The Prelude by William Wordsworth: Summary and Critical Analysis

The Prelude begun in 1799 and was completed in 1805, but was published a year after the poet’s death in 1850. In this work the poet describes his experiences of growing up as a man and a poet with fullness, closeness and laborious anxiety that is unique in English literature. The Prelude is the finest work of Wordsworth’s great creative period. Wordsworth conceived the idea of writing a history of the growth of his own mind, and the various texts of the poem cover a very long period in the poet’s life during which his style and opinion both changed considerably.

William Wordsworth

The Prelude is in fact the first long autobiographical poem written in a drawn out process of self- exploration. Wordsworth worked his way towards modern psychological understanding of his own nature and more broadly of human nature. There, he places poetry at the center of human experience. This introspective account of his own development was completed in 1805 and, after substantial revision, published posthumously in 1850. Many critics rank it as Wordsworth’s greatest work. The Prelude begins with an account of the poet’s childhood in the English Lake Country.

He first gives a record of that innocent life out of which his poetry grew; then he goes on to explore how the mind develops. He reveals a strange world, and the deeper we dive into it, the stronger it becomes. Like the short poem, besides touching upon many other things, this long poem traces the development of the poet’s attitudes to nature, his poetic genius, and his understanding of fellow-beings and the spirit of the universe; he moves from the typical childhood animal pleasures, through adolescent, sensual passion for the wild and gloomy, to the adult awareness of the relation of our perception of the natural world, and finally to our sense of the human and moral world. Wordsworth basically tries to recapture and record the full and intense life lived through the senses as a child and as a youth. The child or the first stage is characterized by a vague understanding of the influence of the nature’s moral influence because the child is indulged in mere bodily pleasures; the adolescent phase is marked with dizzy raptures; he speaks of youthful love of freedom and liberty, which he enjoyed in rambles through the woods and on the mountain paths where he did not feel fettered by the claims of the society and schoolwork. But those pleasures soon ended naturally after the youth began to understand human suffering so that, back in the nature, he began to make ‘spiritual interpretation of Nature as a living entity, by following whose ways he could get rid of the eternal problems of human misery. At one phase of his youth, Wordsworth became strongly attracted to the cause of the French Revolution, feeling that he was tied emotionally and spiritually to the popular struggle against the monarchy. But the destructiveness of the revolution and the popular indifference to the real causes and the real heroes, and the corrupted nature of the leading revolutionaries, disillusioned him, and he returned home spiritually broken, feeling that the innocent blood has poisoned the real causes of liberty. At that phase of life, he turned to the nature, finding there not only the solace but also the law and order lacking in the human society. Wordsworth opposed the mechanical reasoning of the materialistic sciences and the logical philosophy as too superficial to probe into the sciences and the logical philosophy as too superficial to probe into the meaning and experience of life and nature. Wordsworth has said, “To every natural form…. I gave a moral life”. His theory has been called one of natural pantheism for this reason.

The Prelude is an autobiographical poem but it is not only the poet’s personal confessions; it is an account of the growth of a poet’s mind. In it he tells the story of his inner life from the earliest childhood up to 1798. But the events do not always follow each of the chronological or even logical order, for the poem is shaped by a kind of internal logic of the growth of mind rather than by the sequence of eternal events. The development is roughly chronological but even as the poem has progressed well into adulthood, at significant points, reference is made back to his childhood contrasting later attitudes, or illustrating important aspects of his theme. The poet’s faith is however based on intuition, and not on reasoning, to understand or analyze life or nature. But his mysticism is not an escape from common experience, with the help of some kind of fancy, but a probing deep into common things and experience. His poetry has in fact been called ‘the highest poetry of the lowest and prosaic things”. According to Wordsworth’s The Prelude, nature had two basic formative influences on the poet’s mind: one was of inspiration with its beauty and joy, and the other one was that of fear and awe-inspiring influences that disciplined his mind since early in life.

The Prelude presents a unique and original understanding of min, life, creativity and such other things in its examination and linking of the factors both important and trivial, which go to make up a complex human personality. The poet indeed has an amazing gift for grasping the significance of the apparently insignificant, and seeing all things as part of a meaningful whole. He tries to show us what he and his poetry are made of, and they are made not only of great events and emotions of marriage and passion, and the French revolution, but of small things that a less observant or creative mind would have forgotten: of boating expeditions, of a chance meeting with old sailors, or dreams, of the noise of the wind in the mountains, of the sight of the ash trees outside his bedroom window.

It is interesting to note that while The Prelude is a poem rooted in the past, a culmination of many traditions of thought and culture, it is at the same time that the first great modern poem. In it Wordsworth is essentially concerned with human nature, with aspects of consciousness and being that are still relevant to our modern interest and predicaments. The Prelude presents the poet in the quest for his identity. It shows that Wordsworth is trying to seek a point of stability within himself. It is an attempt to establish a principle of continuity and equilibrium within change. He said, “The vacancy between me (present) and those days which yet have such self presence in my mind is so great that sometimes when I think of them I see two consciousnesses, the consciousness of myself and that of some other being in me”. This theme has indeed obsessed the modern imagination, replacing the quest of Everyman or Bunyan’s Pilgrim. In so far as The Prelude is concerned with the growth of a poet’s mind, it anticipates all these modern works, which might be lumped together under the common title of “A Portrait of an Artist t as a Young man.”

The Prelude is a modern poem in another sense; it is a self-reflective poem. By this we mean a poem that has a part of its subject the writing of the poem itself. The Prelude is a poem that incorporates the discovery of its ‘ars poetica’. It’s surely the true ancestor of all those subsequent works of art that coil back upon themselves. Both the beginning and the end of the double, quest, the voyage of self-exploration and the effort to articulate the experience are perhaps those spots of time included the earliest moments of moral and spiritual awareness and they are usually associated with intensely felt responses to the nature even when he was a child.