The Prelude: by William Wordsworth - Critical Analysis

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      No one would probably like to dispute the authentic assertion by Helen Darbishire that the finest fruit of Wordsworth’s great creative period is the poem published after his death in 1850 under the title of The Prelude. But the irony of the situation is that to the great poet-priest of Nature, it was a minor piece of poetical work and he could in all probability never dream during his lifetime that in this portico to his Gothic Church, to his cherished monument—The Recluse, what a monumental work he was leaving for the posterity. Indeed, he did not think it to be worthy enough to have a separate title. He simply meant it to be just a ‘preparatory poem’, only an ante-chapel to the body of a Gothic Church. Alas! the Gothic Church of his dream was never to be completed and the magnificent portico or the ante-chapel still stands supreme, towering over so many small or great works of art, to be admired and appreciated by generations to come.

      It won’t be out of place if a comparison is drawn between Wordsworth’s The Prelude and the grand temple-gates or Gopurams of the famous temples of South India Temples like those of the Natarajan at Chidambaram and of the Meenakshi at Madurai. Every temple has its tall, towering Gopurams with its fine artistic carvings, skillful workmanship and the grand architectural accomplishment. From a distance, people often mistake it for the main temple but when they enter the premises, to their utter surprise they find the temple by itself paling into insignificance by the side of the magnificent Gopurams. Same is the case with The Prelude; the Gothic structure of Wordsworth could never be raised to that undreamt of heights, but The Prelude stands supreme and still remains as ‘the most vital work of Wordsworth’s genius’.

      To clarify the point most of the famous critics like de Selincourt, Garrod or Darbishire have amply quoted from the poet’s Preface to the first edition of The Excursion in 1814.

Chronology and Composition of The Prelude

      From the advertisement to the first edition of The Prelude in 1850 we come to know that the poem was commenced in the beginning of the year 1799 and completed in the summer of 1805. But some recent commentators like Thomas Hutchinson, Harper and especially Garrod after painstaking researches have established that the preamble to Book I (Lines 1-45) was in all probability composed in 1795 on his way from Bristol to Race-down. It has also been established that the first tentative draft of Book I of The Prelude was made in the winter of 1798-99, when he was in Germany and probably Book I and II were finished by October, 1800. Then, for some reason or other the poem was laid aside till January, 1804. It was taken up in right earnest and was completed towards the end of May, 1805. In his letter to Sir G. Beaumont on 3rd June of the same year, the poet writes:

I have the pleasure to say that I finished my poem about a fortnight ago. I had looked forward to the day as a most happy one; and I was indeed grateful to God for giving me life to complete the work such as it is.....I ought to add that I have the satisfaction of finding the present poem not quite of so alarming a length as I apprehended.

      From Wordsworth’s own statement it has been quite clear that this was to be the preparatory poem and was also to be biographical. So no separate title was given to it by him. And the title—The Prelude—under which it was published in 1850 was chosen by his wife, Mary Wordsworth. In fact, Wordsworth never intended to get it published during his life time. The poet would call it the ‘poem on his own early life’ and to Dorothy, it was the ‘poem to Coleridge’. To Coleridge, it was nothing but a part of The Recluse, a great philosophical poem that was to be the monumental work of the life of the poet. On the 8th March, 1798 Coleridge wrote to Cottle:

‘He (Wordsworth) has written more than 1200 lines of a blank verse superior, I hesitate not to aver, to anything our language which any way resembles it. Poole thinks of it as likely to benefit mankind, much more than anything Wordsworth has yet written.’

      It may be concluded now that ‘the guardian angel of Wordsworth’s poetical genius’, Coleridge, both guided and inspired the poet to compose —

.....some philosophic song
Of truth that cherished our daily life;
With meditations, passionate deep
Recesses into man’s heart, immortal verse
Thoughtfully fitted to the Orphean lyre;

