William Wordsworth, ‘The Prelude, or, Growth of a Poet’s Mind’, in William Wordsworth Selected Poetry, edited, with an Introduction, by Mark Van Doren (Modern Library College Edition 1950), Book First to Book Fourth, line 338.
I’m a month into reading a little of ‘The Prelude’ first thing in the morning, averaging 70 lines a day, now nearing the end of the fourth of 14 ‘books’
Wordsworth began writing the poem in 1799, when he was in his late 20s, and worked on it all his life. It wasn’t published until 1850, soon after his death that year. His own account of the poem’s origins, in the preface to another of his long poems, ‘The Excursion’, includes this:
Several years ago, when the Author retired to his native mountains with the hope of being enabled to construct a literary work that might live, it was a reasonable thing that he should take a review of his own mind, and examine how far Nature and Education had qualified him for such an employment.
As subsidiary to this preparation, he undertook to record, in verse, the origin and progress of his own powers, as far as he was acquainted with them.(From Wikisource)
So ‘The Prelude’ was intended not so much to stand in its own right, or even to stand as a preparation for a truly great poem, but as subsidiary to that preparation. Which sounds a lot as if he was managing expectations.
The poem itself begins with a seductively straightforward narrative of a time away from the pressures of life in the city – the early 19th century equivalent of a cyber-break. On the first page, my attention was snagged by these lines (13-17):
The earth is all before me. With a heart Joyous, nor scared at its own liberty, I look about; and should the chosen guide Be nothing better than a wandering cloud, I cannot miss my way.
It’s hard to miss the echo of the last lines of Milton’s Paradise Lost:
The world was all before them, where to choose Their place of rest, and Providence their guide: They hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow, Through Eden took their solitary way.
Wordsworth’s echoes imply, cheekily, that his poem aims to take up where Milton’s left off: where Adam and Eve had Providence he has liberty (and though it doesn’t rate an initial cap here, it does a few lines later); his solitude is joyously chosen where theirs was imposed as punishment; and where their wandering is sorrowful and tentative, his is leisurely and unafraid. The poem itself invites us to keep our expectations high.
After that, I haven’t been struck by any strong allusions. There are line that reminds me of the kind of balance and order that I dimly remember being characteristic of non-Romantic poets like Pope, and I can easily get fascinated by the way he pauses in midline and has the sentences flow over the line breaks.
I’m glad I’ve chosen to read just a small amount each day. Mostly I’m carried along by the narrative and his reflections, though sometimes I have to slow right down and reread some lines. I’m always left wanting more, and I never get to the stage where I’m lulled into a kind of trance by the music of the iambic pentameters, not that there’d be anything wrong with that.
Every day’s reading has been pleasurable. In what I imagine is a common experience, I find the poem stirs memories of my own childhood. Not that a North Queensland sugar farm on a hill overlooking the North Johnstone river, with Mount Bartle Frere to the north like a blue cardboard cut-out, has much in common with the humble cottages, the crags and lakes and mist of England’s Lake District. But things are stirred anyhow.
One place where our childhoods echoed each other pretty directly is where the poem celebrates indoor childhood activities. My two sisters and I used to play cards for days on end on the floor of our veranda while tropical rain pelted against the louvres. According to family lore my youngest sister learned arithmetic adding up matches in those early poker games. Here’s Wordsworth on card games:
Oh, with what echoes on the board they fell! Ironic diamonds,—clubs, hearts, diamonds, spades, A congregation piteously akin! Cheap matter offered they to boyish wit, Those sooty knaves, precipitated down With scoffs and taunts, like Vulcan out of heaven: The paramount ace, a moon in her eclipse, Queens gleaming through their splendour's last decay, And monarchs surly at the wrongs sustained By royal visages. Meanwhile abroad Incessant rain was falling.
So. nearing the end of Book 4, we’ve had his childhood among the beauties and occasional terrors of the Lake District (‘Fair seed-time had my soul’), in company and solitude, his time among the distractions of Cambridge (‘I was the Dreamer, they the Dream’), and his return home on vacation. There’s a wonderful description of the restorative power of a bush walk (‘and restoration came / Like an intruder knocking at the door / Of unacknowledged weariness’), and an epiphany when, returning home in the dawn light after a night of ‘dancing, gaiety, and mirth’ he is overwhelmed by the beauty of the world and: ‘I made no vows, but vows / Were then made for me’.
This morning, bringing a nice roundness to this blog post, I read another reminder that Wordsworth had the great epics somewhere in the background, a lovely example of what I dimly remember from school is called a Homeric simile. The opening ‘As one who’ signals that we’re reading a simile, but it takes 15 lines before we know that the lovingly-described process of looking over the side of a boat is being compared to the exercise of memory:
As one who hangs down-bending from the side Of a slow-moving boat, upon the breast Of a still water, solacing himself With such discoveries as his eye can make Beneath him in the bottom of the deep, Sees many beauteous sights – weeds, fishes, flowers, Grots, pebbles, roots of trees, and fancies more, Yet often is perplexed and cannot part The shadow from the substance, rocks and sky, Mountains and clouds, reflected in the depth Of the clear flood, from things which there abide In their true dwelling; now is crossed by gleam Of his own image, by a sun-beam now, And wavering motions sent he knows not whence, Impediments that make his task more sweet; Such pleasant office have we long pursued Incumbent o'er the surface of past time With like success, nor often have appeared Shapes fairer or less doubtfully discerned Than these to which the Tale, indulgent Friend! Would now direct thy notice.
‘Incumbent o’er the surface of past time’ – shades of Proust, though Proust never acknowledges how much of what he remembers is actually projection!
How absolutely delightful. I haven’t read Wordsworth since I DID him at university. I shall be reading all your posts.
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Hi Jonathan, an important book for many people I imagine, i really got into it at uni, great passages later in the book of Wordsworth as a boy on the lake with the mountain seeming to move behind him in a dream, his visions from Mt Snowdon and of course the famous Spots of Time in Book 12. One of those classics we should all go back and read.
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Thanks, Brendan. I somehow got the impression when we ‘did’ Wordsworth at Sydney Uni in 1968 that ‘The Prelude’ was a long boring essay i verse with one or two bits that were worth reading, one of which we got to read in whatever selection was our set book.I’m now very happily discovering how very wrong that impression was.
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Delightful reminders of the joys of The Prelude.
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