Ceaseless Music

Ceaseless Music combines a series of prose meditations with original poetry in order to create new insights into Wordsworth’s revolutionary autobiographical text The Prelude.

Wordsworth’s poem has found (and continues to find) its most significant responses in creative and philosophical writings outside ‘literary criticism’ as normally practised in the academy. Essayists, philosophers, and poets have all taken The Prelude’s unique music as a spur to the creation of new works reflecting upon their own lives. Ceaseless Music furthers this process by revisiting a five-part Prelude which Wordsworth briefly mooted in 1804, reflecting upon, and continuing, the ideas and rhythms embodied in Wordsworth’s shadow structure. Taking up the strains of Wordsworth’s text through original poetry newly created for the volume, Ceaseless Music reflects upon the multiple possibilities of remaking.


Wordsworth birthplace in Cockermouth


The most substantial part of the work copied that Spring was the more-or-less complete first five books of what was then, around Dove Cottage, familiarly known as the ‘Poem for Coleridge’. This was the basis of the epic work of self-reflection which was subsequently – yet only forty six years later – published as The Prelude. In four separate packages across those Spring months, the poems which Coleridge was to take with him, and which he was to have bound together as one manuscript book when he arrived in Malta, arrived at Coleridge’s London lodgings. The texts of the poems had been assembled out of many loose and ragged sheets containing drafts of passages or single stanzas, or out of the pages of work which had been accumulating in Wordsworth’s pocket notebooks, across several years. The poems brought together in the manuscript book alongside the roughly 8,000 blank verse lines from The Prelude covered several major forms. Many sonnets were included alongside two of Wordsworth’s greatest odes, the ‘Ode to Duty’ and the ‘Ode: Intimations of Immortality’, which were completed across these Spring days, in order for them to be sent to Coleridge. Further lyrics, such as ‘Daffodils’, were newly-composed and added to the book. The assembly and ordering of fair copies was made under Wordsworth’s constant superintendence by Dorothy, by Mary and by Sarah Hutchinson. All of these different poem texts, finally, were given further sequential shape at some point, when Coleridge himself numbered some of the loose pages.

As can be imagined, the preparation of the copies of the poetry for Coleridge became a key focal point for those days in Dove Cottage. It was a labour of love involving Wordsworth alongside the women of the house, all worried for their ailing friend who, as it turned out, was to look futilely for a final resolution of his various woes in the sun of the South. The manuscript book which resulted from their labours is frail and tentative. The handwriting in it is small and neat, but passages have been scored out and altered, so that the poems might, even at this pressing moment, be presented in their most completed form. The relatively small book of 207 leaves astonishingly survived storms at sea, the loss of all of Coleridge’s papers at Leghorn, Italy, and a boarding of Coleridge’s ship by Spanish brigands on his return journey; along with the depredations of intense sunlight. Coleridge returned the now bound manuscripts to Wordsworth in 1806, and they were seemingly used, together with another copy made by Dorothy, Mary, and Sarah, as they were preparing the Coleridge poems, by Wordsworth as source texts for his later publication of some of the poems it contained. [1]

This brief account of one moment in Wordsworth’s writing life offers a good parable, one with wide resonance for the reflections upon The Prelude, and on writing lives lived in its wake, that concern and impel this book. Those reflections include passages of new life writing, and new poetry, created out of close consideration of the energy and sounds of Wordsworth’s unprecedented epic poem on the self. This short parable, I think, demonstrates the vulnerability of poetry, the voyages it makes outwards into worlds remote and unknown to its creator. Poetry sounds the world, sounds it out, and makes returns to the poet in terms of her or his own altering achievement and ambition.[2] The parable also shows the labour and make-shift of creating poetry, its frequent assemblage from scraps of experience written out at the time or recollected later. Poetry is rarely seen at the moment of its creation as a unified, single-purposed ‘message’ relayed in a certain form and definite style from poet to informed and understanding audiences. Poetry takes time, and makes time, in its circuits of realisation and vocal address. Poetry depends upon chance and mischance for its making; it easily goes astray, readily gets lost from its origins, but sometimes survives as a summation of life lived, emotion felt, as a best gift.[3]

In particular, Wordsworth was acute about the sounds which poetry might make. He was attentive to the ways those sounds might appropriate and accommodate the sounds – steadying or disturbing – to which he was attentive, which underscored his life. The earliest drafts towards The Prelude find Wordsworth asking himself to what purpose the ‘ceaseless music’ made by the River Derwent as it ran behind his childhood home in Cockermouth, Cumberland, had made itself heard to him (Book I, 272-90)? Had the ‘music’ of the River determined his calling as a poet? This book of reflections upon Wordsworth’s self-questioning is, therefore, principally about Wordsworth and sound, about the distinctive sound-world of this great epic of the self; it is about the significance of sound, and the sounding of poetry, for better understanding what we are.

