William Wordsworth 
The Prelude

Wordsworth and Coleridge
Wordsworth and Coleridge, his philosophical dancing master


The Prelude, never in fact so called by Wordsworth, is a long poem (c 8,000 lines) which sets out the development of the poet's mind from early infancy to manhood. It was ostensibly written to establish whether the poet had the necessary poetic credentials to go on to compose a projected greater, long philosophical poem, and it was addressed to Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who had developed the original idea for such a long, philosophical poem. The fact that The Prelude is addressed to Coleridge is important to note because it gives rise to many difficulties in the text. Wordsworth is expressing himself to somebody with whom he had an intimate connection and with whom he continually exchanged ideas on poetry, philosophy, politics and religion. Much of what he writes about memory, perception and nature is embedded in ideas propounded by Coleridge which he, in turn, had borrowed from writers like David Hartley and the German metaphysical philosophers. To understand some of what Wordsworth is saying, therefore, it would be necessary to read extensively in the pseudo-philosophy of the period, as did Coleridge, but it does not seem reasonable to ask a modern reader to spend his time reading things which have proved uninteresting, unfruitful and obscure, and are really only of historical or antiquarian interest. Even if we were to launch out on this project, it would be of doubtful value as Coleridge made his own interpretation of what he read, and clearly did not understand himself much of what he was saying. This partly digested material was then taken up by Wordsworth, put into his own words, and quoted back to Coleridge in The Prelude.

The difficulties in the text are therefore partly related to this fact that Wordsworth is assuming in his audience (ST Coleridge) an understanding which is lacking in any subsequent audience, and partly in the fact that his theorising or philosophising is based on obscure and often erroneous ideas. One may question whether this makes good poetry, and it is surely true that, from time to time, Wordsworth murders the English language, producing text intricately interwoven into a farrago of meaningless nonsense, but still, the situation has a dynamic which is interesting. Once one understands that Wordsworth is practically begging Coleridge for approval at several points in The Prelude, what previously appeared to be impenetrable philosophical balderdash becomes just a moment in the dance that the two men performed with each other for most of their adult lives, each one dependent on the other for certain aspects of his genius.

Wordsworth, of course, had plenty of his own ideas about nature and perception, and when he expresses these ideas, he clearly understands what he is talking about even if, sometimes, it is on the limits of normal understanding. It is in the attempt to stitch his own ideas together with Coleridge's metaphysical speculations that the project comes unstuck: Wordsworth desparately needs Coleridge's approval (to understand why it is necessary to read through the evolution of their relationship), and this is what pushes him to attempt to formulate and reformulate his (Coleridge's) ideas and present them to him. This is what is going on throughout The Prelude. In fact, The Prelude is, in effect, a sustained attempt to get Coleridge's approval, though there is, of course, much else in the poem that can be enjoyed.


The Prelude comes in three major versions, published at different times. The first to be published was the 1850 version in 14 books, on which Wordsworth had been working off and on for most of his life. It was published just after his death in 1850. It holds most of its text in common with the 1805 version, found in manuscript form by Ernest de Sélinccourt, and published in 1931 in 13 books. The whole of this version was completed by 1805. There is additionally the 'Two Part Prelude', a short version composed betweed 1798/9, which was put together by scholars in the twentieth century, based on manuscripts discovered in the nineteen thirties.

The Great, Philosophic Poem

As already mentioned, the idea for the composition of a huge, epic, philosophic poem (later called The Recluse by Wordsworth and his entourage) was developed by Samuel Taylor Coleridge just before and during the close association of the two poets between 1797 and 1798. Coleridge originally conceived the project as requiring a huge amount of preparation:
I should not think of devoting less than twenty years to an epic poem. Ten years to collect materials and warm my mind with universal science. I would be a tolerable Mathematician. I would thoroughtly understand Mechanics; Hydrostatics; Optics and Astronomy; Botany; Metallurgy; Fossilism; Chemistry; Geology; Anatomy; Medicine; then the mind of man; then the minds of men, in all Travels, Voyages, and Histories. So I would spend ten years; the next five in the composition of the poem, and the last five in the correction of it. (Letter to Cottle from Stowey, 1796)
Wordsworth was inspired to take up the challenge, though he was never able to complete the project to his satisfaction. The following table gives an overview of what he actually completed.

