Shell and Stone
Dreamed late 1840s by William Wordsworth
I saw before me stretched a boundless plain
Of sandy wilderness, all black and void,
And as I looked around, distress and fear
Came creeping over me, when at my side,
Close at my side, an uncouth shape appeared
Upon a dromedary, mounted high.
He seemed an Arab of the Bedouin tribes:
A lance he bore, and underneath one arm
Grasping his twofold treasure. -- Lance in rest,
Under the skin this dream crackles with ideas. After all, the Arabs really did save Euclid (and a thousand other classics) from the Great Flood--the flood of barbarians who brought down Rome. Yet the dream isn't a mere historical corrective to European arrogance. It's set in present or future time--a new apocalypse. The stone/book seems to be logic or science but also the past, while the shell is prophecy and the future. Why, though, do they manifest as stone and shell? It could, as the last few lines hint, be the subliminal influence of the beach-setting where Wordsworth dreamed it. But is that all? Or does the dream also hint at reasons that logic and prophecy alike appear as non-books? After all, as stone and shell they can survive the flood; in book-form they could not. Wordsworth's dream may be saying "for enduring insights, whether spiritual or scientific, look to nature, not books."
And then, on waking, Wordsworth puts the dream into a book, of course.
This passage is from Wordsworth's The Prelude, Book V, published 1850. I first encountered it in The Oxford Book of Dreams (ed. Stephen Brook, 1983). "Shell and Stone" is merely my title of convenience. --Chris Wayan
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