The Prelude: is An Epic Poem

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A Renovated Spirit for Holy Services

      Just after the preamble of the first Book of The Prelude we find Wordsworth telling his dear friend Coleridge, ‘the guiding angel of his poetic genius’, that he felt himself, a renovated spirit singled out. And while taking rest in the stillness of sheltered grove on his way from Bristol to Race-down he felt as if:

.....a higher power
Than fancy gave assurance of some work
Of glory there forthwith to be begun
Perhaps too there performed.

      Again, in lines 229-30 we find that the greatest ambition of his life is to compose some:

.....immortal verse
Thoughtfully fitted to the orphean lyre.

Doubts and Diffidence and so The Prelude

      This ‘immortal verse’ was to be his highly cherished philosophic poem, The Recluse. And it was Coleridge who. constantly encouraged him to undertake this ambitious and arduous task. But the poet is diffident of his powers and recoils from such an arduous task. He seeks consolation from the hope that advancing years will endow him with maturer power of thinking and clearer insight to undertake and accomplish the major work of his life. Ultimately, all his mental conflicts and contradictions and his incapability 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 amidst the most lovely sights and sounds of Nature that molded his mind and manners from his very days of infancy. So to prepare himself for the major work of his life i.e. The Recluse, Wordsworth made up his mind to compose a minor poem, The Prelude, depicting the growth of a poet’s mind. In his preface to the first edition of The Excursion in 1814, Wordsworth made the following remarks:

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, he may so express himself; as the ante-chapel has to a Gothic Church.....

      All that we have said so far and the poet’s words quoted above clearly point out ‘that The Prelude derives its energy and inspiration, its dignity and its religious aura, for that larger epic mission toward which it was to lead’.

      But the irony of the situation is that the Gothic church of the poet’s dream was never to be completed and this preparatory poem, his portico to The Recluse grew in the poet’s hand into one of the noblest poems of English literature with its fourteen Book’s—with its grand epic stature and significance. That is why Oliver Elton observes in his A Survey of English Literature: “The Prelude is laid out not unlike an epic, with episode and vicissitudes and a climax, in fourteen books. It is skilfully ordered for its purpose, for it begins at the end. The poet at the age of twenty-nine, is now safe in heaven, and relates long past voyage of the soul and imagination.”

Important Features of Epic Poems

      Now let us take up some of the important features of epic poems. We know that The Iliad and The Odyssey by Homer are the shining examples of this genre in European literature. We can have a clear idea about the main features and characteristics of an epic from these two great books. An epic is a long tale in verse. Great national heroes are generally its principal characters whose daring exploits and well-known adventures are narrated in lofty verse. There may be a number of digressions and different episodes, but the unity is maintained as the central figure of the hero always stands supreme. And the gods are always there to protect the heroes in great moments of crisis; so supernatural elements have often important roles to play. And then as the action and exploits of the hero are noble and sublime, so the diction and style of the epic must be sublime and dignified.

Epic of one Man’s Personal History

      Before going into details let us take up another important point. We know that 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. It was Milton who first widened the nature and scope of the subject of the epic poem. He 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’; and the following lines well clarify it:

Sometimes it suits me heller to invent
A tale from my own heart, more near akin,
To my passion and habitual thoughts.

Mind of the Poet—The Real Hero

      A critical and close observation will clearly reveal that in theme, style and structure it has close resemblance with an epic poem. Of course, the theme here may be said to be the loss of the paradise of the childhood and then in the encl to regain that blessed stage through highly developed power of imagination and mystic experiences of inexplicable delight through contacts with sublime and beautiful aspects of nature. So in this modern epic, we may say that the mind of the poet is the real hero. And we get these illuminating remarks from Herbert Read on this point: “The Prelude has a large measure of poetic unity because it has a single hero—the poet himself.”

Long Poem—The Conflict is Spiritual

      Like an epic, The Prelude is also a very long poem. It has as many as fourteen books depicting the voyage of discovery of a noble mind and soul. There is conflict also but the conflict is internal—it is spiritual conflict.


      There is also epic variety and digressions and they include the interesting incidents of bird-nesting, bird-snaring, adventure with a stolen boat, horse-riding, boating in the Lake etc.

