This week on the One Show, Arthur Smith travelled to Ullswater to re-create the boat-stealing episode from Wordsworth’s autobiographical epic, ‘The Prelude’. The story goes that Wordsworth aged around 10 years old sneaks out to the water’s edge one evening, his stomach tingling with butterflies. Where he finds, “A little boat tied to a willow tree / Within a rocky cove, its usual home.”
The young Wordsworth resolves to steal the boat and to row it steadily across Lake Windermere. The lake is calm and still, and he dips his oars into the clear, moon-reflecting water.
Straight I unloosed [the skiff’s] 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,
Small circles glittering idly in the moon,
Until they melted all into one track
Of sparkling light.
It is one of English literature’s most famous scenes. The visually arresting description of the lake, the round moon’s reflection turning to bootlaces as his oars enter the water. The silent power of Nature’s beauty quickly transforms Wordsworth’s initial awe at the size of a mountain’s shadow in the dark, with its broad silhouetted shoulders and bristling trees, into fear, as, in his young mind, he perceives the mountain’s shape as the embodiment of both a supernatural, parental power, and that of his better conscience. He gives a sense of scale, of the young boy he was, so small in comparison to the enormous – the overpoweringly enormous – size of the mountain:
a huge peak, black and huge,
As if with voluntary power instinct,
Upreared its head.
Here the shape – part-real, part-imagined – blots out the light from the stars, and appears to have a “purpose of its own, / And measured motion like a living thing.” For the Romantics this moment in the poem is an expression of the sublime; of beauty and terror becoming intermingled – a particular note on the scale of human sensations which was enormously fashionable and the Zoella’s recommendation of its day. This gave rise to expeditions to sublime hotspots around Europe including Fingal’s Cave where visitors, including Wordsworth himself, could experience the sublime in relative safety. Long after the Prelude was completed, Wordsworth made his visit and although disappointed by the “motley” crowds, he was once again over-awed by the scale of the place, saying that by “flashing to that structure’s topmost height, / Ocean has proved its strength.” (from Staffa the Island).
In The Prelude, the guilt of stealing the boat catches up with the young Wordsworth, and the whole incident of being pursued by the mountain Wordsworth takes as an object lesson in behaviour – the moral of the story is simple, don’t steal boats, but it comes from an encounter with the fantastical – the mountain that came alive.
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.
Today I travelled to St Bees Village School to visit Year 6, to see if we couldn’t come up with some of our own boat adventures. The idea was to create an adventure of an entirely different kind. The fantastical elements would still be there, but rather than going out and stealing a boat, and being taught rather overtly, a moral lesson, we made some recipes instead. A recipe for a boat adventure.
The question we started with was quite simple: for our boat adventure what would we need in terms of ingredients? Very quickly we re-entered the realm of the fantastical. There were plenty of excellent young poets who felt that because there were no limitations whatsoever, why not have a cauldron that specifically melts other cauldrons? This is why, it could be argued, that including Mum on the trip specifically ‘so Mum can do the cooking’ is probably very wise, although there are plenty of other things that we agreed that Mum would also be good at if Dad did the cooking. Good idea. Or… or… can we have a book the size of Mars? And another important question, can I fit a mansion on a boat? Impressively smart and imaginative, St Bees Year 6 follow the saying of Robert Kennedy: “There are those that look at things the way they are, and ask why? I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?”
Here are some of their excellent offerings, ingredients first, followed by *methods…
*There was a certain amount of confusion surrounding how WiFi works, which became a strangely beautiful experimental motif…