“The Book of Shells and Stones” essay by Javier Ibanez

The Book of Shells and Stones:

A Reading of Wordsworth’s Dream of the Arab

essay by Javier Ibáñez


.       Book V of William Wordsworth’s The Prelude opens with a lament over the fact that the mind does not have “[s]ome element to stamp her image on / In nature somewhat nearer to her own,” but that rather, even though “gifted with such powers to send abroad / Her spirit,” she is forced to “lodge in shrines so frail” as books (5.46-9). [1] This prefatory section is followed by what has come to be referred to as the “Dream of the Arab.” The episode has been the subject of much critical attention, beginning with De Quincey’s early remark—he was writing in 1839, twenty-one years before the posthumous publication of the poem, which he had read in manuscript—that in it Wordsworth had reached “the very ne plus ultra of sublimity” (268-9). A substantial part of more recent scholarship has been concerned with what may be called questions of fact, e.g., the authenticity of the dream and whether or not Wordsworth was the original dreamer (vid. Smyser), the literary sources for the apocalyptic flood (vid. Kelley, “Deluge”), the identity of the Arab/Quixote (vid. Grovier), or the type of shell that the poet had in mind (vid. New). In what follows, my intention will be rather to concentrate on the interpretation of the symbolism and meaning of the dream and to suggest how such an interpretation may contribute towards our understanding of Wordsworth’s complex relationship to his own work, and to the craft of poetry in general.

.       The section (5.56-140) begins with a description of the poet, who has been sitting in a cave by the sea, reading Cervantes’ Don Quixote, and is now musing “[o]n poetry and geometric truth / And their high privilege of lasting life / From all internal injury exempt” (5.65-7). “[A]t length,” he says, “[m]y senses yielding to the sultry air, / Sleep seized me, and I passed into a dream” (5.68-70). In this dream, the poet finds himself lost in a desert, a “boundless plain / Of sandy wilderness, all black and void” (5.71-2), and, looking around in fear, he notices an Arab riding a dromedary and carrying “underneath one arm / A stone, and in the opposite hand a shell / Of a surpassing brightness” (5.78-80). The Arab informs the poet, “in the language of the dream” (5.87), that the stone is Euclid’s Elements, and then proceeds to hand him the shell, which is “something of more worth” (5.89), with the instruction that he hold it to his ear. Upon doing this, the poet hears “in an unknown tongue, / Which yet I understood […] / A loud prophetic blast of harmony” (5.93-5), which tells of the imminence of a deluge that will destroy “the children of the earth” (5.97). He is then informed that the Arab’s mission is to bury these two objects, which are described as being simultaneously

.                                                       …two books:
The one that held acquaintance with the stars,
And wedded soul to soul in purest bond
Of reason, undisturbed by space or time;
The other that was a god, yea many gods,
Had voices more than all the winds, with power
To exhilarate the spirit, and to soothe,
Through every clime, the heart of human kind. (5.102-9)

The poet desires to join the Arab in his quest, but he is ignored, and the Arab rides off. As he tries to keep up, the poet notices that the Arab is now also “the knight / Whose tale Cervantes tells” (5.123-4). In the last scene of the dream, the Arab’s face becomes distorted with horror as the approaching flood covers the desert in “[a] bed of glittering light” (5.129), and he hurries “o’er the illimitable waste, / With the fleet waters of a drowning world / In chase of him” (5.136-8). The poet awakes to find himself again before the sea, with his copy of the Quixote by his side.