To this end, as part of the project towards creating Ceaseless Music, I have been involved with a composer friend in creating sound-recordings of key sites for The Prelude. A recording of the River Derwent as it flows behind Wordsworth’s birthplace in Cockermouth can be accessed at the free website address http://aporee.org/maps/work/?loc=30556 . Further recordings will be uploaded, and further links created, in the near future.

Vertigo on Your Birthday Trip to Tintern

The land sodden; our walk across the Wye
via the Mill Bridge was slow and slippery.
The steep woods dripped overnight rain from leaves
turning orange, red, beige towards winter.
The green river swelled, raced beneath the bridge
a rushing devastation; the silence
in the valley was interrupted by
the drone of chain-saws thinning the tree-steads,
persistent ghost-voices from summer’s bees.
Shouts of fans and footballers shivered nerves
when they broke from the pitch beside ruins
in a field outside the Abbey’s fenced bounds.
Looked back to, fractured slate-grey walls, empty
windows framed a threatening sky. The clouds,
static, seemed drawn down to the river’s thread. 

Brown mud stood thick on the pathway upward
through the weeping woods, towards the rampart
the broken leaf-strewn mound of Offa’s dyke
on top of the hillside. We slithered on,
grabbing at springy saplings for balance,
determined to achieve high perspectives
on the ancient buildings, the scope of land
and the tree-line’s ridge beyond, into hills
like ripples resonating from this source.

Then, suddenly, we came upon a small,
flat plateau, the mud shelving steeply down
openly into a stark drop. Trailing
at the back of our group, knees giving way,
mind reeling forward into the valley,
embedded shale dislodging and skiting,
shoes starting to lose grip, skid on the edge,
I could neither turn on myself nor step
out across the open slide to safety
amongst the dense trees forty yards ahead.
As I crouched to the ground, to clasp fingers
into the unsustaining mud, your firm hand
under my elbow drew me back upright
and along the dangerous path, the view
down across to the Abbey steadying now,
the scene’s beauty settled back into place.




The Sounds of Water and Its Silences

“Then Quiet led me up the huddling rill,
Brightn’ning with water-breaks the sombrous gill”
William Wordsworth, ‘An Evening Walk’ (1788-9), ll 70-1

The title of my book, Ceaseless Music, is derived from lines near the start of Wordsworth’s epic autobiographical poem, The Prelude. When, aged 28, Wordsworth began work on his poem, he asked himself whether the sounds of the River Derwent, as he heard them behind the house where he grew up in Cockermouth, had made him into a poet:

Was it for this
That one, the fairest of all Rivers, loved
To blend his murmurs with my nurse’s song,
And from his alder shades and rocky falls,
And from his fords and shallows, sent a voice
That flowed along my dreams? For this, didst thou,
O Derwent, travelling over the green plains
Near my ‘sweet birthplace’, didst thou, beauteous stream,
Make ceaseless music through the night and day…?

That sense that the interplay between something which is barely audible, the ‘murmurs’ of the river sound, and something which is crucial to the way our lives are carried through, is something which fascinates me, and which underscores the book I have created in response to Wordsworth’s poem. There are in fact several interplays going on in this short passage of poetry: between the memory of the child’s experience and the adult’s recapturing of it; between the music in daily life (the Nurse’s song) and the life of dreams; between a literal sense of vocation, of the river’s ‘sending a voice’, and a duty to listen to, and to answer, those things which the natural world gifts us. And, at the heart of this, there remains the river’s sound, the sense that it is through the sound of the waters, however at the edge of hearing, that our mature reflection, even our relation to the world, can be achieved.

At the heart of the contrasts and variety of sounds in The Prelude, and of the sounds it makes, is an attention to the volume or level of the noises heard – to what the philosopher Edmund Burke, an important presence in the poem, called ‘SOUND and LOUDNESS’. The poem has many recurrences to ‘murmur’ and to ‘quietness’, as well as to ‘uproar’ and ‘torrent’, like that to be heard at the opening of Book Seven, when Wordsworth reflects back upon how the poem began to written, and compares its initial bout of composition to ‘a torrent sent / Out of the bowels of a bursting cloud / Down Scafell’.

As part of the creation of Ceaseless Music, and of the poems within it, I undertook, with a friend, the composer and sound artist Paul Whitty, to set out to capture the sounds of the waters at the sites Wordsworth knew them, as well as other sounds key to the poet’s world and creations. What emerges from this enterprise is a revelation that the contrasting sounds captured vividly by Wordsworth in The Prelude and other work are very much an experience to be discovered in a short space of time and place in Cumberland, where the poem is set.

What I want to do briefly here, is to introduce the project using materials which are not included in the book. I want to take you on a walk through a specific experience of the sounds of water, and their quietnesses, as a way of entering into the realm the book explores. This walk will capture something of the experience of a similar walk we know that William Wordsworth, together with his sister Dorothy, and his future wife, Mary Hutchinson, frequently went upon whilst they were living at Dove Cottage, Grasmere, from December 1799.

