after me. With trembling oars I turned,

Here is a remarkable encounter, Suddenly there looms a ‘huge peak, black and huge” and it seems to be alive in the boy’s imagination , “as if with voluntary power instinct,/Upreared its head.”   This moment of encounter with an image where it has not only a presence (“black and huge”) but even an intention and life of its own (“voluntary power”) is precisely what we mean by a sacred encounter with an image, i.e. a thing in a dream . Such an encounter as we often describe it, must be accompanied by a feeling on the spectrum of awe- -either fear or reverence, some sense of deep significance.

While in naturalistic terms the boy is simply rowing towards this “huge peak” and therefore the peak appears larger  and larger in his visual field, that is not at all how he experiences this. He does not experience it “objectively” at all but instead inwardly. What counts for him is how it feels to him, which is that a huge and dark head is lifting itself up on purpose to confront him.

In our inner experiences our world is alive, and every “thing” we encounter might well have consciousness and intentionality. So here the huge peak, “upreared its head”– notice the language he is using already is ascribing a human shape (head) and an intention (“with voluntary power”) to what is in strictly materialist terms, a hunk of rock.

We are all animists in our psyches, whatever religion or philosophy we subscribe to. This is the “poetic” mind, or as Blake calls it “the poetic genius’ which is alike in all of us, and which is very different from reason. The “poetic genius’ is another name for soul. It  is at root, a mind  that participates the world.(This is the language Owen Barfield uses in his book Saving the Appearances. )  To such a sensibility there are no indifferent things ‘out there’, rather all things, and all persons, have a palpable presence  out there and also within us– and if given attention, evoke feeling. For that is what happens when a thing out there becomes image “in here’ in the psyche.

In this passage, the boy is seeing what he is feeling. The ‘huge peak” is a “grim shape”. More, instead of seeing himself as moving closer to the rock, he sees that the rock “like a living thing/ Strode after me.”   We can name the feeling as fear, and the result is immediate,   “With trembling oars I turned….

And through the silent water stole my way
Back to the covert of the willow tree;
There in her mooring-place I left my bark,—
And through the meadows homeward went, in grave
And serious mood;…

Wordsworth describes here, a century before Freud, how in a natural way,  following this encounter the image continues to work within him unconsciously. (We see here another feature that is very important in our Natural Dreamwork.  It is not simply the image seen one time in a dream (or in waking life) but how that image continues to have a life in us, continues to work within us over time.  Part of our method is to encourage this by going over the dream in a session, bringing it to life, editing out all the “matter of fact’ stuff, all the ‘reasoning’ and leaving bare and direct immediate the actual life in the image, the felt encounter. Only then, with such emphasis, and then repeated re-visualizing and feeling the moment of encounter in subsequent days and weeks, does the dream image root itself in our hearts.)

If we follow Wordsworth’s account, we are seeing in the passage that follows   exactly how a thing perceived in waking life crosses over and becomes an image in a dream.  The question is always, of all the things we might see in a day, or have seen in our lives, which ones get selected and “haloed” by the dream imagination in such  way that they reappear as images in our dreams, where they are now in an entirely new context.

The passage below describes this process with sensitivity.

…but after I had seen
That spectacle, for many days, my brain
Worked with a dim and undetermined sense
Of unknown modes of being; o’er my thoughts
There hung a darkness, call it solitude
Or blank desertion. No familiar shapes
Remained, no pleasant images of trees,
Of sea or sky, no colours of green fields;
But huge and mighty forms, that do not live
Like living men, moved slowly through the mind
By day, and were a trouble to my dreams.

In this passage he swiftly describes the transformation of a thing encountered into an image, and of an image, going deeper and becoming an indication of “unknown modes of being”. What does he mean by an unknown mode of being, and later what does he mean by ‘huge and mighty forms” that “moved slowly through the mind by day and were a trouble to my dreams”?

In the first place, to say that an image– any image, has a mode of being, is certainly to say that it has being, that it has presence, that it is real. The question is, in what “mode”, what way– is it real?  Wordsworth’s first stab here is simply to say it is in an ‘unknown’ way, which is probably what we would now call an unconscious way.

He understands that what happened to him was not simply a fantasy or a projection of authority onto the rock (as motivated by his guilt). That is he does not choose to understand the experience that way, that reductionist way so familiar to us all, that way in which every experience loses its depth and is brought back to the surface. He goes in another direction entirely. Let’s break it down.

He says,  “after I had seen/That spectacle, for many days…” It could simply mean, “many days after I had seen it”, but it is possible he means that he kept recalling it to mind, a process of recollection where images experienced in life are then brought to mind again. That is certainly a process he does describe in many places in his poetry, as in “I wander’d lonely as a cloud”  and the Tintern Abbey poem.

But here in this passage he speaks of “unknown modes of being” and how this image of the “huge peak” that came to life, produced  over time an emotional effect– which he describes as a darkness that hung over his thoughts. Why this sense of darkness?   I think what is really hanging over his thoughts is the dark  image itself, and the mystery that surrounds it.  It is like an awakening to a sublime awareness that goes beyond all that we can see with the eye or take in through the other senses  There is a reality we can only glimpse and feel. He speaks here more of what is taken away, describing a deserted landscape and then listing all that is not in the landscape, trees, sea, sky, colors, green fields…  He is realizing that behind all that we see  are some “huge and mighty forms”. We can feel them in a waking life moment, but they also  are a “trouble to my dreams.”

I think by “huge and mighty” he does not mean simply that the peak was huge, but rather that there is an authority or power to the image that hangs over, or overshadows, thought.

