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...
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