Essay On William Wordsworth The Prelude

William Wordsworth
The Prelude Book Vl
Cambridge and the Alps

by Ian Mackean


when the light of sense
Goes out in flashes that have shewn to us
The invisible world


William Wordsworth (1770-1850) completed two main versions of his autobiographical epic poem The Prelude, the original version in 1805, and a revised version which was published in 1850. The 1805 version is the one usually studied, and usually considered the better of the two, being more melodic and spontaneous than the more laboured version of 1850. In this essay I shall be discussing the 1805 version, with one or two references to differences in the 1850 version.

Book Vl, entitled, 'Cambridge and the Alps', is structured as a narrative, telling a story which is complete in itself, as well as being part of The Prelude as a whole. The story has an introduction, a climax, and a dénouement. The basic purpose of the story is the same as the purpose throughout The Prelude - as indicated in its subtitle - to chart the 'growth of a poet's mind', with particular emphasis on the importance of nature, which is always at the heart of Wordsworth's philosophy and poetry.

The book starts by picking up the narrative which was left off at the end of book lV, 'Summer Vacation', in which Wordsworth recounts a spiritual turning point in his life.

I made no vows, but vows
Were then made for me; bond unknown to me
Was given, that I should be, else sinning greatly,
A dedicated spirit. (lV 341-4)

This passage shows the poet having found a deep-seated vocation within himself, which is the source of the inner confidence and certitude which pervades the opening section of book Vl. We should note the passive aspect to this spiritual experience, 'Vows were then made for me'. This is an important indication of the receptive attitude of mind which allows the poet to have the kinds of experience he has in book Vl. The poets attitude towards nature is that he goes out to experience it, and in return nature gives him inspiration, insight, education, and delight. It is a two-way process, in which the poet's mind grows and develops.

The book opens with a valediction for his home district, and in the first lines we see the importance of nature:

The leaves were yellow when to Furness Fells,
The haunt of Shepherds, and to cottage life
I bade adieu; (Vl 1-3)

The poet speaks of the landscape as if it were a close friend or relation.

At Cambridge he returns to his 'unlovely cell', the phrase conveying the sense of confinement he feels there, particularly in contrast to the mountains and open spaces of 'rocky Cumberland'. But he is not dejected, he is in 'lightsome mood'. Even when not actually in the landscape of his home he retains the glad feeling which were nourished there, and the revelation that he was to be a 'dedicated spirit' has stayed with him and grown in his soul.

The poet's soul was with me at that time,
Sweet meditations, the still overflow
Of happiness and truth. A thousand hopes
were mine, a thousand tender dreams, (Vl 55-58)

One of the most important effects university has on him 'melt away' the awe he felt towards great writers.

. . . The instinctive humbleness,
Upheld even by the very name and thought
Of printed books and authorship, began
To melt away, and further the dread awe
Of mighty names, was softened down and seem'd
Approachable, admitting fellowship (Vl 69-74)

But he feels restricted and unfulfilled at university. He feels he has a vocation other than academic work and he conveys a sense of being contained within boundaries until the end of his studies brings him 'liberty' (Vl 338) and he and a fellow student set off for the Alps.

When his trip begins there is a distinct change of mood. Although this is a retrospective account he seems to re-experience the gladness and freedom he felt upon beginning his journey, and as readers we share the experience with him. The narrative becomes free-flowing and exuberant. Where his account of university life was only 'shadow'd forth, as far as there is need' (Vl 337) he now lingers over his experiences and responses, filling his verse with colourful details of place as he recollects the sights and sounds of his first experience of France.

The mood of joyfulness is reinforced by the fact that the whole of France was in a state of gladness and celebration. His personal gladness fuses with France's public gladness until the two are inseparable; the emotion of joy is at once outside and inside the poet's mind.

On the walking tour Wordsworth is truly in his element. He walks, and nature unfolds; he looks, and nature shows.

A march it was of military speed,
And earth did change her images and forms
Before us, fast as clouds are chang'd in Heaven. (Vl 428-30)

He conveys the feeling that he is on equal terms with nature - nature teaches and he is receptive to the teaching. He describes in some detail a specific instance of how experience of nature educates him - modifies his perception of reality.

. . . That day we first
Beheld the summit of Mont Blanc, and griev'd
To have a soulless image on the eye
Which had usurp'd upon a living thought
That never more could be: (Vl 452-6)

He found seeing the real mountain disappointing, because it could not match the picture he had formed in his imagination. As the journey continues, however, he finds fascination in the landscape, which did

. . . make rich amends,
And reconcil'd us to realities. (Vl 460-1)

The scenes of country life, such as small birds co-existing with eagles, a reaper at work in the fields, and the threat of winter in the autumn sunshine are all experienced as edifying.

We were not left untouch'd. With such a book
Before our eyes, we could not chuse but read
A frequent lesson of sound tenderness,
The universal reason of mankind,
The truth of Young and Old. (Vl 473-7)

In the 1850 version the message is clarified, line 475 above changing to 'Lessons of genuine brotherhood' (Vl (1850) 545) emphasising his view that responding to nature can lead to a greater understanding and love of mankind.