Now the word “forms” has a whole philosophical history, going back to the Platonic forms or “ideas”, but without delving into it, we might also think here of archetypes in the Jungian sense. Somehow the image of the huge peak has become a troubling presence in his dreams. While generally we are used to thinking of archetypes as having a human shape or form (which we have given different names such as “animus”, “anima”, male or female archetype, beloved, teacher etc…) it is worth noting in our own dream experience how sometimes natural phenomena also have an archetypal presence, for instance in dreams of tornados, dreams of tidal waves. They too seem to be coming after us with intention.  And our first experience of that might well be “terrible’, it might be an experience of fear and trembling.  As Rilke says , using a different language, “every angel is terrible.” Angel is yet another name for archetype

This helps us understand what Wordsworth experienced, this admonitory ‘huge peak” that rose against his impulse to steal the boat, and reversed it. Of course his guilt set up the situation, but what came out of it, goes beyond simple guilt. It suggested to him that there are presences operating in imagination behind the appearances in the natural world. We can call this animism or pantheism or give it other names. But it is the primary imaginative experience– that the world around us is alive with intention and meaning.

The end of the passage gives us Wordsworth’s take on the long term process of coming to terms with an encounter with an archetypal image.

Wisdom and Spirit of the universe!
Thou Soul that art the eternity of thought
That givest to forms and images a breath
And everlasting motion, not in vain
By day or star-light thus from my first dawn
Of childhood didst thou intertwine for me
The passions that build up our human soul;
Not with the mean and vulgar works of man,
But with high objects, with enduring things—
With life and nature—purifying thus
The elements of feeling and of thought,
And sanctifying, by such discipline,
Both pain and fear, until we recognise
A grandeur in the beatings of the heart.

He indicates that in order to recognize the grandeur in our own feelings, in the “beatings of the heart” we must recognize how certain “forms and images” have come alive in us, have a “breath/And everlasting motion”.   The term “breath” speaks to the idea that such encounters inspire us. Moreover by learning to recognize in our surroundings “high objects” and “enduring things” we deepen our sense of our own possibilities to live with more imagination. (He’s also suggesting that these are the kind of images we might wish to dwell on, rather than the trivial images fed to us in the media.)

By recognizing a grandeur and depth outside of us, we can recognize the grandeur and depth within us as well.  We can recognize a “grandeur in the beatings of the heart.”

 

Here is the entire passage:

–from THE PRELUDE (1850) Book I ll.340 ff

Dust as we are, the immortal spirit grows
Like harmony in music; there is a dark
Inscrutable workmanship that reconciles
Discordant elements, makes them cling together
In one society. How strange, that all
The terrors, pains, and early miseries,
Regrets, vexations, lassitudes interfused
Within my mind, should e’er have borne a part,
And that a needful part, in making up
The calm existence that is mine when I
Am worthy of myself! Praise to the end!
Thanks to the means which Nature deigned to employ;
Whether her fearless visitings, or those
That came with soft alarm, like hurtless light
Opening the peaceful clouds; or she would use
Severer interventions, ministry
More palpable, as best might suit her aim.

One summer evening (led by her) I found
A little boat tied to a willow tree
Within a rocky cave, its usual home.
Straight I unloosed her chain, and stepping in
Pushed from the shore. It was an act of stealth
And troubled pleasure, nor without the voice
Of mountain-echoes did my boat move on;
Leaving behind her still, on either side,
mall circles glittering idly in the moon,
Until they melted all into one track
Of sparkling light. But now, like one who rows,
Proud of his skill, to reach a chosen point
With an unswerving line, I fixed my view
Upon the summit of a craggy ridge,
The horizon’s utmost boundary; far above
Was nothing but the stars and the grey sky.
She was an elfin pinnace; lustily
I dipped my oars into the silent lake,
And, as I rose upon the stroke, my boat
Went heaving through the water like a swan;
When, from behind that craggy steep till then
The horizon’s bound, a huge peak, black and huge,
As if with voluntary power instinct,
Upreared its head. I struck and struck again,
And growing still in stature the grim shape
Towered up between me and the stars, and still,
For so it seemed, with purpose of its own
And measured motion like a living thing,
Strode after me. With trembling oars I turned,
And through the silent water stole my way
Back to the covert of the willow tree;
There in her mooring-place I left my bark,—
And through the meadows homeward went, in grave
And serious mood; but after I had seen
That spectacle, for many days, my brain
Worked with a dim and undetermined sense
Of unknown modes of being; o’er my thoughts
There hung a darkness, call it solitude
Or blank desertion. No familiar shapes
Remained, no pleasant images of trees,
Of sea or sky, no colours of green fields;
But huge and mighty forms, that do not live
Like living men, moved slowly through the mind
By day, and were a trouble to my dreams.

Wisdom and Spirit of the universe!
Thou Soul that art the eternity of thought
That givest to forms and images a breath
And everlasting motion, not in vain
By day or star-light thus from my first dawn
Of childhood didst thou intertwine for me
The passions that build up our human soul;
Not with the mean and vulgar works of man,
But with high objects, with enduring things—
With life and nature—purifying thus
The elements of feeling and of thought,
And sanctifying, by such discipline,
Both pain and fear, until we recognise
A grandeur in the beatings of the heart.

–Rodger Kamenetz serves on the Steering Committee of Natural Dreamwork. He is a Natural Dreamwork teacher and practitioner. If you are intrigued by the idea of working with the images in your dreams, please write thenaturaldream@gmail.com to find a Natural Dreamwork practitioner.