Wordsworth: The Prelude

February 1, 2022

The Prelude
William Wordsworth
(Modern Library, 1950) [c.1805]
225 p. Second reading.

Far better never to have heard the name
Of zeal and just ambition, than to live
Baffled and plagued by a mind that every hour
Turns recreant to her task; takes heart again,
Then feels immediately some hollow thought
Hang like an interdict upon her hopes.
This is my lot; for either still I find
Some imperfection in the chosen theme,
Or see of absolute accomplishment
Much wanting, so much wanting, in myself,
That I recoil and droop, and seek repose
In listlessness from vain perplexity,
Unprofitably travelling toward the grave,
Like a false steward who hath much received
And renders nothing back.
(I)

But he was, finally, a good steward and not a bad, not, at least, in this. It is such a beautiful poem: thoughtful in its matter, tender and honest in its expression, subtle in its argument, and written with such grace and eloquence that it rings in the ear like song. It is, I cannot help concluding, one of the greatest long-form poems in English. It is a joy to read.

I would very much like to write about the poem at length, but circumstances are such that, after some months of waiting for an opportunity, I am forced to concede that there is “much wanting, so much wanting, in myself”. At least I was able to read it. I must content myself with a few brief observations and a few quotations of favourite passages.

It is an autobiographical poem, written to his friend Samuel Taylor Coledridge, recounting the story of his childhood and early manhood. Originally intended as the introductory section — hence the title — to a much longer poem that was never completed, it was begun when he was in his late 20s, and remained unpublished until after his death. Its theme is “the growth of a poet’s mind”, and in it Wordsworth tries to discover the roots of his poetic sensibility, tracing back through time the primary influences on his way of seeing and experiencing the world. It is a poem deeply interested in psychology and emotion, of course, but also in politics and religion and, maybe most of all, in all those aspects of the world that stand opposite the human world, confronting us, the world of inarticulate nature — or, as Wordsworth will always have it, Nature.

Though he lived for some years in the great cities of England and France, he was always a country-dweller at heart, always deeply impressed and enchanted by the world of trees and lakes and mountains:

Four years and thirty, told this very week,
Have I been now a sojourner on earth,
By sorrow not unsmitten; yet for me
Life’s morning radiance hath not left the hills,
Her dew is on the flowers.
(VI)

Perhaps we are tempted to see in this a species of the sentimental love of nature that we sometimes see in the Romantics. I don’t think we can entirely rule out such a connection, for the time and place of Wordsworth life gives such a temptation a certain plausibility, but if it is sentimental, it is not cloying or saccharine. He considers his spiritual task to be

To look with feelings of fraternal love
Upon the unassuming things that hold
A silent station in this beauteous world
(XIII)

and that is an honourable calling. And he does not just stand sentinel, but walks as a pilgrim in the world as well. In his great study of Dante, Charles Williams makes frequent reference to The Prelude, which he considers to be the great English-language attempt to do what (in at least one respect) Dante was doing: exploring how encounters with created things can lead us to God, and the poem is, at times, remarkably theological:

More frequently from the same source I drew
A pleasure quiet and profound, a sense
Of permanent and universal sway,
And paramount belief; there, recognised
A type, for finite natures, of the one
Supreme Existence, the surpassing life
Which—to the boundaries of space and time,
Of melancholy space and doleful time,
Superior, and incapable of change,
Nor touched by welterings of passion—is,
And hath the name of, God. Transcendent peace
And silence did await upon these thoughts
That were a frequent comfort to my youth.
(VI)

*

There was one narrative thread that particularly interested me, and I’d like to dwell on it for a few moments, not least because it gives an opportunity to quote at some length from the poem. Wordsworth’s young manhood coincided with the French Revolution — he was 19 years old when the Revolution began in 1789 — and, as with many of his age throughout Europe, the events in France excited his interest and, to some extent, sympathy. The poem devotes quite a lot of attention to his evolving relationship to this political revolution.

One of the first intimations we get of something brewing occurs in a passage describing a walking tour he made in France in 1790, during which he visited the great abbey of Chartreuse. The contrast between the peace of the cloister and the swirling anti-clerical forces gathering strength in the country gave him an ominous sense of foreboding:

In sympathetic reverence we trod
The floors of those dim cloisters, till that hour,
From their foundation, strangers to the presence
Of unrestricted and unthinking man.
Abroad, how cheeringly the sunshine lay
Upon the open lawns! Vallombre’s groves
Entering, we fed the soul with darkness; thence
Issued, and with uplifted eyes beheld,
In different quarters of the bending sky,
The cross of Jesus stand erect, as if
Hands of angelic powers had fixed it there,
Memorial reverenced by a thousand storms;
Yet then, from the undiscriminating sweep
And rage of one State-whirlwind, insecure.
(VI)