The climax of Book Vl comes at line 524, when it dawns on them that they have unknowingly crossed the Alps, and its immediate effect spreads over the next 50 lines. The element of surprise is perhaps the most important factor in this climax, and perhaps it shares a quality with the coincidence of arriving in France on a day of national celebration. The common element is that they are both things which 'happened to' the poet, but they are so significant for him that perhaps he 'allowed them to happen'. Although ostensibly the results of chance, or accident, they are deeply personal experiences for him.

He experiences a spiritual catharsis at the point of discovering that his journey is unexpectedly completed, the free-flowing spontaneity of the language conveying to us the uplifting rush of exaltation.

Imagination! lifting up itself
Before the eye and progress of my Song
Like an unfather'd vapour; here that Power,
In all the might of its endowments, came
Athwart me; (Vl 525-9)

The effect is completely spoiled in the 1850 version by the halt in the flow, and the prosaic content:

Imagination - here the Power so called
Through sad incompetence of human speech (Vl (1850) 592-3)

At this climactic moment the poet suddenly found himself 'without a struggle to break through', and found that his existence had been geared towards that struggle. For a moment he glimpsed the mechanism at work in his mind.

Effort, and expectation, and desire
And something evermore about to be. (Vl 541-2)

He feels the ambition to cross the Alps was a trivial one, but it is more than that. Something profoundly mystical, beyond the apprehension of reason, happened.

. . . when the light of sense
Goes out in flashes that have shewn to us
The invisible world, (Vl 534-6)

The strange reversals in this image, in which lights flash out, and, in the absence of light, we see invisible worlds, conveys an uncompromising denial that the normal faculties of consciousness are adequate to discover 'our destiny, our nature, and our home' (Vl 538).

The following section is pervaded by the spiritual insight of the climax, but at a lower and longer-lasting intensity. Descending from the mountains the poet looks around him in the afterglow of the 'flash' he has just experienced. In the natural surrounding he finds himself surrounded by

The types and symbols of Eternity,
Of first and last, and midst, and without end. (Vl 572-3)

This section is evocative of great inexhaustible power, and works through images in which seemingly contradictory ideas combine to form a picture which is full of contained energy and motion.

Of woods decaying, never to be decayed
The stationary blasts of water-falls, (V1 557-8)

Winds thwarting winds, bewilder'd and forlorn,
The torrents shooting from the clear blue sky, (Vl 560-1)

Tumult and peace, the darkness and the light (Vl 567)

In this prolonged climax the poet feels that through communion with nature he has seen into the heart of his own, and by implication, all men's existence.

Formally, the book could have ended with the night's rest in the 'Alpine House', but in keeping with the chronological narrative Wordsworth continues in order to complete the account of his European journey.

The curious incident in which the poet and his companion wake in the middle of the night, thinking it is nearly morning, and walk to the lake in the woods, brings them back down to the physical reality of nature. It is almost the reverse of the climax, though similarly triggered by misapprehension. It is dark, they are afraid, and the sounds and the insects make them uncomfortable. Thus the spiritual catharsis in the Alps was not the end of anything, but was one step on a continuous journey. In fact the continuity of his experience is something the poet is most concerned to emphasise in the closing lines.

. . .not,
in hollow exultation, dealing forth
Hyperboles of praise comparative,
Not rich one moment to be poor for ever, (Vl 662-5)

. . . whate'er
I saw, or heard, or felt, was but a stream
That flow'd into a kindred stream, a gale
That help'd me forwards (Vl 672-5)

This explanation hardly seems necessary, as its meaning suffuses the whole of The Prelude - that is, that for Wordsworth man and nature form an inseparable unity, and no early experiences are lost, they all act upon is to educate us and mould our minds.

Wordsworth, William. The Prelude. 1805. Ed. Ernest de Selincourt. Oxford University Press 1970
Wordsworth, William. The Prelude. A Parallel Text. Ed. J. C. Maxwell. Penguin Books. 1971

© Ian Mackean, April 2007


The Prelude by William Wordsworth: Summary and Critical Analysis

The Prelude begun in 1799 and was completed in 1805, but was published a year after the poet’s death in 1850. In this work the poet describes his experiences of growing up as a man and a poet with fullness, closeness and laborious anxiety that is unique in English literature. The Prelude is the finest work of Wordsworth’s great creative period. Wordsworth conceived the idea of writing a history of the growth of his own mind, and the various texts of the poem cover a very long period in the poet’s life during which his style and opinion both changed considerably.

William Wordsworth

The Prelude is in fact the first long autobiographical poem written in a drawn out process of self- exploration. Wordsworth worked his way towards modern psychological understanding of his own nature and more broadly of human nature. There, he places poetry at the center of human experience. This introspective account of his own development was completed in 1805 and, after substantial revision, published posthumously in 1850. Many critics rank it as Wordsworth’s greatest work. The Prelude begins with an account of the poet’s childhood in the English Lake Country.