Supernatural Elements

      In a way the supernatural elements have been replaced in this poem by the mystic experiences of the poet in such lines as:

Ye Presence of Nature, in the sky,
And on the earth; Ye Visions of the hills;
And souls of lonely places;

      But it must be admitted that the mode of using the supernatural machinery in the ancient epics is conspicuous by its absence in this - poem. Still the idea of growing up ‘Fostered alike by beauty and by fear’ and contemplating with awe that a towering peak:

.....With purpose of its own
And measured motion like a living thing,
Strode after me.

      Illustrate the supernatural elements in the poem in a powerful way.

Diction and Style

      As regards diction and style, The Prelude is really a sublime and dignified poem. The very preamble of Book I reminds us of Miltonic style and the long poem is full of lofty utterances in Miltonic blank verse. And there is no dearth of Homeric similes like:

.....stood alone
Beneath the sky, as if I had been born
On Indian plains, and from my mother’s hut
Had run abroad in wantonness, to sport
A naked sewage, in the thunder shower.

The Prelude: Is it an Epic?

      ‘The Prelude is something unique in the literature of the world because it combines the epic power and range of poems like The Divine Comedy, Paradise Lost with the introspective voice of the writer himself, remarks Wery Gardiner. Every poet is a man of feeling; and Wordsworth was of that category. He intended this long poem to be a revelation of how his mind grew under the influence primarily of Nature than of friends and books. His childhood, his boyhood and his bright youth have been poetically described in The Prelude. That The Prelude is an autobiographical poem is not doubted. Here, with his mind naked, does Wordsworth stand before us. With hungry heart he runs to the hills, the solitary abode of communicating with nature, he views stares and moon with joyful eyes. He avoids company in order to be alone in the midst of nature, his guide, educator and comforter. The Prelude describes all these. The Poem furnishes us with such proof from the poet’s pen. But our query is, is the form of the poem epical?

Wordsworth, the Hero of The Prelude

      With a man ‘like Wordsworth, who had dedicated himself to his art and to the leadership of men to the highest level he could reach, The Prelude became an epic of which Wordsworth was the hero. The poet knew that for a poet to talk so much about himself might lay him open to a charge of conceit; but he was perfectly aware also that self-examination of this kind, in sincerity and humility, can reveal to humanity the whole picture of its own glory and despair. But those who have read The Prelude know there is no trace of vanity in it nor the least suspicion of the exhibitionism. Selincourt states: Those who regard the mind of Wordsworth as both great in itself essentially representative of the highest, the imaginative type of mind well recognize its adventures as a fit theme for epic treatment. C.H. Herford refers to the elements of epic greatness in an epic of which Wordsworth himself was hero.

Unity of Design and Epic Structure

      “As it stands The Prelude has not merely a unity of design”, says Selincourt, “it has something of epic structure.” ‘Unity of design’ lies in the single theme, the mind of Wordsworth and its gradual development. The poem opens with an outburst of joy that after years of anxiety, the poet is at last free to devote his life to its true vocation, the last word of personal concern records his gratitude for the gift which brought him that freedom. Within this frame, he places the history of his life from the seed time of infancy to those days, when he was first fully conscious that his genius was bearing fruit. The Prelude is something vast. Its fourteen books (from the point of view of it size) have an overwhelming effect on the minds of readers. The poet has journeyed within his own self.

Short Analysis of the Poem

      “Books I-IV lead through an account of his early life to the first great climax to his poetic consecration after which there is a sense of the narrative, while he reviews his life’s history and carries it down to the moment before the second great climax, the awakening of his passionate interest in man (Book IX). But before this, the narrative pauses once more, whilst in Book VIII, he gives a philosophic retrospect of his whole period of preparation. Book X leads up to and records the catastrophe—the destruction of his hopes for man in so far as they were identified with the French Revolution, and his consequent despair of the mind. Books XI-XII give the reconciliation, his recovery from despair, the rebuilding of his hopes for man upon a sounder basis and as a consequence into poetic heritage. Thus it is the one figure of Wordsworth that remains visible throughout this length of the poem.

Nature of the Epic Subject

      Wordsworth was in evident agreement with Milton on the true nature of the epic subject. Both of them repudiated military exploits, ‘hitherto the only argument heroic indeed, in the desire to bring within its confines a more spiritual conflict.’ From lines 170-219 of Book 1, Wordsworth narrates the list of military subjects for his great poem. But ultimately he chooses for himself his life. The subjects of their epics prove that they raised the subjects of epic poetry. They have lent a new color to epic as far as its subject is concerned. Nature and its relation to Man is a noble theme for an epic poet.

