Wordsworth, Descriptive Sketches (1793)

opening section (1-191)

The walking tour of 1790 of Wordsworth and his friend Robert Jones took them through France, where they met travellers who had been celebrating the first anniversary of the Revolution (i.e., the Fall of the Bastille on July 14 1789). They walked extensively in Switzerland and visited the lakes in Northern Italy, before returning down the Rhine from Basle to Cologne, and walking back to the coast. The opening section below focuses first on France, especially the monastery of the Grand Chartreuse (whose "doom", line 53, was to be sacked by Revolutionary soldiers in 1792, after Wordsworth's visit), then the shores of Lake Como (80 ff.).

The text is based on the first edition of 1793, with corrections noted by Eric Birdsall, Descriptive Sketches by William Wordsworth (Cornell UP, 1984). The notes in the right-hand column are by Wordsworth.


WERE there, below, a spot of holy ground,
By Pain and her sad family unfound,
Sure, Nature's GOD that spot to man had giv'n,
Where murmuring rivers join the song of ev'n;
Where falls the purple morning far and wide
In flakes of light upon the mountain-side;
Where summer Suns in ocean sink to rest,
Or moonlight Upland lifts her hoary breast;
Where Silence, on her night of wing, o'er-broods
Unfathom'd dells and undiscover'd woods;
Where rocks and groves the power of water shakes
In cataracts, or sleeps in quiet lakes.
      But doubly pitying Nature loves to show'r
Soft on his wounded heart her healing power,
Who plods o'er hills and vales his road forlorn,
Wooing her varying charms from eve to morn.
No sad vacuities his heart annoy,
Blows not a Zephyr but it whispers joy;
For him lost flowers their idle sweets exhale;
He tastes the meanest note that swells the gale;
For him sod-seats the cottage-door adorn,
And peeps the far-off spire, his evening bourn!
Dear is the forest frowning o'er his head,
And dear the green-sward to his velvet tread;
Moves there a cloud o'er mid-day's flaming eye?
Upward he looks -- and calls it luxury;
Kind Nature's charities his steps attend,
In every babbling brook he finds a friend,
While chast'ning thoughts of sweetest use, bestow'd
By Wisdom, moralize his pensive road.
Host of his welcome inn, the noon-tide bow'r,
To his spare meal he calls the passing poor;
He views the Sun uprear his golden fire,
Or sink, with heart alive like *Memnon's lyre;
Blesses the Moon that comes with kindest ray
To light him shaken by his viewless way.
With bashful fear no cottage children steal
From him, a brother at the cottage meal,
His humble looks no shy restraint impart,
Around him plays at will the virgin heart.

*The lyre of Memnon is reported to have emitted melancholy or chearful tones, as it was touched by the sun's evening or morning rays.
While unsuspended wheels the village dance,
The maidens eye him with inquiring glance,
Much wondering what sad stroke of crazing Care
Or desperate Love could lead a wanderer there.
      Me, lur'd by hope her sorrows to remove,
A heart, that could not much itself approve,
O'er Gallia's wastes of corn dejected led,
*Her road elms rustling thin above my head,
Or through her truant pathway's native charms,
By secret villages and lonely farms,

*There are few people whom it may be necessary to inform, that the sides of many of the post-roads in France are planted with a row of trees.
To where the Alps, ascending white in air,
Toy with the Sun, and glitter from afar.
      Ev'n now I sigh at hoary Chartreuse' doom
Weeping beneath his chill of mountain gloom.
Where now is fled that Power whose frown severe
Tam'd "sober Reason" till she crouch'd in fear?
That breath'd a death-like peace these woods around
Broke only by th' unvaried torrent's sound,
Or prayer-bell by the dull cicada drown'd.
The cloister startles at the gleam of arms,
And Blasphemy the shuddering fane alarms;
Nod the cloud-piercing pines their troubl'd heads,
Spires, rocks, and lawns, a browner night o'erspreads.
Strong terror checks the female peasant's sighs,
And start th' astonish'd shades at female eyes.
The thundering tube the aged angler hears,
And swells the groaning torrent with his tears.
From Bruno's forest screams the frighted jay,
And slow th' insulted eagle wheels away.
The cross with hideous laughter Demons mock,
By *angels planted on the aereal rock.
The "parting Genius" sighs with hollow breath
Along the mystic streams of #Life and Death.
Swelling the outcry dull, that long resounds
Portentous, thro' her old woods' trackless bounds,
Deepening her echoing torrents' awful peal
And bidding paler shades her form conceal,
*Vallombre, mid her falling fanes, deplores,
For ever broke, the sabbath of her bow'rs.
      More pleas'd, my foot the hidden margin roves

*Alluding to crosses seen on the tops of the spiry rocks of the Chartreuse, which have every appearance of being inaccessible.

#Names of rivers at the Chartreuse.

*Name of one of the vallies of the Chartreuse.

