Wordsworth's Dream of the Errant Knight
Book Fifth of William Wordsworth's The Prelude, aptly entitled Books, vividly expresses Wordsworth's hopes and fears through the depiction of a friend's dream. The most poignant of Wordsworth's fears concerns the frailty of books and human knowledge and the dream depicting the errant knight is a direct reflection of this fear. In the dream, the actions of the knight, or the arab, and the man, who serves as the narrator of the dream, represent Wordsworth's despair concerning the frailty of books and the, therefore, precarious position of their contents.
In the lines preceding the dream, Wordsworth expresses his distress over the apparent lack of durability of man's intellectual work:
Oh, why hath not the mind
Some element to stamp her image on
In nature somewhat nearer to her own?
Why, gifted with such powers to send abroad
Her spirit, must it lodge in shrines so frail? (lines 44-49)
He composes these lines after contemplating whether some store of knowledge would survive if "'earth by inward throes be wrenched throughout,/Or fire be sent from far to whither all'" (lines 29-30), but he soon relinquishes any hope of this when he admits that all man's "adamantine holds of truth" (line 38) would not survive nature's onslaught. This contemplation provides a seamless segue into the description of his friend's dream.
The dream scene echoes Wordsworth's realization of the frailty of man's knowledge when confronted with the ominous forces of nature and time, but it also provides a hero who attempts to save human knowledge from decay and destruction. As the man standing in the "Arabian waste" observes the arab approaching on his horse, he notices that he carries a stone and a shell in either arm. The arab soon informs the man as to the contents of the stone and shell:
the arab told him that the stone--
To give it in the language of the dream--
Was Euclid's Elements. "And this", said he,
"This other", pointing to the shell, "this book
Is something of more worth." (lines 86-90)
The shell, which is of more worth, contains poetry. When the man holds it to his ear, as instructed by the arab, he hears an ode prophesying "Destruction to the children of the earth/By deluge now at hand" (lines 98). This approaching deluge represents the destructive effects of nature, because of its eternal existence and persistence, and time on man's knowledge and truths. It is from this deluge that the arab seeks to protect his two treasures:
. . . and that he himself
Was going then to bury those two books. (lines 102-103)
The selection of a book that contains poetry and Euclid's Elements, a book of geometry, as the treasures the arab protects serves to symbolize the totality of knowledge that remains in his care. Mathematics and literature represent the opposite ends of the spectrum of man's knowledge. The use of these two books is even more appropriate when one considers that geometry and poetry are often regarded, respectively, as the "purest" forms of mathematics and literature: geometry because its fundamental ideas and laws are proven through logic, and poetry because it conveys ideas and emotions in a vivid and relatively concentrated body. The friend who's dream Wordsworth relates also describes "poetry and geometric truth" (line 64) as "The knowledge that endures" (line 65).
The fact that these two examples of human knowledge are represented by a stone and a shell, two objects associated with nature, seems to be contradictory. This, however, is not necessarily the case since the incorporation of man's knowledge into these natural objects serves to protect them. This incorporation reflects Wordsworth's earlier query as to "why hath not the mind/Some element to stamp her image on/In nature somewhat nearer to her own?" (lines 44-46). In the stone and the shell, man's mind and knowledge are safeguarded because they have been successfully "stamped" into nature. Another interesting parallel arises when the stone and the shell are compared to their contents. Just as geometry and poetry represent the different facets of man's knowledge, the stone and shell originate from different, and somewhat opposite facets of nature: the land and the sea.
When the man in the desert becomes aware of the arab's purpose, he wishes to join him on his quest:
A wish was now engendered in my fear
To cleave unto this man, and I begged leave
To share his errand with him. (lines 115-117)
His fear of the deluge that will destroy those precious works inspires the man to aid the arab in protecting them. The arab, however, continues onward, eventually quickening his pace so that the man can no longer stay with him. At the point when the man wishes to join the arab's quest, he also begins to see the arab differently, more heroicly:
I fancied that he was the very knight
Whose tale Cervantes tells, yet not the knight,
But was an arab of the desart too,
Of these was neither, and was both at once. (lines 123-126)
As the man watches the knightly arab ride on in pursuit of his gallant quest "With the fleet waters of the drowning world/In chase of him" (lines 136-137), he realizes the nobility of the knight's cause, as well as the futility of his own attempt to participate. It is the comprehension of this futility that causes the man to wake in terror, and, because of his evident passion for the preservation of human truths, it becomes clear that this would be Wordsworth's reaction as well.