Masterpieces of

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William Wordsworth



 

William Wordsworth
English author

born April 7, 1770, Cockermouth, Cumberland, Eng.
died April 23, 1850, Rydal Mount, Westmorland

Main
English poet whose Lyrical Ballads (1798), written with Samuel Taylor Coleridge, helped launch the English Romantic movement.

Wordsworth was born in the Lake District of northern England, the second of five children of a modestly prosperous estate manager. He lost his mother when he was 7 and his father when he was 13, upon which the orphan boys were sent off by guardian uncles to a grammar school at Hawkshead, a village in the heart of the Lake District. At Hawkshead Wordsworth received an excellent education in classics, literature, and mathematics, but the chief advantage to him there was the chance to indulge in the boyhood pleasures of living and playing in the outdoors. The natural scenery of the English lakes could terrify as well as nurture, as Wordsworth would later testify in the line “I grew up fostered alike by beauty and by fear,” but its generally benign aspect gave the growing boy the confidence he articulated in one of his first important poems, “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey . . . ,” namely, “that Nature never did betray the heart that loved her.”

Wordsworth moved on in 1787 to St. John’s College, Cambridge. Repelled by the competitive pressures there, he elected to idle his way through the university, persuaded that he “was not for that hour, nor for that place.” The most important thing he did in his college years was to devote his summer vacation in 1790 to a long walking tour through revolutionary France. There he was caught up in the passionate enthusiasm that followed the fall of the Bastille, and became an ardent republican sympathizer. Upon taking his Cambridge degree—an undistinguished “pass”—he returned in 1791 to France, where he formed a passionate attachment to a Frenchwoman, Annette Vallon. But before their child was born in December 1792, Wordsworth had to return to England and was cut off there by the outbreak of war between England and France. He was not to see his daughter Caroline until she was nine.

The three or four years that followed his return to England were the darkest of Wordsworth’s life. Unprepared for any profession, rootless, virtually penniless, bitterly hostile to his own country’s opposition to the French, he lived in London in the company of radicals like William Godwin and learned to feel a profound sympathy for the abandoned mothers, beggars, children, vagrants, and victims of England’s wars who began to march through the sombre poems he began writing at this time. This dark period ended in 1795, when a friend’s legacy made possible Wordsworth’s reunion with his beloved sister Dorothy—the two were never again to live apart—and their move in 1797 to Alfoxden House, near Bristol. There Wordsworth became friends with a fellow poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and they formed a partnership that would change both poets’ lives and alter the course of English poetry.

Their partnership, rooted in one marvelous year (1797–98) in which they “together wantoned in wild Poesy,” had two consequences for Wordsworth. First it turned him away from the long poems on which he had laboured since his Cambridge days. These included poems of social protest like Salisbury Plain, loco-descriptive poems such as An Evening Walk and Descriptive Sketches (published in 1793), and The Borderers, a blank-verse tragedy exploring the psychology of guilt (and not published until 1842). Stimulated by Coleridge and under the healing influences of nature and his sister, Wordsworth began in 1797–98 to compose the short lyrical and dramatic poems for which he is best remembered by many readers. Some of these were affectionate tributes to Dorothy, some were tributes to daffodils, birds, and other elements of “Nature’s holy plan,” and some were portraits of simple rural people intended to illustrate basic truths of human nature.

Many of these short poems were written to a daringly original program formulated jointly by Wordsworth and Coleridge, and aimed at breaking the decorum of Neoclassical verse. These poems appeared in 1798 in a slim, anonymously authored volume entitled Lyrical Ballads, which opened with Coleridge’s long poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and closed with Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey.” All but three of the intervening poems were Wordsworth’s, and, as he declared in a preface to a second edition two years later, their object was “to choose incidents and situations from common life and to relate or describe them . . . in a selection of language really used by men, . . . tracing in them . . . the primary laws of our nature.” Most of the poems were dramatic in form, designed to reveal the character of the speaker. The manifesto and the accompanying poems thus set forth a new style, a new vocabulary, and new subjects for poetry, all of them foreshadowing 20th-century developments.

The second consequence of Wordsworth’s partnership with Coleridge was the framing of a vastly ambitious poetic design that teased and haunted him for the rest of his life. Coleridge had projected an enormous poem to be called “The Brook,” in which he proposed to treat all science, philosophy, and religion, but he soon laid the burden of writing this poem upon Wordsworth himself. As early as 1798 Wordsworth began to talk in grand terms of this poem, to be entitled The Recluse. To nerve himself up to this enterprise and to test his powers, Wordsworth began writing the autobiographical poem that would absorb him intermittently for the next 40 years, and which was eventually published in 1850 under the title The Prelude, or, Growth of a Poet’s Mind. The Prelude extends the quiet autobiographical mode of reminiscence that Wordsworth had begun in “Tintern Abbey” and traces the poet’s life from his school days through his university life and his visits to France, up to the year (1799) in which he settled at Grasmere. It thus describes a circular journey—what has been called a long journey home. But the main events in the autobiography are internal: the poem exultantly describes the ways in which the imagination emerges as the dominant faculty, exerting its control over the reason and the world of the senses alike.

The Recluse itself was never completed, and only one of its three projected parts was actually written; this was published in 1814 as The Excursion and consisted of nine long philosophical monologues spoken by pastoral characters. The first monologue (Book I) contained a version of one of Wordsworth’s greatest poems, “The Ruined Cottage,” composed in superb blank verse in 1797. This bleak narrative records the slow, pitiful decline of a woman whose husband had gone off to the army and never returned. For later versions of this poem Wordsworth added a reconciling conclusion, but the earliest and most powerful version was starkly tragic.