.       Three things, at least, strike me here as wanting explanation. But let us begin by establishing first what seems to be clear. It seems clear, first of all, that the stone and the shell, which are also books, are symbols of geometry (or mathematics, or science) and of poetry (or literature, or art), respectively.[2] It seems clear also that the Arab’s apparently self-imposed mission is to preserve these two books, science and art, from destruction. It seems clear, lastly, that the waters from which the Arab is to save these treasures are the waters of time or the void of chaos and non-existence (Kelley, “Spirit,” 576-7). In other words, the tenor of the metaphoric dream is clear. The choice of vehicle, however, particularly of the stone and the shell, and the way in which this choice is meant to affect our understanding of the tenor, remains puzzling.[3] Neither is it easy to understand why the shell’s “loud prophetic blast of harmony / […] which foretold / Destruction to the children of the earth / By deluge, now at hand” (5.95-8) should, at the same time, “exhilarate the spirit, and […] soothe, / Through every clime, the heart of human kind” (5.108-9) and be “[a] joy, a consolation, and a hope” (1805 Prelude: 5.109). Nor is it apparent, lastly, why one of only two sources of brightness in this predominantly gloomy nightmare should be that “bed of glittering light” cast “over half the wilderness” (5.128-9) precisely by the waters which are the cause of so much anxiety.

.       The use of the stone and the shell as symbols of those highest of human achievements, science and poetry, suggests that all human creation is ultimately derived from, and perhaps reducible to, the natural world. The stone, a synecdoche for the physical aspect of nature, may contain Euclid’s Elements and, in fact, all mathematical knowledge, because such knowledge emerges through touching, counting[4], measuring, and looking at nature. As Kelley points out, “as a natural object with geometric properties, [the stone] should remind its readers that philosophers have long ‘found’ Euclidean figures in nature and that such discoveries were especially admired by seventeenth- and eighteenth-century writers” (“Spirit,” 570). The case is similar with the shell, whose “blast of harmony” is, of course, only the sound of the environment resonating in its cavity, offering its hearer nothing more than a projection of the “voice” of nature, an amplification of the “ode” by which he is constantly surrounded but which he fails to hear unaided. Both objects represent different but complementary aspects of nature which are the ultimate source of “[t]he consecrated works of Bard and Sage” (5.42).

.       At the same time, the dual description of the Arab’s treasures as objects of nature and as books seems to be a reformulation of the familiar trope of the universe as a vast work written by God, “which Medieval and Renaissance writers claimed was God’s ‘second’ Book” (Kelley, “Spirit,” 569), composed “in an unknown tongue” and yet decipherable by those attuned to its rhythms and cadences. The poet, of course, is such an individual—as is the scientist—and “[his] relationship to nature is that of a reader to a sacred text” (Ragussis, 157). The presence of this metaphor has at least two important and related consequences. The first is that human works are not original in any conventional sense: Newton and Shakespeare are not creators, but merely transcribers, or, perhaps more precisely, translators, from “[t]he ghostly language of the ancient earth” (2.309) to one that is more comprehensible to those less gifted. Their greatness lies not in the production of texts but in the interpretation of that great and all-inclusive text that is nature. Though hidden from everyday perception, the world is ever-present in the grain of sand, as is heaven in the wildflower: God, not Blake, put them there; Blake is simply a good reader (“Auguries of Innocence,” 1-2). The second consequence is that, if our books are simply partial copies from the book of nature, then nothing essential is lost with the destruction of those “shrines so frail.” Even after the great deluge, buried in the sand beneath the waters will be countless stones, countless shells, waiting to be read. The ability of successive translators may vary infinitely, but the original text is not affected by this fact. Art and science are transcendent in spite of our own transience.

.       The metaphor of the Book of Nature allows us to understand the seemingly strange dissonance between the content of the shell’s fearful ode, which prophesies universal destruction, and the effect that its sound has on the hearer, who describes it as “[a] joy, a consolation, and a hope.” For it is indeed joyful and consolatory that all knowledge and all beauty should ultimately lie in nature rather than in our minds, and should thus be exempt from the destruction that is our common lot.[5] But the fairly straightforward picture presented thus far becomes more complicated once we consider the figure of the Arab. For, in spite of what has been said, the Arab persists desperately in his doomed attempt to escape the flood and in his useless mission to bury his treasures. And, further, and perhaps more importantly, there is evidence that the Arab’s obsessions with permanence are also Wordsworth’s.

