Imagination Used in the Poem The Prelude

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Growth of a Genius—A Record of Inner Life

      We have a very significant title from De Quincey for a passage selected from The Prelude for publication in The Friend:

‘Growth of a genius from the influence of natural objects on the imagination in boyhood and early youth. What a comprehensive title from a small passage! And we can safely append this illuminating and comprehensive title to the whole of The Prelude, as in this poem Wordsworth offers us a history of his mental and spiritual growth—‘Growth of Genius from the influence natural of objects on the imagination....’

      Now what is the central theme of The Prelude? It is nothing but a record of that inner life out of which Wordsworth’s poetry grew. “It is a long poem, and a great poem, conveying high meditation on a basis of personal experience. It has a unity of design which depends upon the essential integrity. The subject is not “My Life, but the Making of a Poet”. And, in fact, the unity of the poem lies in Wordsworth’s doctrine of imagination. We must remember that this doctrine is basic to the interpretation of his own experience in his great political or spiritual autobiography. Since his childhood days, Nature has filled his mind with sensations and impressions; and these developed into passions of youth and ideas of maturity in later years. So from the beginning to the end, we find him tracing the growth and development of this divine faculty and telling us how sense becomes a gateway to the imaginative mind through which it enters the realm of spirit. It has been made clear by the poet himself in the concluding (Book XIV) book of this great poem:

.....we have traced the stream
From the blind cavern whence is faintly heard
Its natural murmur; followed it to light
And open day; accompanied its course
Among the ways of Nature, for a time
Lost sight of it bewildered and engulphed,
Then given it greeting as it rose once more
In strength, reflecting from its placid breast
The works of man and face of human life. (XIV: 194-202)

A History of the Development of Poet’s Imagination

      So, the poet tells his friend Coleridge that imagination has been the source of inspiration of their great poetic activity and so he has traced the source of this stream of imagination from the subconscious mind from where the soft sound of its origin can be heard by us indistinctly. We get explicit and explanatory statements of the poet’s theory of imagination in Book XII, XIII and XIV. In his inspired, poetical language he has tried to tell us in these Books what imagination is and what it does. But from the very first Book it is clear to us that the whole of The Prelude is a history of the poet’s imagination. For Wordsworth, for the growth of his mind, we already know that the experience begins in sensation and ends in thought.

Begins in Sensation and Ends in Thought

      Let us take up the famous boating episode from Book I:

“It was an act of stealth
And troubled pleasure.”

      When the stolen boat started moving over the smooth surface of the lake, there came echoing sounds, rather sounds of warning from the mountain sides. After some time, to his great dismay, he found a huge and black peak rearing its head from behind the uneven range of hills. And then we find how this sense-experience ends in such thoughts as recorded in these beautiful lines:

Wisdom and spirit of the universe!
Thou soul that art the eternity of thought
That givest to forms and images a breath
And everlasting motion, not in vain
By day or star-light thus from my first dawn
Of childhood, didst thou intertwine for me
The passions that build up our human soul,
Not with the mean and vulgar works of man,
But with high objects, with enduring things
With life and nature— (Book 1: 401-410)

      The poet’s bird-nesting adventure that led him to hang ‘Above the raven’s nest, by knots of grass’ also ends in such exalting thoughts:

Dust as we are, the immortal spirit grows Like harmony in music, there is a dark
Inscrutable workmanship that reconciles
Discordant elements, makes them cling together In one society.

Sense Experience Leading to Emotional Experiences

      In Book II, the poet tells us about a higher stage of development in the growth of his mind and in his attitude towards nature. In this stage sense-experiences lead to deeper emotional experiences. So after their memorable visit from the tavern, The White Lion, the poet and his companions used to row back, just before the night-fall, over the shadowy lake in a lazy mood. And while the ‘Minstrel of the Troop, Robert Greenwood, would be left alone on a rock to play upon his flute:

.....Oh, then, the calm.
And dead still water lay upon my mind
Even with a weight of pleasure, and the sky,
Never before so beautiful, sank, down
Into my heart, and held me like a dream!
Thus were my sympathies enlarged and thus
Daily the common range of visible things
Grew dear to me.

      He then began to love the sun not for its life-giving power but because it bathed the hills in its radiant beauty at dawn and touched the Western hills with its golden finger before it set in the West.

