The Prelude: Book 1 - Critical Summary

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      At the very outset it would be wise for us to remember that The Prelude written by Wordsworth should never be treated as an autobiography in the usual sense of the word. It is not at all a systematic account of the poet’s early life, though he could not but choose this autobiography form. This great poem—‘the finest fruit of Wordsworth’s great creative period’—is to be treated as the faithful record of the growth and development of the poet’s mind, ‘fostered alike by beauty and fear,’ enabling us to have a glimpse of the innermost recesses of the poet’s soul. Its very sub-title, The Growth of a Poet’s Mind, amply justifies the statement that it records the life of Wordsworth’s poetic personality. The following lines quoted from the poet’s Preface to The Excursion will make the point crystal clear:

The preparatory point 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.

      In the first book of The Prelude by William Wordsworth, we get the autobiographical account of the poet’s childhood and school time. But in the introduction - (Line. 1 to 269) — the poet, before narrating his pleasant or painful experiences of childhood days, first tells us how he was led to write this great poem.

Sense of Joy and Relief

      The opening lines (1 to 45) of The Prelude, Book I, express the deep sense of joy and relief that Wordsworth felt after leaving the vast city of London for Race-down in Dorsetshire where the poet and his sister Dorothy settled in the autumn of 1795. In that huge city he languished for long just like ‘a discontented sojourner’. But in that chosen valley of Race-down, just in the lap of mother nature, the poet is as free as a bird to settle down wherever he likes. Gone is the burden of his unnatural life in London. He can now shake off the heavy load of despair and dejection from his soul.

Inspirations and the Urge for Poetic Faculty

      The mild breeze, ‘the sweet breath of heaven’, seemed to have aroused in him a corresponding breeze of inspiration, engendering in his soul great creative energy that would lead the poet to fresh and lofty poetic activity. Here we find Wordsworth, as usual, imparting a living personality to the breeze, a lifeless object of nature, as it seems to be somewhat aware of the great joy that it brings to the poet’s mind. The fresh urge for poetic productivity is indomitable and under its powerful influence he will be able to compose regularly, poems of worship, verses of a lofty inspirational order.

Verses Come Spontaneously

      Then the poet addresses his dear friend, Coleridge. It was Coleridge who constantly encouraged the poet to undertake the composition of a great philosophic poem to be called The Recluse and tells him that he has never been in the habit of transforming a present joy into a subject for writing poetry. Here we may recollect the theory of poetry propounded by Wordsworth in his Preface to the Lyrical Ballads. It is the confirmed opinion of the poet that “poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings; it takes its origin from emotions recollected in tranquility.” But on that day, on the day of his journey from Bristol to Race-down, verses came to him spontaneously and under the influence of gentle breeze, both external and internal, he made a prophecy that in the days to come the world create poetry of the most sublime order. He felt that his was a chosen spirit, chosen by Nature or Good Himself, to accomplish such a noble task.

Selection of a Known Valley and A Feeling of Confidence

      With great hopes for the future and in a happy mood, the poet moved on. So many thoughts were entertained by him for the choice of a place where he could take up his abode, but they were ultimately discarded. Finally, he selected a known valley, made up his mind to settle down in a cottage in that lovely place where he reached after a pleasant journey of three days. On the way, resting amidst the beautiful sights and sounds of nature he felt assured that he would, at last, be able to undertake some exalted work of undying fame and perhaps be able to accomplish the great task. It was a lovely evening and his soul once more wanted to measure its own power and ability. His thoughts or inspiration seemed to play upon his soul as wind on the Aeolian harp. But soon it was clear that his soul was deceived, as it failed to respond to the wind of inspiration to produce a harmonious pattern. But after settling down at his hermitage at Race-down he had a keen desire to prepare himself for some fixed project or plan. He should either gather a new store of knowledge or rescue his old stock of knowledge by some timely action, from total oblivion. With that still loftier hopes arose in his heart. Some vague fancies and longings were drifting about aimlessly in his mind for many years. The poet felt that he might be able to give poetic or visible expression to all of them, enabling him to create, in the end, some noble and glorious work of art. But alas! the poet is sadly disappointed once more. The dim light of hope does not brighten up at all. Whenever he desires to tackle some exalted theme he faces serious obstacles and hindrances. Still, Wordsworth does not give way to dejection and despair. For the time being he decides to give up his lofty theme and makes up his mind to remain satisfied with ‘present gifts of humbler industry’—that is shorter and simpler types of poems. It may be noted that during 1798 Wordsworth wrote poems like Cumberland Beggar, The Discharged Soldier and also the shorter poems to be included in the Lyrical Ballads and Peter Bell.

