Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
The Prelude is a long, blank-verse poem with a complicated history. It was begun as early as 1798-1799. Then it may have been conceived as a short autobiographical poem, before it was expanded to thirteen books by 1805. The poem was never published during Wordsworth’s life, but when it was, soon after his death in 1850, The Prelude: Or, The Growth of a Poet’s Mind had been revised extensively and expanded to fourteen books. There are significant differences among the three versions of the poem. For convenience, the poem published in 1850 may be assumed for discussion.
The subject of the poem is a review by the poet of his life to explain the growth of his mind as a poet; it examines his past for evidence to account for the growth of his imagination and to justify his calling as a poet. Because Samuel Taylor Coleridge strongly urged Wordsworth to believe in himself as a poet and to use his talent to compose a modern epic poem, Coleridge is given credit for causing Wordsworth to write The Prelude. What Coleridge wanted from Wordsworth was not a poem about his own life, however, but rather a poem about the modern state of philosophy and science, as in the Aeneid (c. 29-19 b.c.e.; English translation, 1553), La divina commedia (c. 1320; The Divine Comedy, 1802), and Paradise Lost (1667, 1674). Wordsworth planned to write such an epic, but he could not make progress on it until after he wrote a poem in which he justified his decision to be a poet of any kind. This self-justification would be a prefatory explanation, appearing as the “prelude” for the main movement that would be called The Recluse.
The prefatory poem, however, became so important that it became the main poem itself, and Wordsworth worked at it for most of his long life. The Prelude is more important, and nearer to completion, than The Recluse (1888), for which it was intended as an introduction. There are many epic features, nevertheless, in the style and structure of The Prelude itself. Epic similes appear in various places, allusions to epic stories recur, and the structure of the poem is loosely modeled upon the classical epic design that begins in medias res (in the middle of things).
The first book of The Prelude opens with a celebration of freedom, as the poet decides to visit his childhood and leave behind a city and a life of frustration and uncertainty. He composes aloud some verses of happiness as he strides confidently into the countryside, but suddenly he is unable to compose and begins to doubt his ability to continue. He believes that he is intended by nature to be a poet, but he is beginning to doubt himself and his judgment because he is experiencing “writer’s...
(The entire section is 1153 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
The Prelude, which was not published until shortly after William Wordsworth’s death in 1850, was planned as the introductory section of a long autobiographical and philosophical poem that was never finished, titled The Recluse. In that ambitious work, Wordsworth intended to trace in blank verse the development of his views on humanity, society, and nature. Of the projected three parts, only the second, The Excursion (1814), written between 1799 and 1805, was completed and published. The important “Friend” to whom the poem is addressed is Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
Wordsworth strongly advocated the use of poetry for the expression of individual emotions and insights. The Prelude contains many fine passages that illustrate the clarity and force of his use of language to provide both a precise description of nature and a grasp of its meaning. Although the poem contains long prosaic stretches, it also conveys a sense of the calm beauty and power of nature that distinguishes Wordsworth’s verse.
The work begins with an account of the poet’s childhood in the English Lake District. With many digressions addressed to nature and its power, wisdom, and infusing spirit, the poet describes the influence of nature on his solitary childhood. Some of the sense of awe and pleasure that he found in nature, as well as some of his clearest and most penetrating uses of diction, is evident in the passage in which he describes how he found a boat in a cave, unchained the boat, and rowed out into the center of a lake:
LustilyI dipped my oars into the silent lake,And, as I rose upon the stroke, my boatWent heaving through the water like a swan;When, from behind that craggy steep till thenThe horizon’s bound, a huge peak, black and huge,As if with voluntary power instinctUpreared its head. I struck and struck again,And growing still in stature the grim shapeTowered up between me and the stars, and still,For so it seemed, with purpose of its ownAnd measured motion like a living thing,Strode after me.
The image of the peak is invested with such simplicity and power that it is transformed into a force conveying both terror and beauty to the guilty boy who has stolen a ride in a boat.
The poet speaks of his youthful love of freedom and liberty, which he enjoyed in rambles through the woods and on mountain paths where he did not feel fettered by the claims of society and schoolwork. He makes sure to reassure the reader, however, that he was outwardly docile and obedient, keeping his rebellion and sense of freedom in the realm of the spirit. This combination of outward calm and inward rebellion helps explain Wordsworth’s ability to...
(The entire section is 1282 words.)