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Last Updated September 5, 2023.


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 amid celebrations of the first anniversary of Bastille Day. He writes toward the end of book 6 that he was...

(This entire section contains 1129 words.)

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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.