It is a bright summer day. The poet scurries in anticipation across the moor and climbs a ridge to witness Lake Windermere spread out before him. Because the lake is long and narrow, he likens it to a river. At last he knows exultation. He finds the scene "magnificent, and beautiful, and gay." He rushes down the hill shouting for the ferryman who will row him across. On the other side, up the hill, and an hour's walk beyond brings him to that beloved valley in which he was reared. He espies the church and the rising smoke marking the site of the town. At the cottage door, he is greeted by the woman (he calls her his "old Dame") whose home he shared when he attended the local grammar school. She studies him to see how much he has changed and sheds motherly tears because of the reunion. In his maturity, Wordsworth is grateful for the memory of her kindness, and he proves tireless in eulogizing her. In retrospection he sketches her: Her life was a narrow one, but it was busy. She had been childless but knew a filial love from strangers. She lived eighty happy years before she was laid to rest.
The sight of the woman, her house and its belongings, moved Wordsworth on that occasion very deeply. Though gone only the length of one school year, the poet must refresh his memory by reexamining all the objects, inside the house and out. He is particularly delighted to see in the yard the old stone table on which he studied and played, and is elated by the sight of the brook, to which he turns his attention as a live thing and addresses as "friend." He reflects that since human beings diverted the brook in order to make it pass through the garden, the stream has lost its strength and gaiety. He finds in the brook's present sluggishness a symbol of his own life during the recent college months. But the joy of his being home prevents his lapsing into moody meditation.
Together with his erstwhile landlady (whom he allows to lead him), he goes for a walk among the fields, where he sees and greets former neighbors. He is glad to encounter some fellow students whom he had known not too long before at the Hawkshead grammar school. He finds himself with mixed emotions, however, and cannot decide whether to be proud or ashamed of his gentleman's dress recently acquired at Cambridge.
He is delighted to be able to sit at the old dining table and to sleep once more in the bed he occupied as a schoolboy. He remembers how satisfying it had been to lie there just under the roof and listen to the wind and to the driving rain. On clear nights, he loved to gaze at the moon's image between dancing leaves of a nearby tree.
One old companion that he is especially delighted to see is a terrier he used to romp with. As with the brook, there is the suggestion that humanity here again has perverted natural functions and purposes. Meant by bloodlines to be a healthy hunter of small mammals, the dog had been pressed into a somewhat less rugged sport by the youthful poet. They were companions on nature walks, and the animal was forced to witness the youth's communings and the pangs which accompanied the birth of poetry within him. It is worth noting Wordsworth's own words, somewhat suggestive of Shelley after him, in describing his inspiration to poetry and how his canine companion took the ordeal with long-suffering: ". . . day by day / Along my veins I kindled with the stir, / The fermentation, and the vernal heat / Of poesy, affecting private shades / Like a sick Lover, then his dog was used / To watch me, an attendant and a friend." Wordsworth speaks of being "harassed with the toil of verse," of having exercised much bardic effort with little song to show for it. Suddenly the poetic image he had been groping for crystallized and the youth rushed forward and expressed all his joy in affection for the dog.
In a charming vignette, Wordsworth describes how he unabashedly rhapsodized his verse as he went for evening walks. His terrier would go ahead as a sentinel and warn the poet of the approach of anyone. In that way, the poet could come back to earth, compose himself, and avoid being labeled an eccentric by the people of the countryside.
He praises the walks he took. They return with a vernal freshness. On the first evening after his return, he made the circuit of the lake, full of happiness. The air is cold and raw — "untuned," as he expresses it. He has the impression that his speculation in the solitude lays his soul bare — as though at the Last Judgment — and he is forced to appraise what he sees. He has not been particularly sad, but he has a sudden rush of joy. Once again a distinct intimation of immortality swells his consciousness. But his purpose in life must always be noble. He seats himself in a wood and quietly contemplates the lake.
He tells us rather suddenly of his joy of witnessing human life and its occupations. Though he has been gone from the town but a short time, many persons and their fortunes have changed. None of these changes escapes the poet's attention. The simple routine about him contrasts sharply with the artificiality that he knew at Cambridge. He speaks of new love for his foster mother. Her "smooth domesticated" life pleases him, as does her piety. He marvels at her falling asleep over her Bible on a Sunday afternoon. . Wordsworth reveals that his love for objects around him is undergoing a change. He used to feel for things with the wild love of the tortured poet. Now it appears that his feelings are becoming more humane, insofar as they are distinct. He compares his uncertainty about his feelings at the time with the occupant of a boat bending over to peer into the depths; he is unable to discern the reflections of objects overhead from the images of objects on the bottom of the body of water.
The poet confesses that his old admiration for lofty things continues. He finds this joined, however, to a new affection for "vanities." He explains that these are for the most part social frivolities which have come between him and his former self-detachment. He complains that the new excitement was a poor exchange for nature and books. He recalls one evening particularly when there was dancing, chatter, and high spirits, even evidences of puppy love. Pleasure quickened both mind and blood. The poet danced all night and returned home by morning. He tells us that the sweetness of that dawn filled his heart. A vow that he will be a dedicated spirit is forced upon him.
He speaks of his mind as being full of contrasts — carefree and sober by turns. He knows that his powers are worthy but feels that he is slighting them through disuse. In fact, he has misgivings that he is still wasting time, and he has not the confinement of Cambridge to blame this time. He does feel that his newfound frivolity is tempered with the contemplation of God's works. He recalls with fondness the blessing of solitude when one is weary of the world's turmoil.
The remainder of Book 4 is devoted to an account of an incident which made a tremendous impression on the poet and on everyone who has ever read his poem. The incident in substance is rather a trivial one, but Wordsworth never forgot its moral lesson. He recalls a time when summer was past and autumn brought boat contests to Windermere. He had lolled idly at someone's house all day and left at night to return home. Climbing a hill, he recalls the gleaming moon on the road. There is only the sound of the brook in the stillness. He suddenly sees a soldier leaning against a milestone, motionless. He is tall and thin and has the look of a specter in the eerie moonlight. Wordsworth steps back into a bush to observe him. He wears a faded uniform. His simple appearance strikes the poet as being in sharp contrast to the gaudy world. Though the soldier is stiff and unflinching in bearing, from time to time he utters low sounds which sound like groans. The poet suddenly feels guilty about watching in hiding and steps out to hail the stranger. The latter stands slowly upright, returns a sedate military salute, and resumes his original position. Wordsworth asks the man's history. The soldier tells his tale with perfect composure. He had served in the tropics and been dismissed almost at once. He is now trying to bum his way back home. The poet bids him to follow, whereupon the stranger takes up a staff unnoticed heretofore. He walks weakly and cautiously but seems to be without pain. As they walk, they exchange observations and opinions, mostly about generalities. However, the soldier is rather detached in his replies, so they finally continue on in silence. Wordsworth goes up to the first cottage they encounter and knocks. When the door is opened, he presents the soldier as a poor, friendless, and sick man who needs help. He admonishes the soldier to seek help himself the next time he needs it. With a wonderful innocence, the soldier replies: "My trust is in the God of Heaven, / And in the eye of him who passes me!" The cottage is at the disposal of the soldier. He touches his hat and thanks Wordsworth with a new eagerness. And thus they part, though the poet lingers a little way off before turning for home.