The Prelude (1805 version)
Book Title
1 Introduction - Childhood and Schooltime >
2 School time (continued) >
3 Residence at Cambridge >
4 Summer vacation >
5 Books >
6 Cambridge and the Alps >
7 Residence in London >
8 Retrospect – love of nature leading to love of man
9 Residence in France
10 Residence in France and French Revolution
11 Imagination, how Repaired and Restored
12 Same subject (continued)
13 Conclusion
  The Recluse

Part 1: unfinished, no title
Book Title
1 Home at Grasmere

Part II: The Excursion
Book Title
1 The Wanderer
2 The Solitary
3 Despondency
4 Despondency corrected
5 The Pastor
6 The Churchyard among the Mountains
7 The Churchyard among the Mountains continued
8 The Parsonage
9 Discourse of the Wanderer

Part III: no title

Wordsworth conceived The Prelude (the 1850 version is 7863 lines long) as the introduction to The Recluse, the great philosophic poem. The Excursion (8850 lines, completed and published in 1814) forms Part II of The Recluse. Parts I and III were never completed, though Wordsworth did assert that the rest of his work, when properly ordered, constituted Part III.

The Prelude : Advertisement (1850)

In the Foreward to the Prelude, Wordsworth writes :

The following poem was commenced in the beginning of the year 1799, and completed in the summer of 1805

The design and occasion of the work are described by the Author in his Preface to the EXCURSION, first published in 1814, where he thus speaks: --

Several years ago, when the Author retired to his native mountains with the hope of being enabled to construct a literary work that might live, it was a reasonable thing that he should take a review of his own mind, and examine how far Nature and Education had qualified him for such an 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.

That work, addressed to a dear friend, most distinguished for his knowedge and genius, and to whom the Author's intellect is deeply indebted, has been long finished; and the result of the investigation which gave rise to it, was a determination to compose a philosophical Poem, containing views of Man, Nature and Society, and to be entitled the 'Recluse'; as having for its principal subject the sensations and opinions of a poet living in retirement.

The preparatory poem (the Prelude) 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 labour which he had proposed to himself; and the two works have the same kind of relation to each other, if he may so express himself, as the Ante-chapel has to the body of a Gothic church. Continuing this allusion, he may be permitted to add, that his minor pieces, which have been long before the public, when they shall be properly arranged, will be found by the attentive reader to have such connection with the main work as may give them claim to be likened to the little cells, oratories, and sepulchral recesses, ordinarily included in those edifices. 

Such was the Author's language in the year 1814.

It will thence be seen, that the present Poem was intended to be introductory to the RECLUSE, and that the RECLUSE, if completed, would have consisted of Three Parts. Of these the Second part alone, viz the EXCURSION, was finished, and given to the world by the Author.

The First Book of the First Part of the RECLUSE [Home at Grasmere] still remains in manuscript but the Third Part was only planned. The materials of which it would have been formed have, however, been incorporated, for the most part, in the Author's other Publications, written subsequently to the EXCURSION.

The Friend to whom the present Poem is addressed, was the late SAMUEL TAYLOR COLERIDGE, who was resident in Malta, for the restoration of his health, when the greater part of it was composed.

Mr Coleridge read a considerable portion of the Poem while he was abroad; and his feelings, on hearing it recited by the Author (after his return to his own country) are recorded in his Verses, addressed to Mr Wordsworth, which will be found in the Sybilline Leaves p 197 of the 1817 edition or Poetical Works by S.T.Coleridge vol i p206

Rydal Mount July 13th 1850

The poem written by Samuel Taylor Coleridge on hearing the recitation of The Prelude by Wordsworth at the beginning of January 1807 can be found here. No, it's not very good. Full of uninteresting hyperbole and lacking any of the spontaneous verbal fire-works of which Coleridge was sometimes the master. But it was good enough for Wordsworth, because it was lavish in his praise, and if Coleridge was addicted to opium, Wordsworth was addicted to Coleridge's praise.