Human Mind—Creator and Receiver Both

      Although not so very explicitly as in Books XIII or XIV, we get some of the very finest lines telling about the mysterious faculty of imagination while making some philosophic observations on childhood and the child-mind. The child is no outcast, ‘bewildered and depressed’:

For feeling, has to him imparted power
That through the growing faculties of sense
Doth like an agent of the one great Mind
Creates, creator and receiver both,
Working but in alliance with the works
Which it beholds.
(Book II: Line. 255-260)

      Thus human mind, rather our imagination, is ‘creator and receiver both’.

      In those days, Wordsworth moved in the midst of grand and lovely scenes of nature with a feeling of deep religious love which was fed and strengthened by the changing seasons of nature with all its sunshines and snow, with its cool shade and heavy showers and then the poet felt as if ‘A plastic power Abode with me’ and his feeling as if:

.....An auxiliary light
Came from my mind, which on the setting sun
Bestowed new splendor, the melodious birds,
The fluttering breezes, fountains that run on
Murmuring so sweetly in themselves, obeyed
A like dominion, and the midnight storm
Grew darker in the presence of my eye: (Book II: Line, 368-374)

      This is how a poet’s mind becomes ‘creator and receiver both’.

Sense Experience Leading to Mystic Experiences

      Thus before the poet attained the age of fourteen, we find how the poet’s sense-experience leading him to deep mystic experiences and thus enabling him to ‘see into the life of things’;

Oft in these moments such a holy calm
Would overspread my soul, that bodily eyes
Were utterly forgotten, and what I saw
Appeared like something in myself, a dream,
A prospect in the mind.

      Thus we find that all the beautiful and sublime sights, sounds and objects of nature engendered in him an exalted and ecstatic mood and thence the poet drank ‘the visionary powers’ or creative sensibility. To the poet ‘sense and imagination are two extremes in the scale of poetic, or spiritual apprehension’.

Imagination and Taste was Impaired and Restored

      In Books XII and XIII, and to some extent in Book XIV, Wordsworth tells us how his imagination and taste was impaired and restored. But in these Books we also find the didactic and moral tone of the poet asserting itself, probably to the detriment to his poetic genius to some extent. In Book XII we get such memorable lines as:

So feeling comes in aid
Of feeling, and diversity of strength
Attends us, if but once we have been strong,
Oh! mystery of man, from what a depth
Proceed thy honours. I am lost, but see
In simple childhood, something of the base
On which thy greatness stands; but this I feel
That from thyself it comes; that thou must give.
Else never can it receive

Poet’s Theory of Imagination

      But, in fact, the poet gives us in the concluding Book XIV, an explicit statement of his theory of imagination in his own poetic language after his mystic experience or vision he had on the top of Snowdown mountain:

There I beheld the emblem of a mind
That feeds upon infinity, that broods over
The dark abyss, intent to hear
Its voices issuing forth to silent light
In one continuous stream, a mind sustained
By recognitions of transcendent power,
In soul of more than mortal privilege.

      So, the poet saw the symbol of a mind that derives sustenance from the infinite. To him, it was the symbol of a mind that can convert simple sense-impressions into ideas and images and that exhibits itself as immortality in the soul. And in a subsequent passage, the poet finally tells us while discussing about spiritual love that sanctifies our earthly passions:

This spiritual love acts not nor can exist
Without imagination; which, in truth,
Is but another name for absolute power
And clearest insight, amplitude of mind,
And reason in her most exalted mood. (Book XIV: Line, 189-93)

      In the poem The Prelude, poet believes that the spiritual love and the imagination are interdependent, and it is not opposed to reason, as it combines reason with emotion, feeling with thought and ultimately converting them into inspiration that exalts and elevates our mind. And we may say that to the poet, imagination represents the power of the soul to see into ‘the life of things’ and to realize complete unity and oneness of life. We may now conclude by quoting the very illuminating lines on this divine faculty by Prof. Garrod:

      “The imaginative faculty is that faculty which, by binding the things of sense to the moral affections, transmutes them, makes them a part of poetry—whether the poetry of book or of life—and, in so doing, links us with the things in the world which are permanent, and assures us of immortality. The vision of the senses melts and dissolves, but it melts into the revelation of permanent supersensual realities. The fashion of the world passes away; but it fades before a mind conscious of an order of things fashioned immortality.”

University Questions

1. “in The Prelude we see the imagination working at two stages, first on the incident (e.g. the stealing of the boat) itself, and then on recollection where it takes on a universal significance. In this way the poem illustrates the source and operation of the imagination.” Discuss and illustrate this statement with reference to the Books I and II of The Prelude.
2. That do you understand by Wordsworth’s theory of imagination from The Prelude.

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