      So, before undertaking the arduous task of composing his great ‘philosophic song’, the poet began with ‘the preparatory poem’—The Prelude; and the poem was dedicated to his dear friend, Coleridge, ‘most distinguished for his knowledge and genius’. Wordsworth must be beginning to realise that a poem on his own early developments might make a valuable introduction to his subsequent master-work, The Recluse, when in keeping with the aspiration of Coleridge was ‘to deliver upon authority a system of philosophy’ after assuming the station of man in repose, one whose principles were made up’. But fortunately, Wordsworth was a poet first and not a philosopher as the friend of his heart and genius liked him to be. So his lofty venture composing a philosophic song ended in a few hundred in as of The Excursion that was published in 1814. But the composition of The Prelude was brought to a close in 1805 with his duller object of a poem including his experience in France and bringing his story down to 1798, when he felt his genius ripe for expression. The following lines quoted from Helen Darbishire make the point crystal clear; “Wordsworth’s genius could not express itself in Coleridge’s terms; he could not write the true philosophical poem. Perhaps no poet can. At any rate he was right to follow his own bent. His poetic thought sprang out of the living body of his experience and could only be delivered through images and incidents and characters which belonged to the life of man and nature as he knew it: the autobiographic form of The Prelude fitted his genius”.

Purpose of The Prelude

      The purpose of the poem is twofold: first, a self-examination, to fathom and find out if he was indeed a real poet and if he was fit enough for composing a great poem that will stand the test of time; and secondly, ‘a self-expression, enfolding the expression of an age of renewed nobility and manners’:

May my life
Express the image of a better time,
More wise desires and simplest manners.

      This is also quite evident from the introductory lines of The Prelude and there the poet speaks of himself quite explicitly as—‘a renovated spirit singled out for holy services’. He also speaks of his verse as a ‘priestly robe’ with firm belief that he was—‘a renovated spirit singled out’. Garrod has very nicely explained the point in the following lines:

The purpose of The Prelude may, indeed, be said to be to search out, to seize and hold, 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 in virtue of which he is a ‘dedicated spirit.’

The Prelude: An Epic Poem

      It is quite known to us that Wordsworth had an epic mission. His highest ambition was to compose that great poem, The Recluse, which was to be the monumental work of his life. We also know that The Prelude was just to be the introduction to that great poem. But still, we must accept “that The Prelude derives it energy and inspiration its dignity and its religious aura from that larger epic mission toward which it was to lead. Then Milton was Wordsworth’s poet-hero and it was but natural for a ‘dedicated spirit, else sinning greatly’ to take his epic task with high seriousness. Milton wrote an epic about man’s moral rather than his military history and Wordsworth in turn claims to find heroic argument in man’s (and, indeed, in one man’s) personal history.”

A tale from my own heart, more near akin
To my own passion and habitual thoughts.

      A critical and close observation will reveal that in theme, style and structure it has close resemblance with an epic. Of course, the theme here in this poem is the loss of the paradise of the childhood, then to regain that blessed stage through highly developed power of imagination and mystic experience of inexplicable delight through contacts with sublime and beautiful aspects of Nature. A modern American critic has very finely summed it up in this way:

      “If we are ready to grant The Prelude the other three epic qualities which Tillyard distinguishes—high seriousness, sustained exercise of the will, and even amplitude and breadth, we are hard put to think of The Prelude, for all its declamatory movements, as a spokesman of its age; the egotistical sublime must be its very nature have rejected such demands.”

Autobiography or Poetical Autobiography

      It has always been a great headache for the critics and problem for the readers to treat the facts and incidents mentioned by Wordsworth in The Prelude as truly biographical. And critics and commentators have had to spend a lot of labor to find out the true facts from the different episodes of life mentioned in The Prelude. Now it would be better to note carefully at the very outset that Wordsworth himself has nowhere mentioned that The Prelude is a true and faithful account of his life. Let us quote again from the preface to The Excursion where the poet says of 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 mature for entering upon the arduous labor which he had proposed to himself. And the very sub-title of the poem—Growth of the Poet’s Mind—clearly points towards the same idea. It conducts the history of author’s mind- reveals the “Growth of a Poet’s Mind”. Of course, he has called his poem ‘biographical’, but still it is never that in a' straightforward and chronological way. Here events never follow each other in the order in which they happened and ‘the poem is shaped by a kind of internal logic of the growth of poet’s mind rather than by the sequence of external events’. As for example, we may take up one of the most moving passages in The Prelude. This is his account of how he waited impatiently for the horses, which were to take him home for Christmas holidays; and during this holiday his family was orphaned due to the unexpected death of his father. This ought to have occurred in Book I or II, but instead it has been recorded in Book XII. Again, we find that the actual biographical material begins from line 269 of Book I. We must understand that the poet has avoided the simple chronological arrangement in favor of one which would put stress on the essential importance of experiences and states of mind. To the poets, the subjective aspect is much more important than the objective aspect of the poem. Sometimes a trivial incident like hearing a wren sing in a deserted chapel has also its significant role in the development of poet’s personality and poetic vision. And very surprisingly the story of Annette Vallon, his French mistress, has never been mentioned by the poet throughout The Prelude. Again, the poet has devoted one entire book of The Prelude for the first year of his life at Cambridge; but he has just skipped over the remaining three years.

