Romantic readings: Wordsworth's 'The Rainbow'

by Fred Blick
Wordsworth does not have a reputation for punning, as do Shakespeare and Charles Lamb; but it is well known that he loved Geometry. ‘The Rainbow’ and the ‘Ode’ gave him a rare opportunity for making a serious, meaningful, geometrical pun. It was a pun which he exploited in two other poems.
One of the merits of a pun is that it can trigger off a series of related ideas. This is what it appears to have done in Wordsworth’s case in 1802. Remembering that the rainbow is part of a circle, which has no end, his pun exploits the ideas of ‘immortality and infinity’, pre-existence and eternity.
‘My heart leaps up when I behold’ (which Dorothy Wordsworth called ‘The Rainbow’) has only nine lines, but its composition appears to have caused her brother considerable anxiety. Dorothy recorded in her Grasmere Journal for Friday 26 March 1802, “While I was getting into bed he wrote the Rainbow”. From this it seems that, initially, William composed the poem quickly and with ease. Next day she recorded “… at breakfast Wm wrote part of an ode … ”. She was referring to the first four stanzas of the Ode which was published in 1807. In the 1815 printing he changed the title to ‘Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood’, preceding the poem with the last three lines of ‘The Rainbow’ as a motto set out in the middle of a single page. The subject matter of the Ode was then clearly intended to be shown as being very closely related to the concept of continuity by immortality, to the general contents of The Rainbow poem and to the ‘Child’ mentioned in that poem’s seventh line.
In view of the inter-relationship between these two poems it is appropriate here to quote what Wordsworth had to say about the Ode in a letter to Mrs Clarkson of January 1815. He observed,

The poem rests entirely upon two recollections of childhood, one that of a splendour in the objects of sense which is passed away, and the other an indisposition to bend to the law of death, as applying to our particular case. A Reader who has not a vivid recollection of these feelings having existed in his mind cannot understand that poem. … And some of those images of sense which are dwelt upon as holding that relation to immortality and infinity which I have before alluded to; if a person has not been in the way of receiving these images, it is not likely that he can form such an adequate conception of them as will bring him into lively sympathy with the Poet (my bolding).

This observation, referring to “immortality and infinity,” helps to explain the eternal symbolism of the splendour of the rainbow, as recalled from childhood.
On Friday 14 May 1802 Dorothy noted in her journal, “Went to bed at ½ past 11, William very nervous ― after he was in bed haunted with altering the Rainbow”. She added in the next day’s entry, “It is now ¼ past 10 & he is not up”. One may well wonder what it was about such a short and seemingly simple poem that altering it caused such nervousness. As published in 1807, ‘The Rainbow’ reads as follows:

My heart leaps up when I behold
A Rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a Man;
So be it when I shall grow old,
Or let me die!
The Child is Father of the Man;
And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.

Line seven, “The Child is Father of the Man”, gives pause for thought, because a young child cannot, literally, be a Father of the Man. Obviously, the poet is speaking metaphorically and paradoxically and he is hinting also at the continuity and eternality of a Pythagorean pre-existence, as contemplated in the fifth stanza of the closely related Ode:

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,

On the face of it, the final two lines of ‘The Rainbow’ express the wish of the speaker (presumably Wordsworth himself) that there will be continuity for the remainder of his life by which each day is bound to the next in reverence or ‘piety’.
Wordsworth must have been aware of the scientific investigations by which Isaac Newton had revealed, at the beginning of the eighteenth century, firstly his analysis of light generally, and then the rainbow in particular. The Rev’d Thomas Bowman, Wordsworth’s last headmaster at Hawkshead Grammar School (1785-7), reported that he once left William in his study for a moment and returned to find him reading Newton’s Opticks (1704). Newton had explained exactly how the rainbow was formed in Book One, Part II, Proposition IX, Problem IV of Opticks.
Much of Newton’s work had depended upon Euclidean geometry. Wordsworth had taken great pleasure in geometry when he was at school in Hawkshead and he was examined on it later at St John’s Cambridge where, in this respect, he was at first far ahead of his peers. Euclid’s Elements was one of the most important texts for the M.A. at Cambridge in 1788. Subsequently, Wordsworth praised geometry at length in The Prelude, Book Six (1805, lines135-159).
It is appropriate now to recall what is known of Wordsworth’s inclination to pun. Apart from repeated puns on “muse”, he puns unarguably in The Prelude (1850, VII: line 346) on the French and English word “lustres” meaning chandeliers, a word which, when combined, as it is, with “glare,” suggests lusters, i.e. those who glare and lust. The cunning lines read, “… upon her cheeks diffused, / False tints too well accorded with the glare / from play-house lustres thrown without reserve … ”.
In The Excursion, (IV: line 1144) he puns again unarguably, on ‘tidings’ as ‘happenings’ or ‘news’, as against the ebb and flow of the sea. The pun is signaled by the prior mention of a sea shell put to the ear, viz. “I doubt not, when to you it doth impart / Authentic tidings of invisible things; / Of ebb and flow, … ”.
There is an ‘awful’, but surely deliberate, pun in an earlier, mysterious poem, “A slumber did my spirit seal” where he associates ‘slumber’ and ‘seal’ with ‘die’ and ‘urn’ by use of the word ‘diurnal’.
Coming back to the pun in ‘The Rainbow’ poem, the idea that the rainbow was an everlasting, holy and natural symbol must certainly have crossed Wordsworth’s mind. He could not help but recall God’s promise to Noah about the “bow” of the rainbow in Gen. 9 :12-16 that “the waters shall no more become a flood to destroy all flesh”. Here was to be found an everlasting symbol of continuance and immortality as seen in the rainbow.
In order now to appreciate Wordsworth’s geometrical pun it is necessary to understand that a rainbow is part of a circle, usually visible as a semi-circle. Newton makes this clear in his investigation of the rainbow in Opticks when he refers to ‘semi-diameter’.  Most significantly, Wordsworth and Dorothy had observed, in special conditions, a rainbow as a complete circle. Dorothy recorded the occasion in the Alfoxden Journal for 30 January 1798 as follows:

