Over the last couple of days, since waking to the unexpected sound of rain, I’ve been thinking about William Wordsworth’s marvellous poem, Resolution and Independence. He wrote a poem in 1803, three years after he had a strange encounter on the moors near Grassmere in the Lake District.
He had been out walking, feeling miserable and depressed, very gloomy – maybe in a poetic sort of way, when he met an old man, who seems to rise from the landscape like some primordial being.
Wordsworth seems surprised that the old man speaks gently and courteously – but why shouldn’t poor old folk be as gentle or courteous as the gentry? Unable to do any other work, the old soul comes onto the moors to gather leeches for medical purposes, doing ‘an honest day’s work‘, a hazardous and wearisome work with many hardships to endure. Wordsworth begins to feel admonished by the old man – not in what he say, but in what he is. Another wonderful image of a being ‘whom I had met within a dream or like a man from some far region sent...’
My former thoughts returned: the fear that kills;
And hope that is unwilling to be fed;
Cold, pain, and labour, and all fleshly ills;
And mighty Poets in their misery dead.
—Perplexed, and longing to be comforted,
My question eagerly did I renew,
“How is it that you live, and what is it you do?”
He with a smile did then his words repeat;
And said that, gathering leeches, far and wide
He travelled; stirring thus about his feet
The waters of the pools where they abide.
“Once I could meet with them on every side;
But they have dwindled long by slow decay;
Yet still I persevere, and find them where I may.”
While he was talking thus, the lonely place,
The old Man’s shape, and speech—all troubled me:
In my mind’s eye I seemed to see him pace
About the weary moors continually,
Wandering about alone and silently.
While I these thoughts within myself pursued,
He, having made a pause, the same discourse renewed.
And soon with this he other matter blended,
Cheerfully uttered, with demeanour kind,
But stately in the main; and, when he ended,
I could have laughed myself to scorn to find
In that decrepit Man so firm a mind.
“God,” said I, “be my help and stay secure;
I’ll think of the Leech-gatherer on the lonely moor!”
‘The fear that kills‘… when people are depressed or low, it’s sometimes not actual things, but the fear which cause the torment – and maybe that was what killed the Boy Chatterton who Wordsworth has referred to earlier. His mind wandered back to his own misery and introspection and he missed what the old man was telling him, and had to ask him to repeat it, which the old boy did with a smile – obviously amused by this posh idiot.
The old man was telling him that whereas the leeches used to be so common, he ‘could meet with them on every side’, now no more. Like we worry about the decline of certain animals and plants, obviously people over two hundred years ago were worrying about the same thing.; The leeches had ‘dwindled long by slow decay‘, and he had much difficulty in finding them – but he persevered… and seemed cheerful as he told Wordsworth about his life.
Shamed by the old man, Wordsworth could have laughed himself to scorn… and long after he finished his walk, came off the moors, the old man stayed with him… and he stays with me too!
If you missed the first two parts of my thoughts on this magnificent poem, here’s a link:
(ii) – https://wp.me/p2hGAs-7r9