In the company of Dorothy, Wordsworth spent the winter of 1798–99 in Germany, where, in the remote town of Goslar, in Saxony, he experienced the most intense isolation he had ever known. As a consequence, however, he wrote some of his most moving poetry, including the “Lucy” and “Matthew” elegies and early drafts toward The Prelude. Upon his return to England, Wordsworth incorporated several new poems in the second edition of Lyrical Ballads (1800), notably two tragic pastorals of country life, “The Brothers” and “Michael.” These poems, together with the brilliant lyrics that were assembled in Wordsworth’s second verse collection, Poems, in Two Volumes (1807), help to make up what is now recognized as his great decade, stretching from his meeting with Coleridge in 1797 until 1808.

One portion of a second part of The Recluse was finished in 1806, but, like The Prelude, was left in manuscript at the poet’s death. This portion, Home at Grasmere, joyously celebrated Wordsworth’s taking possession (in December 1799) of Dove Cottage, at Grasmere, Westmorland, where he was to reside for eight of his most productive years. In 1802, during the short-lived Peace of Amiens, Wordsworth returned briefly to France, where at Calais he met his daughter and made his peace with Annette. He then returned to England to marry Mary Hutchinson, a childhood friend, and start an English family, which had grown to three sons and two daughters by 1810.

In 1805 the drowning of Wordsworth’s favorite brother, John, the captain of a sailing vessel, gave Wordsworth the strongest shock he had ever experienced. “A deep distress hath humanized my Soul,” he lamented in his “Elegiac Stanzas” on Peele Castle. Henceforth he would produce a different kind of poetry, defined by a new sobriety, a new restraint, and a lofty, almost Miltonic elevation of tone and diction. Wordsworth appeared to anticipate this turn in “Tintern Abbey,” where he had learned to hear “the still, sad music of humanity,” and again in the “Ode: Intimations of Immortality” (written in 1802–04; published in Poems, in Two Volumes). The theme of this ode is the loss of his power to see the things he had once seen, the radiance, the “celestial light” that seemed to lie over the landscapes of his youth like “the glory and freshness of a dream.” Now, in the Peele Castle stanzas, he sorrowfully looked back on the light as illusory, as a “Poet’s dream,” as “the light that never was, on sea or land.”

These metaphors point up the differences between the early and the late Wordsworth. It is generally accepted that the quality of his verse fell off as he grew more distant from the sources of his inspiration and as his Anglican and Tory sentiments hardened into orthodoxy. Today many readers discern two Wordsworths, the young Romantic revolutionary and the aging Tory humanist, risen into what John Keats called the “Egotistical Sublime.” Little of Wordsworth’s later verse matches the best of his earlier years.

In his middle period Wordsworth invested a good deal of his creative energy in odes, the best known of which is “On the Power of Sound.” He also produced a large number of sonnets, most of them strung together in sequences. The most admired are the Duddon sonnets (1820), which trace the progress of a stream through Lake District landscapes and blend nature poetry with philosophic reflection in a manner now recognized as the best of the later Wordsworth. Other sonnet sequences record his tours through the European continent, and the three series of Ecclesiastical Sketches (1822) develop meditations, many sharply satirical, on church history. But the most memorable poems of Wordsworth’s middle and late years were often cast in elegiac mode. They range from the poet’s heartfelt laments for two of his children who died in 1812—laments incorporated in The Excursion—to brilliant lyrical effusions on the deaths of his fellow poets James Hogg, George Crabbe, Coleridge, and Charles Lamb.

In 1808 Wordsworth and his family moved from Dove Cottage to larger quarters in Grasmere, and five years later they settled at Rydal Mount, near Ambleside, where Wordsworth spent the remainder of his life. In 1813 he accepted the post of distributor of stamps for the county of Westmorland, an appointment that carried the salary of £400 a year. Wordsworth continued to hold back from publication The Prelude, Home at Grasmere, The Borderers, and Salisbury Plain. He did publish Poems, in Two Volumes in 1807; The Excursion in 1814, containing the only finished portions of The Recluse; and the collected Poems of 1815, which contained most of his shorter poems and two important critical essays as well. Wordsworth’s other works published during middle age include The White Doe of Rylstone (1815), a poem about the pathetic shattering of a Roman Catholic family during an unsuccessful rebellion against Elizabeth I in 1569; a Thanksgiving Ode (1816); and Peter Bell (1819), a poem written in 1798 and then modulated in successive rewritings into an experiment in Romantic irony and the mock-heroic and coloured by the poet’s feelings of affinity with his hero, a “wild and woodland rover.” The Waggoner (1819) is another extended ballad about a North Country itinerant.

Through all these years Wordsworth was assailed by vicious and tireless critical attacks by contemptuous reviewers; no great poet has ever had to endure worse. But finally, with the publication of The River Duddon in 1820, the tide began to turn, and by the mid-1830s his reputation had been established with both critics and the reading public.

Wordsworth’s last years were given over partly to “tinkering” his poems, as the family called his compulsive and persistent habit of revising his earlier poems through edition after edition. The Prelude, for instance, went through four distinct manuscript versions (1798–99, 1805–06, 1818–20, and 1832–39) and was published only after the poet’s death in 1850. Most readers find the earliest versions of The Prelude and other heavily revised poems to be the best, but flashes of brilliance can appear in revisions added when the poet was in his seventies.

Wordsworth succeeded his friend Robert Southey as Britain’s poet laureate in 1843 and held that post until his own death in 1850. Thereafter his influence was felt throughout the rest of the 19th century, though he was honoured more for his smaller poems, as singled out by the Victorian critic Matthew Arnold, than for his masterpiece, The Prelude. In the 20th century his reputation was strengthened both by recognition of his importance in the Romantic movement and by an appreciation of the darker elements in his personality and verse.

