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Why Read Literature? A Lesson From William Wordsworth

Updated: Jun 16, 2021

When you love literature, you spend a good amount of time explaining to people why they should read great works of literature. All lovers of literature are salesman for it. Well, I can give you one reason why you should read literature starting today.

After the events at the Capitol, we are all reeling, exhausted and perhaps a little more than nervous. As we know, there is little we can individually do in the moments during these big news events. Stressing about events upon which we have no control is unhealthy.

For me, I decided to stay away from the news and rather venture on a magic boat with my favorite poet William Wordsworth. I've been wanting to read this long narrative poem of his called "Peter Bell," and I took this opportunity.

Wisdom isn't found in the news. Wisdom is found only in "despised poems" as William Carlos Williams puts it. He's right of course.

With this tale I took a journey of the imagination. The poem's prologue opens:

"There's something in a flying horse, And something in a huge balloon; But through the clouds I'll never float Until I have a little Boat, Whose shape is like the crescent-moon."

Reading literature is like that little boat. It takes you to a higher place in which you can espy the goings on of humanity. In the case of this poem, the narrator in his boat traverses through the stars

"Away we go—and what care we For treasons, tumults and for wars? We are as calm in our delight As is the crescent-moon so bright Among the scattered stars."

Many of you may call this escapism. Our poet Wordsworth begs to differ. While the magic boat can take him anywhere, to "the town's in Saturn" or to "Swift Mercury resounding with mirth," or he could visit "Great Jove... full of stately bowers" that is not where our poet wishes to go.

"But these, and all that they contain, What are they to that tiny grain, That darling speck of ours!"

He wants to ride this boat of the imagination not into the fantasy land but to our own earth; our earth as it is in all its reality. The Earth full of all its beauty and wonder and even its tragedies. Descending back to Earth he sees

"...the matchless Earth! There spreads the fam'd Pacific Ocean! Old Andes thrusts yon craggy spear Through the grey clouds—the Alps are here Like waters in commotion!"

The magic boat argues with the narrator calling him a "loon" for not wanting to visit the "realms of Faery" or to see the "secrets of a land where human foot did never stray." Here there are temptations of course. It would be easy to escape,

"Temptation lurks among your words; But, while these pleasures you're pursuing Without impediment or let, My radiant Pinnace, you forget What on the earth is doing."

Hey boat (pinnace) don't try to make me forget about all the things happening on earth! We need this imaginative power for more than escaping.

"There was a time when all mankind Did listen with a faith sincere To tuneful tongues in mystery vers'd; THEN Poets fearlessly rehears'd The wonders of a wild career."

And so our poet will use his powers of mysterious verse to peer into the wild career of a man named Peter Bell. He is one who is immune to poetry and the wisdom to be found in Literature. Maybe he is a bit like you and me?

You'll have to stop reading the news and turn to some despised poetry to find out.



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