And though he remained in France as the first wave of the Revolution swept through the country, he relates how he, as an outsider, observed it with a certain detachment and incomprehension:

But hence to my more permanent abode
I hasten; there, by novelties in speech,
Domestic manners, customs, gestures, looks,
And all the attire of ordinary life,
Attention was engrossed; and, thus amused,
I stood, ‘mid those concussions, unconcerned,
Tranquil almost, and careless as a flower
Glassed in a green-house, or a parlour shrub
That spreads its leaves in unmolested peace,
While every bush and tree, the country through,
Is shaking to the roots: indifference this
Which may seem strange: but I was unprepared
With needful knowledge, had abruptly passed
Into a theatre, whose stage was filled
And busy with an action far advanced.
(IX)

Despite this diffidence, his sympathies, he tells us, were largely with the revolutionaries. He had no native sympathy for monarchy —

Yet in the regal sceptre, and the pomp
Of orders and degrees, I nothing found
Then, or had ever, even in crudest youth,
That dazzled me, but rather what I mourned
And ill could brook, beholding that the best
Ruled not, and feeling that they ought to rule.
(IX)

and if his enthusiasm for the revolution was rather cool, it was principally because he regarded its aims not as radical or dramatic, but as natural and inevitable:

If at the first great outbreak I rejoiced
Less than might well befit my youth, the cause
In part lay here, that unto me the events
Seemed nothing out of nature’s certain course,
A gift that was come rather late than soon.
(IX)

As events unfolded, however, he found himself more and more rallying to the cause of the revolution, keen to see the end of “exclusion”, “empty pomp”, and “state power”, and caught up in the fervour of the times. This waxing of his sympathies, he tell us, was sparked by an encounter in the French countryside:

And when we chanced
One day to meet a hunger-bitten girl,
Who crept along fitting her languid gait
Unto a heifer’s motion, by a cord
Tied to her arm, and picking thus from the lane
Its sustenance, while the girl with pallid hands
Was busy knitting in a heartless mood
Of solitude, and at the sight my friend
In agitation said, “‘Tis against that
That we are fighting,” I with him believed
That a benignant spirit was abroad
Which might not be withstood, that poverty
Abject as this would in a little time
Be found no more, that we should see the earth
Unthwarted in her wish to recompense
The meek, the lowly, patient child of toil,
All institutes for ever blotted out
That legalised exclusion, empty pomp
Abolished, sensual state and cruel power,
Whether by edict of the one or few;
And finally, as sum and crown of all,
Should see the people having a strong hand
In framing their own laws; whence better days
To all mankind.
(IX)

It’s a common enough story, no doubt; youth is easily ravished by novelty and a dream of starting again, now as then. But before long the Revolution turned violent, and this posed a challenge to the young Wordsworth, a challenge that, to his credit, he did not evade. He writes:

Domestic carnage now filled the whole year
With feast-days; old men from the chimney-nook,
The maiden from the bosom of her love,
The mother from the cradle of her babe,
The warrior from the field—all perished, all—
Friends, enemies, of all parties, ages, ranks,
Head after head, and never heads enough
For those that bade them fall. They found their joy,
They made it proudly, eager as a child,
(If like desires of innocent little ones
May with such heinous appetites be compared),
Pleased in some open field to exercise
A toy that mimics with revolving wings
The motion of a wind-mill; though the air
Do of itself blow fresh, and make the vanes
Spin in his eyesight, that contents him not,
But, with the plaything at arm’s length, he sets
His front against the blast, and runs amain,
That it may whirl the faster.
(X)

And he writes with feeling of the horror this spectacle inspired in his own heart:

Most melancholy at that time, O Friend!
Were my day-thoughts,—my nights were miserable;
Through months, through years, long after the last beat
Of those atrocities, the hour of sleep
To me came rarely charged with natural gifts,
Such ghastly visions had I of despair
And tyranny, and implements of death;
And innocent victims sinking under fear,
And momentary hope, and worn-out prayer,
Each in his separate cell, or penned in crowds
For sacrifice, and struggling with fond mirth
And levity in dungeons, where the dust
Was laid with tears.
(X)

The saga went on: his hopes were revived at the death of Robespierre, only to be disappointed again, and then the now-ambivalent dream came to a conflicted end with the ascension of Bonaparte — it’s a complicated story. For myself, the whole sequence stands as an unusually detailed and attractively honest examination of the vulnerability of youth to the glamour of change and revolution, and as a compelling case for the value of that optimism, and, finally, as a warning against its blindspots and intemperance.

