William Wordsworth 
(1770-1850)
The Prelude : Book I : Childhood and Schooltime

Wordsworth and Coleridge
Wordsworth and Coleridge, his philosophical dancing master

Book I: Childhood and Schooltime

Lines 1-32 The poet celebrates his freedom on having escaped the city and on having been freed from the 'burthen of my own unnatural self'

Lines 1-4
Oh there is blessing in this gentle breeze,
That blows from the green fields and from the clouds
And from the sky: it beats against my cheek,
And seems half-conscious of the joy it gives.

The narrative passes from natural description to psychological analysis and back again as if there are no boundaries. The breeze exists, but only exists as it is felt. The harbour that the poet seeks is both real, and psychological. The grove, the stream, the earth are real, but also create a psychological background in which the poet's mind might grow.

Lines 35-56 The poet feels that the external breeze has awoken powers in him 'the hope of active days, of dignity and thought'. The dual nature of the breeze, internal and external, is evoked once again:

Lines 41-46
For I, methought, while the sweet breath of heaven
Was blowing on my body, felt within
A corresponding mild creative breeze,
A vital breeze which travelled gently on
O'er things which it had made, and is become
A tempest, a redundant energy.

Lines 56-66 He addresses his friend, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and reminds him of the spontaneous nature of his poetic composition, which now fills him with confidence for the future, and for his poetic calling. The breeze, interpreted as both physical and psychological, will aid him to enter on the holy life of music and of verse, ie his vocation as poet.

Lines 55 - 67
Thus far, oh Friend! did I, not used to make
A present joy the matter of a Song,
Pour out, that day, my soul in measured strains,
Even in the very words which I have here
Recorded: to the open fields I told
A prophecy: poetic numbers came
Spontaneously, and clothed in priestly robe
My spirit, thus singled out, as it might seem,
For holy services: great hopes were mine;
My own voice cheared me, and, far more, the mind's
Internal echo of the imperfect sound;
To both I listened, drawing from them both
A chearful confidence in things to come.

Lines 68 - 95 He sees, in his mind's eye 'one sweet Vale' where he imagines he can settle and create his magnum opus.

Lines 82-88
I made a choice
Of one sweet Vale whither my steps should turn,
And saw, methought, the very house and fields
Present before my eyes: nor did I fail
To add, meanwhile assurance of some work
Of glory, there forthwith to be begun,
Perhaps, too, there performed.
 

It is true that there are moments in time that seem to give us more than normal insight into the future, and I suppose this exerpt relates to one of these moments where he sees himself installed in Dove Cottage writing his masterpiece, though he immediately loses his inspiration and

Lines 96-114 He continues his journey, but finds that he has lost the ability to compose poetry, but, never mind, the journey is too pleasant to have any regrets.

Lines 105-109
the harp
Was soon defrauded, and the banded host
Of harmony dispersed, in straggling sounds,
And lastly untter silence. 'Be it so;
It is an injury,' said I, 'to this day
To think of anything but present joy.'

 

 Lines 114-141 He tells his friend of the happiness he found at this time. He tells him also that he feels motivated to some great work, but that there is always some impediment.

Lines 141-156 He describes a restless state of mind which also impedes his creative urge.

Lines 156-270 He makes an internal inventory of himself to see whether he has what is necessary for the task, and is cheered by what he finds. He makes a survey of possible themes for his poetry, landing finally on:

Lines 228-237
Then, last wish,
My last and favourite aspiration! then
I yearn towards some philosophic Song
Of Truth that cherishes our daily life;
With meditations passionate from deep
Recesses of man's heart, immortal verse
Thoughtfully fitted to the Orphean lyre,
But from this awful burthen I full soon
Take refuge, and beguile myself with trust
That mellower years will bring a riper mind
And clearer insight.

and

Lines 264-271
This is my lot; for either still I find
Some imperfection in the chosen theme,
Or see of absolute accomplishment
Much wanting, so much wanting, in myself,
That I recoil and droop, and seek repose
In listlessness from vain perplexity,
Unprofitably travelling towards the grave,
Like a false steward who hath much received
And render nothing back.

It is clearly a daunting task.

Lines 272-305 Now some of Wordsworth's most beautiful poetry. Having taxed us with vague generalities for a couple of hundred lines, we get:

Lines 272-277
- Was it for this
That one, the fairest of all Rivers, loved
To blend his murmurs with my Nurse's song,
And from his alder shades and rocky falls,
And from his fords and shallows, sent a voice
That flowed along my dreams?

The poet introduces himself into the poem as a five year old child, and imagines the ever flowing river giving him a knowledge of the 'calm which Nature breathes among the hills and groves.'

Cockermouth Castle, painting
Cockermouth Castle on the River Derwent

Lines 305-332 The poet moves on, changing the scene from Cockermouth on the Derwent to Hawkshead in Eskdale, where he went to school, and describing his adventures in the hills at night, and his guilt at stealing woodcocks from other people's snares.

Eskdale
Upper Eskdale

Lines 332-350 Further adventures stealing eggs from bird's nests.

