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 Eleventh, line 152 to end Book Fourteenth
Last month, I read the Books of ‘The Prelude’ that told of youthful enthusiasm and hope for social change, and ended my blog post with the hope that we weren’t being set up for disillusionment.
Wordsworth’s youthful enthusiasm was stirred by the French Revolution. Then came the Terror and the British war backing the ancien régime. The French moved on from a war of self-defence to ‘one of conquest, losing sight of all / Which they had struggled for’. The rest of Wordsworth’s story is how his faith in humanity reeled from this blow, and after some setbacks was gradually restored in a new, deeper, more mature form.
I’ve read many exhilarating passages this month, and quite a few moments of serendipity, that is, moments when Wordsworth seemed to be commenting on the news of my day. For example, a journalist (I think it was Katharine Murphy in The Guardian) wrote about Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s pragmatism, saying that he responded to events rather than acting on principle. Shortly after reading that, I came on Wordsworth’s use of the same word – ‘events’ – when describing how he dealt with his disappointment with the French Revolution (Book Eleventh lines, 194–205):
____________________________But when events Brought less encouragement, and unto these The immediate proof of principles no more Could be entrusted, while the events themselves, Worn out in greatness, stripped of novelty, Less occupied the mind, and sentiments Could through my understanding's natural growth No longer keep their ground, by faith maintained Of inward consciousness, and hope that laid Her hand upon her object – evidence Safer, of universal application, such As could not be impeached, was sought elsewhere.
Sorry if that’s a bit dense. Basically, part of what it’s saying is that you’ve got a pretty feeble mind if events are your only guide to action: you need principles. He does go on to describe how for a time he became what we would call an ideologue. Opinions clung around his mind ‘as if they were its life, nay more, / The very being of the immortal soul’. Which speaks directly to a whole other part of current political debate (I’m looking at you, some parts of Twitter).
The subtitle of ‘The Prelude’ is ‘Growth of a Poet’s Mind’. Interestingly Wordsworth doesn’t mention the French mother of his child, or Mary Hutchinson, his wife and mother of four. He credits his sister Dorothy as a kind of muse and Samuel Taylor Coleridge as a beloved Friend: evidently sexual intimacy and married life weren’t crucial to his poetic development. His early encounters with nature in the Lake District, and later on his walking trip to the Alps and his climb of Mount Snowdon were crucial. His notion of ‘spots of time’, what later writers would call epiphanies, is wonderful, and it can’t be a coincidence that during the last couple of months, as I read 70 pages from this long poem each morning, I would often have tiny flashes of memory from my own early life: a particular guava tree, a walk along a beach, the sound of our old horse Jill galloping in the night …
Here’s how the poem ends, addressing to Coleridge his hope for what their poetry might achieve:
____________________________what we have loved, Others will love, and we will teach them how; Instruct them how the mind of man becomes A thousand times more beautiful than the earth On which he dwells, above this frame of things (Which, 'mid all revolution in the hopes And fears of men, doth still remain unchanged) In beauty exalted, as it is itself Of quality and fabric more divine.
I’m so glad I’ve now read this poem. The only thing I’ve read that’s remotely like it is John Henry Newman’s Apologia Pro Vita Sua, which I read in my late teens. I could feel ‘The Prelude’ trying to reawaken that impressionable youth.