Nature Element in the Poem The Prelude

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Nature’s Influence from the very Dawn of Life

      The very sub-title of this great poem tells us that its main theme is ‘the growth of a poet’s mind’. And if the mind of Wordsworth is the real hero, Nature plays the most vital part, the grand second role in this unique autobiographical epic The Prelude. Her noble role is that of a being mother, guardian and nurse exerting great elevating influence on the mind and soul of the poet from the earliest dawn, of his life. And this started from the earliest stage when the poet was just a suckling babe in his mother’s arms. So in the very first book, we find how all his mental conflicts and contradictions and his sad failure to undertake the great task of composing an exalted poem on a noble theme send the poet’s mind back to those infant days which he passed in the proximity of the river Derwent. And with what a deep emotion he addresses the river:

.....For this, didst thou,
O Derwent! winding among grassy holms
Where I was looking on, a babe in arms,
Make ceaseless music that composed my thoughts
To more than infant softness, giving me
Amid the fretful dwellings of mankind
A foretaste, a dim earnest, of the calm
That Nature breathes among the hills and groves.

Formative Influence of Nature from Early Childhood

      The true significance of Nature’s role in molding the personality of the poet becomes crystal clear to us when he tells us how from the very childhood, in a very lovely and favorable environment he was nursed and brought up by the various ministries of mother—Nature with the help of her most lovely as well as the sublime and awe-inspiring sights and sounds:

Fair seed-time had my soul, and I grew up
Fostered alike by beauty and by fear:
Much favored in my birthplace, and no less
In that beloved vale to which are long
(The Prelude Book 1: 301-305).

      The point has been very nicely elucidated by Legouis and Cazamian when they say: “To Wordsworth Nature appeals as a formative influence superior to any other, the educator of senses and mind alike, the sower in our hearts of the deep laid seeds of our feelings and beliefs.”

Ministry of Beauty

      To illustrate the ministry of beauty and fear the different books of The Prelude is replete with various incidents or ‘spots of time’. The account of the exciting skating game on the ice relates very powerfully the poet’s rather superconscious experience at the sight of one of the most beautiful visions of nature. When they were rapturously wheeling about and when ‘through the darkness and the cold’ they flew:

.....with the din
Smitten, the precipices rang aloud;
The leafless trees and every icy crag
Tinkled like iron; while far distant hills
Into the tumult sent an alien sound
Of melancholy not unnoticed, while the stars
Eastward were sparkling clear, and in the west,
The orange sky of evening died away,
(The Prelude Book I; 440-4 7).

Nature of Pain or Fear: Bird-nesting

      As regards the ministry of pain or fear the incident of bird-nesting and that of adventure in a stolen boat illustrate the contribution of fear to mental growth of the poet. Once at the dead of night the boy Wordsworth, when a strong desire overpowered his better reason, stole away a wood-cock which was the captive of another man’s toil. And after the commission of this undesirable deed:

I heard among the solitary hills
Low breathing coming after me, and sounds,
Of undistinguishable motion, steps
Almost as silent as the turf they trod.
(The Prelude Book I; 322-25)

Stolen-Boat Episode

      The best illustration is probably that adventure in a stolen boat:

It was an act of stealth.

Troubled Pleasure

      And when the stolen boat started moving over the smooth surface of the lake, to his great dismay he found a huge peak ‘upreared its head’. To the boy it appeared like an awful and strange living being with a will and power of its own following him with regular footsteps with some fixed purpose. After this frightening incident, the poet ‘through the meadows homeward went’ with a trembling heart and in a pensive mood:

.....but after I had seen
That spectacle, for many days, my brain
Worked with a dim and undermined sense
Of unknown mode of being; o’er my thoughts
There hung a darkness, call it solitude
Or blank desertions. No familiar shapes
Remained, no pleasant images, of trees,
Of sea or sky, no colours of green fields;
But huge and mighty forms, that do not live
Like living men moved slowly through the mind By day, and were a trouble to my dreams.
(The Prelude Book I. 390-400).

Nature Spiritualized

      Next in The Prelude - specially in Books I and II, Wordsworth traces the growth of his love of nature and the various stages through which it passed. It may be noted here that Wordsworth spiritualized nature by making her a moral teacher. As a poet this is his most important contribution and herein lies his chief originality that is wonderfully revealed in his poetry of nature. Compton-Rickett has rightly said: It was Wordsworth’s aim as a poet to seek for beauty in meadows, woodland and mountains, and to interpret this beauty in spiritual terms. He is ever spiritualizing the moods of Nature and winning from them moral consolation. But this spiritual conception developed through various stages.

First Stage in the Growth of Poet’s Love of Nature

      In the first stage, his passion for Nature was in its infancy and was kept enthused and nourished by his surroundings without any conscious or deliberate effort on his part—By nourishment that came unsought’. This is the stage that we find mainly in Book I. Here we find the poet:

.....drinking in a pure
Organic pleasure from the silver wreaths
Of curling mist, or from the level plain
Of waters colored by impending clouds.

