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 Fourth line 339 to Book Seventh line 618.
I’ve now been reading ‘The Prelude’ for two months, 70 lines first thing in the morning every day except one, when an an early doctor’s appointment messed things up.
It has been a pleasurable enterprise – nothing like a dose of beautifully crafted language to start a day well. The first four books dealt with Wordsworth’s childhood, his school days, his time at Cambridge, and a summer vacation from Cambridge. At the end of Book Fourth, after pages about the pleasures of summer holidays, these lines struck a chord when read during our Covid lockdown:
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
The next three books – Fifth, Sixth and most of Seventh – are handily titled ‘Books’, ‘Cambridge and the Alps’, and ‘Residence in London’. He constantly plays off the natural and rural worlds against the urban, busy or frivolous world. There are some satirical passages, but the best bits are the ones that celebrate the beauties of the natural world or works of the imagination. When he was about 20, he took time off from Cambridge for an epic walk across France to the Alps early in the French Revolution: Book Sixth documents the joy that filled the countryside at that time, and leads to some wonderful passages about the Alps.
And now, he’s in London, enjoying the theatre, including music hall, and being less than impressed by the way language is wielded in parliament (‘Words follow words; sense seems to follow sense’), in the pulpit, and all around him (‘Lies to the ear, and lies to every sense’). But he is struck by ‘individual sights / Of courage, or integrity, or truth / Or tenderness’, and my reading this morning finished with such a sight – a working man sitting in the sun with a sickly baby on his knee:
Of those who passed, and me who looked at him, He took no heed; but in his brawny arms (The Artificer was to the elbow bare, And from his work this moment had been stolen) He held the child, and, bending over it, As if he were afraid both of the sun And of the air, which he had come to seek, Eyed the poor babe with love unutterable