Poetic Experience in the Poem The Prelude

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      Every poem records a poetic experience; in fact what is termed ‘poem’ is only another word for poetic experience. This poetic experience is the relation between the mind of the poet and his world in which he moves, and observes, experiences, acts and lives. Such a poetic experience goes to constitute the poetic personality. Such a poetic experience varies with each poet; such an experience gets formed in the poet’s mind, which is different with each poet and is born in relation to a poet’s world, which will not necessarily be the world of those who practice the same art. Hence every poetic experience is invariably, a personal experience. A poet’s world is not detached from the outer world of everybody else. In this God’s world, a poet constructs his own world from the material supplied by his Creator. This new world depends on imaginative sensibility, individual sympathy and insight of each poet.

      According to this theory every work of art ‘offers to any one who wishes to examine it the principles necessary to form judgment of it’, and there is no such thing as objective poetry’. What we term objective poetry is also ‘a poetic experience.’ This poetic experience has to be significant; hence all art is selection; we receive a variety of experiences and human mind reacts to various things, but when the experience stirs a poet’s feelings strongly, he moves and he sings, his song becomes a poem. Such choice experiences alone become poetic experience. Secondly, the experience is personal, “It is because his experience is significant that the poet is urged to express it, and we are willing to receive it,” says Abercrombie. He further adds that experience, however, cannot but be personal; and the more we feel of the poet’s personality in the experience his art transmits to us the better we understand the nature of the experience to which we submit and the force of the significance it carries. For what we mean by the poet’s personality—the personality we feel in his art. We mean that peculiarly individual relationship with his world, inner and outer, in which the spirit of the man most naturally and profoundly and completely lives. In this central habit of experience his poetry originates; out of this general source proceeds those particular experiences which, when he has expressed them in words, we call his poems. The particular experiences are rivulets that get their water from the main river, i.e. “the general sources,” which are the poetic experiences as well.

      Viewed in the light of these observations The Prelude stands out pre-eminently a specimen of Wordsworth’s art of Poetic Experience. The fourteen Books of this great autobiographical poem, with vast epic-structure and sublime expression, contain the significant experience in the life of Wordsworth; the experience is based on the impressions that from the dawn of his life began to influence the poet and shaped his personality in a particular mold. To quote Abercrombie again: “He wrote The Prelude and the subject and the art of The Prelude combine to guide us precisely that central habit of experience out of which all his poetry comes .... Its (The Prelude’s) inspiration is Wordsworth’s intention to reveal the formation and nature of the inmost habit of experience which made him ‘the poet he was’—that unique relationship between his mind and his world in which he most deeply and vividly lived and which constitutes his poetic personality.” The subjects of other epics are outside the immediate sphere of the poet’s own life. Paradise Lost derives its source from the Bible. The Divine Comedy, though it contains some references to Dante’s life, yet it deals with problems which are outside the personal life of Dante. Virgil’s Aeneid is a national epic which celebrates an empire, and describes the adventures of its hero, Aeneas. But the subject of The Prelude is, in its entirety, the poet himself. Wordsworth has recorded his significant experience, the experience which went to make him what he later on came to be. His world is the world of the nature; and his poetic experience is the indissoluble bond that exists between him and nature. Wordsworth arrived at this poetic experience through many incidents of his own life, where he saw and felt what he wrote:

Oh ye rocks and streams,
And that still spirit shed from everting air!
Evert in this joyous time I sometimes felt
Your presence.

      Wordsworth talked to rocks, streams and the quiet spirits of the evening air as we talk to our friends and relations and felt their nearness as we feel the human presence. The impression that he received from these external objects of nature were not stray impressions; it was not that he endeavored to receive such an influence, but it was the aim of nature to bring Wordsworth under her benignant influence:

Nature by extrinsic passion first
Peopled the mind with forms sublime or fair
And made me love them.
(Book I: Lines 545-547)

      Note the words “and made me love them”. Nature has become the chief actor. A similar thought is expressed in his small but popular poem Written in Early Spring:

To her fair works did Nature link
The human soul that through me ran.

