The Prelude, which was not published until shortly after William Wordsworth’s death in 1850, was planned as the introductory section of a long autobiographical and philosophical poem that was never finished, titled The Recluse. In that ambitious work, Wordsworth intended to trace in blank verse the development of his views on humanity, society, and nature. Of the projected three parts, only the second, The Excursion (1814), written between 1799 and 1805, was completed and published. The important “Friend” to whom the poem is addressed is Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
Wordsworth strongly advocated the use of poetry for the expression of individual emotions and insights. The Prelude contains many fine passages that illustrate the clarity and force of his use of language to provide both a precise description of nature and a grasp of its meaning. Although the poem contains long prosaic stretches, it also conveys a sense of the calm beauty and power of nature that distinguishes Wordsworth’s verse.
The work begins with an account of the poet’s childhood in the English Lake District. With many digressions addressed to nature and its power, wisdom, and infusing spirit, the poet describes the influence of nature on his solitary childhood. Some of the sense of awe and pleasure that he found in nature, as well as some of his clearest and most penetrating uses of diction, is evident in the passage in which he describes how he found a boat in a cave, unchained the boat, and rowed out into the center of a lake:
LustilyI dipped my oars into the silent lake,And, as I rose upon the stroke, my boatWent heaving through the water like a swan;When, from behind that craggy steep till thenThe horizon’s bound, a huge peak, black and huge,As if with voluntary power instinctUpreared its head. I struck and struck again,And growing still in stature the grim shapeTowered up between me and the stars, and still,For so it seemed, with purpose of its ownAnd measured motion like a living thing,Strode after me.
The image of the peak is invested with such simplicity and power that it is transformed into a force conveying both terror and beauty to the guilty boy who has stolen a ride in a boat.
The poet speaks of his youthful love of freedom and liberty, which he enjoyed in rambles through the woods and on mountain paths where he did not feel fettered by the claims of society and schoolwork. He makes sure to reassure the reader, however, that he was outwardly docile and obedient, keeping his rebellion and sense of freedom in the realm of the spirit. This combination of outward calm and inward rebellion helps explain Wordsworth’s ability to...
(The entire section is 1282 words.)