Tag Archives: William Wordsworth

The Prelude Progress Report 4

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.

The Prelude Progress Report 3

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.

The Prelude Progress Report 2

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

The Prelude Progress Report 1

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!