The Prelude as A Spritual Autobiography

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      The Prelude is the longest, noblest and most fruitful illustration of the ‘spiritual frugality of Wordsworth and modern concept of autobiography, an anticipation has been shown by Linde Berger in his recent study of the poem. Here the aim is the preservation of the spirit of the past ‘for future restoration’ because the base of human greatness is childhood, which is father to manhood and, indeed, our days are bound together by the fibred piety, which the poet glances at in the remark that ‘feeling comes in aid of feeling and a diversity of strength attends us if once we have been great’. Such feelings of childhood, the great visionary experiences, are the spots of time to which human mind may return again and again to drink energy and new vitality, as it were, at an inexhaustible fountain. One is reminded of Eliot’s famous remark that it is the pattern which gives meaning to history and pattern is formed in a selective process of memory as reviewed by the eye of the present. The Prelude, thus, gives a pattern or meaningful organization of events and experiences, of pleasure and pain, of beauty and fear which have given significance to the whole process of living and growing or the evolution of the present out of the past. It is in this sense that The Prelude is an autobiographical poem. “The great discovery of the 18th century”, says George Poulet, “is to have conceived the prime moment of consciousness as a generative not only of other moments but also a self, which takes shape by and through the means of these very moments. In the Design and Truth of Autobiography (London 1970) Roy Pascal has observed: Wordsworth is the first autobiographer to realize that each man constructs out of his world a unique framework of meaningful events, and that the deepest purpose of autobiography is the account of life as a projection of the real self (personality) on the world.”

Preparatory Poem to be Biographical

      Let us begin by quoting our poet’s own words-relevant words from the 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 reasonable thing that he should take a review of his own mind and examine how far Nature and Education have 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 preparatory poem is biographical, 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....

      This ‘preparatory poem’ is The Prelude, and the words quoted above make it crystal clear that it is to be biographical as it is ‘to record, in verse, the origin and progress of his own powers’. It was Coleridge, ‘the guardian angel of Wordsworth’s poetical genius’, who guided and inspired the poet to compose—

.....some philosophic song
Of truth that cherished our daily life;

      This was to be his greatest poem—The Recluse, ‘a literary work that might live’. So before undertaking that arduous task of composing his great philosophic song the poet began with the preparatory poem— The Prelude, to serve more or less as a sort of portico to his Gothic Church (The Recluse). But the irony of the situation is that his lofty venture of composing a philosophic song ended in a few hundred lines of The Excursion that was published in 1814. Meanwhile, composition of The Prelude went on and was brought to a close in 1805 with his fuller project of a poem including his experience in France and bringing history down to 1798, when he felt his genius ripe for expression’. The fact is that Wordsworth was a poet first and not a philosopher as the friend of his heart and genius like him to be. Helen Darbishire has rightly said:

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 experience and could only be delivered through images, incidents and characters which belonged, to the life of man and nature as he knew it: the autobiographic farm of The Prelude fitted his genius.

Not an Autobiography in the Usual Sense

      At the very outset it must be clear to us that The Prelude is not an autobiography in the usual sense. Of course in the Preface to The Excursion the poet has told us that the preparatory poem is biographical’, but he has also clearly stated that it ‘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.’ So, it may be biographical, but still not so in a straightforward and chronological way. Here events never follow each other in the order in which they happened. The poet has discarded the simply chronological arrangement in favor of one which would just stress on the essential importance of certain experiences and states of mind. To the poet the subjective aspect is much more important than the objective aspect of the poem. So we must be clear in our mind that the subject is not ‘My Life’, but The Making of a Poet’, although Wordsworth has used the phrase ‘the story of my life’ at the end of Book I (Line 639). And Prof. Garrod has rightly said that “the purpose of The Prelude may, indeed, be said to be to search out and 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’.”