The Wordsworths went walking every day, not just to fulfil the practical requirements of their lives such as visiting friends or collecting letters from Ambleside, but also specifically to enjoy the scenery, to experience their world. On these walks, Wordsworth carried small notebooks in which he noted the lines of poetry that he composed as he walked along. Frequently, he gave recitals of his poetic drafts in the outdoors. Dorothy Wordsworth’s journals are essential for our imagining this shared activity, and its necessary place in Wordsworth’s creation of his poetry. On Tuesday 12th August 1800, for instance, she reports:

Drank tea with the Cockins – Wm and I walked along the Cockermouth road – he was altering his poems –

Later that week, on the Sunday, we hear that ‘Wm read us the 7 Sisters on a stone’.

Dorothy’s Journal shows us how much the brother and sister shared. This is so, not just in the famous instances where William had recourse to Dorothy’s writings when creating his ‘Daffodils’ or his poem on the Leech-Gatherer, ‘Resolution and Independence’. It includes their shared delight in various aspects of the natural space around them – as well as a sometime preoccupation with the sound of the environment over simply seeing it.

One favourite walk out of Grasmere was into a neighbouring valley, Easedale, down which runs a ‘gill’ or stream with waterfalls breaking over rocks. At the top of the valley sits a lake or ‘tarn’ in local speech, surrounded by mountains. As part of my exploration of what sounds (and near-silences) meant to Wordsworth’s creativity, Paul and I took a similar walk, listening and recording as we went. In her Journal for the morning of 9th December 1801, Dorothy has a wonderful description of the Easedale walk:

…when we got into Easedale we saw Churn Milk force like a broad stream of snow. At the little foot-Bridge we stopped to look at the company of rivers which came hurrying down the vale this way & that; it was a valley of streams and Islands, with that great waterfall at the head & lesser falls in different parts of the mountains coming down to these Rivers. We could hear the sound of those lesser falls but we could not see them – we walked backwards and forwards till all the distant objects except the white shape of the waterfall, & the lines of the mountains were gone.

The quest for the experience of the waterfalls, of fast-moving waters, was a recurrent one across these years. In October 1802, we find Dorothy reporting:

A beautiful day. We walked to the Easedale hills to hunt waterfalls – Wm and Mary left me sitting on a stone on the solitary mountains & went to Easedale Tairn. I grew chilly and followed them. This approach to the Tairn is very beautiful.

Although we made the same walk in September, there had been heavy rains during the previous few weeks, and it was possible to experience something similar to the ‘company’ of waters which met the Wordsworths at the bottom of the Easedale valley. It is still the case that the modern pathway you use to enter the walk up towards the Tarn crosses a bridge and then a footbridge. It is here

that Paul recorded the confluence of the waters into the Rover Rothay. You can hear those sounds by double-clicking the mp3 file here:

What follows is a sequence of photographs as you move up the valley:

By the time you reach the lip of the Tarn itself, however, which is after only 30 minutes walking, this rush of waters has receded.

You arrive at a place which is one of the quietest spots on earth, where the wind gently plays upon the water as it brims across the lip of the lake to fall down the hillside:

It takes extreme attention to even hear these sounds, which were captured using highly sensitive micro- and hydro-phones. This is a quietness of place which the Wordsworths might have arrived to, during that October walk in 1802.

Wordsworth’s poetry makes us listen again to the sounds of nature and of the world, their varieties and extreme contrasts. One inspiration for the current Ceaseless Music project was my own listening to a recording of an Aeolian Harp, on a visit with my wife, in the early days of our relationship, to the house Wordsworth and his family had lived in at Grasmere – Dove Cottage. Aeolian Harps were popular in the early nineteenth century, and Wordsworth’s closest friend at that time, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, especially enjoyed them. The Harp was a wooden sounding box with strings, which could be placed in front of an open window on the ledge or casement, for the breezes and winds to play across. The sounds so made are eerie and enchanting. My listening to the Harp at the museum next to Wordsworth’s own cottage led to my writing a poem at the time, which I think still resounds behind the new work and reflection in this book, Ceaseless Music:

The Aeolian Harp at Dove Cottage

Extreme quietness entered the headphones,
time paused between breaths. Then, a quavering breeze
sent its recorded sigh through the casement,
like a player warming an instrument.
Single strings first raised hesitant music
as the machine’s tape wakened into life;
wavering notes, as when friends tentatively
dance on the threshold of a declared love.

The desultory breeze grew bolder,
the strings vibrated from chords through discords
to a happy return of harmony,
a surprising interfusion of sweet with harsh,
as the wind soothed down its threatening force
to strange-sung notes of peacefulness.

Transported myself by this utterance,
I called you over to hear its sounds,
and watched your tired face open in rapt joy.
After our day of chill slanting showers,
climbing the steep hillside to the tarn
with live writhing waters rushing all round,
all at last settled into pensive quiet,
into quickening, shared wonder.

If you would like to hear further sounds connected with the Wordsworths, you can visit the free website here.

We will be adding further sounds to the map as the project evolves.



Text provided by Steven Matthews.

Field Recordings made Paul Whitty in September 2015 with support from the Sonic Art Research Unit (SARU) at Oxford Brookes University, UK.