William Wordsworth was the central figure in the English Romantic revolution in poetry. His contribution to it was threefold. First, he formulated in his poems and his essays a new attitude toward nature. This was more than a matter of introducing nature imagery into his verse; it amounted to a fresh view of the organic relation between man and the natural world, and it culminated in metaphors of a wedding between nature and the human mind, and beyond that, in the sweeping metaphor of nature as emblematic of the mind of God, a mind that “feeds upon infinity” and “broods over the dark abyss.” Second, Wordsworth probed deeply into his own sensibility as he traced, in his finest poem, The Prelude, the “growth of a poet’s mind.” The Prelude was in fact the first long autobiographical poem. Writing it in a drawn-out process of self-exploration, Wordsworth worked his way toward a modern psychological understanding of his own nature, and thus more broadly of human nature. Third, Wordsworth placed poetry at the centre of human experience; in impassioned rhetoric he pronounced poetry to be nothing less than “the first and last of all knowledge—it is as immortal as the heart of man,” and he then went on to create some of the greatest English poetry of his century. It is probably safe to say that by the late 20th century he stood in critical estimation where Coleridge and Arnold had originally placed him, next to John Milton—who stands, of course, next to William Shakespeare.

Stephen Maxfield Parrish

 


THE PRELUDE: Or the Growth of a Poet's Mind
 

Type of work: Poem
Author: William Wordsworth (1770-1850)
First published: The Prelude: Or, Growth of a Poet's Mind, An Autobiographical Poem, 1850
 

 

The Prelude is William Wordsworth's most important work; many critics regard it as the central poem of the English Romantic age. In this sustained autobiographical meditation in blank verse, Wordsworth adapts—in fact, revolutionizes—the conventions of the epic tradition to explore and dramatize the growth of his mind as a poet. A poem about imagination, memory, and selfhood, The Prelude addresses at the same time the interactions between the self and the forces outside it—Nature, mankind, and God. It is the vivid self-portrait of a great poet who came of age during a time of political, social, and intellectual revolution, and it delineates the dilemmas faced by a mind seeking truth as traditional values and systems of belief were called into question.
The poem exists in several versions, none of which was called The Prelude by Wordsworth himself, who died leaving it untitled and unpublished. It was given its title by his widow, who published it in its final version in 1850, shortly after Wordsworth's death. Wordsworth viewed The Prelude as part of a projected philosophical poem, conceived as his magnum opus, called The Recluse. Wordsworth never completed The Recluse; feeling that it was "a thing unprecedented in Literary history that a man should talk so much about himself," he was also reluctant to publish The Prelude by itself.
While he did not publish it, he painstakingly polished it. The 1850 text of The Prelude is based on a manuscript finished in 1839, itself the final result of three complete reworkings and a great number of small revisions of a poem begun in 1798. Of most interest to modern readers are the 1805 Prelude (thirteen books)—a complete draft of the poem which includes, in the fictionalized episode of Vaudracour and Julia, an account of Wordsworth's love affair in France during the French Revolution—and the 1850 Prelude (fourteen books), the version most frequently published. The 1850 Prelude differs from the 1805 text in several ways. Most important are its suppression of the Vaudracour and Julia episode and its many stylistic and tonal alterations. Wordsworth changed individual passages of verse to make them, in turn, smoother or clearer or more elaborate or—what is most interesting—more in keeping with Christian orthodoxy and less boldly personal. Readers seeking to witness the "growth of a poet's mind" (Mary Wordsworth's subtitle for The Prelude) as fully as possible can best do so by studying the 1805 and 1850 versions comparatively. There are, in fact, a number of modern editions of The Prelude that print the texts of 1805 and 1850 on facing pages (references here will be to the 1850 version).
Wordsworth remarked in an 1805 letter that he began The Prelude "because I was unprepared to treat any more arduous subject, and diffident of my own powers." The first book of the poem dramatizes these feelings vividly. Although Wordsworth is self-consciously and preeminently a poet of memory, he departs from his usual practice at the opening to locate his concerns squarely in the present. Book 1 shows the poet in the process of discovering his own subject. It begins as Wordsworth, having escaped from the cares of the city, is contemplating his newfound freedom. "The earth is all before me," he exclaims, and goes on to celebrate the prospect of long months of leisure to enjoy himself and to write poetry. His celebration is short-lived, however, and he goes on to recount, in the past tense, how he soon felt thwarted, unable to compose a line. A time of self-examination ensued, during which Wordsworth found himself unable to choose a subject to write about, whether because of "some imperfection in the chosen theme" or because he felt inadequate to the task. His spirits droop; he feels "like a false steward who hath much received and renders nothing back."
At this point the poem takes a dramatic turn. Wordsworth reaches back to his early childhood, asking rhetorically whether Nature's fostering ministry to his growing soul was meant only to end in frustration. Clearly, it was not, for now his imagination becomes unblocked as he begins to muse upon childhood activities and to focus in detail upon a series of vivid memories—snaring woodcocks on a frosty night, plundering a raven's nest on a high, naked crag, stealing a boat in the moonlight and feeling admonished by the "unknown modes of being" that are a part of Nature. These and other recollections, fetching "invigorating thoughts from former years, "help to steady the poet in his present distress, to revive his mind, and to move him toward the subject of the rest of The Prelude. Whereas in the opening lines the earth was all before him, but he could not find a way to proceed, now at the closing of book 1, he knows where he is going—"The road lies plain before me"—and he is ready to address "a theme/ Single and of determined bounds: "the story of my life."
The process, dramatized in book 1, of turning to the past for aid in present difficulties is characteristically Wordsworthian, and later in the poem he will specifically articulate a theory of how "feeling comes in aid/ Of feeling, and diversity of strength/ Attends us, if but once we have been strong." This theory of the saving power of imaginative memory is one of Wordsworth's most famous ideas:

There are in our existence spots of time,
That with distinct pre-eminence retain
A renovating virtue, whence, depressed
By false opinion and contentious thought,
Or aught of heavier or more deadly weight,
In trivial occupations, and the round
Of ordinary intercourse, our minds
Are nourished and invisibly repaired.