      It may, now, be safely concluded that The Prelude is not an autobiography in the usual sense, although it may, to a fairly good extent, be a source of information about the poet and a guide to the significant events in Wordsworth’s early life. Helen Darbishire has very rightly said: “In The Prelude Wordsworth gives a record - he will vouch for the truth of it - of that inner life out of which his poetry grew.” Hence we may without the least hesitation discard the idea of treating The Prelude as mere autobiography and accept it as a great poetically autobiographical poem without any reservation.

Revision of The Prelude by the Poet

      We are well aware of the fact that though completed in 1805, Wordsworth intended The Prelude as an introduction to The Recluse his great philosophical poem which he sketched in his Preface to The Excursion. We also know that The Prelude was not published during the life-time of the poet. When the poet realized that his ambitious project would never be completed, he went on revising the poem and made the most important revisions in 1828, 1832 and 1839. And the executors of Wordsworth published the final copy with all revisions and corrections in 1850.

      It was Professor de Selincourt who first published the 1805 version along with the 1850 version in his great edition of The Prelude. According to him, the 1850 version is better in many respects as weak phrases are strengthened and its whole texture is more closely knit. Prof. Garrod and Helen Darbishire have also taken pains to make detailed examination of the different texts. Miss Darbishire tells us that Wordsworth’s revisions generally follow a familiar course: “bald simplicity gives place to a more decorative, more conventional literary form. An innocent flat line, The day before the holidays began’, is lifted into ‘On the glad eve of those dear holidays.’ She has also pointed out many other alterations and revisions due to the change that came over the poet’s attitude and personal life in later years. We know that something went wrong between the two devoted friends in 1813 and as a result we find that a line like ‘though twins almost in genius and in mind’ is absolutely struck out in the revised text. Similarly, his earlier zeal and enthusiasm for the French Revolution have been toned down. Again due to his later conservative attitude, we find the poet making some modifications to please Christianity. Miss Darbishire has also taken a lot of pains to establish that there were also some deep vital changes touching what we should now call the psychology of the poem. And she tells us: “When his religious thought flowed into the channel of Anglican doctrine he had to retouch his autobiography, and incidentally tamper with its poetry, in the spirit of that doctrine”. Harper, the great biographer of Wordsworth, seems to hold, to a great extent, a similar view. But all told and said it would be better to accept the well-considered view of Prof. Garrod who is not convinced ‘... The Prelude was revised by Wordsworth after 1807 in such a fashion as to do detriment, in essential matters, to its original purity of outline”.

The Theme or Subject of “The Prelude”

      The very sub-title of this great poem, The Growth of a Poet’s Mind, makes it crystal clear at the very outset that The Prelude is not an autobiography from the pen of Wordsworth in the usual sense. “In The Prelude Wordsworth gives a record—and he will vouch for the truth of it—of that inner life out of which his poetry grew.” And the record starts from his very infant days when the poet field mute dialogues with his mother’s heart. So we find the poem dealing with three main experiences of the three important stages of his life—the childhood, the adolescence and the period of his adventures in France and telling us in the end about his Imagination and Taste, How Impaired and Restored’. But it does not follow a straightforward course, rather it meanders like a river. It is the full intense life which he lived through his senses as a child and youth that he first tries to recapture and record’. Wordsworth had abnormal powers to live intensely in the past; he could also revive and recreate it. And his main purpose in The Prelude was ‘to recall and quicken into permanent life those pregnant moments’. This is quite in keeping with his own theory of poetry - “Poetry takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility”. In many of his famous poems, Wordsworth mainly talks of himself, of his experiences, of his vision of life and of his thoughts and beliefs. Among them the Tintern Abbey, The Prelude, and the lofty Immortality Ode are of special significance. They are faithful records of his inner life and emotional experiences and so enable us to have a glimpse of the innermost recesses of the poet’s soul. In fact, what Tintern Abbey tells us in brief The Prelude reveals to us in detail. Both the poems present the changing pattern of the poet’s relationship with Nature and illustrate a perception which is central to all Wordsworth’s thought. In Tintern Abbey, the poet reviews the changes which have come about in his attitude to Nature and distinguish three major changes. And we find a corresponding pattern emerging in The Prelude also. In the first stage, the poet derived simple physical sensuous delight in Nature:

I held unconscious intercourse with beauty
Old as creation, drinking in a pure
Organic pleasure .... (LI. 563-65)

      In the second stage, he could have more mystical and spiritual pleasure from his close contacts with Nature:

Thence did I drink the visionary power:
And deem not profitless those fleeting moods
Of shadowy exultation. (II; 311-313)

      And finally, the love of Nature leads to the love of man and this change brings about a sober attitude: this time
Of dereliction and dismay, I yet
Despair not of our nature
.....and in thee,
For this uneasy heart of ours, I find
A never-failing principle of joy
And purest passion. (II, 440-50).

      Again, in The Prelude, specially in Books I and II we may find three stages in the process by which the mystical relationship is established between the poet and Nature. First, the poet becomes conscious of the creative activity of his mind as it operates on what it sees:

.....A plastic power
Abode within me; forming hand, at times
Rebellious, acting in a devisious mood;

      In the second stage the poet is aware of images within his mind, ‘as if they had passed through his senses, from an outer to an inner existence’:

Oft in these moments such a holy calm
Would overspread my soul, the bodily eyes
Were utterly forgotten and what I saw
Appeared, like something in myself, a dream,
A prospect in the mind (II: 348-52)

      And in the third stage there is absolute suspension of the life of senses, the poet experiences a deep mystical sense of delight and hears the self-same song of all the beings in this universe not with his physical ears but:

.....when the fleshy ear
O’er come by humblest prelude of that strain,
Forgot her Junctions, and slept undisturbed.

      This is an echo definitely from those inspiring lines of Tintern Abbey:

.....that serene and blessed mood,
In which the affections gently lead us on,
Until, the breath of this corporeal frame
And even the motion of our human blood
Almost suspended, we are laid asleep
In body, and become a living soul

      For a passage selected from The Prelude for publication in The Friend, De Quincey gave a very significant title: ‘Growth of Genius from the influence of natural objects on the imagination in Boyhood and early youth”. And in The Prelude, one of the greatest and loftiest; poems of English literature, Wordsworth offers us a history of his mental and spiritual growth—‘Growth of Genius from the influence of natural objects on the imagination.

Nature and Imagination in The Prelude

      In the foregoing paragraph, we have clearly stated that The Prelude is really a faithful record of growth of a genius from the influence of natural objects on the imagination... It is the history of The Making of a Poet; or we may call it the record of the growth and development of the power of imagination of a poet. So if the mind of our poet or his poetic personality is the hero, then we may rightly assert that Nature plays the grand second role in this great autobiographical epic from the pen of an ambitious soul, singled out for holy services. And her noble role is that of a benign mother. In that great poem Tintern Abbey, Wordsworth has already told us in a very lofty mood that Nature to him was:

The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse
The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul,
Of all my moral being.

      That is why Prof. Garrod has remarked: “But the author of The Prelude was born, one might think, of mountain or a river rather than of human parents.”

      And the true significance of Nature’s role becomes absolutely clear to us when we find from the very beginning to the end of The Prelude how the most lovely as well as the sublime and awe inspiring sights and sounds of nature exerted a tremendous influence on his sensitive soul and shaped and molded his mind, morals and poetic personality. We have also seen how his sense impressions ultimately led him to those ecstatic mystic experiences enabling him to see into the life of things and endowing him with creative vision. For Wordsworth, “The vision of senses melts and dissolves, but it melts into the revelation of permanent supersensual realities.”

      We should note that Nature is never inanimate to Wordsworth. For him Nature has personality, a life of its own. According to the poet, only Nature can reveal to us fundamental truths. It is not at all wise to have trust in human intellect as:

Our meddling intellect
His shapes the beauteous forms of things —
We murder to dissect,

      This is spiritualization of Nature. And herein lies the true originality of Wordsworth who considers Nature as, undoubtedly, original and unique. Prof. Bradley has rightly observed: “There have been greater poets than Wordsworth, but none more original. He saw new things or he saw things in a new way....”

