Real Purpose of Writing the Poem The Prelude

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Renovated Spirit Singled Out

      Wordsworth has escaped from that vast city of London where he had long ‘pined a discontented sojourner’. The unexpected legacy from his friend Raisley Calvert has greatly relieved him of his pecuniary trouble. The poet is on his way to Race-down from Bristol. With ‘the sweet breath of heaven’ that was caressing his cheeks the poet ‘felt within a correspondent breeze’. This was the breeze of poetic inspiration—of creative urge. And very soon:

.....poetic numbers came
Spontaneously to clothe in priestly robe
A renovated spirit singled out.
Such hope was mine, for holy services.
(The Prelude, Book I: Lines 52-55)

      So in the very post-preamble to The Prelude, Book I we find that Wordsworth feels himself to be—‘A renovated spirit singled out.... for holy services’. And while the poet was taking rest in a green shady place, ‘settling into gentler happiness’:

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

Work of Glory

      And what was to be this ‘work of glory’? It was to be The Recluse, a great philosophical poem, which in keeping with the aspirations of Coleridge was ‘to deliver upon authority a system of philosophy after assuming the station of a man in repose, one whose principles were made up’ It was his friend Coleridge, ‘the guardian angel of Wordsworth’s poetical genius, who both guided as well as inspired the poet to compose this great ‘philosophic song’ that was to be the monumental work of his life.

Why then The Prelude

      Then how does The Prelude come in the picture at all? For the answer let us hear from the poet himself. Let us quote some relevant portions from Wordsworth’s Preface to the first edition of The Excursion in 1814:

      “Several years ago, when the author retired to his native mountains, with the hope of being enabled to construct a literary work that might live, it was a reasonable thing that he should take a review of his own mind, and examine how far Nature and Education had qualified him for such employment. As subsidiary to this preparation, he undertook to record, in verse, the origin and progress of his own powers, as far as he was acquainted with them. The work, addressed to a dear friend, most distinguished for his knowledge and genius, and to whom the Author’s intellect is deeply indebted, has been long finished; and the result of the investigation which gave rise to it was a determination to compose a philosophical poem, containing views of Man, Nature and Society; and to be entitled. The Recluse, as having for its principal subject the sensations and the opinions of a poet living in retirement. 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 matured for entering upon the arduous labor which he had proposed to himself; and the two works have the same kind of relation to each other, if he may so express himself, as the ante-chapel has to the body of a Gothic church.”

Main Purpose of The Prelude

      Thus the main purpose of composing ‘The Prelude seems to be crystal clear from Wordsworth’s own statement in the above passage. It was to be his preparatory poem just to find out if his faculties were sufficiently matured to undertake the arduous task of composing the great philosophic poem that was to be the monumental work of his life. Now let us come to The Prelude itself. In Book I there are so many important lines where we find the poet very clearly stating his reasons for writing The Prelude. It was to be a sort of introduction to that great poem, The Recluse, as Wordsworth must be beginning to realize that a poem on his own early development might make a valuable introduction.

      Proceeding towards that ‘chosen vale’ in that splendid evening like a ‘pilgrim resolute’ the poet’s soul:

Once more made trial of her strength, nor lacked
Aeolian visitations: but the harp
Was soon defrauded, and the banded host Of harmony dispersed in Straggling sounds. And lastly utter silence!

Hopes and Disappointments

      After settling down at his hermitage at Race-down the poet felt that he might be able to give poetic or visible expression to some vague fancies and longings that were drifting about aimlessly in his mind for many years. Alas ! the poet is sadly disappointed once more:

......Welcome light
Dawns from the east, but dawns to disappear
And mocks me with a sky that ripens not
Into a steady morning:

      So we find that whenever the poet desires to tackle some exalted theme he finds ‘impediments from day to day renewed’. Still Wordsworth does not absolutely give way to dejection and despair. For the time being the poet decides to give up his idea of a lofty theme and makes up his mind to remain satisfied with ‘present gifts of humbler industry’. In fact, during 1798 Wordsworth wrote some modest type of poems like The Cumberland Beggar, The Discharged Soldier, and also the nice shorter and simpler poems to be included in the Lyrical Ballads and Peter Bell.