Such moments take place "from our first childhood," and are chiefly to be found

Among those passages of life that give
Profoundest knowledge to what point, and how,
The mind is lord and master—outward sense
The obedient servant of her will.

These lines are quintessentially Romantic in their assertion of the primacy of the human imagination. Not all of The Prelude is equally assertive or thoroughly self-consistent, and much of its power and interest lie in Wordsworth's arguments with himself about the power of imagination as he formulates, discards, refines, and perfects hypotheses about it and about Nature. The Prelude is a poem of process and discovery, and of doubt as well as of assertion. Wordsworth's own life becomes a kind of test case on the subject of imagination, and many of The Prelude's, highest moments turn upon it.
From book 2 on, spurred by the turn his mind took toward early childhood in book 1, Wordsworth follows a roughly chronological narrative of his life, interrupted at significant moments by recurrence to relevant "spots of time." Up through book 6, Wordsworth addresses the birth and early growth of his imaginative powers. Books 7 through 11 treat their impairment, and books 12 through 14 detail their eventual restoration.
Describing his school days in book 2, Wordsworth recounts at the same time his developing relationship with Nature as he makes the effort to put himself in touch with the sources of his identity. The effort is not without difficulty; musing on his boyhood, he often seems to himself "two consciousnesses, conscious of myself/ And of some other Being." Like many other Romantic poems, The Prelude is deeply concerned with epistemology, with the investigation of the origin, nature, methods, and limits of human knowledge.
The third book of The Prelude takes Wordsworth into his university days at Cambridge. There, in the face of his dislike of the formal curriculum and methods of instruction, he learned more and more to depend upon his own inner resources, aided by the remembered examples of the poets Geoffrey Chaucer, Edmund Spenser, and John Milton, and of great thinkers such as Sir Isaac Newton, "a mind for ever/ Voyaging through strange seas of Thought, alone."
Wordsworth's experiences at Cambridge point up one of his characteristic difficulties: He was uncomfortable in casual social situations and among large groups of people. Although a professed lover of mankind, he was essentially a solitary individual, and his most cherished human encounters were with other solitaries or with a few intimate friends and family members. In book 4, he celebrates his return home from Cambridge for summer vacation, reflecting that "when from our better selves we have too long/ Been parted by the hurrying world, . . ./ How gracious, how benign, is Solitude," especially when it has an "appropriate human centre." He illustrates this idea by describing a powerful encounter he had with a discharged soldier he met one evening on a road. Solitude also figures significantly in book 4, in Wordsworth's account of how one morning, witnessing a glorious sunrise, he experienced an epiphanic moment that left him with the conviction "that I should be, else sinning greatly,/ A dedicated Spirit." Most critics have viewed this episode as referring to Wordsworth's vocation as a poet.
Wordsworth moves even more deeply into his contemplation of the forces that shape human life and the desires that drive it in The Prelude's fifth book. Subtitled "Books," it recognizes the human longing for emotional and spiritual growth and immortality beneath all imaginative endeavors, particularly literary creation, mathematical thought, and the education of children. Wordsworth contemplates these endeavors in the contexts of human frailty and error and of the frightening and inevitable reality of death. He ponders human life as a terrible struggle to survive in spite of threats both from within and from without—educational systems that maim the human spirit, untimely illnesses and accidents that kill, natural catastrophes that bring widescale destruction. Wordsworth delineates this struggle most suggestively in book 5, in his description of a dream about an impending deluge that threatens to drown the entire world.
Still, his faith in imagination holds steady. Indeed, Wordsworth's description in book 6 of a walking tour he took in the Alps shows how this faith was strengthened. Such tours were very popular in Wordsworth's day; in fact, they had become conventionalized. Tourists embarked in the anticipation of sublime emotional experiences at prescribed vistas and moments. Mont Blanc, for example, was not to be missed, and the very moment of crossing the Alps—of passing from an upward to a downward course—held the promise of great excitement. This very conventionalization of the sublime, however, depressed Wordsworth. He was "grieved" to find Mont Blanc "a soulless image on the eye." Climbing the road to the Simplon Pass, he and his companion lost their way, only to learn from a passerby native to the district that they had crossed the Alps unwittingly. At this point, Wordsworth breaks from his narrative of disappointment to an impassioned celebration of the creative power of the imagination. He recognizes that the human mind's power of expectation is infinitely greater than any earthly fulfillment could be, and that therefore the imagination is not tied to the earth:

Our destiny, our being's heart and home,
Is with infinitude, and only there;
With hope it is, hope that can never die,
Effort, and expectation, and desire,
And something evermore about to be.


Wordsworth returns to his narrative to describe, in what has become one of the most celebrated passages of blank verse in the English language, how the landscape subsequently seemed transformed, in fact, apocalyptic in import:

. . . The immeasurable height
Of woods decaying, never to be decayed,
The stationary blasts of waterfalls,
And in the narrow rent at every turn
Winds thwarting winds, bewildered and forlorn,
The torrents shooting from the clear blue sky,
The rocks that muttered close upon our ears,
Black drizzling crags that spake by the way-side
As if a voice were in them, the sick sight
And giddy prospect of the raving stream,
The unfettered clouds and region of the Heavens,
Tumult and peace, the darkness and the light—
Were all like workings of one mind, the features
Of the same face, blossoms upon one tree;
Characters of the great Apocalypse,
The types and symbols of Eternity,
Of first, and last, and midst, and without end.