Sense of Wonder and Supernatural in The Prelude

      The sense of wonder and the supernatural, typical of every epic, are also present in The Prelude. For the entire atmosphere of the poem is one of freshness and experience remembered by a great poet thinking about his past. He describes in an almost spiritual strain, the visionary experience of his boyhood as when he stole the boat and saw a hill coming after him or when he intruded the bird’s nest.

I heard among the solitary hill
Low breathings coming after me and sounds
Of indistinguishable motion, steps
Almost as silent as the turf they trod
(Book I; Lines 329-332).

      What can be more full of wonder than talk to nature and hear her talk in a language which others cannot follow. And in the fourth Book there is that most, famous passage of his poetic ordination:

My heart was full, 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...
(Book IV: Lines 341-344)

Miltonic Tone of The Prelude

      The Prelude bears a distinctly Miltonic tone. Wordsworth’s style is sublime as it should be in an epic poem. It was Wordsworth’s avowed ambition to be the Milton of his age; nor as Keats recognized, was that ambition ill-founded. But Wordsworth himself was probably unconscious of the fact that his style had a strong Miltonic element which only goes to prove how completely he had absorbed his master. “Wordsworth is indisputably the most sublime of our poets since Milton,” remarks Bradley and refers to the “grandeur, austerity, sublimity” of Wordsworth’s poetry. The Prelude is a unique specimen of his poetic “grandeur” “austerity” and “sublimity”. Nothing is sublime unless it transports. Note the uplifting power of the following passage:

“for there’s not a man
That lives whose path not known his godlike hours,
And feels not what an empire we merit
As natural beings in the strength of Nature,
(Book III; Lines 190-193)

      In Book XII, (Lines: 300-312), Wordsworth addresses his friend:

If thou partake the animating faith
The poets, even as prophets, each with each
Connected in a mighty scheme of truth.
Have each his own peculiar faculty,
Heaven’s gift; a sense that fits him to perceive
Objects unseen before, thou will not blame
The humblest of this hand who dares to hope
That unto him hath also been vouchsafed.
An insight that in some sort he possesses
A privilege whereby a work of his,
Proceeding from a source of untaught things,
Creative and enduring may become
A power like one of Nature’s.

      It is a noble thought, nobly uttered by a noble person. Mark the grandeur of the passage given below:

.....yet, hail to you
Moors, mountains, headlands and ye hollow vales,
Ye long deep channels for the Atlantic’s voice,
Power of my native region; yet that seize
The heart with firmer grasp; your snows and streams
Ungovernable, and your terrifying winds
That howl so dismally for him who treads
Companionless your awful solitudes;
(Book VIII: Lines 215-222)

      Such passages are flower-beds with which the poetic garden of The Prelude is made beautiful. In Book I (Lines: 528-531) Wordsworth addresses the eternal spirit as the great creative intelligence who informs the entire universe:

Wisdom and spirit of the Universe:
Thou soul that art the eternity of thought
That gives to forms and images a breath
And everlasting motion.

      Abercrombie calls The Prelude “one of greatest poems in English language—grand in scale, grand in subject, grand in execution.”

Wordsworth’s Success in The Prelude

      Wordsworth has succeeded in his aim in The Prelude. Compared with Milton’s epic, Wordsworth is in fact more human though less grand, more humble: and though, it is at places difficult and dull, it is more intimate, more friendly, more human. Dr. Johnson’s criticism that Paradise Lost lacks in human interest cannot hold good with regard to The Prelude. In contemplation, it is as formidable as Paradise Lost. It is a unique example of its kind; Wordsworth has made more of a long confessional poem than anyone else. Without The Prelude, the English language would lack its capital example of new and impressive order of poetic architecture, observes a critic.

      “The Tale thus unfolded at length”, observes Herford, “is very unlike that which the ordinary public, up to and beyond the close of his life, imagined to have been his.” It is the life story of no meditative dreamer, of no ‘Recluse’ even, though this was the goal which he sought through the troubled vicissitude of his first thirty years. Wordsworth in fact imposed, however unintentionally, a misleading and mischievous legend about himself upon the English world, even upon his most loyal and
devoted followers, when he refused to publish The Prelude until after his death. By keeping back The Prelude as Ker has justly said “Wordsworth made The Excursion his most authoritative work regarding his own temper and ideas. The Prelude is a story of life and will, not merely of meditations and theories. The purpose of the book is to show that his reflections spring from what is alive. Wordsworth’s life comes out as a life of pure energy from the beginning, wakeful, alert, self-willed”.

