The Superior Sound of Nature’s Music

In Book Third of The Prelude, I am particularly captivated by Wordsworth’s employment of sound (particularly atypical forms of “music”) to distinguish between the rigid, monotonous drone of his collegiate experience and the true enlightenment he finds in Nature.  Upon arriving to his “nook obscure” in which he resided for the school term, he describes, “Right underneath, the college kitchens made/A humming sound, less tuneable than bees/But hardly less industrious; with shrill notes/Of sharp command and scolding intermixed” (47-50). The sounds created for the reader in this short yet potent description successfully articulate the opaque atmosphere of Cambridge: the din escaping the kitchen and flooding his dwellings is not quite clear.  Rather, it is a dull, persistent hum, yet he assures the reader that unlike the natural, musical hum of bees, this kitchen buzz possess no tune.  Instead, this facet of his collegiate experience – a place revered for scholarly cultivation – is saturated in the “shrill notes” of confusion and dismay.

However, Wordsworth recognizes later that not every sound of formal education is shrill, monotonous, and unappealing; in fact, the appeal of a book-focused education drew and trained many bright men.  In Book Third he addresses the authority figures of these formal institutions, “Be wise,/Ye Presidents and Deans, and to your bells,/Give seasonable rest, for ‘tis a sound/Hollow as ever vexed the tranquil air” (420-423).  Again, Wordsworth criticizes the unnatural yet, in this case, deceptively appealing sounds of formal education; according to him, the natural, glorious music created by the melodious hum of the bees or the whisper of the tranquil air is being mocked and disturbed by the pitiful, artificial imitations of Nature’s sublime symphony.  While the ringing of these scholarly “bells” is pleasant to the ear, Wordsworth contends that it pollutes the purity of Nature’s creation.  Within the rigid structure of the institution of education, Wordsworth professes that knowledge “is smitten thence with an unnatural taint”, or perhaps audibly distorted from its natural harmony.


~ by Romantic Fanatic on September 5, 2012.

One Response to “The Superior Sound of Nature’s Music”

  1. This is a concise, original and well-written blog post. I have never considered that other types of noises in Wordsworth’s The Prelude could be musical or related to harmonic music. I think you’re on the right track but you need to make your point more explicit: Wordsworth is offering a strong critique of cold, unfeeling, bad-sounding enlightenment rationality. Rethink your idea in the context of Wordsworth’s critique of his Cambridge educational experience or in relation to his strong dislike of educational theories in book V of the Prelude. Here is the beginning of a good term paper idea!

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