Boat Stealing – William Wordsworth
From The Prelude [extract]
One evening (surely I was led by her)
I went alone into a Shepherd’s Boat,
A Skiff that to a Willow tree was tied
Within a rocky Cave, its usual home.
‘Twas by the shores of Patterdale, a Vale
Wherein I was a Stranger, thither come
A School-boy Traveller, at the Holidays.
Forth rambled from the Village Inn alone
No sooner had I sight of this small Skiff,
Discover’d thus by unexpected chance,
Than I unloos’d her tether and embark’d.
The moon was up, the Lake was shining clear
Among the hoary mountains; from the Shore
I push’d, and struck the oars and struck again
In cadence, and my little Boat mov’d on
Even like a Man who walks with stately step
Though bent on speed. It was an act of stealth
And troubled pleasure; not without the voice
Of mountain-echoes did my Boat move on,
Leaving behind her still on either side
Small circles glittering idly in the moon,
Until they melted all into one track
Of sparkling light. A rocky Steep uprose
Above the Cavern of the Willow tree
And now, as suited one who proudly row’d
With his best skill, I fix’d a steady view
Upon the top of that same craggy ridge,
The bound of the horizon, for behind
Was nothing but the stars and the grey sky.
She was an elfin Pinnace; lustily
I dipp’d 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 bound of the horizon, a huge Cliff,
As if with voluntary power instinct,
Uprear’d its head. I struck, and struck again
And, growing still in stature, the huge Cliff
Rose up between me and the stars, and still,
With measur’d motion, like a living thing,
Strode after me. With trembling hands I turn’d,
And through the silent water stole my way
Back to the Cavern of the Willow tree.
There, in her mooring-place, I left my Bark,
And, through the meadows homeward went, with grave
And serious thoughts; and after I had seen
That spectacle, for many days, my brain
Work’d with a dim and undetermin’d sense
Of unknown modes of being; in my thoughts
There was a darkness, call it solitude,
Or blank desertion, no familiar shapes
Of hourly objects, images of trees,
Of sea or sky, no colours of green fields;
But huge and mighty Forms that do not live
Like living men mov’d slowly through the mind
By day and were the trouble of my dreams.
The Prelude is a long autobiographical poem in fourteen sections, first written in 1798 by Wordsworth and published three months after his death in 1850 by his wife. The poem depicts the spiritual growth of the poet, as he thinks about who he is and his place in the world. Wordsworth was inspired by memories, events, visits to different places and he tries to explain how they affect him. He describes The Prelude as “a poem on the growth of my own mind” with “contrasting views of Man, Nature, and Society.”
This extract describes how Wordsworth goes out in a boat on a lake at night. He is alone and a mountain peak looms over him. Its presence has a great effect and for days afterwards he is troubled by the experience. It is as if he has had some mystical experience at the sight of this monument to nature. It reminds me of the area where I live too, for it has such beauty around it, most notably a hill that has a modern name, but was once referred to as Odin’s Hill [or Mount]. It is specifically lovely and if I let it, would inspire me to write a poem or two to include the old Norse beliefs. A similar thing is happening here, with Wordsworth.
So, what is going on here then? Let’s begin…..
The setting is evening but the poet feels led by someone or something. The use of ‘her’ can mean person or thing. We use ‘her’ when talking about inanimate objects after all. But we are then led into the poem as much as he is led by ‘her.’ The poet tells of how he “went alone into a Shepherd’s Boat” which was small, the size of a “skiff that to a Willow tree was tied within a rocky Cave, its usual home.” Why is he being led by someone in this instance? Or is it love, fascination, or some other driving force that moves him forward? As soon as you get to where this is made evident, then the light will shine for you.
The setting is therefore, evening and by “the shores of Patterdale, a Vale wherein I was a stranger,” suggesting that he has never been to this place before. He says he is a “school-boy traveller” who is on his “holidays.” This is a journey he is never going to forget. Indeed, he will remember it and then write about it later, as he has done here. He tells how he “rambled from the Village Inn alone” and “no sooner had [he sight of this small Skiff” he knew what to do next. It is an “unexpected chance” that he finds the skiff there, a random circumstance that leads to something else. It is as if he almost sees the boat and thinks okay, here we go. Let’s have a little ride in that, not thinking that it may actually belong to someone. He says he “unloos’d her tether and embark’d” on his journey. There is not much thinking or planning going on in his mind here. He is just acting on impulse and has no idea or inkling about the possible dangers or what will happen later.