Poetic Inspiration and the Search for A Suitable Theme

      But the poet still has his moments of extreme passion and prolonged fits of poetic frenzy. Like a dove driven by the tempest, the poet seems to be goaded on by his poetic frenzy to search the topics of poetry for some exalted theme. Once more, as a person desiring to find if he is fit enough for undertaking an arduous task of writing a great epic, he subjects himself to severe self-analysis, makes a thorough investigation of his mind; and the result seems to him to be much encouraging. Wordsworth finds that he has all the necessary equipment for achieving such a grand purpose. He does not lack either the very important primary gift, creative or organic sensibility or the power to understand universal truths, which are themselves helping agents and mediators of the living soul. He is also quite aware of external resources like forms, images and so many other aids of lesser importance. These are also quite essential for a poet to leave behind everlasting fame and glory. Then the poet is in quest of a suitable theme and suitable setting in time and place for his great work. They are, no doubt available in abundance, but none of them seems to be striking enough for a sure choice. Next, the poet mentions some subjects which were considered by him as suitable for a great epic. First of all his mind turns to ‘some old romantic tale by Milton left unsung.’ It may be noted here that Milton in his Latin poem Martsus, expressed a keen desire “to recall in song the things of my native land and Arthur, who carried war even into fairy land.” In a manuscript of Milton at Cambridge, we also find a list of nearly a hundred possible subjects. But all these were left unsung by Milton. This also signifies that Wordsworth’s first ambition is to emulate Milton whom he considered to be his ideal. Next, we find the poet mentioning various other subjects to which his mind turns from time to time. They are Chivalry and war-like deeds of medieval knights, the noble and brave exploits of grent heroes like Mithridates, Odin, Sertorious, Dominique de Gourgues, (“That one Frenchman”), Gustavus, a great far-famed Scottish hero Wallace. It may be noted here that it was his reading of Plutarch and Gibbon that attracted him to these noble themes. Sometimes he feels that it would suit him better to find a story from his own mind, much more closely related to his intense feelings and habitual thinking. But the thin and vague structure of such a story soon fades away from his mind. So the poet is not at all satisfied with any of the above themes. Finally, a passionate desire arises in his soul to write a philosophic poem dealing with some universal truth which gives strength and sustenance to our day-to-day life. This lofty poem should be sublime and highly melodious like the music of Orpheus playing on his lyre. Orpheus was the great musician in Greek mythology. It is said that when Orpheus played on his lyre, trees began to dance to the tune. Even Pluto, the god of Hades, was charmed by his music and set free his wife Eurydice. But very soon the poet recoils from such an arduous task. He seeks consolations from the fond hope that advancing years will endow him with maturer power of thinking and clearer insight to compose such a great poem. The poet is hesitant to make a choice. This may be due to his lack of confidence, or to his desire to be very wise and cautious. Thus he becomes a prey to contradictory thoughts and desires. Next he feels that instead of suffering from all this mental conflict it would be far better for him to roam about over the green fields and village pathways deriving only sensuous pleasure from the signs and sounds of nature with an uncensored indifference to all serious thoughts and subjects. The poet also regrets that in this way he finds himself going towards the grave without performing any useful or noble deed, just like an unfaithful manager of an estate who has received a lot from his master but has not rendered any real service to him in return. Here is an echo from one of the famous sonnets of Milton.

Transition to Other Incidents

      Up to this point (Line. 1 to 269) in this Book Wordsworth has related events which took place after the autobiographical incidents of his childhood days and of school time contained in the subsequent part of this poem (Line. 207-612); and the transition to autobiographical incidents and recollections of various experiences of childhood days which contributed to the growth and development of the poet’s mind has been done with wonderful ease and naturalness. All his mental conflicts and contradictions and his incapability to undertake the great task of composing an exalted poem on a noble theme sends the poet’s mind back to those childhood days which he passed in harmony beside River Derwent.

Appeal to River Derwent

      Thus at this point we find the poet addressing the Derwent with deep emotion and requesting her to tell him if her sweet and soft murmur with all its lovely surroundings which soothed and comforted with all serenity and gentleness, a child who at an advanced stage of his life gave way to dejection and distracted condition of mind just to shirk away from the noble vocation of his life. Even as a child of five the poet learned to love the bright and blue Derwent moving smooth by the side of their terrace walk as a ‘tempting playmate.’ As a child of five he came in close contact with nature at Cockermouth, his birthplace, and subsequently at Hawkshead in the valley of Esthwaite where his family shifted when he was a boy of nearly ten. At Cockermouth, he bathed and dived in the River Derwent for long spells or at other times ran about swiftly in the sandy fields ‘leaping through lovely groves of yellow rampart’. Sometimes he used to stand alone under the blue dome amidst the soft lovely surroundings and felt himself to be a Red Indian boy who had run out from his mother’s hut in a playful mood. At Hawkshead, the poet and his companions had a greater freedom to take part in a variety of games. We come to know from the poet that before he was even ten how he used to catch woodcocks over the high hill sides under the light of the moon and also how he would sometimes catch hold of a bird which was trapped in the snare of some other person. But after the commission of such an unfair deed the poet with his guilty conscience felt that someone with low breathing was dogging his footsteps and would hear “low breathings coming after me and sounds of undistinguished motion...”