Of Como bosom'd deep in chestnut groves.
No meadows thrown between, the giddy steeps
Tower, bare or sylvan, from the narrow deeps.
To towns, whose shades of no rude sound complain,
To ringing team unknown and grating wain,
To flat-roof'd towns, that touch the water's bound,
Or lurk in woody sunless glens profound,
Or from the bending rocks obtrusive cling,
And o'er the whiten'd wave their shadows fling;

Wild round the steeps the little *pathway twines,
And Silence loves it's purple roof of vines.
The viewless lingerer hence, at evening, sees
From rock-hewn steps the sail between the trees;
Or marks, mid opening cliffs, fair dark-ey'd maids
Tend the small harvest of their garden glades,
90 *If any of my readers should ever visit the Lake of Como, I recommend it to him to take a stroll along this charming little pathway: he must chuse the evening, as it is on the western side of the Lake. We pursued it from the foot of the water to it's head: it is once interrupted by a ferry.
Or, led by distant warbling notes, surveys,
With hollow ringing ears and darkening gaze,
Binding the charmed soul in powerless trance,
Lip-dewing Song and ringlet-tossing Dance,
Where sparkling eyes and breaking smiles illume
The bosom'd cabin's lyre-enliven'd gloom;
Or stops the solemn mountain-shades to view
Stretch, o'er their pictur'd mirror, broad and blue,
Tracking the yellow sun from steep to steep,
As up th' opposing hills, with tortoise foot, they creep.
Here half a village shines, in gold array'd
Bright as the moon, half hides itself in shade.
From the dark sylvan roofs the restless spire
Inconstant glancing, mounts like springing fire.
There, all unshaded, blazing forests throw
Rich golden verdure on the waves below.
Slow glides the sail along th' illumin'd shore,
And steals into the shade the lazy oar.
Soft bosoms breathe around contagious sighs,
And amourous music on the water dies.
Heedless how Pliny, musing here, survey'd
Old Roman boats and figures thro' the shade,
Pale Passion, overpower'd, retires and woos
The thicket, where th' unlisten'd stock-dove coos.
      How bless'd, delicious Scene! the eye that greets
Thy open beauties, or thy lone retreats;
Th' unwearied sweep of wood thy cliffs that scales,
The never-ending waters of thy vales;
The cots, those dim religious groves embow'r,
Or, under rocks that from the water tow'r
Insinuated, sprinkling all the shore,
Each with his household boat beside the door,
Whose flaccid sails in forms fantastic droop,
Bright'ning the gloom where thick the forests stoop;
-- Thy torrents shooting from the clear-blue sky,
Thy towns, like swallows' nests that cleave on high;
That glimmer hoar in eve's last light, descry'd
Dim from the twilight water's shaggy side,
Whence lutes and voices down th' enchanted woods
Steal, and compose the oar-forgotten floods,
While Evening's solemn bird melodious weeps,
Heard, by star-spotted bays, beneath the steeps;
-- Thy lake, mid smoking woods, that blue and grey
Gleams, streak'd or dappled, hid from morning's ray
Slow-travelling down the western hills, to fold
It's green-ting'd margin in a blaze of gold;
From thickly-glittering spires the matin-bell
Calling the woodman from his desert cell,
A summons to the sound of oars, that pass,
Spotting the steaming deeps, to early mass;
Slow swells the service o'er the water born,
While fill each pause the ringing woods of morn.
      Farewel! those forms that, in thy noon-tide shade,
Rest, near their little plots of wheaten glade;
Those stedfast eyes, that beating breasts inspire
To throw the "sultry ray" of young Desire;
Those lips, whose tides of fragrance come, and go,
Accordant to the cheek's unquiet glow;
Those shadowy breasts in love's soft light array'd,
And rising, by the moon of passion sway'd.
      -- Thy fragrant gales and lute-resounding streams,
Breathe o'er the failing soul voluptuous dreams;
While Slavery, forcing the sunk mind to dwell
On joys that might disgrace the captive's cell,
Her shameless timbrel shakes along thy marge,
And winds between thine isles the vocal barge.
      Yet, arts are thine that rock th' unsleeping heart,
And smiles to Solitude and Want impart.
I lov'd, mid thy most desert woods astray,
With pensive step to measure my slow way,*
By lonely, silent cottage-doors to roam,
The far-off peasant's day-deserted home;
Once did I pierce to where a cabin stood,
The red-breast peace had bury'd it in wood,
There, by the door a hoary-headed sire

*Solo, e pensoso i più deserti campi
Vò misurando à passi tardi, e lenti. --Petrarch. [Canzoniere]
[Alone and thoughtful, the most deserted fields I walk, measuring them out with footsteps, tardy and slow.]
Touch'd with his wither'd hand an aged lyre;
Beneath an old-grey oak as violets lie,
Stretch'd at his feet with stedfast, upward eye,
His children's children join'd the holy sound,
A hermit -- with his family around.
      Hence shall we seek where fair Locarno smiles
Embower'd in walnut slopes and citron isles,
Or charms that smile on Tusa's evening stream,
While mid dim towers and woods her *waters gleam;
From the bright wave, in solemn gloom, retire
The dull-red steeps, and darkening still, aspire,
To where afar rich orange lustres glow
Round undistinguish'd clouds, and rocks, and snow;

*The river along whose banks you descend in crossing the Alps by the Sempion pass. From the striking contrast of it's features, this pass I should imagine to be the most interesting among the Alps.
Or, led where Viamala's chasms confine
Th' indignant waters of the infant Rhine,
Bend o'er th' abyss? -- the else impervious gloom
His burning eyes with fearful light illume.
The Grison gypsey here her tent has plac'd,
Sole human tenant of the piny waste;
Her tawny skin, dark eyes, and glossy locks,
Bend o'er the smoke that curls beneath the rocks.    

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Document created November 16th 2002