.       “The Arab’s quest is not only futile,” writes Shakir, “it is mad” (165). But this is not, as she suggests, because “[t]he works of bard and sage […] are after all frail and perishable, ultimately only paper and ink” (164). This would indeed be the case if the Arab were carrying literal rather than metaphorical books, but he is not. His quest is futile and mad not because he will fail (though, of course, he will), but because the quest itself is utterly unnecessary: he will dedicate his life to his task, he will die in the flood, and he will have made no difference. The survival of the Book of Nature is independent of the Arab’s actions. Like his double Don Quixote who mistakes windmills for giants, the Arab mistakes the stone and the shell for treasures that are subject to the same destruction to which he is. He overextends the ground of the metaphor of which he is part and in so doing becomes an absurd and ridiculous figure: a man attempting to bury and hide objects that are so common and that occur in such an abundance that it is as if he were trying to preserve individual drops of water or grains of sand.

.       The process of identification between Wordsworth and the Arab begins even before the dream does, for it is clearly Wordsworth’s own obsessions with and concerns over the permanence of art and science, expressed in the preliminary section of Book V (1-49), that are later transferred in the dream to the Arab. And later, after the poet has awoken, he will feel that “[r]everence was due to a being thus employed” (5.150) and confess that he “could share / That maniac’s fond anxiety and go / Upon like errand” (5.159-61). But it is in the dream itself, where contraries coexist and things may simultaneously be other things, that the identification is most complete, and also, ironically, most easily missed: when the poet is “self-question[ing] what this freight / Which the new-comer carried through the waste / Could mean” (5.84-6, my italics), it is the Arab who immediately proceeds to give his explanation. Now of course this may just be a coincidence or the poet may be “self-questioning” out loud, but these explanations feel unsatisfactory in such a heavily symbolic passage. In any case, it seems clear to me that the Arab is being established, in Jacobus’ words, as “an extreme type of the poet himself, at work on his unending, backward-looking, recuperative task” (619).

.       The dreamer’s vague recognition of his identity with the Arab is, I believe, the real source of the terror that the nightmare inspires, and not the unavoidable destruction of human works, which has already been established to be irrelevant. For if the poet is also the Arab, then his own task and its productions—The Prelude in particular, but also poetry, and also art—are just as meaningless and redundant as the mission carried out by the Arab in the dream, not because they are doomed to perish, but because they are nothing more than faint and imperfect echoes of what is forever written in the Book of Nature. Wordsworth himself admits to this redundancy: “Once more” he says “should I have made those bowers resound, / […] / With their own thoughtless melodies” (5.174-6); and again, “Yet wherefore speak? / Why call upon a few weak words to say / What is already written in the hearts / Of all that breathe?” (5.183-6). It is natural that such a situation, which throws into question the entire poetic calling that is the central theme of The Prelude, should produce a terrible anxiety. Thomas, commenting on the Arab’s choice of burial as a method of saving his books from the deluge, observes that “[i]n its attempt to preserve these texts from erasure, this plan merely substitutes one form of erasure for another” (50). It may perhaps be his awareness of the overwhelming inferiority of his work as compared to that of nature that leads the Arab to hide the books in shame, or even in fear of some kind of divine retribution.[6]

.       And yet it seems that this absurd and obsessive impulse to produce “[t]hings that aspire to unconquerable life” (5.20), is somehow unavoidable, unstoppable. The reason why “[i]n the wilderness of Wordsworth’s Dream of the Arab, the most beautiful sight is the bed of glittering light which is drowning the world” (Shakir, 166), is that this drowning is a deliverance from the futility of poetry. The flood finally puts a stop to the endless obsession with permanence that is art, and the self may dissolve in the waters of chaos with the knowledge that nothing will be lost in the process, that anything of value that may have been produced remains indelibly inscribed in the divine text of nature.

.       But of course Wordsworth awoke from his dream. And there was no flood, but only the soft breeze from the sea on a hot summer day, and there was no prophetic shell, but only Cervantes’ Don Quixote by his side. And perhaps after writing down the dream and working it into his poem, he was able to forget the terrible meaning that he had intuited behind it, and perhaps it ceased, for a time, to haunt him. Because of course he continued to write, and by 1805 had already completed a thirteen-book version of The Prelude. But it should be remembered that The Prelude was originally conceived as being nothing more than the introduction to a vast philosophical epic poem entitled The Recluse. And it seems significant to me that this longer work was left unfinished.


