Why Wordsworth’s Excursion deserves to be included among his finest poems

The Excursion (1814) is not Wordsworth’s most famous work, yet it has recently become a renewed subject of interest for scholars. Drawing on her recently published research in Postgraduate English, Pauline Hortolland explains why this unusual poem should be returned to the centre of Wordsworth’s writing and his relationship with Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

The foremost reason for the earlier marginalisation of The Excursion is its outdated form. The poem unfolds as a dialogic, philosophical poem, and asks our active participation, something to which contemporary readers are not always accustomed, highlighting how profoundly our reading habits have changed since 1814. The Excursion is so hybrid that it could be read as a play (although it was never staged), as can be observed in this short excerpt:

“These grassy heaps lie amicably close,”
Said I, “like surges heaving in the wind
Upon the surface of a mountain pool;
– Whence comes it, then, that yonder we behold
Five graves, and only five, that lie apart,
Unsociable company and sad;
And, furthermore, appearing to encroach
On the smooth play-ground of the Village-school?”
The Vicar answered. “No disdainful pride
In them who rest beneath, nor any course
Of strange or tragic accident, hath helped
To place those Hillocks in that lonely guise.”

Despite this dialogic and conversational quality, though, the poem has the scope and the length of an epic.

Title page of Wordsworth's 'The Excursion, being a portion of The Recluse A Poem'Secondly, as I explain in my article, there is its troubled link with an anterior project of Wordsworth: “The Recluse”. This takes us back to the early friendship of Coleridge and Wordsworth.

Coleridge and Wordsworth met as young men and became close very quickly. The pair famously renewed British poetics by breaking away from the precedent of Pope, which they deemed artificial and convoluted. Their aim was to make poetic language more akin to the real language of men. They notably collaborated on the Lyrical Ballads (1798), although their friendship became quite strained soon after that.

It is often assumed that Lyrical Ballads is the major product of this collaboration, yet The Excursion can also be considered a distant fruit of this friendship. Coleridge was deeply influenced by German philosophy and tried himself to write a philosophical poem, The Brook. Realising his failure to achieve his dream, he projected his ambitions onto his friend and fellow-poet Wordsworth, and convinced him that he was to become the greatest philosophical and epic poet since Milton. He assigned to Wordsworth the task of writing a poem that would redeem mankind after the failure of the French Revolution. This poem was to be called “The Recluse”.

Designed like a “gothic church”, this “great philosophical poem” was supposed to contain three parts: the first part was to be made of “Home at Grasmere” and “Tuft of Primroses”, the second part was The Excursion, and the third part was never written. It was to be introduced by an “ante-chapel”, The Prelude. The importance of The Excursion in “The Recluse” is underlined by the presence of “the Prospectus”, a poetic manifesto, at the very beginning of The Excursion in its 1814 edition. “The Prospectus” defines the aim of “The Recluse”, which is to encompass the knowledge of Man, Nature and Society.

Infographic depicting the different parts of Wordsworth's The RecluseAlthough Coleridge was ultimately disappointed with The Excursion, this poem is one of the most tangible remains of the two poets’ shared philosophical ambitions.

Although reading The Excursion is quite a challenging task because it implies that we immerse ourselves into older reading habits, it is worthwhile for its philosophical depths and for the anxious vision it gives us of the post-revolutionary world.

For instance, in this passage from Book Four, the poet elaborates on the image of the ‘smooth-lipped shell’ as a multi-faceted symbol that refers both to the faithful ear of the believer and to the universe to which the ear is attuned. Only through poetry can a macrocosm and a microcosm be put on a same footing. The ‘convolutions’ of the shell symbolise the mystery of faith, but also the origin of the universe. The sophisticated form of the shell illustrates the apparent complexity of the world, whereas the music represents the hidden, simple and pure meaning that can be found underneath appearances. The figure of the child evidently conjures up the pleasure of listening to music and to poetry.

I have seen
A curious child, who dwelt upon a tract
Of inland ground, applying to his ear
The convolutions of a smooth-lipped shell;
To which, in silence hushed, his very soul
Listened intensely; and his countenance soon
Brightened with joy; for from within were heard
Murmurings, whereby the monitor expressed
Mysterious union with its native sea.
Even such a shell the universe itself
Is to the ear of Faith; and there are times,
I doubt not, when to you it doth impart
Authentic tidings of invisible things;
Of ebb and flow, and ever-dusting power;
And central peace, subsisting at the heart
Of endless agitation.

Although the poem was derided by Byron in the “Dedication” of Don Juan, Keats appreciated it. The poem became very popular during the Victorian period, although nowadays The Prelude (1850) is more famous.

A contemporary reader keen on rediscovering this work might be particularly interested to read Book One of The Excursion, which is sometimes read as a self-contained unit called “The Ruined Cottage”.

In Book One, the Wanderer relates to the Poet the tragic story of Margaret, who – after being abandoned by a husband trying to financially support his family by joining the army (likely during the American War of Independence) – gradually loses the will to survive as she witnesses the death of her children and the decay of her cottage.

Yet still
She loved this wretched spot, nor would for worlds
Have parted hence; and still that length of road,
And this rude bench, one torturing hope endeared,
Fast rooted at her heart: and here, my Friend,
In sickness she remained; and here she died,
Last human Tenant of these ruined Walls.

The ultimate triumph of nature, as the vegetation overgrows the cottage, as well as Wordsworth’s anti-war plea, are still relevant today and are very likely to appeal.

Pauline Hortolland’s article on ‘The Excursion’ is available to download free in issue 38 of our open access Postgraduate English journal, where you’ll also find a complete archive of research dating back to 2000. If you want to submit your own work to the next issue, see the current Call for Papers.

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