Some history

Wordsworth read The Prelude to his inner circle (sister Dorothy, wife Mary, Mary's sister Sara, and friend Coleridge) at the beginning of January 1807, but the 'epoch making' event (as noted in Coleridge's notebook) observed, or which Coleridge believed he had observed but couldn't quite convince himself that it was true, the event which happened, or didn't, at the Queen's Head, Stringstone on 27 December 1806, where he had probably gone to get alcohol in which to dissolve his opium, this event changed everything. But it was too soon to say so. Coleridge observed, or he imagined he observed, Sara Hutchinson (his wife's sister, and Coleridge's adored muse) bare-breasted in bed with Wordsworth. In fact, it very little matters whether the observation was literally true or not. Coleridge had clearly been seeing for some time that Sara had a marked preference for Wordsworth, a preference she had expressed as early as their first meeting. There are also several Wordsworth poems addressed to Sara which have strong and unambiguous sexual undertones. Wordsworth himself had a strong sexual urge, manifested many times during his lifetime in many different ways, (for example in his references to masturbation in the poem Descriptive Sketches, in his affair with Annette Vallon, in his passionate love letters to his wife, in his intensely intimate relationship with his own sister). It would be naîve to think that given proximity and opportunity sexual activity would not occur between him and Sara, even between him and Joanna, Sara's younger sister to whom he also addressed some poetry laced with sexual double entendre. But the point here is that from this event in the pub at Stringstone, imaginery or real, Coleridge withdraws his support from Wordsworth, and, without Coleridge's support, Wordsworth cannot complete the project. He can do something else, but not the epic philosophic poem dreamed of by Coleridge, which had become not only for William, but also for Dorothy and Mary, the holy grail.

Nymphs and Satyrs
Nymphs and Satyrs: George Frederick Watts (1817-1904)

General assessment of The Prelude

At all events, The Prelude certainly gave Wordsworth the opportunity to dwell on himself at enormous length, something to which he was already much given, and there are certainly some well written and sometimes beautiful passages which use the sinuous rhythms and sea-like power (a sort of hypnotic ebb and flow) of the English language to advantage. It is also an interesting record of certain events, both in the personal life of Wordsworth himself, and in society in general during the 1790's. But there are long sections glossed over with a sort of pseudo-philosophy produced by Wordsworth's attempts to formulate Coleridge's ever-changing philosophical ideas in a meaningful way, a frankly impossible task, as Coleridge's mind and personality were protean, that is, ever changing, ever morphing into something different, and unseizable. Writing of the 1850 version of The Prelude on its publication after Wordsworth's death, Macaulay's assessment seems pretty accurate in this context: He reckoned himself disappointed at finding 'the old raptures about mountains and cataracts; the old flimsy philosophy; the old crazy mystical metaphysics; the endless wilderness of dull, flat, prosaic declamations interspersed.' Of couse, by 1850, The Prelude was indeed 'old', even if parts of it had been periodically rehashed and recycled.

 John Campbell Sharp is less censorious than Macaulay. Commenting on Macaulay's dismissal of the poem, he writes: No one need be astonished at this estimate by Lord Macaulay. We see but as we feel. To him, being such as he was, it was not given to feel or to see the things which Wordsworth most cared for. No wonder, then, that to him the poem that spoke of these things was a weariness. Doubtless much may be said against such a subject for a poem - the growth of a poet's mind from childhood to maturity: much too against the execution, the sustained self analysis, the prolixity of some parts, the verbosity and sometimes the vagueness of the language. But after making full deduction for all these things, it still remains a wonderful and unique poem, most instructive to those who will take the trouble required to master such a work. If after a certain acquaintance with Wordsworth's better-known and more attractive poems, a person will but study The Prelude, he will return to the other poems with a new insight into their meaning and their truth.