Poetic Inspiration on his Way to Race down

      Thus, in the very ‘Preamble’ of Book I we can, to a great extent, guess the shape of things to come. An unexpected legacy (£900) of a friend, Raislly Calvert, freed Wordsworth from pecuniary troubles. “Escaped from the vast city” the poet is on his way to Race-down from Bristol. And with ‘the sweet breath of heaven’ he feels ‘a correspondent breeze’ to inspire his soul with poetic zeal. And very soon he feels himself to be ‘a renovated spirit singled out for holy services’ and:

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

      Well, the ‘work of glory’ was never begun or performed there; instead we got The Prelude, the finest fruit of Wordsworth’s great creative period”.

Record of Inner Life

      So, in The Prelude we get a record—a record of that inner life out of which Wordsworth’s poetry grew. “It is the full intense life which he lived through his senses as a child and youth that he first tries to re-capture and record.”

      So in Books I and II we have Wordsworth’s childhood and boyhood experiences amid the lovely natural surroundings. Herein lies the
greater significance of these two books. And from the poet we get that his poetic life began, as it were, on the banks of the Derwent when he was just a suckling babe. When he found himself—

Baffled and plagued by a mind that every hour
Turns recreant to her task
He appeals to the river Derwent—
......Was it for this,
That one of the fairest of all rivers loved,
To blend his murmurs with my nurse’s song.

      And when the boy Wordsworth was transplanted to that ‘beloved Vale’ of Hawkshead in Esthwaite it began, to some extent, consciously. The benign influence of Nature to shape and mold his character and poetic personality had already started:

Fair seed time had my soul, and I grew up
Fostered, alike by beauty and by fear;

Awakening of Poet’s Love of Nature

      But the awakening of poet’s love of nature is the most significant element in his early education. At the early stage it was just a normal and healthy boy’s love for open air sports and pastimes amidst lovely surroundings of nature. So in Books I and II we get an unforgettable recreation of his childhood involvement in physical activities and the joys and fears which were their consequence. In the first two Books Wordsworth tells us of various exciting activities in which he used to take part with all joy and zeal. In the first Book we have the following — bathing, bird-snaring, birds-nesting, an expedition in a stolen boat, skating, fishing, kite-sailing, noughts-and-crosses and cards. In the second Book, also we find they still ‘ran a boisterous course’ and their favorite pastimes were boat races, boating excursions on the lake, walking tours and riding on horses ‘through rough and smooth’.

Emotions of Pleasure and Pain

      The first Book is studded with several impressive incidents showing us the means by which Nature affects her discipline on young Wordsworth by evoking the emotions of pleasure and fear. Thus on a hot summer day, the child would have pure animal pleasure by bathing or basking:

Oh, many a time have it a five years’ child,
In a small mill-race severed from his stream.
Made one long bathing of a summer’s day;
Basked in the sun, and plunged and backed again
Alternate, all a summer’s day,...

      And then during his night-adventure with the stolen boat we find how he was overwhelmed with an alarming sense of panic and fright by the awful sight of a towering peak when the grim shape:

Towards up between me and the stars, and still,
For so it seemed, until purpose of its own
And measured motion like a living thing,
Strode after me.

      So the beautiful and sublime objects and images of nature with their benign influence ennobled his emotions and molded his mind; and the poet tells us:

.....purifying thus
The elements of feeling and of thought,
And sanctifying, by such discipline,
Both pain and fear, until we recognize
A grandeur in the beatings of the heart....

Three Stages of Poet’s Love of Nature

      Another very significant aspect that strikes us in The Prelude, especially in the first two Books is that in it the poet has traced the three stages of his love of nature? We are able to mark three phases of development. In the first phase, as a child we find the poet deriving simple animal or sensuous delight in Nature:

I held unconscious intercourse with beauty
Old as creation, drinking in a pure
Organic pleasure

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

Thence did I drink the visionary power;
And deem not profitless those fleeting moods
Of shadow exultation.

      And finally, we find the love of Nature leading to the love of man and this change brings about a calmer and sober attitude: this time
Of dereliction and dismay, I yet
Despair not of our nature ....
and in fleet
For this uneasy heart of ours, I find
A never-failing principle of joy
A purest passion.