The human mind and Nature, therefore, each in its own way, partake of and shadow forth the Divine and the eternal.
From the Alps in book 6, Wordsworth descends in the seventh book into London, a "monstrous ant-hill on the plain/ Of a too busy world." His spirits sink, pulled down by his remembered impressions of the dehumanization of city life and the victimization there of women and children. The hideous realities of London impinge upon and threaten the imagination, which seems there to have scant place in and little hope for changing human society. Wordsworth leaves this confused, alienated, and alienating world of conflicting data, sense impressions, and moral problems to return in book 8 to the country, where the sources of his own identity lie. Book 8 provides a mental retrospect of the action of the whole poem thus far, and culminates in Wordsworth's assertion that his early love of Nature led him to the love of Man; its climactic image, appropriately, is one of man in Nature— a shepherd.
Wordsworth goes on in the next several books to recall his own hopes for humankind in general during the French Revolution. He shared these hopes with visionary thinkers like Jean Jacques Rousseau, who asserted the natural goodness of human nature. The initial events of the Revolution were heartening to Wordsworth and seemed to him to be in the natural course of things. When England went to war with France, however, and with the shock of the Reign of Terror and of France's new role as an aggressor against other nations, Wordsworth's expectations were shattered, his faith in humankind shaken. Having witnessed a split between the ideal and the real, between theory and fact, in the events in France, a comparable splitting occurred in his own soul. First his thoughts became divorced from his feelings, and, tyrannized by his abstract intellect's exhausting demand for formal proof of "all precepts, judgements, maxims, creeds," he "yielded up moral questions in despair." Next, he found himself out of touch with the physical world, as his "bodily eye" began to tyrannize over his imagination; he became overly concerned with the visual surfaces of the natural world and no longer experienced its moral, emotional, and spiritual power.
From book 12 on, Wordsworth narrates how his impaired imagination was restored, principally through the agency and examples of his beloved sister Dorothy and his wife Mary, and through his own remembrances of "spots of time" in his early life. His joyous account of this restoration leads him to conclude The Prelude triumphantly, with an apocalyptic vision he experienced ascending Mount Snowdon, a vision in which Nature became "the type/ Of a majestic intellect," the emblem of the human creative imagination, which is itself godlike. He assumes the role of prophetic poet, who will teach others of the beauty, power, and divine fabric of the mind of man.
The Prelude is epic in scope and victorious in outcome. Its battles, however, are not external but internal, as are its depths and heights. Its hero is not to be defined narrowly, as William Wordsworth, but broadly, as the human imagination.

 

 

 

 




THE PRELUDE



BOOK FIRST


INTRODUCTION--CHILDHOOD AND SCHOOL-TIME


OH there is blessing in this gentle breeze,
A visitant that while it fans my cheek
Doth seem half-conscious of the joy it brings
From the green fields, and from yon azure sky.
Whate'er its mission, the soft breeze can come
To none more grateful than to me; escaped
From the vast city, where I long had pined
A discontented sojourner: now free,
Free as a bird to settle where I will.
What dwelling shall receive me? in what vale
Shall be my harbour? underneath what grove
Shall I take up my home? and what clear stream
Shall with its murmur lull me into rest?
The earth is all before me. With a heart
Joyous, nor scared at its own liberty,
I look about; and should the chosen guide
Be nothing better than a wandering cloud,
I cannot miss my way. I breathe again!
Trances of thought and mountings of the mind
Come fast upon me: it is shaken off,
That burthen of my own unnatural self,
The heavy weight of many a weary day
Not mine, and such as were not made for me.
Long months of peace (if such bold word accord
With any promises of human life),
Long months of ease and undisturbed delight
Are mine in prospect; whither shall I turn,
By road or pathway, or through trackless field,
Up hill or down, or shall some floating thing
Upon the river point me out my course?

Dear Liberty! Yet what would it avail
But for a gift that consecrates the joy?
For I, methought, while the sweet breath of heaven
Was blowing on my body, felt within
A correspondent breeze, that gently moved
With quickening virtue, but is now become
A tempest, a redundant energy,
Vexing its own creation. Thanks to both,
And their congenial powers, that, while they join
In breaking up a long-continued frost,
Bring with them vernal promises, the hope
Of active days urged on by flying hours,--
Days of sweet leisure, taxed with patient thought
Abstruse, nor wanting punctual service high,
Matins and vespers of harmonious verse!

Thus far, O Friend! did I, not used to make
A present joy the matter of a song,
Pour forth that day my soul in measured strains
That would not be forgotten, and are here
Recorded: to the open fields I told
A prophecy: poetic numbers came
Spontaneously to clothe in priestly robe
A renovated spirit singled out,
Such hope was mine, for holy services.
My own voice cheered me, and, far more, the mind's
Internal echo of the imperfect sound;
To both I listened, drawing from them both
A cheerful confidence in things to come.

