‘Some quaint odd plaything of elaborate skill’

I have been thinking about a poem by William Wordsworth: Written with a slate pencil.. My thoughts are prompted by having followed a UC Davis course on Romanticism run by Timothy Morton. One of the assignments for the course asked for a close reading of a narrative (poetry or prose), paying attention to any romantic irony that may be taking place.

Title

The full title is ‘Written with a slate pencil upon a stone, the largest of a heap lying near a deserted quarry, upon one of the islands at Rydal‘. It was written in 1800, after the Wordsworths’ arrival in Grasmere and in time for this poem to make it into the 2nd edition of the Lyrical Ballads. The title offers specific information about how it was made and where something could be found. It reads like the instructions on a treasure map, but also carries an echo of doubt as to whether or not you could actually find such an inscribed stone if you were to set out to seek it.

Metre

There is a texture to the poem, a regularity of its 5 beats to the line iambic pentameter rhythm. That is a rhythm unlike some of the others included in the Lyrical Ballads, many of which had shorter lines and obvious rhyme schemes. If a short line poem with strong rhymes could be considered ‘hot’ then this is cool by comparison, but not so cool as a prose summary might be.

The rhythm passes over the hyphens, indicating some kind of pause, in lines 25 and 27 without disturbance. There are changes in direction, rather than pace, at these points.

Though the lines each carry a phrase or unit of sense, they frequently run on into the following line, for example:

Stranger! this hillock of mis-shapen stones
Is not a ruin spared or made by time,
‘Nor, as perchance thou rashly deem’st, the Cairn
Of some old British Chief:..’

Lines 1-4

What does disturb the rythme, though, is the impact of the first resonant and challenging word.

Stranger!

The echoes of this first word in the poem run right through to the end of teh poem. The reader is apparently greeted as a stranger, and both invited and pushed away at the same time. For one thing, who but a stranger themselves could greet someone like this? Then it turns out that the reader may not be the intended target of the greeting; perhaps they are just overhearing a conversation, and only one side of a conversation at that, involving some other stranger.
Another character begins to take shape, one to whom rash antiquarian thoughts about Cairns and British Chiefs can be attributed. So three interconnected strangers become apparent: the reader, the voice speaking or inscribing the poem and the antiquarian character. The poem explores on the co-existence of these identities.
The word ‘stranger’ itself is used elsewhere in the poems of Wordsworth and Coleridge. It is the term used for embers blown from the fireside and flickering with an apparent minimal life of their own in Coleridge’s Frost at Midnight. In each case the recognition of and between strangers set of other connections and reminiscences.

Metonymy and Imagery

There is imagery in the poem, but not much in the way of metaphor. The surprises are not from the recognition of unexpected comparisons (‘my love’ and ‘a red, red rose’) as would be from metaphor. Rather the language of metonymy is used to emphasise the context in which objects exist. The mis-shapen stones are a ‘rude embryo‘ line.5 of a little Dome or pleasure-house not in comparison with a human embryo, but because any such construction would have an embryonic stage as unshapen stones. Equally, the linnet and the thrush are little builders lines 18-19 by right of their own nest building efforts.
Most of the imagery centres on the ‘mis-shapen stones’ that are ‘a monument to an unfinished task’. The focus at times zooms in to the lines inscribed into the stonework, or pans back out to ‘the birch-trees of this rocky isle’: to use the cinematic terms not yet thought of in Wordsworth’s time.

Indeterminacy

The opening lines offer information about what this hillock of stones is or is not.
It is not a ‘ruin made or marred by time’ or the Cairn/Of some old British Chief’, but rather a ‘little Dome/Or Pleasure-house’, or at least would have been. It is not just that the object in front of us is described from both positive (true) and negative (false) perspectives: The viewpoints shift about in time. The hillock has always existed, The ruin is something that has never existed in the past, while the cairn of a old British Chief has a curiously might-have-been non-existence. As for the little Dome or Pleasure-house, that might have existed in a possible future, but now does not. Wordsworth 1800 poem pre-figures T.S. Eliot’s 1936 speculations about time in the opening lines of Burnt Norton:

Even though some of the images presented are negated: the cairn and the pleasure-house do not go away in the poem just because they never existed in the landscape. Once mentioned they remain in the imagination.

