Though it was published posthumously, The Prelude is considered by many critics to be Wordsworth’s greatest work. It is, as he stated in one of his letters, “a long poem upon the formation of [his] own mind.” According to J. C. Maxwell, the editor of one edition of The Prelude, Wordsworth began the poem as early as 1798, when he was about twenty-eight years old, and continued working on it periodically for the rest of his life. The name The Prelude was suggested by Wordsworth’s widow after his death, as Wordsworth himself never settled on an official title.
In Wordsworth’s preface to Lyrical Ballads, in which he explains his philosophy of poetry, he states that good poetry concerns the affairs of the “common man” and resembles prose in its simplicity of language. Wordsworth holds true to these assertions in The Prelude; the poem is written in blank verse, making it similar in rhythm to prose, and it chronicles Wordsworth’s life experiences, which many readers find relatable.
Wordsworth writes in the preface to Lyrical Ballads that he chose “common men” as the subject of his poetry because, in their “rustic” lives, “the passions of men are incorporated with the beautiful and permanent forms of nature.” The Prelude details the origin of his fascination with humanity as a topic for contemplation and poetry: “Shepherds were the men that pleased [him] first.” This poem makes it clear that Wordsworth did not choose common people as his subjects merely for their proximity to nature; rather, his love for nature led him to love them, and thus they organically made their way into his poetry.
Wordsworth’s purpose in writing The Prelude was to inform his friend and contemporary poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge of his development as both a poet and a person. Given that love for nature permeates the body of Wordsworth’s poetry, it is appropriate that the poem begins with Wordsworth walking in the countryside of the Lake District and reflecting on his childhood, which was spent playing outside and enjoying the glories of nature around him. Though the titles of the first and second books refer to his “school-time,” Wordsworth does not speak of his grammar school experiences in either of these books. Instead, he presents nature as his instructor. As a young boy, Wordsworth even felt that nature chastised him for staying outside too late or taking a boat for a ride without permission.
No matter where he went, Wordsworth felt nature drawing him back to imagination and poetry. At Cambridge, he experienced a feeling that he was “not for that hour, / Nor for that place”; he was largely disinterested in formal education, as is illustrated by his choice to go on a walking tour of the Alps rather than spend his summer studying. After living in London and France and experiencing both the excitement and the horror of the French Revolution, Wordsworth delved into social science and politics. During his studies, he fell into a period of depression that only lifted when he refocused his attention and efforts on nature and imagination.
Having finally realized and accepted his calling as a poet, Wordsworth expresses his belief at the end of The Prelude that poetry can alter and influence society. Though humans will always “fall back to old idolatry” and “return to servitude,” he finds comfort in the fact that his poetry may lead to their “deliverance” by instructing them in love for nature and humankind. Through The Prelude, it becomes clear that Wordsworth and Coleridge have devoted their lives and writings to nature, the common man, emotion, and imagination—all of which are characteristics of Romanticism. The spread of the Romantic movement, which the two poets helped inspire, demonstrates the truth in Wordsworth’s assertion to Coleridge at The Prelude’s end:
what we have loved,
Others will love, and we will teach them...
(The entire section contains 1384 words.)
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