Lines 351-371 He sees Nature intervening in his case to favour him:

Lines 362-371 
But I believe
That Nature, oftentimes, when she would frame
A favored Being, from his earliest dawn
Of infancy doth open out the clouds,
As at the touch of lightning, seeking him
With gentlest visitation; not the less,
Though haply aiming at the self-same end,
Does it delight her sometimes to employ
Severer interventions, ministry
More palpable, and so she dealt with me.

Presumably he is going to flesh out these ideas in what follows.

Lines 372-428 He takes a boat not belonging to him one evening, and gets chased by mountains.

 Lines 401-412
She was an elfin Pinnace; lustily
I dipped my oars into the silent Lake,
And, as I rose upon the stroke, my Boat
Went heaving through the water, like a Swan;
When from behind that craggy steep, till then
The bound of the horizon, a huge Cliff,
As if with voluntary power instinct,
Upreated its head. I struck, and struck again,
And, growing still in stature, the huge Cliff
Rose up between me and the stars, and still,
With measure motion, like a living thing,
Strode after me.

So this is Nature correcting him with a 'severer intervention'?

Lines 428-440 It is difficult to know to what the following text attaches. Is it the preceding experiences taking boats not belonging to him, stealing bird's eggs, and woodcocks from snares? And, in general, what is he claiming? He seems to be claiming that Nature marked him out from the beginning, and 'purified' and 'sanctified' his feelings, but, given the vagueness and generality of the words, one cannot be sure. Clearly some of the obscurities can be related to the fact that the poem is addressed to Coleridge, and that Wordsworth therefore presupposes many things that they have discussed and hold in common which are not necessarily held in common with the ordinary reader.

Lines 428-440
Wisdom and Sprit of the Universe!
Thou soul that art the Eternity of Thought,
That givest to forms and images a breath
And everlasting motion! not in vain
By day or star-light thus from my first dawn
Of childhood didst Thou intertwine for me
The passions that build up our human soul;
Not with the mean and vulgar works of Man,
But with high objects, with enduring things,
With life and nature, purifying thus
The elements of feeling and of thought,
And sanctifying, by such discipline,
Both pain and fear, until we recognise
A grandeur in the beatings of the heart.

Lines 442-451 He talks of a 'fellowship' without defining it, and claims that 'such intercourse' was his 'among the fields both day and night, And by the waters all summer long', without being specific about what that intercourse was.

Lines 452-473 He goes ice-skating.

Lines 473-489 A strange experience of the motion of the mountains when he is still. 

Lines 490-501 The following is very obscure, though it is clear that he is claiming that Nature knew what she was doing when she selected the young Wordsworth to whom to display her charms. He is building up the idea of Wordsworth the Chosen One.

Lines 490-501
Ye presences of Nature, in the sky
And on the earth! Ye Visions of the hills!
And Souls of lonely places! can I think
A vulgar hope was yours when Ye employed
Such ministry, when Ye through many a year
Haunting me thus among my boyish sports,
On caves and trees, upon the woods and hills,
Impressed upon all forms the characters
Of danger and desire; and thus did make
The surface of the universal earth
With triumph and delight, with hope and fear,
Work like a sea?

Snap the Whip: Homer Winslow

Lines 501-524 More boyish sports and visions of nature.

Lines 525-570 He reminisces about indoor games.

Lines 571-586 This will speak for itself, or not.

Lines 571-586
Nor, sedulous as I have been to trace
How Nature by extrinsic passion first
Peopled the mind with forms sublime or fair,
And made me love them, may I here omit
How other pleasures have been mine, and joys
Of subtler origin; how I have felt,
Not seldom even in that tempestuous time,
Those hallowed and pure motions of the sense
Which seem, in their simplicity, to own
An intellectual charm; that calm delight
Which, if I err not, surely must belong
To those first born affinities that fit
Our new existence to existing things,
And, in our dawn of being, constitute
The bond of union between life and joy.

Lines 586-608 He sucks in the exquisite pleasures of the landscape of Cumbria like 'a bee among the flowers'.

Lines 609-640

Lines 609-640
Thus often 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 to 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 joys that were forgotten, these same scenes
So beauteous and  majestic in themselves,
Though yet the day was distant, did at length
Become habitually dear, and all
Their hues and forms were by invisible links
Allied to the affections.

Surely a fine example of the philosophy of perception made over into bad, very vague poetry which uses language to tie itself, and us, in knots.

Lines 641-664 The poet recapitulates what he has achieved and expresses the hope that he can now go on 'in manhood now mature, To honourable toil.'

 Lines 653-664
Yet should these hopes
Prove vain, and thus should neither I be taught
To understand myself, nor thou to know
With better knowledge how the heart was framed
Of him thou lovest; need I dread from thee
Harsh judgments, if the song be loth to quit
Those recollected hours that have the charm
Of visionary things, those lovely forms
And sweet sensations that throw back our life,
And almost make remotest infancy
A visible scene, on which the sun is shining?

Lines 664-675 He expresses the feeling that his mind has been revived and that if his present mood does not desert him, he will be able to carry on and tell the story of his life.

book II

 

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