      Again, in the Book II of The Prelude we are aware of the other three phases in the process by which the transcendental or mystical relationship is established between Nature and the poet.

Wordsworth Writes of Himself

      “Every man’s life is best written by himself,” said Dr. Johnson. Wordsworth took the hint and produced what Legouis describes “the unique autobiographical poem.” “Wordsworth’s The Prelude is the greatest autobiography in verse in English” remarks Wren Gardiner. Wordsworth calls it: “A poem on my own earlier life.” In the closing lines of Book I, the poet says that it (Book I) would form a part of the story of his life which he aspired to record in the following books. It is again in Book I that Wordsworth tells Coleridge that the poem would help the latter in knowing “how the heart was framed of his thou lovest.”

      Wordsworth 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 in a letter to George Beaumont in 1805, “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:

’tis a theme
Single and of determined bounds: and hence
I chuse it rather at this time, than work
Of ampler or more varied argument.
(‘The Prelude’, Book 1. Lines: 668-671)

Wordsworth’s Poetry and his Personal Experience

      The connection between Wordsworth’s poetry and his personal experience is of the closest kind, and he undertook the writing of The Prelude in a mood of self-examination. The poet aspired to create a literary work that might live; and he considered it right to examine his powers for such a task before he actually undertook it. The result was The Prelude. The poem is thus Wordsworth’s assessment of his own powers and a record of those influences that molded him. “The genius of Wordsworth is a genius that turned inward upon itself’, says Raleigh “and in this psychological account of the growth of his own mind, and of the most significant of the influences that shaped it he has done the biographer’s work once and for all”.

      His boyhood in the beloved vale is the most memorable of all poetic boyhoods and the first two Books of The Prelude reach the highest levels of spiritual autobiography and touch now and then the highest levels
of English poetry by simply recording with perfect fidelity whatever in it bore upon the growth of his own mind.” (C.H. Herford) His account of the act of stealth and troubled pleasure “about the stolen boat ride” in Book I is heart-thrilling and shows the poet in his boyhood years. The concluding lines (390-400) of that incident and the experience it brought to Wordsworth are worth quoting. They move the readers because they record what an everlasting impression the sight of a seemingly moving mountain created on the poet:

.....after I had seen
That spectacle, for many days, my brain
Worked with a dim and undetermined sense
Of unknown modes of being; often, my thoughts
There hung a darkness, call it solitude
Or blank desertion, No familiar shapes
Remained, no pleasant images of trees.
Of sea or sky, no colors of green fields;
But huge and mighty of forms, that do not live
Like living men, moved slowly through the mind
By day, and were a trouble to my dreams.

      Such experiences, as the poet says, became a part of his very being.

How the Poet’s Mind Grew under Nature’s Formative Influence

      The theme of the influence of Nature on man is the noblest part of Wordsworth’s teaching in poetry; and that is the theme of The Prelude Book I. This Book deals with his childhood and school time. “There is no other work in English language where the early joy and wonder, the passionate, solemn, awe-stricken delight of the simple experiences of boyhood are more sympathetically and more graphically described”. From his words we learn how Wordsworth received the education of nature. Addressing the Derwent, the poet says:

“Didst thou beauteous stream,
Make ceaseless music through the night and day,
Which ..... composed my thoughts.
O more than infant softness, giving me,
Among fretful dwellings of mankind,
A foretaste, a dim earnest, of the calm
That Nature breathes among the hills and groves’’.
(The Prelude Book I Lines: 267-285).

      Wordsworth in his “fair seed time” had wandered in the company of Nature, seen her summer beauties and wintry colds, experience her spring spells and autumn mellowness: he had become, as it were, a part of Nature. In the same book, he says:

When I call to mind
’Twas at an early age, are I had seen
Nine summers .... it was my joy
To wander half the night among the cliffs.
And the smooth Hollows ....On the heights I plied
My anxious visitation, hurrying on,
Still hurrying, hurrying onward: Moon and stars
Were shining: over my head; I was alone
And seemed to be a trouble to the peace
That was among them.
(The Prelude Book I. Lines 309-324).