He first gives a record of that innocent life out of which his poetry grew; then he goes on to explore how the mind develops. He reveals a strange world, and the deeper we dive into it, the stronger it becomes. Like the short poem, besides touching upon many other things, this long poem traces the development of the poet’s attitudes to nature, his poetic genius, and his understanding of fellow-beings and the spirit of the universe; he moves from the typical childhood animal pleasures, through adolescent, sensual passion for the wild and gloomy, to the adult awareness of the relation of our perception of the natural world, and finally to our sense of the human and moral world. Wordsworth basically tries to recapture and record the full and intense life lived through the senses as a child and as a youth. The child or the first stage is characterized by a vague understanding of the influence of the nature’s moral influence because the child is indulged in mere bodily pleasures; the adolescent phase is marked with dizzy raptures; he speaks of youthful love of freedom and liberty, which he enjoyed in rambles through the woods and on the mountain paths where he did not feel fettered by the claims of the society and schoolwork. But those pleasures soon ended naturally after the youth began to understand human suffering so that, back in the nature, he began to make ‘spiritual interpretation of Nature as a living entity, by following whose ways he could get rid of the eternal problems of human misery. At one phase of his youth, Wordsworth became strongly attracted to the cause of the French Revolution, feeling that he was tied emotionally and spiritually to the popular struggle against the monarchy. But the destructiveness of the revolution and the popular indifference to the real causes and the real heroes, and the corrupted nature of the leading revolutionaries, disillusioned him, and he returned home spiritually broken, feeling that the innocent blood has poisoned the real causes of liberty. At that phase of life, he turned to the nature, finding there not only the solace but also the law and order lacking in the human society. Wordsworth opposed the mechanical reasoning of the materialistic sciences and the logical philosophy as too superficial to probe into the sciences and the logical philosophy as too superficial to probe into the meaning and experience of life and nature. Wordsworth has said, “To every natural form…. I gave a moral life”. His theory has been called one of natural pantheism for this reason.

The Prelude is an autobiographical poem but it is not only the poet’s personal confessions; it is an account of the growth of a poet’s mind. In it he tells the story of his inner life from the earliest childhood up to 1798. But the events do not always follow each of the chronological or even logical order, for the poem is shaped by a kind of internal logic of the growth of mind rather than by the sequence of eternal events. The development is roughly chronological but even as the poem has progressed well into adulthood, at significant points, reference is made back to his childhood contrasting later attitudes, or illustrating important aspects of his theme. The poet’s faith is however based on intuition, and not on reasoning, to understand or analyze life or nature. But his mysticism is not an escape from common experience, with the help of some kind of fancy, but a probing deep into common things and experience. His poetry has in fact been called ‘the highest poetry of the lowest and prosaic things”. According to Wordsworth’s The Prelude, nature had two basic formative influences on the poet’s mind: one was of inspiration with its beauty and joy, and the other one was that of fear and awe-inspiring influences that disciplined his mind since early in life.

The Prelude presents a unique and original understanding of min, life, creativity and such other things in its examination and linking of the factors both important and trivial, which go to make up a complex human personality. The poet indeed has an amazing gift for grasping the significance of the apparently insignificant, and seeing all things as part of a meaningful whole. He tries to show us what he and his poetry are made of, and they are made not only of great events and emotions of marriage and passion, and the French revolution, but of small things that a less observant or creative mind would have forgotten: of boating expeditions, of a chance meeting with old sailors, or dreams, of the noise of the wind in the mountains, of the sight of the ash trees outside his bedroom window.

It is interesting to note that while The Prelude is a poem rooted in the past, a culmination of many traditions of thought and culture, it is at the same time that the first great modern poem. In it Wordsworth is essentially concerned with human nature, with aspects of consciousness and being that are still relevant to our modern interest and predicaments. The Prelude presents the poet in the quest for his identity. It shows that Wordsworth is trying to seek a point of stability within himself. It is an attempt to establish a principle of continuity and equilibrium within change. He said, “The vacancy between me (present) and those days which yet have such self presence in my mind is so great that sometimes when I think of them I see two consciousnesses, the consciousness of myself and that of some other being in me”. This theme has indeed obsessed the modern imagination, replacing the quest of Everyman or Bunyan’s Pilgrim. In so far as The Prelude is concerned with the growth of a poet’s mind, it anticipates all these modern works, which might be lumped together under the common title of “A Portrait of an Artist t as a Young man.”

The Prelude is a modern poem in another sense; it is a self-reflective poem. By this we mean a poem that has a part of its subject the writing of the poem itself. The Prelude is a poem that incorporates the discovery of its ‘ars poetica’. It’s surely the true ancestor of all those subsequent works of art that coil back upon themselves. Both the beginning and the end of the double, quest, the voyage of self-exploration and the effort to articulate the experience are perhaps those spots of time included the earliest moments of moral and spiritual awareness and they are usually associated with intensely felt responses to the nature even when he was a child.


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