The Raven’s Nest Episode

Background Information

This is a piece of poetry about Wordsworth’s childhood, first written in the earliest Prelude manuscript MS JJ. In the extract the young Wordsworth climbs a crag to take the eggs from a raven’s nest. This was a common practice when Wordsworth was a child. Ravens sometimes attacked young lambs, and farmers would pay boys like Wordsworth and his friends for destroying eggs. Here, however, the young Wordsworth gets stuck halfway up, unable to move. Too afraid to look down, he concentrates on the sky.

Teacher Advice

Give out / show on the whiteboard, the picture of Wordsworth trapped on the crag.

Introduce Wordsworth as a boy, struggling to reach a bird’s nest on a slippery, rocky cliff. Imagine what it would be like, desperately searching for footholds and something to grab onto; the weather is stormy and the wind is howling round.

What do you think he might be feeling? What would happen if he slipped?

Go through and discuss the words and phrases on the cliff around the boy.

The Passage in MS JJ (Yv, Xv)

Reading Text for The Raven's Nest Episode

Nor less, in spring-time, when on southern banks

The shining sun had from his knot of leaves

Decoyed the primrose-flower, and when the vales

And woods were warm, was I a rover then

In the high places, on the lonesome peaks,

Among the mountains and the winds. Though mean

And though inglorious were my views, the end

Was not ignoble. Oh, when I have hung

Above the raven's nest, by knots of grass,

Or half-inch fissures in the slipp'ry rock,

But ill sustained, and almost, as it seemed,

Suspended by the blast which blew amain,

Shouldering the naked crag, oh at that time,

While on the perilous ridge I hung alone,

With what strange utterance did the loud dry wind

Blow through my ears! the sky seemed not a sky

Of earth, and with what motion moved the clouds!

(Cornell Reading Text, lines 50-66)

Annotated Notes for Teaching

I . . . hung alone

Sets the scene: it is dangerous, there is no-one to help him, he may be frightened, but he may also find it exciting. Being alone occurs in many of Wordsworth’s poems; only when he is on his own can he be fully aware of the world of nature.

half-inch fissures

Fissure: a long narrow crack in the rock.

ill sustained

Nowadays we mainly use the word ill to mean unwell, or poorly, but it can also be used to describe something that is not done well, or is going badly. Wordsworth is badly sustained – he’s balancing on little bits of rock that are barely able to support him.

the naked crag

A crag is another word for a rocky cliff. How can a cliff be naked? What do you think Wordsworth means? Shouldering means he’s literally got his shoulder against the rock.

perilous ridge

Perilous: risky or dangerous.

loud dry wind / Blow through my ears

Many people think that the word ‘through’ is important in the passage. The wind is not just around him, it seems to go right inside him (becomes part of him?)

suspended by the wind that blew amain

Suspended: supported, or held up. The blast is the wind. Amain is an old fashioned word, meaning stormy, or violent. Wordsworth feels as if the strength of the wind is virtually holding him up, pinning him against the rock and preventing him from falling.

strange utterance

The verb ‘to utter’ means to speak. Wordsworth imagines that the wind is like a person and is communicating with him. Do you know what it is called when you describe something as if it is a person? (personification).

the sky seemed not a sky of earth

This phrase appears to make no sense, but it has the effect of emphasising how Wordsworth’s situation makes him react to the world of nature around him in a new way. Everything seems unreal.

Follow Up Activity: "Spots of Time"

This extract is what Wordsworth describes, later in his autobiographical poem The Prelude, as a "spot of time". A "spot of time" for Wordsworth is a memory that remains important many years after the event. It is held in the mind from a time when, as a child we do not yet have a clear chronological sense of time. As a result these moments have a peculiar power for us later as adults.

Ask the children to write a poem or piece of prose about one of their own spots of time. It always works well to ask them to write about their earliest memory first and then why they think they remember it. You can point out to them that the memory is often apparently arbitrary and insignificant. Nonetheless it becomes an important part of our self-identity.