Tropes

Metaphor and metonymy are used of figures of speech in language to extend the range of what is being talked about. Metaphors can be employed within a poem, for example. This can work at another level, if, for example, a poem describing a flower is taken to be a meditation on the way poems themselves operate.
This poem, with its imagery centring on inscribed stonework could also be taken as a discussion of the role of poetry: the hillock of mis-shapen stones a somewhat modest description of the contents of the work published as ‘The Lyrical Ballads‘, their ambitions and limitations.

Allusions

If the poem-about-poetry aspect comes into focus allusions to other poems start to emerge, for example:

  1. The ‘little Dome/Or Pleasure-house’ alerts the reader to the grander ‘stately pleasure-dome’ decreed in Coleridge’s Kubla Khan. Written in 1797, but not published until 1816, William and Dorothy were among the poem’s readers in its manuscript form.
  2. In line 10: ‘a freeman of this spot ‘: trips lightly over a key term in Wordsworth’s vocabulary. The idea that there are ‘spots of time’ which exert an influence upon ‘our minds-/Especially the imaginative power-‘ Two-part Prelude (1799) lines 292-293 had already occured to Wordsworth and would be explored further in later poems.

‘a full-grown man might wade’

This line seems to be a turning point in the events preceding the poem. The arrival of this new stranger causes the building project to be abandoned and adds a new level to the co-existences interlocking around and through the poem. Making oneself  ‘a freeman of this spot’ would surely involve turning the private space of the insular dome into a public space which anyone could visit. Such a person could take ownership of the isle by enjoying its views, entrusting them to memory and sharing their nourishing power, much as Wordsworth himself did with the landscape upstream from Tintern Abbey. One voice involved in doing just that here is the speaker/inscriber of these lines. Another node in this network of co-existence is the reader of the poem. After all, if the lines of this poem are traced into the stonework on the isle, then the reader must have waded out across the lake to get to be able to read them.

Narrative and Narration

On the face of it there is very little here in the way of story: no events, no narrative development. It is hardly even a dialogue, since only one side of the discussion is recorded. For Narrator, trustworthy or otherwise, perhaps we should rather talk about the Interlocutor (One who takes part in a dialogue, conversation, or discussion).
For a comparison poem we might look at Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner. The Wedding Guest gets a few lines of his own, but most of the poem is occupied by the Mariner himself, his part in the dialogue dominating. The interlocutor in ‘Written with a slate pencil..’ is similarly obsessed with telling his story, or at least imposing his views on anyone within range.

Romantic Irony

There is scope for ‘romantic irony’ when the narrator realises their own role in the narrative, the moment when they become part of the story. It is pretty much absent from this narration, unless the reader takes that role on for themselves. An ironic reading would bring out the unheard voice of the recipient. Such a voice might retort: You seem somewhat defensive as an interlocutor: anxious that your story of the origins of this quarry and mound be accepted, that Sir William be absolved for ‘the outrage which he had devised’ and that all further strangers be warned off from intruding with too many further questions. A full grown man was seen to wade onto the island, but never seen to leave; a pile of stones marks the place he last stood. Viewed like that, the poem turns inside out.

‘old Sr William and his quarry’

Another ironic turning point for the poem relates to the alternative meanings for the word ‘quarry’, which could at once mean ‘the object of a hunt’ or ‘an excavation in the ground’. The hole is the ground was made to dig out the stones to build the little dome or pleasure-house: but why build a dome in the first place? Why add a picturesque garden-feature to a magnificent landscape like the Rydal Valley? Was it that Sir William realized that the pleasure-house as a spot from which to view the grandeur of the landscape was self-defeating because the landscape would now include the incongruous little dome itself?

Consumerism

If that is the case, then he has much in common with those ‘disturbed/By beautiful conceptions’ hewing ‘Out of the quiet rock the elements’ of trim mansions. A, perhaps unintended, consequence of those taking the Lake District scenery as the subject for their art was to promote the region as the destination of choice for those doing well enough out of the Industrial Revolution to remove themselves from its noise and pollution and seek for unspoilt landscapes remaining elsewhere. The ‘unspoilt’ region then become ‘spoilt’ as housing fils up the landscape.
But if the focus of the poem is on poetry and its effect on its readers, then another kind of consumerism is being highlighted. There are warnings for the self-styling Romantic Reader against themselves becoming ‘disturbed/By beautiful conceptions’.

About Philip Adams

Senior Assistant Librarian at De Montfort University. I am interested in digital preservation and the use of data to measure a library's impact. All comments own.
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