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The word 'breeze' in Romantic Poetry

by Julian Scutts
    Is the Word ‘breeze’  in the  Poetry of Wordsworth and Coleridge the Closest Poets in a Secular Age can  come to Paying  Tribute to the Holy Spirit ? 

  THE PRELUDE (1805)

          OH there is blessing in this gentle breeze,
          That blows from the green fields and from the clouds
          And from the sky> it beats against my cheek    
          And seems  half-conscious of the joy it brings/
          O welcome Messenger! O welcome Friend!               
          A captive greets thee from a house
          Of bondage, from yon City’s walls set free
          A prison where he hath been inured
          Now I am free, enfranchised and at large,
          May fix my habitation where I will.
          What dwelling shll receive me? In what Vale 
          Shall be my harbor? Underneath what grove
          Shall I take up my home, and what sweet stream
          Shall with its murmurs lull me to my rest?
          The earth is all before me with a heart 
           Joyous, nor scar’d of its own liberty
          I look about, and should the guide I chuse
          Be no better than a wandering cloud
          I cannot miss the way. ..

The lines quoted above are those which introduce the The Prelude by William Wordsworth in its original version, which was completed in 1805 but  never published during Wordsworth’s  lifetime. The version of 1850 displays a considerable amount of revision bordering on censorship. This we can ascertain  from a comparison of the opening lines of The Prelude as it appears in 1805 and 1850. In the latter version there is no mention of a ‘wandering cloud’ that will guide the poet on his journey. Without this clear reference to the biblical pillar of cloud in the Bible one might pass over the prior reference to a ‘house of bondage’ as a one-off allusion to Egypt as described in the Book of Exodus. The reference to a ‘wandering cloud’ clearly points the reader to  the metaphorical signifance of the wanderings of the Israelites through the wilderness on their way to the Promised Land. Did Wordsworth in his later years seek to hide his tracks and obscure his dependence on an external influence much in line with a well-known theory promulgated by Harold Bloom? If so, Wordsworth may have consoled himself with the thought that his most celebrated poem, ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud,’ shows no obious  trace of having a biblical or mythical basis. Even so, one noted literary scholar casts doubt on this supposition.

In his article "The Eye and the Object in the Poetry of Wordsworth,"  [1] Frederick Pottle posits that the very mention of the word ‘daffodil’ poses a cultural memory of the myth of Narcissus which tells the story of a youth who, while  entranced  by his reflection in a stream,  turned into the flower that bears his name as a punishment for his obsessive vanity. Pottle also relates the poem to a record in the diary of Dorothy, the poet’s sister, dated April 15th 1802, which fell on Maunday Thursday (the day before Good Friday). This coincidence could have jogged another cultural memory associated with ‘the Lent lily. He noted significant deviations of the poem’s narrative from that of the entry in Dorothy’s diary. One of these, of course, is evident from the fact that Wordsworth was not alone when he and his sister were surprised and delighted by the sight of a great number of daffodils that lined the shores of Lake Ullswater.  Dorothy, in keeping with the inclement weather on that day, referred to a blustery ‘wind’ that animated the daffodils, endowed in her account, as in the poem, by the ability to express joy. Pottle ponders over Wordsworth’s replacement of ‘wind’ by ‘breeze,’ conceding that the latter term better expressed the elevated and joyous tone of his poem. Was this the only reason ?

We return to The Prelude of 1805. In the widely accepted view of M. H. Abrams, the introductory words of The Prelude was informed by the ancient tradition of dedicating a long epic work to the Muses or other divine source of inspiration.[2] To be more specific, the introduction of The Prelude recalled the opening lines of Milton’s Paradise Lost that include a reference to the Holy Muse, a conflation of Greek-classical  and biblical attributions of inspired utterence to a higher power, which was,  in Milton’s mind, the Holy Spirit. The biblical account of the giving of the Ten Commandments marked the outset of the wandering journey of the Israelites towards the Promised Land, which supplied the metaphor underlying what Keats referred to as the ‘uncertain path’ that lay before him at the outset of writing a long epic poem.

Some literary scholars have noted the recurrence of verbal patterns that are to be uncovered by a systematic study of an author’s entire body of works. The article « The Image of the ‘Wanderer’ and the ‘Hut’ in Goethe’s Poetry » [3]furnishes a prime example of this critical approach. We note the triad of ‘breeze,’ ‘cloud’ and verbal derivatives of the verb to ‘wander’ both in The Prelude and ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud.’ If we put two and two together, relating the myth of Narcissus and the Christian associations of ‘wandering’ with the themes of the Exodus, Passover and the Holy Spirit,’ a certain internal logic working within the poem comes to light. The ‘breeze’ animates and vitalizes the daffodils, mythical symbols of stasis and narcissistic death, and makes them ‘dance’ in the process, ‘dancing’ having negative as well as positive associations.  The lurking danger of mental atrophy, ever present in the minds of Romantic poets fearful that their spontaneity and originality might dry up  for want of old assurances concerning inspiration,  is  intimated in « I wandered lonely as a cloud,’ if only barely. In The Rime of the Ancient Mariner this dread comes to the fore in the image of the becalmed ship, the scene of death and abandonment. 

At the moment when the Mariner sees beautiful sea-serpents by the light of the moon, a symbol of the benign influence of the Virgin Mary, a breeze suddenly brings salvation and releases the ship from its becalmed condition. Like the daffodils in Wordsworth’s celebrated poem, the serpents possess two redeeming qualities, beauty and motion ;  the interaction between the two  rescues  mind and soul either from self-dissipating frenzy or from captivity within the isolated self. Some readers might see evidence here of Willoughby’s assertion that ‘the wanderer’ represents the libido in the quest for the anima. Others might conclude that ‘the collective unconscious’  is the modern critic’s substitute for what  in earlier times poets freely called ‘the Muse’ or ‘the Holy Spirit.’

[1] Frederick A. Pottle, "The Eye and the Object in the Poetry of Wordsworth,"  Romanticism and Consciousness, ed. Harold Bloom (New York, 1970) 273-287. Originally in Yale Review. Vol. (Autumn 1951).                                                                                                                          

[2] M. H. Abrams The Correspondent Breeze: A Romantic Metaphor The Kenyon Review Vol. 19, No. 1 (Winter, 1957), pp. 113-130.


[3] L. A. Willoughby, “The Image of the ‘Wanderer’ and the ‘Hut’ in Goethe’s Poetry,” Etudes Germaniques, 1951.