The Prelude is the Modern Epic

      The theme of the poem The Growth of a Poet’s Mind is exhibited in a narrative form. It is much more than autobiography. It is a story of universal significance, of which Wordsworth’s own unique experiences offered as the type. It is the story of the mind greatly conscious of its own enigma, gradually establishing its secure relationship with a world equally enigmatic. The two enigmas indeed, remain; but we understand that they are bound together in one inevitable destiny of companionship. The nature of each reflects the nature of the other. Each calls to other, and has its answer. This is the modern epic; this is the heroic strain today, the grand theme of man’s latter experience; and grandly The Prelude, its first enunciation, declares it. Like the Hiad, the Aeneid the Divine Comedy, Paradise Lost—The Prelude inaugurates an epoch in poetry with ‘things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme’. Like those other inaugural poems, it is not only conscious because it is the first to be so inspired, but because this very priority carries with it a sort of pioneering energy which shows itself in a new splendor of art. (L. Abercrombie)


      Now, all told and said we cannot fully assert that The Prelude has all the essential features of an epic. Thus says Herbert Lindenberger on this point: “If the modern readers are reluctant to award the laurels of epic poet to Wordsworth, it is not only that they are indifferent to the high claims of the genre, but perhaps also that The Prelude is deficient in that aspect of the “epic spirit” which E.M.W. Tillyard, in his admirable book on the English Epic, calls the “choric element” that we associate with epic: the feeling that “behind the epic author is a big multitude of men of whose most serious convictions and dear habits he is the mouthpiece.”

Critical Opinions

      (i) On the subject of this poem, Selincourt remarks: “Wordsworth was in evident agreement with Milton on the true nature of the epic subject. Both of them repudiated military exploits, hitherto the only argument heroic deemed in the desire to bring within its confines a more spiritual conflict. Only the pedant will dissent from their conception; and those who regard the mind of Wordsworth as both great in itself and essentially representative of the highest, the imaginative type of mind, will recognize its adventures as a fit theme of epic treatment”. Wordsworth himself was humbler in his comments on The Prelude, He admitted, indeed, that it was a thing unprecedented in literary history, that a man should talk so much about himself. ‘It is not self-conceit’, he wrote, ‘that has induced me to do this, but real humility. I began the work because I was unprepared to treat any more arduous subject, and diffident of my own powers. Here, at least, I hoped that to a certain degree, I should be sure of succeeding, as I had nothing to do but describe what I had felt and thought; therefore could not easily be bewildered. This might certainly have been done in narrower compass but as a man of more address I have done my best.”

      (ii) Elton remarks: “It is skillfully ordered for its purpose, for it begins at the end; the poet, at the age of twenty-nine, is now safe in heaven, and relates his long past voyage of the soul and imagination. And he ends with the dreams and consolations which had dawned upon his childhood, which had been deadened or clouded, but which have at last come back to him, ratified by experience, for good and all. The poem thus goes a kind of circuit. It opens with an outburst of joy that after years of anxiety, the poet is at last free to devote his life to its true vocation; its last word of personal concern’ records his gratitude for the gift which brought him that freedom. Within this frame he places the history of his life from the seedtime of infancy to those days when chanting alternate songs with Coleridge as they roamed the Quantock hills together, he was first fully conscious that his genius was bearing fruit.”

      (iii) Herford has pointed out one flaw in the epic structure of this poem. He says; “A poet who was consciously bent on composing epic, and not on relating the growth of his mind, would not have interposed those somewhat disconcerting pauses—the Book on his boyish reading, Book VIII a ‘retrospect’ of what was already told: nor would he have allowed the sixth Book (Residence in London) to be left so ‘unstitched,’ as, through mere fidelity to recollection, it remains. But interest and structural power return with the ninth Book,’

University Questions

1. Is it correct to describe The Prelude as an epic poem? Give reasons for your answer.
2. “The Prelude has a large measure of poetic unity because it has a single hero—the poet himself ... The unity is epical and not philosophical”. (Herbert Read) Elucidate.

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