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  • Dream Walker:A Wordsworth Mystery Solved1
  • Kelly Grovier

Among the many mysteries surroundingthe writing and imagination of William Wordsworth is the inspiration for the figure of the phantom drifter who haunts the apocalyptic beginning of Book Five of The Prelude.2 In the so-called 'Arab dream' passage, Wordsworth describes encountering a wraith-like wanderer crossing the desert sands on a dromedary. The traveller, who is carrying a stone and a shell (bizarrely referred to as 'books' in 'the language of the dream'), explains that he is on a mission to bury his 'twofold treasure' before 'the fleet waters of the drowning world' destroy them. The surreal stranger seems a product of pure invention – unlikely to have been based on any actual person Wordsworth knew or knew about – who shifts spectrally from being 'the very knight / Whose tale Cervantes tells, yet not the knight' to 'an arab of the desert too'; of these, Wordsworth says, he 'was neither, and was both at once'.3

Like 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner', Wordsworth's and Coleridge's co-invention of some seven years earlier, the 'Arab dream', first drafted in February 1804, has attracted endless critical speculation about the possible cultural and psychological forces that might have provoked it. A dizzying array of antecedentsfor the dream has been posited, each pointingto a possible philosophical, religious, literary or scientific source. Part of the difficulty has had to do with confusion surrounding just who is doing the dreaming in the first place. In its original version, the vision is said to have been related to Wordsworth by a 'listless' friend (thought by many commentators to be Coleridge),4 who is described as mischievously 'going far to seek disquietude'. But revising The Prelude in 1838, four years after Coleridge's death, Wordsworth took credit for the dream himself, rewriting the episode in the first person with himself as the dreamer.

In unravelling the passage, attention has focused in particular on the nature of the phantom's accessories – the stone and shell – and their curious rendering in the poem as volumes of writing: 'one that held acquaintance with the stars', and 'the other', more perplexing still, 'that was a god, yea many gods, / Had voices more than all the winds, and was / A joy, a consolation, and a hope'.5 In 1956, Jane Worthington Smyser made an important breakthrough when she uncovered Wordsworth's debt to Adrien Baillet's Life of Descartes, published in 1691, which describes a series of dreams that troubled the seventeenth-century philosopher, one of which occurs in a library and features two books – a dictionary and a volume of poetry.6 As for the flood, everyone from Josephus to Robert Southey has been credited with supplying Wordsworth with literary examples.7

But what has escaped speculation almost entirely are prototypes for the rambler himself; [End Page 156] critics have been content to accept Wordsworth's own acknowledgement in the poem that he is a kind of 'semi-Quixote',8 tinged perhaps with a shade of Romantic orientalism, in the manner of 'Kubla Khan'.I believe, though, that the passage is a coded tribute to a friend from Wordsworth's days as a young radical in Revolutionary France: a figure who, however improbable it may seem, was an authentic traveller across the Arabian wastes – one who not only claimed to be on an endless mission to bury his own books, but whose identity, according to his contemporaries, shifted ceaselessly before their very eyes.That individual was John 'Walking' Stewart.

Walking Stewart is one of those forgotten cultural barometers by which the intellectual climate of an entire age may be measured. His unusual nickname derives from his reputation for having crossed, on foot, a greater portion of the known world than any person before him – a thirty-year peregrination, beginning in Madras in 1765, which took him across the divided principalities of India, through Persia and Turkey, across the deserts of Abyssinia and Arabia, through northern Africa, into every European country as far east as Russia, as well as over to the new United States and into the upper reaches of Canada. Though Stewart subsequently published nearly thirty works expounding the...


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pp. 156-163
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Archived 2009
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