Second Stage

      The poet speaks about his second stage in the beginning of the second hook. In the previous stage he was almost totally interested in the exciting sports and pastimes and was not so much conscious of his natural surroundings; but now he seemed to have a conscious urge to have Nature ‘collaterally attached’ to all their plans for all sorts of games and pleasures:

.....But the time approached
That, brought with it a regular desire
For calmer pleasures, when the winning forms
Of Nature were collaterally attached
To every scheme of holiday delight
And every boyish sport, less grateful else
And languidly pursued.
(The Prelude, Book II: 48-54)

Third Stage

      Their boating excursions ‘over the shadowy lake’ and their riding adventures on ‘the galloping steed’ over hills and dales, ‘through rough and smooth’ brought the poet in closer contact with the charming and sublime aspects of nature. Slowly Wordsworth’s sympathies or spiritual powers enlarged and familiar and common objects became dearer to him day by day. 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-fingers before it set in the west. And here the poet very clearly speaks of another important stage in his attitude towards Nature:

Those incidental charms which first attached
My heart to rural objects, day by day
Grew weaker, and I hasten on to tell
How Nature, intervenient till this time
And secondary, now at length was sought
For her own sake.
(The Prelude Book II. 198-203)

      This third stage is a very important one in the development of Wordsworth’s personality as a poet, as the ‘high priest of nature’.

Final Stage

      In the final stage, we find the poet’s attachment to Nature growing into a religious, love. At this stage, he has mystic visions and has had a feeling of the existence of a visionary power, a creative sensibility within himself and has a realization of the unity and harmony underlying all the diversities of Nature. When the poet is laid asleep in body’ he becomes ‘a living soul’ and can ‘see into the life of things’. He is now gifted with a plastic power and hence.

.....An auxiliary light.
Came from 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.
(The Prelude, Book II: 368-74)

Imagination, the Poetic Faculty Par Excellence

      Thus, slowly Wordsworth through his sense experiences has become ‘creator and receiver both’, has acquired that highest intellectual power—imagination. In the last book of The Prelude the poet reveals it in its various aspects as the faculty of creation, the poetic faculty par excellence. And this poetic faculty par excellence is really the hero, the leading figure, the presiding genius of The Prelude. Wordsworth was deeply conscious of the power which fostered his genius, and when he probed into its sources he found that it came to him originally through a special awareness of Nature; it was there that a shaft opened which reached down to a new world of life’. Prof. Garrod has very nicely elucidated this point in the chapter on Sense and Imagination: ‘the glory of the senses passes into a glory of the imagination precisely being fastened to the affections.......The vision of the senses melts and dissolves. But it melts into the revelation of permanent super sensual realities. In every impression of sense Wordsworth conceives that there is present from the beginning an imaginative activity. Sense and imagination are two extremes in the scale of poetic or spiritual apprehension: but the higher faculty is always obscurely present in the lower.

Nature as the Best Guide and Teacher

      Wordsworth also considered Nature to be our best guide and teacher. To him, books were all dull and dreary. Probably we all can remember those oft-quoted lines:

One impulse from a vernal wood,
May teach you more of man
Of moral evil and good
Than all the sages can.

      At the end of Book II also the poet addressing the mountains and lakes tells us the same thing.

Source of Great Comfort and Strength

      Furthermore, for Wordsworth Nature was an eternal source of great comfort and strength. When, after the failure of the great hopes and ideals of the French Revolution, the poet was passing through a strenuous mental and spiritual crisis and when his mental horizon was darkened by doubts and disappointments, it was the lovely and peaceful surroundings of the Lake District that brought peace and solace to his dejected soul. Books XII and XIII elaborately tell us how imagination and. taste of the poet was impaired, and how it was restored in the company of Dorothy and Coleridge amidst the lovely hills and dales, stormy wind and the murmuring fountains, meandering rivers and. mighty mountains of the beautiful Lake District of England.


      In conclusion, we may justly assert that Wordsworth has rightfully been called by the critics and readers alike, ‘the high priest of nature’, the ‘harbinger of nature’ or the ‘worshipper of nature’, as no other poet has understood. Nature as Wordsworth does. His treatment of nature is original and unique. To Wordsworth nature is not inanimate. Nature is a living and organic unity with a life and personality of its own. “There have been greater poets than Wordsworth, but none more original,” says Bradley. And to Abercrombie, “his whole life belonged to nature, and. nature to his poetry was what it was to Lucy, both lay and impulse.”

University Questions

1. Books I and II deal with Wordsworth’s early love of Nature and the growth of his consciousness of it. Elaborate and illustrate.
2. Write an essay on the nature and quality of Wordsworth’s descriptive gift a.s seen in The Prelude Book I and II.
3. Write a note on Wordsworth’s pantheism as evidenced in The Prelude Books I and II.

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