      Compare it with a passage from Book V:

“There was a boy; ye know him well, ye cliffs
And islands of Winander... many a time
At evening when the earliest stars began
To move along the edges of the hills,
Rising or setting; would he stand along
Beneath the trees or by the glimmering lake”.

      Here is the poet’s reference to his boyhood; that boy grew to be a youth: he could not shake off these influences. “Mind in infancy is like body in the embryo”. Wordsworth has described the formative influence of Nature on the unfolding mind of child. This unroofed school of nature attracted him more than the discipline of the classics and he learned more eagerly from flowers and hills, and stars than from his books:

Love had Wordsworth found in the huts where poor men lie,
His daily teachers were woods and hill.
The silence that is in the starry sky.
The sleep that is among the lonely hills.

      How beautifully and emphatically does he sing in one of his small lyrics:

One impulse from vernal wood
May teach you more of man,
Of moral, evil and of good,
Than all the sages can.

      His unbounded love and admiration for nature is the outcome of the unceasing influences he received from Nature during his early years. Wordsworth puts it in clear and emphatic words:

“The earth
And common face of Nature spoke to me
Rememberable things”

      Wordsworth continues to describe his wandering in the midst of nature. It was his firm belief that nature took keen interest in the framing of human mind. We are told how he was led by nature one evening, when he “went alone in a shepherd’s boat,” the journey in the boat is described and the reader is told how a huge cliff rose between the poet and the stars and “like a living thing” strode after him.

“With trembling hands I turned.
And through the silent water stole my way
Back to the cavern of the willow tree.”

      Read the following portion from The Prelude—Book I:

“Wisdom and spirit of the universe
Thou soul that art the eternity of thought
That giv’st to forms and images a hreath.
And everlasting motion, not in vain
By day or starlight thus fram my first, dawn
Of childhood didst thus intertwine for me
The passions that build, up our human soul’’.

      Such, in the words of the poet, was the influence of nature on the mind of Wordsworth. His poetry becomes ‘flood of rapture’ and a ‘rain of melody’ when Wordsworth speaks of his fellowship with Nature.

“Nor was this fellowship vouchsaf’d me
With stinted kindness. In November day
When vapours rolling down the valleys, name
A lovely scene more lonesome; among foods
At noon, and ‘mid the cairn of summer nights,
In solitude such intercourse was mine”.

      The memory of his intercourse with nature in his early child-hood he call “unfading recollections”.

The Prelude: A Key to Wordsworth’s Poetry

      Thus The Prelude is not to be viewed only as a poem of Wordsworth’s life; it is a key supplied by the poet himself to unlock the door leading to his poetic chamber. With the help of this long, personal poem, a reader can understand and interpret the rest of Wordsworth’s poetry more intelligently. It is a guide book for understanding comprehensively the unbroken relationship between human life and nature, without which life to Wordsworth was no life. His childhood becomes responsible for making Wordsworth a great poet of nature. The Prelude is the essential living document for the interpretation of Wordsworth’s life and poetry.

Three things Impress the Reader of The Prelude

      Three things must impress even the casual reader of this poem: (1) Wordsworth’s love to be alone, he is never lonely with nature: he
is “less lonely when lonely”; (2) Like every other child, who spends much time in the woods and fields, he feels the presence of some living spirit, real though unseen, and companionable though silent; (3) His early impressions make him what he, later on, becomes: “The child is the father of man”.

The Prelude and Wordsworth’s Poetic Genius

      The Prelude Book I offers an instructive peep in the workshop of the poet. Through Wordsworth’s own mouth we hear of his mind’s desire to “gladly grapple with some noble theme”, and how the mind, finding impediments “from day to day renewed” was content “to yield up those lofty hopes”. A touching reference is made to his “unmanageable thoughts”. We are informed that he possessed all that was “needful to build up a poet’s praise.” He had the “first great gift: the vital soul”, “general truths. Nor was he naked in forms, images and numerous other aids which are “won perhaps with toil”. The poet was invaded by doubts. Had he the strength to assume so awful a burden? Would it not be wiser to await those “mellower years” that “bring a riper mind.” Are his mis-givings valid, or are they mere timidity and laziness, a subtle form of selfishness cloaked in humility and modest awe?

