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 Seventh line 619 to Book Eleventh line 152.
After averaging 70 lines a day for three months now, I’m past the three-quarter mark in ‘The Prelude’, still surprised by the joy of it. Most of this month’s reading has been about Wordsworth’s response to the French Revolution.
Book Eighth, subtitled ‘Retrospect – Love of Nature Leading to Love of Man’, revisits his childhood in the Lake District and his early time in London. There’s a wonderful set piece describing a country fair at the start of this Book, and there are some descriptions of shepherds at work which I suppose could be read as treating those working men as picturesque features of the landscape, but they reminded me of James Rebanks’s A Shepherd’s Life in their appreciation of the difficulty of that work. He goes back over his time in Cambridge and in London, looking at these times with more mature eyes. This section is sometimes a bit opaque and abstract, but it’s fascinating as an account of a young man finding his way in an increasingly complex and morally compromised world.
Books Ninth, Tenth and Eleventh are a revelation to me. I don’t think I’m the only person who has thought of Wordsworth as the ‘Daffodils’ guy, or – slightly more seriously – the guy who wrote some great sonnets and the Lucy poems. That’s what it meant to be a Romantic. I suppose I’d vaguely heard about his sympathy for the French Revolution, but when I ‘did’ him at university in the early 1970s there was no hint that that sympathy had anything to do with his poetry. But of course the Romantics weren’t wafty, apolitical nature-lovers: Byron went off to fight in Greece, Blake railed against the human damage caused by industrialisation, and Wordsworth as a young man was hugely invested in the French Revolution, appalled that England sent young men to do battle against the revolutionaries, horrified at the Terror, and overcome by relief at Robespierre’s death.
Mind you, one line from ‘The Prelude’ did emerge into the general culture in the 70s. I don’t remember whether it was referring to the ‘alternative society’, women’s liberation, or opposition to the US-led war in Vietnam, but someone quoted these lines (Book Eleventh, lines 108–109) that struck a strong chord with me:
Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, But to be young was very Heaven!
What follows makes it clear that he’s not talking about a dawn of affluence or a youth of indulgence, but a revolutionary dawn. Then there are these wonderful lines:
Why should I not confess that Earth was then To me, what an inheritance, new-fallen Seems, when the first time visited, to one Who thither comes to find in it his home? He walks about and looks upon the spot With cordial transport, moulds it and remoulds And is half-pleased with things that are amiss ’T will be such joy to see them disappear.
I imagine these lines resonate with many in younger generations just now who are challenging rigidities around gender, race and other identities.
That’s pretty much where my reading is up to: the world is on the brink of miraculous transformation. I do hope we’re not being set up for disillusionment.
You have just repositioned my own understanding, Jonathan – thank you for these revelations. Over a number of years in the 1990s on visits to the UK I drove myself or with my wife or with friends from Japan the Cumbrian Lake District was a favourite place – Dove Cottage, Windermere – another ten or so lakes and meres and waters visited – Hilltop Farm, too – of course… I was struck by your references to the shepherds – some of my kinfolk just north into the Scottish Borders were from shepherding backgrounds – a kinsman in Northumbria had one of the most amazing shepherd crooks collection – something I had had no idea about at all until first visiting him and his family in 1988. And the French Revolution – sympathies for the downtrodden of that ancien régime – a chap after my own heart too…
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