Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 443
The main character in this autobiographical poem is William Wordsworth (1770–1850) himself. The Prelude was written for Wordsworth’s friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge as an explanation of Wordsworth’s genesis as a poet and his development into the person Coleridge knew. The poem traces the development of his early and deep spiritual love of nature, his indifference toward his formal education at the University of Cambridge in favor of what nature and people could teach him, his early radicalism in support of the French Revolution, his disillusionment with that revolution when he witnessed its bloody turn, his return to the Lake District, and his gradual embrace of a poetic mission to elevate the common person.
Throughout the poem, Wordsworth reflects upon his calling as a poet and the role of the poet in society. He resents the hunger for immortality that he and his contemporary artists often experience, and displays a desire to instruct and guide humanity away from the “idolatry” of lesser things and into the adoration of and respect for nature and humankind that he has come to know. At the end of the poem, Wordsworth writes of his hope that, as a “Prophet of Nature,” he will be able to instruct humankind in this way through his poetry.
Some of the poem’s most heartfelt lines are tributes to Wordsworth’s sister, Dorothy (1771–1855), who shared his deep appreciation for nature. At a young age, Wordsworth and Dorothy were orphaned; they clung to each other on school holidays and were very close through their adult years. Dorothy is depicted as extremely supportive. Wordsworth explains that in his depression following his time in France, she encouraged him to believe that his spirits would lift and to pursue a career as a poet.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Wordsworth’s contemporary and friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772–1834), with whom he collaborated to write Lyrical Ballads, was a great inspiration to him, and Wordsworth pays tribute to him in this poem. Wordsworth addresses Coleridge directly throughout The Prelude, always referring to him as “Friend.” Wordsworth notes in book 2 that though he was raised in the country and Coleridge in the city, they are nevertheless alike in spirit; he describes Coleridge as his “brother” in many ways, especially in their devotion to nature. Wordsworth is willing to risk the “scoff of coward tongues” to describe how dearly he loved Coleridge. Though Wordsworth and Coleridge would later have a bitter falling out, at the time of the completion of The Prelude, Wordsworth hoped that he and Coleridge would—Providence willing—be able to instruct and guide humanity into love of nature and man through their poetry.