But from this awful burthen I full soon
Take refuge, and beguile myself with truth
That mellower years will bring a riper mind
And clearer insight. Thus from day to day
I live, a mockery of the brotherhood
Of vice and virtue, with no skill to part
Vague longing that is bred by want of power
From paramount impulse not to be withstood
A timorous capacity from prudence;
From circumspection, infinite delay.

      We find poems in their finished forms; but Wordsworth has described what pains a poet had to undergo and what periods of
uncertainties he has to go through. Thus “poetic experience itself becomes the subject of The Prelude, the “Presiding genius” of the poem.

Other Influences on the Poet

      Besides the great influence that Nature exercised over the poet’s mind we are told in Book V of Wordsworth's debt to literature and learning. It is true that the Book does not deal in detail with the books on which Wordsworth had fed in his early years. But Arabian Nights, Spenser s Faerie Queene and Othello are mentioned as his favorite books. Influence of Dorothy and Coleridge on him should not be lost sight of.

Two Versions of “The Prelude” as indications of the Growth of the Poet’s Mind

      A comparison of the 1805 and 1850 texts gives us further information about the growth of the poet’s mind between the two dates. The critics are not agreed as to which of the two editions is better than the other; but the changes made in the original text indicate a change in Wordsworth’s mental powers:

(1) Bald simplicity (of 1805) gives place to more decorative, more conventionally literary form.

(2) Rough and crude expression is smoothed and clarified; faults of ambiguity and loose repetition are carefully amended.

(3) “The most vital changes lie deeper still”, says Helen Darbishire, “they touch what we should now call the psychology of the poem.”
In the early The Prelude Wordsworth told of the inner working of his mind as nakedly and truthfully as he could. The changes most to be deplored in his later text are those which overlay and obscure that native expression; they often mar the poetry; more often disguise the truth. Thus in the former version, the feeling is more genuine and spontaneous, less cautious; in the latter, the style is generally speaking stronger and more finished. The first reveals personality more genuinely, the second reveals him as an artist.

What Does the Poem Reveal?

      It is generally when an autobiography deals with the author’s childhood and first beginning that he most often succeeds in reaching the hearts of his readers. Wordsworth’s life which to many of his readers appeared to be a monotonous affair comes out in The Prelude as a life, of ‘pure energy from the beginning, wakeful, alert, self-willed.’ It is true that the poem is a story of the poet’s own life. But its story, by itself is not so important, The poem is the study of the origin of Wordsworth’s poetic power: The Prelude is less a narrative than a study of origin, less the history of man than the philosophy of mind. In order to appraise the poetic genius of Wordsworth, let one read The Prelude in which the sources of his poetic inspiration are to be found.

      “A note of personal tenderness, an almost elegiac inclination to evoke the memories of his own childhood, make The Prelude the most admirable record of a soul’s progress towards the full possession of self, which is implied in the apostolate of a poetic calling. (Louis Cazamian). Read the opening lines of The Prelude Book II:

“Thus far, O Friend: have we though leaving much
Unlimited, endeavored to retrace
The simple ways in which my childhood walked;
Those chiefly that led me to the love.
Of rivers, woods and fields. The passion
Was in its birth, sustained as might befall
By nourishment that came unsought;”

Keats’s Description of Wordsworth: His Egotistical Sublime

      The limitations of Wordsworthian temperament and of the poetry, which mirrors it, have been pointed out and dilated upon by many a critic—his narrow range, his inequality, lack of humor and of sympathetic understanding of other poets and their modes. Great emphasis has been laid on his lack of dramatic power of negative capability to that his characters appear to be the copies of his own personality and his best poems are in the nature of monologues. All these and many others, which critical curiosity may discover in his poetry, have been attributed to, what Keats was pleased to describe, his ‘Egotistical Sublime’, his complete engrossment with his own self which made whatever he wrote significant and valuable in his own eyes and led him to generalize from his personal impression and pet notions and obscured his vision regarding the truth and beauty in the work of other writers.