Content and not unwilling now to give
A respite to this passion, I paced on
With brisk and eager steps; and came, at length,
To a green shady place, where down I sate
Beneath a tree, slackening my thoughts by choice
And settling into gentler happiness.
'Twas autumn, and a clear and placid day,
With warmth, as much as needed, from a sun
Two hours declined towards the west; a day
With silver clouds, and sunshine on the grass,
And in the sheltered and the sheltering grove
A perfect stillness. Many were the thoughts
Encouraged and dismissed, till choice was made
Of a known Vale, whither my feet should turn,
Nor rest till they had reached the very door
Of the one cottage which methought I saw.
No picture of mere memory ever looked
So fair; and while upon the fancied scene
I gazed with growing love, a higher power
Than Fancy gave assurance of some work
Of glory there forthwith to be begun,
Perhaps too there performed. Thus long I mused,
Nor e'er lost sight of what I mused upon,
Save when, amid the stately grove of oaks,
Now here, now there, an acorn, from its cup
Dislodged, through sere leaves rustled, or at once
To the bare earth dropped with a startling sound.
From that soft couch I rose not, till the sun
Had almost touched the horizon; casting then
A backward glance upon the curling cloud
Of city smoke, by distance ruralised;
Keen as a Truant or a Fugitive,
But as a Pilgrim resolute, I took,
Even with the chance equipment of that hour,
The road that pointed toward the chosen Vale.
It was a splendid evening, and my soul
Once more made trial of her strength, nor lacked
Aeolian visitations; but the harp
Was soon defrauded, and the banded host
Of harmony dispersed in straggling sounds,
And lastly utter silence! "Be it so;
Why think of anything but present good?"
So, like a home-bound labourer, I pursued
My way beneath the mellowing sun, that shed
Mild influence; nor left in me one wish
Again to bend the Sabbath of that time
To a servile yoke. What need of many words?
A pleasant loitering journey, through three days
Continued, brought me to my hermitage.
I spare to tell of what ensued, the life
In common things--the endless store of things,
Rare, or at least so seeming, every day
Found all about me in one neighbourhood--
The self-congratulation, and, from morn
To night, unbroken cheerfulness serene.
But speedily an earnest longing rose
To brace myself to some determined aim,
Reading or thinking; either to lay up
New stores, or rescue from decay the old
By timely interference: and therewith
Came hopes still higher, that with outward life
I might endue some airy phantasies
That had been floating loose about for years,
And to such beings temperately deal forth
The many feelings that oppressed my heart.
That hope hath been discouraged; welcome light
Dawns from the east, but dawns to disappear
And mock me with a sky that ripens not
Into a steady morning: if my mind,
Remembering the bold promise of the past,
Would gladly grapple with some noble theme,
Vain is her wish; where'er she turns she finds
Impediments from day to day renewed.

And now it would content me to yield up
Those lofty hopes awhile, for present gifts
Of humbler industry. But, oh, dear Friend!
The Poet, gentle creature as he is,
Hath, like the Lover, his unruly times;
His fits when he is neither sick nor well,
Though no distress be near him but his own
Unmanageable thoughts: his mind, best pleased
While she as duteous as the mother dove
Sits brooding, lives not always to that end,
But like the innocent bird, hath goadings on
That drive her as in trouble through the groves;
With me is now such passion, to be blamed
No otherwise than as it lasts too long.

When, as becomes a man who would prepare
For such an arduous work, I through myself
Make rigorous inquisition, the report
Is often cheering; for I neither seem
To lack that first great gift, the vital soul,
Nor general Truths, which are themselves a sort
Of Elements and Agents, Under-powers,
Subordinate helpers of the living mind:
Nor am I naked of external things,
Forms, images, nor numerous other aids
Of less regard, though won perhaps with toil
And needful to build up a Poet's praise.
Time, place, and manners do I seek, and these
Are found in plenteous store, but nowhere such
As may be singled out with steady choice;
No little band of yet remembered names
Whom I, in perfect confidence, might hope
To summon back from lonesome banishment,
And make them dwellers in the hearts of men
Now living, or to live in future years.
Sometimes the ambitious Power of choice, mistaking
Proud spring-tide swellings for a regular sea,
Will settle on some British theme, some old
Romantic tale by Milton left unsung;
More often turning to some gentle place
Within the groves of Chivalry, I pipe
To shepherd swains, or seated harp in hand,
Amid reposing knights by a river side
Or fountain, listen to the grave reports
Of dire enchantments faced and overcome
By the strong mind, and tales of warlike feats,
Where spear encountered spear, and sword with sword
Fought, as if conscious of the blazonry
That the shield bore, so glorious was the strife;
Whence inspiration for a song that winds
Through ever-changing scenes of votive quest
Wrongs to redress, harmonious tribute paid
To patient courage and unblemished truth,
To firm devotion, zeal unquenchable,
And Christian meekness hallowing faithful loves.
Sometimes, more sternly moved, I would relate
How vanquished Mithridates northward passed,
And, hidden in the cloud of years, became
Odin, the Father of a race by whom
Perished the Roman Empire: how the friends
And followers of Sertorius, out of Spain
Flying, found shelter in the Fortunate Isles,
And left their usages, their arts and laws,
To disappear by a slow gradual death,
To dwindle and to perish one by one,
Starved in those narrow bounds: but not the soul
Of Liberty, which fifteen hundred years
Survived, and, when the European came
With skill and power that might not be withstood,
Did, like a pestilence, maintain its hold
And wasted down by glorious death that race
Of natural heroes: or I would record
How, in tyrannic times, some high-souled man,
Unnamed among the chronicles of kings,
Suffered in silence for Truth's sake: or tell,
How that one Frenchman, through continued force
Of meditation on the inhuman deeds
Of those who conquered first the Indian Isles,
Went single in his ministry across
The Ocean; not to comfort the oppressed,
But, like a thirsty wind, to roam about
Withering the Oppressor: how Gustavus sought
Help at his need in Dalecarlia's mines:
How Wallace fought for Scotland; left the name
Of Wallace to be found, like a wild flower,
All over his dear Country; left the deeds
Of Wallace, like a family of Ghosts,
To people the steep rocks and river banks,
Her natural sanctuaries, with a local soul
Of independence and stern liberty.
Sometimes it suits me better to invent
A tale from my own heart, more near akin
To my own passions and habitual thoughts;
Some variegated story, in the main
Lofty, but the unsubstantial structure melts
Before the very sun that brightens it,
Mist into air dissolving! Then a wish,
My last and favourite aspiration, mounts
With yearning toward some philosophic song
Of Truth that cherishes our daily life;
With meditations passionate from deep
Recesses in 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. Thus my days are past
In contradiction; with no skill to part
Vague longing, haply bred by want of power,
From paramount impulse not to be withstood,
A timorous capacity, from prudence,
From circumspection, infinite delay.
Humility and modest awe, themselves
Betray me, serving often for a cloak
To a more subtle selfishness; that now
Locks every function up in blank reserve,
Now dupes me, trusting to an anxious eye
That with intrusive restlessness beats off
Simplicity and self-presented truth.
Ah! better far than this, to stray about
Voluptuously through fields and rural walks,
And ask no record of the hours, resigned
To vacant musing, unreproved neglect
Of all things, and deliberate holiday.
Far better never to have heard the name
Of zeal and just ambition, than to live
Baffled and plagued by a mind that every hour
Turns recreant to her task; takes heart again,
Then feels immediately some hollow thought
Hang like an interdict upon her hopes.
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 toward the grave,
Like a false steward who hath much received
And renders nothing back.
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? For this, didst thou,
O Derwent! winding among grassy holms
Where I was looking on, a babe in arms,
Make ceaseless music that composed my thoughts
To more than infant softness, giving me
Amid the fretful dwellings of mankind
A foretaste, a dim earnest, of the calm
That Nature breathes among the hills and groves.