      Here, too, nature is described as the chief doer. Initiative is taken by Nature in establishing a link between “her fair works” and the poet’s individual soul. The same thought is expressed in Book IV

I made no vows but vows
Were then made for me; bond unknown to me
Was given, that I should be else sinning greatly
A dedicated spirit.
(Lines 341-344)

      Out of such experiences as these originate Wordsworth’s poetic experience. The origin is within his own self, but Wordsworth generalizes the same, so that his individual experience comes to be shared by the readers. That is how in great works of art the particular becomes the universal. Another aspect of this poetic experience of Wordsworth is that though he enjoyed the sights of nature and his mind responded to these impressions, natural objects were also pleased in giving joys to those whom they contacted. In the opening lines of The Prelude Book I, Wordsworth sings of the joy that the ‘gentle breeze that blows from the green fields and from the clouds and from the sky’ gives to him; but the poet says that the breeze was “half conscious of the joy” it gave to the poet. Commenting on this Abercrombie remarks: “The experience is not simply of the poet’s own awareness of receiving pleasures, it is also of the breeze’s awareness of giving pleasure.” The entire thing is reciprocal. The giver of the joy delights in giving and the receiver of that joy is equally happy in receiving it. Let us refer to The Education of Nature. It is a wonderful poem wherein Wordsworth has very beautifully, in a simple language and moving verses, described the consciousness of Nature in molding human mind. In the second stanza, Nature says about Lucy:

Myself will to my darling be
Both law and impulse: and with me
The girl, in rock and plain
In earth and heaven, in glade and bower
Shall feel all overseeing power
To kindle or restrain

      The passages, from other poems have been quoted just to show that there is a uniformity of thought in great part of the poetry of Wordsworth—a trait peculiar to him. This is his “poetic experience”, an everlasting but invisible link between human mind and Nature, based on poet’s own experience during his childhood, boyhood and youthful years. Wordsworth is often called ‘the poet of Nature’. He is the poet of many things besides; but it is in his relationship with Nature that his poetic inspiration originates, and the history of the relationship is the subject of The Prelude (Abercrombie). To quote from the same critic The Prelude is thus typical art of Wordsworth. And it is typical of the man. It not only tells us of these remarkable experiences, it tells us also how he became capable of them; and to this he was continuously looking back. Over and over again, in the poetry that we value most in him, the glory of the past shines upon the present and transfigures it. To a quite remarkable degree, past experience in him was living energy, either interpreting the present of dividing his attention between the senses, immediate delight and the mind’s internal heaven.” The idea can be illustrated from the following passage:

With deep devotion, Nature, did I feel
In that enormous city’s turbulent world
Of man and things, what benefit I owed
To thee, and those domains of rural peace,
Where to the sense of beauty first my heart
(The Prelude, Book VII Lines 70-75)

      In these lines a past experience is made a ‘living energy’ in the present. Here is another passage:

“From early days,
Beginning not long after the first time
In which, a Babe, by intercourse of touch
I held mute dialogues with my Mother’s heart
I have endeavoured to display the means
Whereby this infant sensibility,
Great birthright of our being, was in me
Augmented and sustained.”
(The Prelude, Book II: Lines 268-272)

      Thus there exists between Wordsworth and his world an ultimate and perfect relation. This relation which can be termed the central poetic experience has its beginning in the poet’s childhood, this gets widened and deepened during the days of his boyhood and youth and attains maturity in manhood. Thus The Prelude, very rightly, becomes a record of the growth of the central poetic experience which made Wordsworth the poet he was. In Book III (Line. 167-176) the poet has referred to this point:

And hero, O Friend ! have I retraced my life
Up to an eminence, and told, a tale
Of matters which not falsely may be cried.
The glory of my youth. Of genius,
Creation and divinity itself
I have been speaking, for my theme has been
What passed, within me. Not of outboard things.
Done visible for other minds, words, signs,
Symbols or actions, but of my own heart
Have I been speaking, and, my youthful mind.

      “This, then is Wordsworth’s subject,” says Abercrombie, “this creative harmony. Often when we try to make out in a poet’s work what I have called his poetic personality, this man’s theme or motive, we allow ourselves to speak in general terms and sometimes vaguely enough of his subject. We might say Milton’s subject is man’s temptation, that Dante’s is the justice of divine love disposing all things. If we speak so of Wordsworth we must say that his subject is poetic experience itself. By the expression of this, his art is inspired, by this intention it must be judged. With such a subject the accusation of egoism is to be expected. But Wordsworth’s egoism never asserted as such it is, but the necessary locus of poetic experience. His poetry does not give us his personality simply because it was his own, but because of that harmony of mind and nature which his personality had become. In all poetry, the subject whatever it may be, carries with it something of the poet’s peculiar sense of relationship between himself and his world.”

University Questions

1. How does a poetic experience constitute a poetic personality?
2. What are Wordsworth’s experiences revealed in The Prelude?

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