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Last Updated on November 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1131

Introduction 

William Wordsworth’s The Prelude is an autobiographical poem written for the poet’s friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge that chronicles Wordsworth’s life from early childhood onward. Wordsworth began writing this poem in 1798, when he was twenty-eight years old, and it was not published during his lifetime. The Prelude is written...

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Introduction 

William Wordsworth’s The Prelude is an autobiographical poem written for the poet’s friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge that chronicles Wordsworth’s life from early childhood onward. Wordsworth began writing this poem in 1798, when he was twenty-eight years old, and it was not published during his lifetime. The Prelude is written in blank verse and divided into fourteen books. There are three different versions of this poem, all of which differ significantly; the 1850 version is analyzed in this guide, as it is the longest and most revised. It was published by Wordsworth’s widow after his death.

 

Plot Summary

At the beginning of book 1, Wordsworth is walking in the countryside of the Lake District, relieved to be away from his life in the city and eager for the rest and peace that the place of his childhood will provide him. He is experiencing writer’s block, and though the glory of nature around him lifts his downcast spirit, he is frustrated by his temporary inability to write. 

A significant portion of this first book is a reflection on Wordsworth’s childhood spent in nature. He narrates four memories from his childhood—one from each of the four seasons. These memories demonstrate that from a very young age, Wordsworth felt a deep connection to nature: it seemed that nature judged or scolded him as he stole woodcocks from others’ traps by night or stayed outside to play later than he was supposed to. Near the end of this book, Wordsworth reveals his intentions in reflecting on his childhood: he hopes to “fix the wavering balance of [his] mind,” to come to a greater understanding of himself, and to provide an explanation of his personal development to his friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge, for whom he wrote this poem.

In book 2, Wordsworth narrates his adventures with his childhood friends as they rode horses and explored the ruins of abandoned cathedrals. Before this point, nature had been “secondary” in Wordsworth’s mind; at this point, though, he began to enjoy nature “for her own sake.” 

Book 3 recounts Wordsworth’s time at Cambridge and the excitement he felt to be living and studying there. While his love for nature remained, Wordsworth was often preoccupied with his social life and education. Wordsworth didn’t particularly enjoy his formal studies and feels that he was lazy, but he also recognizes that his time at Cambridge prepared him for the adult world in a way that his simpler life at home couldn’t have. In book 4, Wordsworth narrates his return home to the Lake District after his first year at Cambridge. He had not realized how badly he needed rest from his artificial, shallow life at school, and wandering through nature refreshed him; he again sensed his calling as a poet. 

Book 5 displays Wordsworth’s views on the other artists of his day and on the methods of child-rearing he sees around him. Wordsworth is troubled by a pattern he observes in society: people are constantly striving to achieve immortality through the creation of art. Though he criticizes this hunger for immortality, Wordsworth admits that he is not immune to it. In book 6, Wordsworth returns to narrating his college days, explaining that he bid farewell to the Lake District and returned to Cambridge for his second year. During his third summer vacation, he took a walking trip in the Alps with a friend instead of studying during his break as he was expected to. Wordsworth and his friend arrived in Calais amidst celebrations of the first anniversary of Bastille Day. He writes toward the end of book 6 that he was too preoccupied at this time with the “glories” of the universe and the “spirit of pure youth” to think much about war.

In book 7, Wordsworth left Cambridge for good and moved to London. During his time there, he delighted in the variety of pleasures and excitements that urban life had to offer, from the theater to St. Bartholomew’s Fair. In book 8, however, Wordsworth describes his return to the Lake District and the festivities of a fair in Cumberland. Here, he reflects not just on nature, but on the people of the Lake District and humanity as a whole. When his “affections first were led . . . to partake / Love for the human creature’s absolute self,” he took notice of shepherds first: their way of life was simple, yet “rich in beauty.” This concern and affection for the “common man” is evident throughout Wordsworth’s poetry. 

Book 9 sees Wordsworth’s return to France during the French Revolution. Wordsworth sympathized with the Revolutionaries, despite the attempts of several Royalist officers in Orléans to sway him. Wordsworth was greatly inspired by an officer he befriended named Michel Beaupuy, who was a patriot and later died in the French revolutionary wars. In book 10, Wordsworth returned to Paris, where he witnessed the beginnings of the Reign of Terror and nearly joined the Revolutionaries. However, he left for England instead. Wordsworth was dismayed when England sided against France in the revolutionary wars, and was glad when English armies were defeated. Wordsworth’s political views, shaped by the French Revolution, are expounded further in book 11, where he expresses his disappointment at the conclusion of the French Revolution and the hope for liberty he nevertheless retained through his faith in people. In England once more, he began to “meditate with ardour on the rule / And management of nations,” a philosophic endeavor that “impaired” his imagination, as the title of book 12 (“Imagination and Taste, How Impaired and Restored”) implies. 