      Coleridge himself has described him as a person wholly masculine and philosophical in his outlook: “His proper title is spectator ab extra. Although he is capable of the most profound sympathy with man as man, his is the sympathy of a contemplator rather than of a fellow sufferer; he feels for but never with his subject.”

      There is substance in this view which compels acceptance, yet its full implication must be taken into account. Wordsworth has defined the poet as ‘a man speaking to men, though one of deeper sensibility and more comprehensive soul. He was not a nightingale singing in darkness, for Wordsworth was still a believer in the eighteenth-century doctrine that the heart and soul of humanity are the same everywhere and in all the ages. So the exceptional insight of the poet will be beneficial to the whole human race. He distinguished the poetic truth from the scientific knowledge and called it the truth operative. That is, truth carried alive into the heart with feeling; and concluded that the poet binds together with passion the whole empire of human society.

      In the concluding verses of The Prelude he addresses his fellow poet, Coleridge, and tells him with confidence that truth propagated by them will set society on the right path to love and liberty, if men under the influence of a natural weakness, go astray and relapse into barbarism. The letter in which. Coleridge requested Wordsworth to compose his philosophic epic, clearly mentions its main object, which was nothing else but the revival and nourishment of that hope in the hearts of men and women which was dwindling and sinking under the stress of despair born of the French Revolution. He had not even an idol of doubt of the healthy influence of his works and he frankly stated that, they will co-operate with the benign tendencies of human nature and society, and will, in their degree, be efficacious in making men wiser, better and happier.

      That this is not the mere boast of an egoist but a statement of truth is borne out by the confessions of John Stuart Mill and Rutherford about benefits they actually received from his poetry, the one a nourishment for his dried up senses and emotions and the other a living substitute for the Orthodox Christian Deity, petrified, into a mere idol, in his age, under the icy touch of scientific agnosticism.

      In an article in a recent issue of P.M.L.A., under the caption, ‘Poet of the Present Crisis’, N.S. Tillet has stated that the poet (William Wordsworth) who discovered ‘the present good in life’s familiar face’ and recognized all the sacred claims and heaven-descended rights of the common man, who acknowledged ‘one great society alone on earth, the noble living and the noble dead’; the poet who hurled defiance at the enemies of freedom in timeless phrases, that poet seems particularly fashioned for an age of crisis like the one through which humanity of today is passing. In this way Wordsworth’s egotistical sublime has, after all, its own compensations in the sublimity and intensity of his best poems and the priceless wisdom which they embody for those who have eyes to see and heart to feel and experience its presence.


      Thus in The Prelude we find the poet first trying to recapture and record the full intense life which he lived through his senses as a child and youth. Wordsworth had the extraordinary power to ‘live intensely in the past, he could revive and recreate; and it is a chief part of his purpose in The Prelude to recall and quicken into permanent life those pregnant moments. For they were, he well knew, the making of him as a poet’.

      We may now conclude without any reservation that The Prelude is not an autobiography in the usual sense from the holy pen of the ‘high priest of nature’. In it we have the faithful record of his inner life and emotional experiences enabling us to have a glimpse of the innermost recesses of the poet’s soul. So we may unhesitatingly call it a spiritual or poetical autobiography. Prof. Herbert Read has justly observed: “The Prelude, undoubtedly places before us Wordsworth—the revolutionary; Wordsworth—the man; Wordsworth—the poet; and finally, Wordsworth—the high priest of nature”.

University Questions

1. In what respects is The Prelude the history of the poet’s soul.
2. The Prelude is the most admirable record of a soul’s progress towards the full possession of the self. Discuss.
3. Discuss Books I and II of The Prelude as an autobiography.

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