Self-Analysis and in Quest of a Theme

      After this we find the poet again subjecting himself to severe self-analysis, making a thorough investigation of his mind to find if he is fit enough for undertaking an arduous task of writing a great epic; and the result seems to be much encouraging. Wordsworth had an ambitious soul and Milton was his poet-hero. He must leave behind some lofty work to bring ever-lasting fame and glory. So the poet is in quest of a suitable theme and suitable setting in time and place for his ‘work of glory’. And first of all his mind turns to ‘some old Romantic tale by Milton left unsung’. This signifies that Wordsworth’s first cherished desire is to emulate Milton whom he considers to be his great ideal. Next, we find the poet in quest of various other subjects. They are chivalry and great war-like deeds of medieval knights, the noble and brave exploits of great heroes like Mithridates, Odin, Sertorious, Dominique de Gourgues, Gustavas and the far-famed Scottish hero Wallace. The poet also feels that it would suit him better to invent a story from his own heart and finally:

My last and favorite aspiration mounts
With yearning towards some philosophic song
Of truth that cherishes our daily life.
immortal verse

Thoughtfully fitted to the Orphean lyre;
Mental Conflicts and the Memories of Childhood Days

      But still, the poet recoils from such an arduous task. He is hesitant to make a choice due to lack of confidence in his own powers. He seeks consolation from the fond hope that advancing years will endow him with maturer power of thinking and clearer insight to compose such a lofty poem. Ultimately we find that all his mental conflicts and contradictions and his doubts and diffidence to undertake the great task of composing an exalted poem on a noble theme send the poet’s mind back to those childhood days which he passed amid the most lovely and sublime sights and sounds of nature of the Lake District of England. So in the subsequent part of Book I (Line. 270-612) we find that the transition to autobiographical incidents and recollections of unforgettable experiences of childhood days that contributed to the growth and development of poet’s mind have been done with wonderful ease and naturalness.

Reviving and Recreating Experiences of Childhood Days

      Both in Book I and Book II through vivid and minute descriptions of boyhood sports and pastimes like bathing, kite-sailing, skating, bird-snaring, expedition in stolen boat, boat-races and riding expeditions, the poet tells us of those incomparable experiences of his childhood when his ‘sense and soul was one’. Helen Darbishire has truly observed: ‘But he deliberately cultivated memory, he could live intensely in the past, he could revive and recreate; and the chief part of his purpose in The Prelude is to recall’ and quicken into permanent life those pregnant moments. For they were, he well knew, the making of him as a poet. Prof. Herbert Lindenberger, a critic of this age from U.S.A., also holds the same opinion when he says: ‘But the repeated invocations of past visions in The Prelude are something other than inventions or imitations (terms drawn directly from the older rhetoric) of past actions; they are above all an attempt to recreate and restore, by verbal means, a past order which can give substance to the future. And the poet himself tells us:

Yes, I remember when the changeful earth,
And twice five summers on my mind had stamped
The face of the moving year, even then
I held unconscious intercourse with beauty
Old as creation, drinking in a pure
Organic pleasure from the silver wreaths
Of curling mist, or from the laced plain
Of waters coloured by impending clouds.

Revival of Hope and Confidence

      Let us see now how far the poet has been able to achieve his main purpose. In the middle of the first Book we found the poet full of regrets as he was.

Unprofitably travelling toward the grave
Like a false steward who hath much received
And renders nothing back.

      But at the end we find the same poet expressing his earnest hope that recollection of his childhood days may refresh his thoughts and restore the balance of his unsteady mind. Yes, Wordsworth has overcome his depressing mood of dejection and frustration. The act of composing of The Prelude had some sort of a rapturous effect on his mind. And before the very close the poet very confidently tells Coleridge: ‘A dear friend, most distinguished for his knowledge and genius:

One end at least hath been attained; my mind.
Hath been revived,

      And then he hastens to add to remind him of his main purpose of writing this poem:

I choose it rather at this time, than work
Of ampler and more varied argument,
Where I might be discomfited, and lost:

      That is why Wordsworth gives up his idea of beginning his great and highly ambitious epic-like poem, The Recluse, for a while. But the most surprising and ironic element in the matter is that the Gothic Church of poet’s dream was never completed excepting a few hundred lines of The Excursion, the intermediate part, and this ‘preparatory poem’, intended to serve as a portico to The Recluse became his ‘work of glory’, immortal verse—a monumental work of an extraordinary type from the holy pen of the high priest of nature.

University Questions

1. “The purpose of The Prelude may, indeed, be said to search out and seize, among the many seemingly alien and incongruous images of self-cast up by reflection, the image of the poet’s true being, of his slowly self-realizing individuality, of that in him by virtue of which he is a dedicated spirit”. Illustrate this statement with reference to The Prelude Books I and II.
2. Explain and comment on Wordsworth’s reasons for writing The Prelude instead of an epic narrative such as he was considered at the beginning of Book I.

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