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Nostalgia, Part 3: Clouds of Glory

November 2, 2010

William Wordsworth, from Wikimedia Commons

“. . . trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home . . .”

Wordsworth’s “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood” offers perhaps the strongest explanation of the types of nostalgia that I’ve been exploring in recent posts.

Wordsworth’s poem is famous because he describes a universal sensation, the inkling that once—when?—we connected more deeply with life’s mysteries. That time at the beach, holding Mom’s hand, when we clambered out over the rocks—why is that scene stuck in the mind? what was it we saw or said? Or on that summer sidewalk in a far-off city, in the flickering leaf-shadows under a street lamp, we felt a stirring that seemed almost to tell us—

Uh-huh. Wherever quavers like that were tugging us, most of us never quite made the connection, and in time we got busy and ceased to think about it. That’s certainly true of me. In fact, I discount most of my adolescent mysticism as the fumes of an overheated sexual furnace. And yet, when I take time to reflect, I miss feeling that way. In my notes for a recent story, I jotted that the protagonist was “yearning for yearning,” that is, wishing he could once more experience the unfulfilled urges that drove him crazy as a young man.

Recently I had a chance to read a draft of Byblos, an extraordinary novel-in-progress by a friend, Miriam Seidel. It tells two stories that on the surface seem widely disparate: the burning of the great Alexandria library in the time of Caesar and Cleopatra (and, yes, those characters appear in the novel); and the personal travails of Nina, a female dot.com entrepreneur in the early twenty-first century. The modern-day plot takes Nina back to her childhood home in upstate New York, where she experiences mystical connections not only to her younger self but also to a kind of spiritual zone that ultimately connects the two plots. She realizes that, in some way, numinous sensations like these sustained her through her difficult years of growing up in a discombobulated family.

Normally I have minimal tolerance for mysticism, especially if it comes too easily (see my grumpy comments about “Suzanne” in “Nostalgia, Part 1”). But Miriam grounds her spiritual flights in a deep sensory appreciation of the earth and its creatures. At the old homestead, we get a vivid sense of the tangled trumpet vines, the pallid mushrooms, the worms, the stones, the mucky pond with its slimy frogs, the cicadas screeching in the summer heat—along with Nina’s attempt to rediscover something important from her childhood that has gone missing. Heading for the pond, she rips her legs on a patch of brambles. Opening herself to all of this, she reaches out tentatively to sense the hidden links that bind the people and animals and rocks and plants together. She can’t name or describe these links, but she ends up putting her sensations to use by—well, I’m not going to reveal the end of the novel.

This kind of mysticism is grounded enough, literally and figuratively, for me to appreciate, and I believe that Miriam’s version is truer than Wordsworth’s because it blends the ugly with the pleasant, the hostile with the welcoming, the scummy pond with the pretty trees.

Old Willie did have talent, though, and I don’t mean to diss him. He’s worth quoting for the final words on the subject:

There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparell’d in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
It is not now as it hath been of yore;—
Turn wheresoe’er I may,
By night or day,
The things which I have seen I now can see no more.

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