      Then in Book VIII Wordsworth tells us how love of Nature leads to love of Man. The very title of this Book is: Love of Nature Leading to Love of Man. And in Book XIII we find how during his wandering on from day to day, he came across humble and rustic people, poor or unfortunate and sometimes even across cranks and idiots. An intense sympathy for such human beings would well up in his soul and he would realize the dignity of man as man. So the poet tells us:

Of these, said I shall be my song; of these,
If future years mature me for the task,
Will I record the praises, making verse
Deal boldly with substantial things; in truth
And sanctity of passion, speaking of these,
That justice may be done, obeisance paid
Where it is due.... (Book XIII: 232-238).

      And in his preface to Lyrical Ballads we get the same conviction from the poet; “Humble and rustic life was generally chosen, because, in that condition, the essential passions of the heart find a better soil in which they can attain their maturity, are less under restrain, and speak a plainer and more emphatic language...”

      But this is not all. To Wordsworth Nature is also an eternal source of peace, comfort and strength. And the sub-title of Books XII and XIII— Imagination and Taste, How Impaired and Restored—makes the point amply clear. The poet’s life had not all through been a bed of roses; it had also its strenuous periods of storm and stress, of trials and tribulations. The poet had lost his parents in his early life thereby becoming more or less, an orphaned child. He has told us about his dull and uninteresting period of submissive idleness at Cambridge in Book III and about his disgusting and strenuous existence in London in Book VII. And then in Books IX to XI we find how the poet’s lofty hopes and aspirations for the future of mankind in the beginning of the French Revolution were dashed to the ground at the terrible course of events that followed very soon. He was overwhelmed and probably faced the bitterest spiritual crisis in his life. His earnest attempt to tide over the crisis by deriving strength from Godwinism bore no fruit. And then came Mother Nature to his aid to bring infinite solace to his distressed and disappointed soul. At this point of spiritual crisis, Wordsworth once more turned to Mother Nature—The guide, the guardian of my heart and soul’—for recovery, for strength and solace. And in the last three books of The Prelude we find how his impaired imagination and taste was repaired and how this faith in Man and Nature was restored in the company of Coleridge and Dorothy amidst the most lovely and sublime natural surroundings of the Lake District with its ‘hundred hills’, its ‘trembling lake’, its ‘mountain solitudes’ its ‘orange sky of evening’ and with its lonely roads’ that were like ‘pen schools’. Hence we get these inspiring lines from the poet himself:

.....Behold me then
Once more in Nature's presence, thus restored
Or otherwise, and strengthened, once again
(With memory left of what had been escaped)
To habits of devoutest sympathy. (Book VII: 339-43).

And in the End All Gratulant

      Thus after tracing the growth of a poet’s mind through various stages of his life with all ups and downs, with its storms and stress, the optimistic mind of the poet feels elated as ‘this history is brought to its appointed close’. The poet is no longer a prey to his doubts and diffidence; he has fully regained his confidence in his own powers as a poet for ‘building up a work that, shall endure’. Hence he feels himself raised as if a bird on wings and his poems seems to him like the enchanting song of a lark:

.....and hence this song, which, like a lark
I have protracted, in the unwearied Heavens
Singing, and often with more plaintive voice
Attempered to the sorrows of the earth;
Yet centering all in love, and in the end
All gratulant if rightly understood.
(Book XIV: 382-87)


      The Prelude is an autobiographical poem and presents the growth of the poet’s mind as the sub-title indicates, as it passed through different stages. Though it was published after his death (1850), it had been planned and begun some time in 1799 and finish in 1805. It was addressed and dedicated to his friend Coleridge. It may be said that The Prelude is the most interesting and characteristic work of the poet. “This record of a growth of a poet’s mind,” says Morley, “told by the poet himself with all the sincerity of which he was capable, is never likely to be popular”. But its value as a human document is unquestionable, and this value is enhanced by the poet’s introspective power and his accurate delineation of details. The Prelude records the history of the poet’s inner life from his childhood up to the time when he settled down at Grasmere.

      The Prelude cannot claim a high place as a work of poetic art, though it is invaluable for its autobiographical interest. It has too many dull and even prosaic passages, and the narration is often interrupted by digressions. But there is real poetry, thrown in with careless abundance, and the long poem, divided into fourteen books has a certain measure of unity in spite of its digressions. The Prelude is indeed a remarkable poem, in that it is the poet’s own record of the growth of his mind. In spite of its occasional dullness, it is “in its whole effect unique in impressive power, as a picture of the advance of a serious spirit from childhood and school time, through close contact with stirring and enormous events, to that decisive stage when it has found the sources of its strength.”

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