Works Cited

Blake, William. The Poetical Works of William Blake. Ed. John Sampson. Oxford: Oxford
.         UP, 1949. Print.

“calculus, n.” Oxford English Dictionary Online. December 2011. Oxford UP. 22 January
.          2012.

De Quincey, Thomas. The Collected Writings of Thomas De Quincey, Vol. II.Ed. David
.          Masson. Edinburgh: Adam and Charles Black, 1889. Print.

Grovier, Kelly. “Dream Walker: A Wordsworth Mystery Solved.” Romanticism 13:2 (2007)
.          156-163. Academic Search Complete. U of British Columbia Library, 24 October
.           2011.

Jacobus, Mary. “Wordsworth and the Language of the Dream.” ELH 46:4 (1979) 618-644.
.          JSTOR. U of British Columbia Library, 24 October 2011.

Kelley, Theresa M. “Deluge and Buried Treasure in Wordsworth’s Arab Dream.” Notes
.         and Queries 27:1 (1980) 70-71. Oxford Journals Online. U of British Columbia
.          Library, 24 October 2011.

Kelley, Theresa M. “Spirit and Geometric Form: The Stone and the Shell in Wordsworth’s
.         Arab Dream.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 22:4 (1982) 563-582.
.         JSTOR. U of British Columbia Library, 24 October 2011.

New, Melvyn. “Wordsworth’s Shell of Poetry.” Philological Quarterly 53:2 (1974) 275-281.
.          PAO Collection. U of British Columbia Library, 24 October 2011.

Ragussis, Michael. “Language and Metamorphosis in Wordsworth’s Arab Dream.”
.         Modern Language Quarterly 36:2 (1975) 148-165. Academic Search Complete. U
.          of British Columbia Library, 24 October 2011.

Richards, I. A. The Philosophy of Rhetoric. London: Oxford UP, 1979. Print.

Shakir, Evelyn. “Books, Death, and Immortality: A Study of Book V of The Prelude.”
.        Studies in Romanticism 8:3 (1969) 156-167. JSTOR. U of British Columbia Library,
.        24 October 2011.

Smyser, Jane Worthington. “Wordsworth’s Dream of Poetry and Science: The Prelude,
.       V.” PMLA 71:1 (1956) 269-275. JSTOR. U of British Columbia Library, 24 October
.       2011.

Thomas, Gordon K. “Fact and Fiction, Stone and Shell: Wordsworth’s Dream of the Poetic
.       Paradox.” Neophilologus 69:3 (1985) 446-451. PAO Collection. U of British
.       Columbia Library, 24 October 2011.

Virgil. The Aeneid. Trans. Robert Fagles. London: Penguin, 2008. Print.

Wordsworth, William. The Prelude or Growth of a Poet’s Mind. Ed. Ernest de Sélincourt
.      & Helen Darbishire. Oxford: Clarendon, 1959. Print.


[1] Unless otherwise indicated, all references are to the 1850 text of The Prelude.

[2] See, however, Kelley’s “Spirit and Geometric Form” which argues, against the traditional reading, that the opposition is not between science and poetry but rather between fixed and dynamic knowledge.

[3] For the analysis of metaphor into tenor and vehicle see Lectures V and VI of I. A. Richards’ The Philosophy of Rhetoric.

[4] It bears recalling that the Latin calculus (a diminutive of calx, meaning “stone” or “pebble”) referred to “a stone used in reckoning on the abacus or counting board” (“calculus, n.”).

[5] Note, in fact, that the shell prophesies only “[d]estruction to the children of the earth” and not to their works which are preserved, in their original and most perfect form, in nature.

[6] I am reminded of the fate of Misenus, who, according to Virgil, was drowned by Triton for challenging the gods to match his musical ability in playing a hollow sea-shell (The Aeneid, VI.203-8).