Bird Nesting

      The next favorite sport of the poet was looking for bird nests. He tells us how they used to move about just like robbers in quest of high places just to rob birds nests of their eggs. And sometimes he hung alone above the nest of a raven at a high altitude in a very precarious position. At such time he used to be overwhelmed with a mysterious awe by the strange sound of the dry wind and the unearthly appearance of the sky itself and the dark and gloomy clouds above.

Philosophy of Nature and Man

      The poet has already told us how from his very childhood, amidst a very lovely and favorable environment, he was nursed and brought up by the various ministries of Nature with the help of her delightful as well as awe-inspiring sights and sounds —

Fostered alike by beauty and fear.

      Next, we find a few lines which are partly philosophical and partly psychological. Such thoughtful lines - not only in The Prelude but in many other famous poems such as Tintern Abbey, Immortality Ode and others lucidly reveal the poet’s philosophy of Nature and Man, and go a long way to establish his claim to be a philosophical poet.

      Here Wordsworth tells us that human beings may be made of dust, but our immortal soul develops as the melody of music harmonising different elements. Nature possesses a mysterious kind of skill and power that can harmonize discordant elements in our nature and thus bring them together in one harmonious combination. Then he expresses his deep concern of thankfulness to nature for all the means- sometimes pleasant and sometimes awful-employed by her for the healthy growth and development of his mind and soul. He has all praise for nature for the ultimate peace and serenity of his soul attained by him at a later date due to all the beneficial influences exerted on him by her during the early formative period of his life.

      As regards the discipline of pain and fear, Wordsworth might have been influenced to a great extent by the eighteenth-century philosopher David Hartley and his theory of association. Hartley and other empiricist philosophers laid great stress on the early background and environment and expressed the view that the character of a man develops during childhood and youth as a direct result of his physical experiences and the feelings of pleasure and pain from such experiences. And we find Wordsworth sharing their view in The Prelude to a great extent. But as regards the workings of the sub-conscious mind he went much further and his ideas seem to be much nearer in the modern psychological theories.

Boating Episode

       Next, we get one of the most celebrated passages from Wordsworth’s sensitive pen. It contains the famous boating episode:

It was an act of stealth
And troubled pleasure.

      And when the stolen boat started moving over the smooth 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. To the poet it seemed that it was an awful and a strange living being with a will and power of its own and was following him with regular footsteps with some fixed purpose. With a trembling heart the child was back at the mooring place and went homeward with a pensive mood. But afterward, for a long period, the poet’s mind was hunted during the day as well as at night by huge and powerful forms and shapes, whose mode of life is mysterious and beyond the knowledge of human beings.

      This boating incident is one of the finest illustrations of how the poet’s soul was fostered by Nature’s ministry of fear. It may also be noted here that even at this stage Wordsworth had the belief that the different objects of nature were animated by individual spirits with whom he could hold discourses. This is rather Greek paganism, which ultimately gave way to pantheism, that conceives of Nature as the expression of one divine spirit, to a belief in the essential oneness of all.

The Poet’s Nature-religion

      Next we get the poet’s comments on the fellowship that existed between him and the different objects of nature even in those early days of his life. The poet once more expresses his gratefulness to the Wisdom and Spirit of the universe’ that, from the very earliest days of his childhood, took upon itself the task of shaping an intimate relationship between his human feelings and passions and everlasting things of nature. It was through such communication that Wordsworth was inspired with exalted thoughts and passions and was ultimately able to recognize a loftiness, a grandeur even in the throbbing of the human heart. The poet could have such silent intercourse with Nature amidst all the lovely sights and sounds at any time of the day or night and all through the changing seasons of the year. This remarkable passage also offers a very lucid exposition of Wordsworth’s Nature-religion.

Skating on Ice

      The next joyful experience recalled by the poet is the exciting game of skating on the ice in the company of other young friends. The ringing sounds of their moving skates would be echoed by the leafless trees and the surrounding hills. From the noise and excitement of even such collective games the poet sometimes tore himself away from his companions to chase alone the fleeting reflection of a star before him or stand and watch the earth and rocks turning round and round when they had stopped their playful whirling movements on the smooth surface of the ice. This phenomenon also aroused a sense of awe in the poet’s heart and he felt the presence of some superior power that imparted to them their motion.