William called me into the garden to observe a singular appearance about the moon. A perfect rainbow, within the bow one star, only of colours more vivid. The semi-circle soon became a complete circle, and in the course of three or four minutes the whole faded away.

As to the qualities of the circle, the meaning of pi / π is the number which is equal to the ratio of the periphery (or circumference) of a circle to the diameter. In England in 1741/2 the symbol π appeared for 3.14159 on page 44 of Sherwin’s Mathematical Tables. In 1794 π had become so firmly established that it was used in the popular student book by A. M. Legendre entitled Éléments De Géométrie Avec Des Notes. This book was so successful that it was quickly published throughout Europe and in Britain. Wordsworth was fluent in French.
The mathematical concept of “pi / π = 3∙14159, &c” for calculating the perimeter of a circle from its known diameter would certainly be understood and taught at Wordsworth’s Grammar School at Hawkshead. The school had a very high reputation for Geometry and Mathematics, both before and after William’s attendance there.
The primary meaning of the last word of ‘The Rainbow’, ‘piety’, is “a state of reverence”. But by punning, ‘piety’ can be seen as “a state of pi / π”, which is not only a measure of the circumference of a circle but is also an infinite, unending geometrical concept, calculable to an infinite number of digits. The circle itself, which has no end, is historically a symbol of eternity and infinity.
The validity of Wordsworth’s pun on pi / π, as seen in the word “piety,” might yet be questioned were it not for the fact that he used the same pun in Book Four of The Excursion:

And piety is sweet to Infant minds.
―The Shepherd-lad, that in the sunshine carves,
On the green turf, a dial − to divide
The silent hours; and who to that report
Can portion out his pleasures, and adapt,
Throughout a long and lonely summer’s day
His round of pastoral duties, is not left
With less intelligence of moral things
Of gravest import. Early he perceives,
Within himself, a measure and a rule,
Which to the Sun of Truth he can apply,
That shines for him, and shines for all Mankind.

(lines 799-810, my bolding.)

In these lines Wordsworth is clearly referring to a circular ‘dial’  which was carved on the turf by a Child, the ‘Shepherd-lad’ in order to make a very primitive ‘Shepherd’s dial’ to ‘adapt’ his ’round’ of duties ‘throughout’ the sun’s cycle of the long day. Possibly, the boy would use his own shadow or his staff as a gnomon. The concept of pi / π, as a measure of circularity, is again referred to covertly by the word ‘piety’, as “a state of pi / π,” in much the same way as in ‘The Rainbow’. As with the circular Rainbow, the eternal circularity of the Shepherd-lad’s sunlit dial symbolizes continual ‘Truth’ which ‘shines for all Mankind’. The pun is a typical expression of Wordsworth’s long held belief in his beloved geometry, as being fundamental to life and the universe.
Wordsworth never forgot his circular pun on ‘piety’. As late as 1842 he published three Sonnets about the Pilgrim Fathers as part of “Ecclesiastical Sonnets” in Poems, Chiefly of Early and Late Years, under the heading of Aspects of Christianity in America. The sonnets were on the subject of how the Pilgrim Fathers fled to America from 1620 onwards, allegedly from the English Church’s abuse of ‘Rite and Ordinance’. The sonnets celebrate the fact that in Wordsworth’s mind the American Church had been brought back into the fold from which the Pilgrim Fathers fled long ago. The third pun on ‘piety’ and ‘circles’ occurs in Part III, Sonnet XIV, ii (my bolding):

… Lo! From that distant shore,
For Rite and Ordinance, Piety is led
Back to the Land those Pilgrims left of yore,
Led by her own free choice. So Truth and Love
By Conscience governed do their steps retrace. –
Fathers! Your Virtues, such the power of grace,
Their spirit, in your Children, thus approve.
Transcendent over time, unbound by place,
Concord and Charity in circles move. (lines 7-14)

The consistent circularity of the three puns on piety” pi / π, now seen here for the first time, and used by Wordsworth on three separate occasions over a period of many years, provides the strongest evidence for the validity of the pun in ‘The Rainbow’.
Fred Blick (born 1929), is an independent scholar from a multi-disciplinary background. An LL.B (Hons) graduate of Birmingham University, he worked in partnership as a solicitor for over forty years. He has published a number of essays over the past twenty years not only on Wordsworth in ‘Romanticism’ journal, but also in peer-reviewed academic journals worldwide on the subjects of the Sonnets of William Shakespeare and of Edmund Spenser.