When he had left the mountains and received
On his smooth breast the shadow of those towers
That yet survive, a shattered monument
Of feudal sway, the bright blue river passed
Along the margin of our terrace walk;
A tempting playmate whom we dearly loved.
Oh, many a time have I, 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 basked again
Alternate, all a summer's day, or scoured
The sandy fields, leaping through flowery groves
Of yellow ragwort; or, when rock and hill,
The woods, and distant Skiddaw's lofty height,
Were bronzed with deepest radiance, 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 savage, in the thunder shower.

Fair seed-time had my soul, and I grew up
Fostered alike by beauty and by fear:
Much favoured in my birth-place, and no less
In that beloved Vale to which erelong
We were transplanted;--there were we let loose
For sports of wider range. Ere I had told
Ten birth-days, when among the mountain slopes
Frost, and the breath of frosty wind, had snapped
The last autumnal crocus, 'twas my joy
With store of springes o'er my shoulder hung
To range the open heights where woodcocks run
Along the smooth green turf. Through half the night,
Scudding away from snare to snare, I plied
That anxious visitation;--moon and stars
Were shining o'er my head. I was alone,
And seemed to be a trouble to the peace
That dwelt among them. Sometimes it befell
In these night wanderings, that a strong desire
O'erpowered my better reason, and the bird
Which was the captive of another's toil
Became my prey; and when the deed was done
I heard among the solitary hills
Low breathings coming after me, and sounds
Of undistinguishable motion, steps
Almost as silent as the turf they trod.

Nor less, when spring had warmed the cultured Vale,
Moved we as plunderers where the mother-bird
Had in high places built her lodge; though mean
Our object and inglorious, yet the end
Was not ignoble. Oh! when I have hung
Above the raven's nest, by knots of grass
And half-inch fissures in the slippery rock
But ill sustained, and almost (so it seemed)
Suspended by the blast that blew amain,
Shouldering the naked crag, oh, at that time
While on the perilous ridge I hung alone,
With what strange utterance did the loud dry wind
Blow through my ear! the sky seemed not a sky
Of earth--and with what motion moved the clouds!

Dust as we are, the immortal spirit grows
Like harmony in music; there is a dark
Inscrutable workmanship that reconciles
Discordant elements, makes them cling together
In one society. How strange, that all
The terrors, pains, and early miseries,
Regrets, vexations, lassitudes interfused
Within my mind, should e'er have borne a part,
And that a needful part, in making up
The calm existence that is mine when I
Am worthy of myself! Praise to the end!
Thanks to the means which Nature deigned to employ;
Whether her fearless visitings, or those
That came with soft alarm, like hurtless light
Opening the peaceful clouds; or she would use
Severer interventions, ministry
More palpable, as best might suit her aim.

One summer evening (led by her) I found
A little boat tied to a willow tree
Within a rocky cave, its usual home.
Straight I unloosed her chain, and stepping in
Pushed from the shore. It was an act of stealth
And troubled pleasure, nor without the voice
Of mountain-echoes did my boat move on;
Leaving behind her still, on either side,
Small circles glittering idly in the moon,
Until they melted all into one track
Of sparkling light. But now, like one who rows,
Proud of his skill, to reach a chosen point
With an unswerving line, I fixed my view
Upon the summit of a craggy ridge,
The horizon's utmost boundary; far above
Was nothing but the stars and the grey sky.
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 horizon's bound, a huge peak, black and huge,
As if with voluntary power instinct,
Upreared its head. I struck and struck again,
And growing still in stature the grim shape
Towered up between me and the stars, and still,
For so it seemed, with purpose of its own
And measured motion like a living thing,
Strode after me. With trembling oars I turned,
And through the silent water stole my way
Back to the covert of the willow tree;
There in her mooring-place I left my bark,--
And through the meadows homeward went, in grave
And serious mood; but after I had seen
That spectacle, for many days, my brain
Worked with a dim and undetermined sense
Of unknown modes of being; o'er 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 colours of green fields;
But huge and mighty forms, that do not live
Like living men, moved slowly through the mind
By day, and were a trouble to my dreams.

Wisdom and Spirit 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.
Nor was this fellowship vouchsafed to me
With stinted kindness. In November days,
When vapours rolling down the valley made
A lonely scene more lonesome, among woods,
At noon and 'mid the calm of summer nights,
When, by the margin of the trembling lake,
Beneath the gloomy hills homeward I went
In solitude, such intercourse was mine;
Mine was it in the fields both day and night,
And by the waters, all the summer long.