Influence of Nature Disciplines the Mind

      After this we find the poet solemnly addressing the “Presences of Nature in the sky and on the earth....” and souls of lovely plates are telling us that it was surely some noble hope that actuated these Presences these ‘Souls of lonely places’ to train discipline his powers and passions and this was done through the ministry of fear and pleasure in the midst of his boyhood games, in the caves, in the hills or in the woods. Nature imparted characteristics of either love or fear to all Such objects. This passage also bears testimony to Wordsworth’s paganism in his early days.

Emotions Recollected in Tranquility

       Next, the poet tells us that the recollection of the lovely natural surroundings in which they played their various games can never go away from his mind. For them it was the most beautiful valley under the sun. Even at this advanced stage of life, the poet can recapture the same ecstatic feelings at the sight of the bowers of hazel trees with snowy-white bunches of flowers or that of the paper-kite among the clouds tugging at the string like a spirited horse which is pulling hard at its reins and sometimes plunging downwards all of a sudden, overpowered by the stormy wind. The magic-like enchantment of the fishing-rod and line is also unforgettable. We may note here that according to the poet: “Poetry takes its origin from emotions recollected in tranquility.”

      It is also beyond the poet to forget those lovely and ‘lowly cottages’ where they used to pursue their home-amusements or to play their innocent boyish games like Loo or Whist with shabby and soiled pack of cards. The poet’s sensitive mind can still remember how their eager game of cards was disturbed from time to time by the prolonged yelling sound from hills and meadows, sounds that could be compared with the howling of the wolves in groups along the gulf of Bothnia.

Joys of Subtler Origin

      So far the poet has told us about joys whose source was eternal, that is, deriving pleasure from the sensuous beauty of nature. This joy, no doubt, filled his heart with grand and beautiful images of this earth and ultimately made him love them all. We may find here also links with Hartley’s associationism that tells us that moral character of a man develops during the early part of life as a direct result of man’s physical experiences and the pleasure and pain they cause. Now the poet tells us of joys of subtler origin experienced by him in those early days. During passionate and most active period of his boyhood days those ecstatic sensuous pleasures were so simple and so pure that they seemed to have a more refined or a spiritual source. Often he experienced a calm and serene pleasure which must belong to those early sympathies of inborn instincts and impulses that make the child’s new-found existence harmonize with the existing earthly things of life. The poet remembers that even at the age of ten he could be in spiritual communion, though unconsciously, with the Eternal Beauty of the universe and at the same time derive a pure sensuous pleasure from the glorious objects of nature. Thus, the poet often stood for long, gazing at the vast expense of the sea gleaming and glistening under the light of the rising moon and felt like sucking in beauty and pleasure from the minutest part of that glorious sight as a bee sucks in honey from the heart of flowers.

Recollections of a Divine Origin

      Thus, very often even in the midst of those fits of sensuous pleasures and rapturous delight, the poet beheld flashes of momentary visions of divine beauty and the earth seemed to communicate to him things worth remembering that it reminded the poet of this divine origin and of the visions of the divine life that he had, prior to his earthly life. All these sights and scenes could not inspire or elevate his soul at that time and were likely to remain hidden in the sub-conscious. The poet expects to recollect them at a later date when his mental powers would be quite mature; and then they would exalt and inspire his soul. Those scenes remained firmly impressed on his mind with all their essential features and were quite visible to his mind’s eye. In this way through the solemn ministry of pleasure and pain, through the force of dimly recollected emotions and feelings, those enchanting and sublime scenes became dear to him as a matter of habit and they became closely connected by some invisible bond with his primary affections and impulses; and thus his enjoyment of nature became instinctive. Of course, the time for realizing their profound significance was reserved for a distant date.

Appeal to Coleridge to Understand and Sympathise

      At the end Wordsworth once more addresses Coleridge and talks to him rather in a apologetic mood. The poet craves his forgiveness if he has been misled by his mistaken or fond love for those days of childhood or has narrated his story in a dull or feeble manner He earnestly hopes that recollection of his childhood days may refresh his thoughts and restore the balance of his unsteady mind. The poet once more begs to be pardoned even if all such hopes prove futile, and still he is unable to give up his thoughts about those happy memories of childhood that possess the enchantment of a dream.

Reason for Selecting the Present Scheme

      Finally, in his concluding remarks the poet says that he has, at least, succeeded in achieving one important object. His mind has been refreshed and rejuvenated. And if this genial mood persists he will be able to narrate the story of the later years of his life in the subsequent Books of The Prelude at an early date. The path lies clear before him as he has chosen a simple theme ‘of determined bounds’. The poet has selected this theme for the present as he feels that, a work ‘Of ampler and more varied arguments’ may embarrass and baffle him. That is why he gives up the idea of beginning his great and highly ambitious epic-like work—The Recluse for the present. The poet closes by expressing a hope that, this humble labor on his part will, definitely, be welcome to his honored friends.

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