This seems to be a not entirely inaccurate assessment: the work is flawed, but valuable both in itself for some interesting, distinguished, and sometimes very beautiful poetry, and for the sidelights it gives us on Wordsworth's life in general.

Writing about the multiple versions and subversions of The Prelude, Stephen Gill opines Bibliographical and compositional history of the kind being discussed here is not a limiter on aesthetic enjoyment but the generator of more. (ibid p18) It begs the question, of course, of who you are and where you find your aesthetic enjoyment. If it is in tedious perusal of multiple versions of the same thing, then he is, of course, right. But, realistically, this is not what readers of poetry are looking for. The thrills that excite the dull antiquarian are not at the centre of most people's aesthetic response.

The ideas informing the poem are peculiar, many of them deriving as they do at second hand from Coleridge's reading in eighteenth century philosophy and particularly the philosophy of perception. This was improperly understood by Coleridge himself and garbled further by Wordsworth, to produce sometimes unreadable text which insults both the English language and the intelligent reader, for example:

Thus oft amid those fits of vulgar joy
Which, through all seasons, on a child's pursuits
Are prompt attendants, 'mid that giddy bliss
Which, like a tempest, works along the blood
And is forgotten; even then I felt
Gleams like the flashing of a shield; - the earth
And common face of Nature spake to me
Rememberable things; sometimes, 'tis true,
By chance collisions and quaint accidents
(Like those ill sorted unions, work supposed
Of evil minded fairies), yet not vain
Nor profitless, if haply they impressed
Collateral objects and appearances,
Albeit lifeless then, and doomed to sleep
Until maturer seasons called them forth
To impregnate and elevate the mind.
- And if the vulgar joy by its own weight
Wearied itself out of the memory,
The scenes which were a witness of that joy
Remained in their substantial lineaments
Depicted on the brain, and to the eye

Were visible, a daily sight; and thus
By the impressive discipline of fear,
By pleasure and repeated happiness,
So frequently repeated, and by force
Of obscure feelings representative
Of things forgotten, these same scenes so bright,
So beautiful, so majestic in themselves,
Though yet the day was distant, did become
Habitually dear, and all their forms
And changeful colours by invisible links
Were fastened to the affections.

Wordsworth's inability to express clearly and persuavively the philosophical ideas relating to perception, memory and imagination stem from the fact that he does not himself understand this philosophy (in fact, as propounded by Coleridge, probably nobody did or could). Coleridge's project was, therefore, unattainable. Poetry is not philosophy, and philosophy is not poetry, and nor would we want it to be. The project for creating a great philosophical poem was flawed from the outset. In reality, it didn't really matter that Coleridge removed his support from Wordsworth around 1807. The projected great philosophical masterpiece was an unattainable chimera anyway. It became, in fact, rather like an albatross around Wordsworth's neck. Interesting that, in this context, shooting the albatross was, in fact, Wordsworth's idea.

But to go back the The Prelude. The basic facts are that it is a poem written to show the development of the poet's mind, and is addressed to S.T.Coleridge. In it, Wordsworth sets out to prove that he is capable and qualified to tackle the magnum opus that is to come. He plans to look at his own development and, if possible, isolate what experiences suited him for the great task ahead. In so doing he writes an autobiography, but one which leaves out much that a normal autobiography might contain, to concentrate just on those experiences which were formative of his poetic genius. In some ways it is a very private project. He is writing to and for Coleridge, and this possibly explains why the poem was never published in Wordsworth's lifetime, despite being completed forty-five years before his death. The gradual changes it underwent from 1805 to 1850 are changes to make the poem less revealing and more 'public'. But even by 1850, it was not a poem that Wordsworth himself had decided to give to the public. Bizarrely, however, the 1850 version was the first that the public saw. The 1805 version had to wait until 1930 to be published. The following commentary and excerpts are from the 1805 version, unless otherwise stated.

book I


copyright Paul Scott, Adnax Publications all rights reserved