And in the frosty season, when the sun
Was set, and visible for many a mile
The cottage windows blazed through twilight gloom,
I heeded not their summons: happy time
It was indeed for all of us--for me
It was a time of rapture! Clear and loud
The village clock tolled six,--I wheeled about,
Proud and exulting like an untired horse
That cares not for his home. All shod with steel,
We hissed along the polished ice in games
Confederate, imitative of the chase
And woodland pleasures,--the resounding horn,
The pack loud chiming, and the hunted hare.
So through the darkness and the cold we flew,
And not a voice was idle; with the din
Smitten, the precipices rang aloud;
The leafless trees and every icy crag
Tinkled like iron; while far distant hills
Into the tumult sent an alien sound
Of melancholy not unnoticed, while the stars
Eastward were sparkling clear, and in the west
The orange sky of evening died away.
Not seldom from the uproar I retired
Into a silent bay, or sportively
Glanced sideway, leaving the tumultuous throng,
To cut across the reflex of a star
That fled, and, flying still before me, gleamed
Upon the glassy plain; and oftentimes,
When we had given our bodies to the wind,
And all the shadowy banks on either side
Came sweeping through the darkness, spinning still
The rapid line of motion, then at once
Have I, reclining back upon my heels,
Stopped short; yet still the solitary cliffs
Wheeled by me--even as if the earth had rolled
With visible motion her diurnal round!
Behind me did they stretch in solemn train,
Feebler and feebler, and I stood and watched
Till all was tranquil as a dreamless sleep.

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 or desire; and thus did make
The surface of the universal earth,
With triumph and delight, with hope and fear,
Work like a sea?
Not uselessly employed,
Might I pursue this theme through every change
Of exercise and play, to which the year
Did summon us in his delightful round.

We were a noisy crew; the sun in heaven
Beheld not vales more beautiful than ours;
Nor saw a band in happiness and joy
Richer, or worthier of the ground they trod.
I could record with no reluctant voice
The woods of autumn, and their hazel bowers
With milk-white clusters hung; the rod and line,
True symbol of hope's foolishness, whose strong
And unreproved enchantment led us on
By rocks and pools shut out from every star,
All the green summer, to forlorn cascades
Among the windings hid of mountain brooks.
--Unfading recollections! at this hour
The heart is almost mine with which I felt,
From some hill-top on sunny afternoons,
The paper kite high among fleecy clouds
Pull at her rein like an impetuous courser;
Or, from the meadows sent on gusty days,
Beheld her breast the wind, then suddenly
Dashed headlong, and rejected by the storm.

Ye lowly cottages wherein we dwelt,
A ministration of your own was yours;
Can I forget you, being as you were
So beautiful among the pleasant fields
In which ye stood? or can I here forget
The plain and seemly countenance with which
Ye dealt out your plain comforts? Yet had ye
Delights and exultations of your own.
Eager and never weary we pursued
Our home-amusements by the warm peat-fire
At evening, when with pencil, and smooth slate
In square divisions parcelled out and all
With crosses and with cyphers scribbled o'er,
We schemed and puzzled, head opposed to head
In strife too humble to be named in verse:
Or round the naked table, snow-white deal,
Cherry or maple, sate in close array,
And to the combat, Loo or Whist, led on
A thick-ribbed army; not, as in the world,
Neglected and ungratefully thrown by
Even for the very service they had wrought,
But husbanded through many a long campaign.
Uncouth assemblage was it, where no few
Had changed their functions: some, plebeian cards
Which Fate, beyond the promise of their birth,
Had dignified, and called to represent
The persons of departed potentates.
Oh, with what echoes on the board they fell!
Ironic diamonds,--clubs, hearts, diamonds, spades,
A congregation piteously akin!
Cheap matter offered they to boyish wit,
Those sooty knaves, precipitated down
With scoffs and taunts, like Vulcan out of heaven:
The paramount ace, a moon in her eclipse,
Queens gleaming through their splendour's last decay,
And monarchs surly at the wrongs sustained
By royal visages. Meanwhile abroad
Incessant rain was falling, or the frost
Raged bitterly, with keen and silent tooth;
And, interrupting oft that eager game,
From under Esthwaite's splitting fields of ice
The pent-up air, struggling to free itself,
Gave out to meadow grounds and hills a loud
Protracted yelling, like the noise of wolves
Howling in troops along the Bothnic Main.

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.

Yes, I remember when the changeful earth,
And twice five summers on my mind had stamped
The faces of the moving year, even then
I held unconscious intercourse with beauty
Old as creation, drinking in a pure
Organic pleasure from the silver wreaths
Of curling mist, or from the level plain
Of waters coloured by impending clouds.

The sands of Westmoreland, the creeks and bays
Of Cumbria's rocky limits, they can tell
How, when the Sea threw off his evening shade,
And to the shepherd's hut on distant hills
Sent welcome notice of the rising moon,
How I have stood, to fancies such as these
A stranger, linking with the spectacle
No conscious memory of a kindred sight,
And bringing with me no peculiar sense
Of quietness or peace; yet have I stood,
Even while mine eye hath moved o'er many a league
Of shining water, gathering as it seemed,
Through every hair-breadth in that field of light,
New pleasure like a bee among the flowers.

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 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 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.
I began
My story early--not misled, I trust,
By an infirmity of love for days
Disowned by memory--ere the breath of spring
Planting my snowdrops among winter snows:
Nor will it seem to thee, O Friend! so prompt
In sympathy, that I have lengthened out
With fond and feeble tongue a tedious tale.
Meanwhile, my hope has been, that I might fetch
Invigorating thoughts from former years;
Might fix the wavering balance of my mind,
And haply meet reproaches too, whose power
May spur me on, in manhood now mature
To honourable toil. 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?

One end at least hath been attained; my mind
Hath been revived, and if this genial mood
Desert me not, forthwith shall be brought down
Through later years the story of my life.
The road lies plain before me;--'tis a theme
Single and of determined bounds; and hence
I choose it rather at this time, than work
Of ampler or more varied argument,
Where I might be discomfited and lost:
And certain hopes are with me, that to thee
This labour will be welcome, honoured Friend!

 

 

 

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