The fact that he tells us that “the moon was up” as well as “the lake was shining clear among the hoary mountains” just goes to paint the picture in the mind of the reader who sees this “from the shore” where he says he “push’d, and struck the oars and struck again.” The sense of “cadence” as his little skiff moves on makes him feel at home and relaxed, happy and contented with his lot in life at that moment. But, as the “little boat” moves on, he realises that it is a stealthy act he is performing which he then describes the act of stealing the boat and rowing it as a “troubled pleasure; not without the voice.” The oxymoron there of two opposing words is powerfully laid down for us as readers as we see and feel the sense of adventure he is experiencing.
As the boat moves on it leaves the woman on one side of the lake, away from him, so he is on his own, contemplating life itself and the water makes its movement through the lake and through the poem as “small circles glittering idly in the moon” make their way through the water. He sees the “sparkling light” and the “rocky steep … above the cavern of the Willow tree” and sees the majestic wonder of the thing and his place in it. He is an insignificant speck of dirt in the big scheme of things and he is beginning to know about it. Imagine for a few seconds, that you are you and that you are many things. In my case, I am male, a son, a brother, an Uncle, a nephew, a father, a husband, a friend, a teacher, a preacher [yes indeed], as well as a human being [and other things too] in all its wonder. I live within a small family, which has wider connections across the world and so, I see myself with many heads at times, many different aspects within the one frame and when I look at nature, I see how utterly small and insignificant I actually am.
Wordsworth is feeling something similar here as he tells us he “proudly row’d with his best skill” and how he “fix’d a steady view upon the top of that same craggy ridge,” so he would know where he was going. That is his landmark when rowing the boat. He can see the “bound of the horizon, for behind [is] nothing but the stars and the grey sky.” There is a sense of beauty here that is second to none and it is being interrupted by this oarsman and his skiff. Or rather, the “elfin Pinnace” that he “lustily” rows and dips his oars into the water. And as each stroke is made, so too the boat goes “heaving through the water, like a Swan.” This is a fantastic simile here, for when we think of the Swan, we think of grace and beauty, of fine colour, shape, style etc so when the poet thinks of nature, he does so in the sense of being close to it in every way. It is a “voluntary power instinct” that rears its head as he strikes with the oars. He has stolen the skiff, which he knows is wrong, but he seems not to be bothered about such technicalities.
The hugeness and grandeur of “the huge cliff” as it rises “up between [him] and the stars” brings on a “measur’d motion, like a living thing” that lurches after him everywhere he goes. But he keeps his cool and steals his way “back to the cavern of the Willow tree,” back to land and to safety; back to the “mooring-place,” where he left the boat and “through the meadows homeward” travels.
But by now there are “grave and serious thoughts” in his mind. He has “seen [the] spectacle for many days” and by this time, his “brain” works “with a dim and undetermin’d sense of unknown modes of being.” There are so many different ways in which he can feel his closeness to nature and his place within it but at the end of the day in his “thoughts there [is] a darkness” which he suggests is a sense of solitude, “or blank desertion,” with “no familiar shapes of hourly objects,” only “images of trees, of sea or sky, no colours of green fields.” By now he is feeling the benefit and the sorrow of communing with nature. It can be a blessing and it can be a curse to be that close to nature. And as we get to the end of this selection, we see how he is able to visualise just how “huge and mighty forms that do not live like living men” move “slowly through the mind by day,” causing trouble in his dreams.
In essence, this is an easy poem to study and read, but there are so many hidden depths within this, that you have to be extra careful not to miss something. Yes, it tells the story of how he steals the boat, hence the title of the thing, but we also see someone who is looking at everything around his and trying to figure his place in nature/the world. Sometimes, we can do that by looking at nature and considering just how small we actually are in this globe of ours. When we see ourselves as mere specks, the poet is saying, and when we get closer to the truth about life, then our lives will be so much better for us, because hatred and insults will stop at that time. Now, one could argue that this makes this poem almost polemic in style, written to teach readers to think more about nature and their place in it. It is not an easy poem to unpack, but that is the major thrust of the piece, that when we are at one with nature, we can see the real beauty of it all around us and we can be thankful.