Is William Wordsworth Vain in Writing The Prelude?

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      In the very post-preamble of Book I of The Prelude, we get these memorable lines from Wordsworth:

.....poetic numbers came
Spontaneously to clothe in priestly robe
A renovated spirit singled out,
Such hope was mine, for holy services
(Book. I, 51-54)

      Can a person be absolutely vain or indulge in egotism when he feels himself to be—‘A renovated spirit singled out for holy services’? We also find the poet writing to Sir George Beaumont explaining to him why he began the work.

Not Self-Conceit but Real Humility

      ‘It is not self-conceit that has induced me to do this, but real humility. I began the work because I was unprepared to treat any more arduous subject, and diffident of my own powers’. Well, can a poet be vain and an abject egotist when he unabashedly confesses his diffidence about his own powers and abilities. It is ‘real humility’ that has induced him to undertake the composition of The Prelude.

Why this A Preparatory Poem?

      Then what was that ‘arduous task’ which the poet was unable to undertake? This was to be the monumental work of his life, The Recluse, ‘a philosophical poem, containing views of Man, Nature and Society’. And in his Preface to the first edition of The Excursion in 1814 the poet clearly stated his main purpose to undertake the task of writing The Prelude.

      The preparatory poem is biographical, and conducts the history of the author’s mind to the point when he was emboldened to hope that his faculties were sufficiently for entering upon the arduous labor which he had proposed to himself.

Doubts and Diffidence

      The different books of The Prelude, specially the first book is replete with lines and passages revealing Wordsworth’s sense of humility and his doubt and diffidence to undertake the arduous task of constructing literary work that might live’. On his way to Race-down from Bristol, he says:

....a higher power,
Than fancy gave assurance of some work
Of glory there forthwith to be begun
Perhaps too there performed.
(Book I: Lines, 77-80)

      And on that ‘splendid evening’ the poet’s soul once more wanted to measure its own power and ability. It was not without thoughts or inspiration that seemed to play upon his soul as wind on the Aeolian harp -

.... but the harp
Was soon defrauded, and the banded host
Of harmony dispersed, straggling sounds.
And lastly utter silence! (Book I: Lines, 96-99)

      The poet’s mind then made sincere attempts to ‘grapple with some noble theme’ but unfortunately—Vain is her wish; where ever she turns, she finds impediments from day to day renewed. So the poet accepts his defeat for the time being and is humble enough to tell us:

And now it would content me to yield up
Those lofty hopes awhile, for present gifts
Of humbler industry. (Book. I: Lines, 132-34)

To Take up the Work of Glory in Mellower Years

      And after a fruitless quest for some appropriate theme for his work of glory, the poet becomes fully conscious of his lack of maturity and frankly tells us:

But from this awful burthen I full soon
Take refuge and beguile myself with test
That mellower years will bring a riper mind
And clearer insight. (Book I: Lines, 234-37)

      A poet, who so frankly admits his defeat and is honest and sincere enough to point out his own drawbacks and deficiencies, his mental conflicts and contradictions can never be a vain egotist.

Nature Moulded his Personality on Right Lines

      The other great thing about Wordsworth is that he was born and brought up in the lap of mother-like Nature amidst the most beautiful and sublime natural surroundings. And Nature took upon herself the task of molding the mind and soul of this sensitive child:

Fair seed-time had my soul, and, I grew up
Fostered alike by beauty and by fear:
Much favoured, in my birth place, and no less
In that beloved vale to which are long
We quite transplanted; (Book. I Line: 301-305)

Sober Lessons from Rowing Competitions

      Then, while describing their rowing competitions over the Windermere Lake in Book II, Wordsworth tells us that such pastimes with happy endings never gave rise to any undesirable sense of rivalry of jealousy:

......Then the pride of strength,
And the vain glory of superior skill,
Were tempered; thus was gradually produced
A quiet independence of the heart.
(Book II: Lines 69-72)

      And in this book, we also find the boy Wordsworth longing for calmer and sober type of pleasures, and only those sports and pastimes that were closely attached to beautiful sights and sounds of nature seemed to be really enjoyable to him:

And every boyish sport, less grateful else And languidly pursued,

Thankfulness to Mother Nature for the Healthy Growth of his Mind

      In fact, the poet was very fortunate in one respect and he is grateful to Nature for this. He did not fail to express his deep sense of thankfulness to mother Nature for all the means—some times pleasant and sometimes painful-employed by her for the healthy growth of his mind and soul. And if he had any sense of pride in him, he tells us with modest pride that he had grown up—

Not with the mean and vulgar works of man,
But with high objects, with enduring things—
With life and Nature—

      A man who ultimately attained the peace and serenity of his soul due to the all benign and beneficial influences exerted on him by mother Nature could never grow up to be a vain and self-conceited person.

Wordsworth of The Prelude can Never be Vain

      Of course, Wordsworth admitted that ‘it was a thing unprecedented in literary history that a man should talk so much about himself. But then he also said: ‘I began the work because I was unprepared to treat any more arduous subject, and diffident, of my own powers’. As a school boy Wordsworth might leave some sense of ego and in the circle of his friends and close relations he might have been to some extent egotistical, but Wordsworth of The Prelude is never vain and egotistical. Gibbon, while turned to their history of himself, became rather vulgar and absurd. Even great Goethe proved himself to be a bore and a snob while “professing to put to us the Truth and Poetry, which nursed his greatness”. About Wordsworth of The Prelude we may conclude with the following words of great praise and regard from Prof. Garrod: “But the author of The Prelude was born, one might think, of a mountain or a river, rather than of human parents; and everything that he has to tell us of himself meets us like a clean breeze, carrying none of the casual impurities of social and intellectual competition”.

University Questions

1. “It is not self-conceit that has induced me to do this, but real humility.” Discuss this dictum of Wordsworth in the light of the Books I and II of The Prelude.
2. Is Wordsworth vain in writing The Prelude? Illustrate.

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