Book 12 explores Wordsworth’s frustration following the events of his stay in Paris. Wordsworth likes to think of himself as a man dedicated to nature and enlightenment, but when he reflects on his life, he regrets that he had often been preoccupied with worldly pleasure. Despite this period of depression and frustration, Wordsworth eventually recovered his poetic capabilities, and in book 13, he again looked to nature and his emotions to guide his thinking and writing. He elaborates in this book on his choice of subject for his poetry: he chose “the very heart of man” as the theme for his poems. 

In the final book of the poem, Wordsworth describes climbing Mount Snowdon in Wales with a group of friends to see the sunrise. On their hike, Wordsworth witnessed a beautiful scene where moonbeams shone on the mist below him; in this moment and afterward, he reflected on the “majestic intellect” he senses in nature. Wordsworth expresses guilt at his straying from the path of nature, imagination, and poetry throughout his life, but he concludes The Prelude with the hope that the poems he and Coleridge have written will endure, instructing and guiding humanity into love for nature and man.

Summary

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1153

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 block.”

In this state of mind, he begins to review his life to see if he has correctly interpreted his vocation. The poem is a search of the poet’s past for evidence that the man is intended by nature to be a poet at all. The remainder of the first book is a short summary of the poet’s earliest years of boyhood, when he grew up in the Lake District of northern England. In four seasonal episodes, Wordsworth’s poem recalls experiences of seedlike origins for his growth of imagination.

The first is an autumn scene of taking woodcocks from other people’s traps and then feeling that the hills pursued him to punish him. The second is a springtime experience of robbing birds’ nests and then feeling that the wind accused him of being a violator. The third episode is a summer one of borrowing a boat without permission, rowing out onto a lake alone, and then feeling that the mountains rose in condemnation. The final scene is one of winter ice-skating at night on frozen lakes; he had stayed out later than he ought, and in a guilty state of mind he would skate alone, feeling nature alive with motion.

Such memories are exercises that raise the poet’s imaginative energies to feel regeneration and renewed confidence in himself. Book 2 contains memories of his mother’s death and his way of dealing with the threat of alienation it caused in his life; he substituted nature for his lost mother, and he nourished his imagination with lonely wanderings through the hills and among the lakes. That continued until he was old enough to be sent to the university in Cambridge, far from home and as threatening as had been the death of his mother.

Book 3 describes how Cambridge was a vast confusion at first, with its swirl of events and temptations. Gradually, it also nourished Wordsworth’s active imagination, both with learning and with urban scenery. Book 4 describes the joyful summer vacations when he revisited youthful scenes and revived his depressed spirits. He renewed social contacts and danced until dawn, when nature summoned him home with morning glory of bright sunrise. The next two books describe how the young undergraduate left England for a walking tour of France and the Alps, where he realized again that his imagination is more important than the natural scenery that nourishes it. Book 7 is a return to England, where the poet finished his education at Cambridge and moved to London.

The books on Wordsworth’s residence in France describe his introduction to the French patriot Michel Beaupuy in book 9 and the influence that Beaupuy had on the poet’s increasing sympathy for the revolutionaries. Book 10, however, narrates the intensifying pressure on Wordsworth to leave France for safety back in London, where the poet despaired at prospects for a peaceful recovery of freedom in France. Book 11 analyzes the spiritual depression that Wordsworth experienced over his loss of faith that the French Revolution could be conducted in a civilized way, combined with his disgust that Britain should have united to oppose Frenchmen fighting for freedom.

By the end of book 12, Wordsworth is back where the poem began, when he decided to leave London and return to his home in the Lake District. There, he revisited scenes of his childhood and youth, recovered his emotional energies, and realized that his imagination needed to be revived by recovering forgotten experiences. These are the “spots of time” that Wordsworth uses to illustrate his recovery of imaginative power. Book 12 ends with descriptions of two of these spots of time.

The final books are celebrations of restored imagination. Book 13 praises the gifts of nature and childhood for emotion and calm. Book 14 is dominated by a long description of the poet’s ascent of Mount Snowdon. On that occasion, the poet realized that his imagination is like the moonlight penetrating the mist that surrounded the mountaintop. The last book then ends with expressions of gratitude to Wordsworth’s sister, Dorothy, and to Coleridge’s friendship. They have inspired the poem by supporting the poet’s faith in himself.

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