*

There are so many wonderful things in the poem; I wish I had world enough and time to dwell on it in detail. As it happens, however, it has taken me months of intermittent labour to do even this much, and I must bow before the force of circumstance. Before appending a few particular passages that appealed to me on this reading, therefore, I will simply reiterate my appreciation for a poem of such great beauty, born out of, and witnessing to, a belief that

By love subsists
All lasting grandeur, by pervading love;
That gone, we are as dust.
(XIV)

***

[Solitude]
When from our better selves we have too long
Been parted by the hurrying world, and droop,
Sick of its business, of its pleasures tired,
How gracious, how benign, is Solitude;
How potent a mere image of her sway;
Most potent when impressed upon the mind
With an appropriate human centre—hermit,
Deep in the bosom of the wilderness;
Votary (in vast cathedral, where no foot
Is treading, where no other face is seen)
Kneeling at prayers; or watchman on the top
Of lighthouse, beaten by Atlantic waves;
Or as the soul of that great Power is met
Sometimes embodied on a public road,
When, for the night deserted, it assumes
A character of quiet more profound
Than pathless wastes.
(IV)

[The inadequacy of books]
—Yes, in those wanderings deeply did I feel
How we mislead each other; above all,
How books mislead us, seeking their reward
From judgments of the wealthy Few, who see
By artificial lights; how they debase
The Many for the pleasure of those Few;
Effeminately level down the truth
To certain general notions, for the sake
Of being understood at once, or else
Through want of better knowledge in the heads
That framed them; flattering self-conceit with words,
That, while they most ambitiously set forth
Extrinsic differences, the outward marks
Whereby society has parted man
From man, neglect the universal heart.
(XIII)

[Daffodils redux]
And, afterwards, the wind and sleety rain,
And all the business of the elements,
The single sheep, and the one blasted tree,
And the bleak music from that old stone wall,
The noise of wood and water, and the mist
That on the line of each of those two roads
Advanced in such indisputable shapes;
All these were kindred spectacles and sounds
To which I oft repaired, and thence would drink,
As at a fountain; and on winter nights,
Down to this very time, when storm and rain
Beat on my roof, or, haply, at noon-day,
While in a grove I walk, whose lofty trees,
Laden with summer’s thickest foliage, rock
In a strong wind, some working of the spirit,
Some inward agitations thence are brought,
Whate’er their office, whether to beguile
Thoughts over busy in the course they took,
Or animate an hour of vacant ease.
(XII)

[A summary of the poem]
Of our long labour: we have traced the stream
From the blind cavern whence is faintly heard
Its natal murmur; followed it to light
And open day; accompanied its course
Among the ways of Nature, for a time
Lost sight of it bewildered and engulphed:
Then given it greeting as it rose once more
In strength, reflecting from its placid breast
The works of man and face of human life;
And lastly, from its progress have we drawn
Faith in life endless, the sustaining thought
Of human Being, Eternity, and God.
(XIV)

6 Responses to “Wordsworth: The Prelude”

  1. Rob G Says:

    As a great fan of Wordsworth (I’ve carried a paperback copy of the selected poems in my glove compartment for close to 20 years over the lives of four cars!) I’ve been meaning to read The Prelude for years, and have actually started it twice, only to have gotten sidetracked. A year or so ago I bought a beautiful illustrated edition which I assumed would serve as a prompt for me, but it didn’t happen. I’m thinking that I’m just going to have to commit myself to it and do it, like I’ve done with other books I wanted to read but had been distracted away from.

    • cburrell Says:

      I encourage you to try again. It will be time well spent.

      I also spent some time with his shorter poems, and found much to appreciate in them. Have you ever read his Ecclesiastical Sonnets? I never imagined that a major poet had written a series of sonnets on church history!


  2. I never regarded Wordsworth all that highly when I read him in college, but have wanted to give him another chance. Like Rob, I attempted The Prelude some years ago and got bogged down pretty quickly. Possibly something to do with reading it late at night when I was sleepy. But last year decided to give it another try and bought a nice edition with notes that I hope will help with certain obscurities. I didn’t get to it last year but it’s on my list for this year.

    • Rob G Says:

      W.W. has always seemed a rather ‘autumnal’ writer to me, so I’ll put it on the calendar for Fall. By the way, I calculated that the Penguin selected poems paperback I carry around with me in my car was purchased sometime in the early 90’s. It became my travel copy around 2005.

    • cburrell Says:

      It could be that I just like his poetry more than you do, or will, but nonetheless I encourage you to give “The Prelude” another chance. I hope you’ll find it as rewarding as I did.


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