A Ravage Out of Season: A Moral Lesson from William Wordsworth

William Wordsworth was a young Englishman of 20 years when he crossed the Alps into France in 1790. Not unlike college students of our own day visiting foreign countries, this was not unusual. It was unusual in one meaningful way. In the year prior to his visit, there was the storming of the Bastille, which marks the beginning of the French Revolution.


For a young poet and burgeoning revolutionary like Wordsworth “bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven!” As with much of Wordsworth’s poetry, this line would come to sum up how people in his era felt about the early years of the revolution.


In the years to come Wordsworth would become one of the greatest poets ever to live. His name rightfully belongs beside Shakespeare and Milton. He would eventually alter his view of the revolution, in light of future, bloody events. Yet, as a chronicler of this era, he is unique. While there is an enormous amount of literature written about The French Revolution, Wordsworth was an outsider as an Englishman, and he was a great poet. His insights are not of a political nature, but of a moral one.


In his great work “The Prelude” he writes in three books about his residence in France. In them are great moral lessons for us to heed in our own tumultuous time.


Wordsworth wrote the below passage as a reflection upon his youth. He initially wrote it in 1805. He was writing about his time in France 15 years earlier. In essence, this is a sober reflection of an experience during this turbulent moment of his life. For that reason alone it is worth lending him our ears for a moment.


Wordsworth had made some French acquaintances while in their country, chief among them was a band of military officers. Men, he writes, who “wore swords which had been seasoned in the wars, and all were men well-born.” This is interesting, because Wordsworth intellectually opposed them. He was an advocate for the new French Republic, which opposed the Aristocracy. What the poet was interested in, at least in his sober reflections, was not their ideology, but their moral fervor and what it did to their souls.


He writes of them:


In age and temper differing, they had yet

One spirit ruling in each heart; alike

(Save only one, hereafter to be named)

Were bent upon undoing what was done:

This was their rest and only hope; therewith

No fear had they of bad becoming worse,

For worst to them was come; nor would have stirred,

Or deemed it worth a moment’s thought to stir,

In any thing, save only as the act

Looked thitherward.


His observation was that this band of men, though they ranged in age and temperament, had a unifying spirit. Some were big men and some smaller. Some men yelled and screamed at every slight and others were quiet, indisposed men. All were unified by a focus of “undoing what was done.” That is, reversing the revolution. Returning French life to normalcy. “This was their rest and only hope.”


From this hope, they had no fear of future events. They did not worry about how bloody or horrific the future might become, because “worst to them was come.” The worst had already happened.


Then, Wordsworth does what all great Romanticists do, and he focuses not on the trail of bodies their views would eventually bring about, but he notices the destruction this is doing to the soul of one individual man.


One, reckoning by years,

Was in the prime of manhood, and erewhile

He had sate lord in many tender hearts;

Though heedless of such honours now, and changed:

His temper was quite mastered by the times,

And they had blighted him, had eaten away

The beauty of his person, doing wrong

Alike to body and to mind: his port,

Which once had been erect and open, now

Was stooping and contracted, and a face

Endowed by Nature with her fairest gifts

Of symmetry and light and bloom, expressed,

As much as any that was ever seen,

A ravage out of season, made by thoughts

Unhealthy and vexatious.


One of the military officers was a man in the prime of his life. He was lord not merely in name but in the hearts of many friends and loved ones. But, in the face of the revolution, he had lost all thought of their love and honor. “His temper was quite mastered by the times.” He did not master his temper, his attitude, his emotions, his emotions were controlled by the furor of the time. Worse, “they had blighted him.” As a tree can become diseased, and thus rotted from the core, so to has this man. Wordsworth explains that this anger at the revolution “had eaten away the beauty of his person.” It was destroying his body and his mind. His port (in other words, the way he carried himself) had once been tall and proud, as is the case with any good soldier. But now he became stooped. His face “endowed by Nature with her fairest gifts of symmetry and light and bloom, expressed, as much as any that was ever seen, a ravage out of season.” In Wordsworth's view, the man's inner turmoil was akin to a plague; not a biological plague. Rather, he was infected with an affliction of the soul. As he says, they were "made by thoughts unhealthy."


What was its cause?


With the hour,

That from the press of Paris duly brought

Its freight of public news, the fever came,

A punctual visitant, to shake this man,

Disarmed his voice and fanned his yellow cheek

Into a thousand colours; while he read,

Or mused, his sword was haunted by his touch

Continually like an uneasy place

In his own body.


Every hour on the hour the newspapers of Paris brought a “freight” of news. This caused “the fever” to come, “a punctual visitant, to shake this man.” The news of political events “disarmed his voice and fanned his yellow cheek into a thousand colours.”


We can picture him sitting there, livid as he hears the news updates. “His sword was haunted by his touch continually.”


This is the moral lesson. Man is a natural being of body and soul. To effect the soul is to effect the body. As this beautiful, upright, strong man found himself enthralled by the regular news updates, each new event causing more fury in his heart, his posture became stooped, his face lost its symmetry, his whole body was drained of power. He was ravaged out of season.


In our own political climate today, use this as a reminder to step away from the news for a few days. What will be will be. To allow each piece of information that rides in on its fiery horse to infect your soul with more anger, is to lose that beauty which is still within you. Control your emotions, don’t be controlled by them.


Here is the full passage from the 1850 version of Wordsworth The Prelude:


In age and temper differing, they had yet

One spirit ruling in each heart; alike

(Save only one, hereafter to be named)

Were bent upon undoing what was done:

This was their rest and only hope; therewith

No fear had they of bad becoming worse,

For worst to them was come; nor would have stirred,

Or deemed it worth a moment’s thought to stir,

In any thing, save only as the act

Looked thitherward. One, reckoning by years,

Was in the prime of manhood, and erewhile

He had sate lord in many tender hearts;

Though heedless of such honours now, and changed:

His temper was quite mastered by the times,

And they had blighted him, had eaten away

The beauty of his person, doing wrong

Alike to body and to mind: his port,

Which once had been erect and open, now

Was stooping and contracted, and a face

Endowed by Nature with her fairest gifts

Of symmetry and light and bloom, expressed,

As much as any that was ever seen,

A ravage out of season, made by thoughts

Unhealthy and vexatious. With the hour,

That from the press of Paris duly brought

Its freight of public news, the fever came,

A punctual visitant, to shake this man,

Disarmed his voice and fanned his yellow cheek

Into a thousand colours; while he read,

Or mused, his sword was haunted by his touch

Continually like an uneasy place

In his own body. “Twas in truth an hour

Of universal ferment; mildest men

Were agitated; and commotions, strife

Of passion and opinion, filled the walls

Of peaceful houses with unquiet sounds.

The soil of common life, was, at that time,

Too hot to tread upon.




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