In a lecture on Nightmares, delivered in Buenos Aires in the summer of 1977, by which time he was completely blind and therefore speaking entirely from memory, Jorge Luis Borges narrates the following story from the fifth book of Wordsworth’s Prelude, one that was later to be praised by De Quincey.
Wordsworth tells us that he was in a rocky cave by the sea. It was noon, and he was reading Don Quixote, one of his favorite books, ‘the famous history of the errant knight recorded by Cervantes.’ He put down the book and began to think about the end of science and art, and then the hour came. The powerful hour of noon, a hot summer noon. ‘Sleep seized me’, he recalls, ‘and I passed into a dream.’ He falls asleep in the cave, facing the sea, amid the golden sands of the beach. In his dream he is also surrounded by sand, a Sahara of black sand. There is no water, there is no sea. He is in the middle of a desert – in the desert one is always in the middle – and he is horrified at the thought of trying to escape. Suddenly he sees there is someone next to him. It is, oddly enough, an Arab of the Bedouin tribes, mounted on a camel and with a lance in his right hand. Under his left arm he has a stone, and in his hand he holds a shell. He brings the shell to the poet’s ear; the shell is of an extraordinary beauty. Wordsworth tells us he hears a prophecy ‘in an unknown tongue which yet I understood’: a sort of tender ode, prophesying that the earth was on the verge of being destroyed by a flood sent by the wrath of God. The Arab tells him that it is true, the flood is coming, but that he has a mission: to save the arts and sciences. He shows him the stone. And the stone is, curiously, Euclid’s Elements, while remaining a stone. Then he brings the shell closer, and the shell too is a book; it is what had spoken those terrible things. The shell is, moreover, all the poetry of the world, including – why not? – the poem by Wordsworth. The Bedouin tells him that he must save these two things, the stone and the shell, both of them books. He turns around, and there is a moment in which Wordsworth sees that the face of the Bedouin has changed, that it is full of horror. He too turns around, and he sees a great light, a light that has now flooded the middle of the desert. It is the waters of the flood that will destroy the earth. The Bedouin goes off, and Wordsworth sees that the Bedouin is also Don Quixote and that the camel is also Rosinante and that, in the same way that the stone was a book and the shell a book, so the Bedouin is Don Quixote and is neither of the two and is both at once. This duality corresponds to the horror of the dream. Wordsworth, at that moment, wakes with a cry of terror, for the waters have engulfed him.
I think that this nightmare is one of the most beautiful in literature.