Following Atticus: Forty-Eight High Peaks, One Little Dog, and an Extraordinary Friendship by Tom Ryan is published by William Morrow. It tells the story of my adventures with Atticus M. Finch, a little dog of some distinction. You can also find our column in the NorthCountry News.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

William Wordsworth's Mountain

(Photo is of Mount Washington this afternoon.)

Last summer I discovered the poetry of Mary Oliver. Her contemporary words hit home as much as any written in the days of old by Muir, Emerson or Thoreau. Each time I find one of her poems, I read it again and again until it lingers with me. Many of them refuse to let go.

Then, just this past week, I encountered some of her prose. It is from her book of essays called Long Life: Essays and Other Writings. The essay which will not let me go is “Wordsworth’s Mountain”. It hits me for I too have had experiences like Wordsworth in facing a mountain in darkness. Mine came on a January night after traversing across Middle Carter, South Carter, Mount Hight and Carter Dome before dropping down into Carter Notch and then climbing back up again to travel along the numerous peaks of Wildcat Mountain. When Atticus and I reached the ski slopes – our exit from the mountain top – and started our descent, even in the still of the night I could look across Pinkham Notch below and up at the looming shadow of Mount Washington. It was as if that great peak was breathing, watching us descend, stalking us in such a way that at any moment it could reach out and lunge with all its might at us.

It was an experience both frightening and thrilling. I can remember being foolish enough to turn off my headlamp as so not as to be seen so easily by Agiocochook and feeling my heart beat as if I was being hunted.

It is an experience I will never forget. It appears William Wordsworth, the great English poet who embraced Romanticisms call to nature and individuality instead of to the church, had a quite similar experience as a child. Mary Oliver writes of it here:

“And now I am thinking of the poet Wordsworth, and the strange adventure that one night overtook him. When he was still a young boy, in love with summer and night, he went down to a lake, "borrowed" a rowboat, and rowed out upon the water. At first he felt himself embraced by pleasures: the moonlight, the sound of the oars in the calm water. Then, suddenly, a mountain peak nearby, with which he was familiar, or felt he was familiar, revealed, to his mind and eye, a horrifying flexibility. All crag and weight, it perceived him; it leaned down over the water; it seemed to pursue him. Of course he was terrified, and rowed hard, fleeing back across the water. But the experience led him, led his mind, from simple devotion of that beauty which is a harmony, a kindly ministry of thought, to nature's deeper and inexplicable greatness. The gleam and the tranquility of the natural world he loved always, and now he honored also the world's brawn and mystery, its machinations that lie beyond our understanding — that are not even nameable. What Wordsworth praised thereafter was more than the arrangement of concretions and vapors into appreciable and balanced landscapes; it was, also, the whirlwind. The beauty and strangeness of the world may fill the eyes with its cordial refreshment. Equally it may offer the heart a dish of terror. On one side is radiance; on another is the abyss.”

Wordsworth has been on my mind as of late because he plays a prominent part in the most recent John Muir biography, A Passion for Nature. So when I came upon the Mary Oliver piece it excited me even more. Since then I have found Wordsworth’s own poem, or a segment of it actually, describing that night from his childhood and that looming mountain. It is from his “Prelude” (1850) and it follows below.
One summer evening (led by [Nature]) 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,
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; for 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 homweard wen, 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.
This is one of the reasons I love the mountains as I do. They inspire thoughts in us so powerful and provocative that we feel a close kinship with the likes of Emerson or Thoreau or Muir or even some of the great White Mountain painters like Benjamin Champney or Thomas Cole.


Galway Girl said...

Thank you so much for helping me rediscover this poem again. On reading it as a child, I could identify so much with the young rowers frenzied fleeing fron gentle nature revealing a sinister side.

Thomas F. Ryan said...

My pleasure, Galway Girl. It is such an incredible piece of poetry that it beats in my heart whenever I read it.