IDAGIO, and A Sweet Little Bach Piece
Another Night (to Remember) at the Symphony

Wordsworth: The Prelude

I read The Prelude in a Norton Critical Edition collection, Wordsworth's Poetry and Prose. Like all the excellent NCEs, this volume includes a selection of criticism from Wordsworth's own time to ours, or nearly--that depends on what you're willing to encompass in "our time." I was following my usual practice of avoiding talk about the work before reading the work itself. But about halfway through the poem I had to sneak a look at the few pages of Matthew Arnold's criticism included, taken from his preface to a Wordsworth edition. I did this because I had, back in my brief days as a graduate student in English, read a certain amount of Arnold and tended to agree with his critical judgments. And I was not enjoying The Prelude, nor admiring it, as much as I expected to, and wondered whether Arnold had anything to say about it, and, if he did, whether I was going to find myself in uneasy disagreement with him, or supported and pleased by his agreement. 

It proved to be the latter, at least to this extent: 

The Excursion and the Prelude, his poems of greatest bulk, are by no means Wordsworth's best work.

I will lay out my prejudices, negative and positive. First, as far as I can recall I hadn't read any Wordsworth since I was an undergraduate more than fifty years ago. At the time, the early Romantics were not, in general, my favorites, with the major exception of Keats. I liked Wordsworth's short lyrics, but the famous and more lengthy "Tintern Abbey" and "Intimations of Immortality" were pretty far short of knockouts. It seemed then that Wordsworth at length was not likely to be as good as Wordsworth in brief. I suppose there were some selections from The Prelude in my sophomore English textbook, and I suppose I probably read them, but I don't remember them at all.

On the other hand, I like the premise of The Prelude: a sort of autobiography in verse. In general (again) the decline of the long poem has been part of the general decline of poetry over the past century or two. By "decline" there I mean specifically the way the word "poetry" has come to mean primarily "lyric poetry"--works of from a few lines to a few pages, and a fairly brief expression of, usually, some personal feeling or insight. The verse drama and the narrative poem of scope comparable to that of the novel are no longer an important part of literary culture, though there are the occasional, and occasionally successful, instances. The Prelude interested me as an attempt to bring something like the personal sensibility of the lyric into a work of ten thousand or so lines (thirteen "books" running between 500 and 1000 lines each). 

If you didn't major in English in college you may not recall (from your required English class(es)) that around 1800 Wordsworth and his friend Coleridge sought to revolutionize English poetry in reaction to what they viewed as the excessive artificiality of most poetry of the time--Pope, for instance. They criticized the elaborate diction and at least implicitly the critical, somewhat detached, somewhat rationalistic approach of that poetry. (See Johnson's "The Vanity of Human Wishes" for a good not-too-long example.) In a sort of manifesto, the polemical preface to their joint publication Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth stated their aim choose incidents and situations from common life, and to relate or describe them, throughout, as far as was possible, in a selection of language really used by men....

The "common life" they had in mind was often the truly common, the life of farmers and villagers, not aristocrats, far from wealth, fashion, and London. This produced lyrics like Wordsworth's "Lucy" poems (the first line of this one is its title):

She dwelt among the untrodden ways
Beside the springs of Dove,
A maid whom there were none to praise
And very few to love.

So much, then, for the state of play. To go straight to the outcome and summarize my reaction: I like the parts of The Prelude where Wordsworth sticks most closely to the ideals expressed in that preface. But there are long stretches where he departs from them, and those I often found dull, or worse.

Several months have passed since I finished reading the poem last fall. In preparation for writing this, I picked it up again and browsed. The opening lines are excellent. The verse is a clear stream, the appeal to the senses and experience direct and persuasive: Wordsworth is enjoying his return to the countryside after a sojourn in London, which he does not love, and the freedom he is about to enjoy for the pursuit of his poetic vocation. But pretty quickly a troublesome sign appears: a lengthy praise of his own creative ambition, which he elevates to a sacred calling: the open fields I told
A prophecy: poetic numbers came
Spontaneously, and clothed in priestly robes
My spirit, thus singled out, as it might seem
For holy services....

I have always disliked, and now detest, the tendency, which began or at least gained prominence with the Romantics, to cast the artist, or rather The Artist, as a quasi-religious figure, set apart from ordinary people by his genius. Eric Gill is generally and justly condemned these days for his sexual abuse of his daughters. That doesn't mean that everything he said was wrong, though, and he was never more right than when he said "The artist is not a special kind of man, but every man is a special kind of artist."

And The Prelude is full of that sort of thing, and not as general observation but as part of Wordsworth's account of himself,  contemplating the progress of his efforts not just to write but to fulfill a rather grandiose mission which is all bound up with his philosophy. I don't think I can describe the latter, and anyway I don't want to bother. He and Coleridge had lofty and somewhat abstract ideas about mind and imagination that I always found somewhat vaporous, and in conflict with their preference for concrete language and experience in poetry. His diction in those parts also tends, perhaps inevitably, toward the vague and the pompous. The long section, spanning two books, in which he describes his experiences in France at the beginning of the Revolution might have been a vivid story, but lapses often into abstraction and detachment: "I thought this, and I thought that," not necessarily memorably expressed. 

What I find worthy of being called great in The Prelude is the recounting of experiences which are distinctly of the physical world: not mental, not ideas. The relation of those experiences is more potent than his talk about them. I'm regretting now that I didn't make notes, or mark passages in the book, because I can't readily put my finger now on one particularly vivid story of his youthful wandering in the countryside where he grew up: this one involves rowing at night, and feeling something uncanny in the way the crags which, because he is rowing away from them and thus facing toward them, seem to grow taller as his distance reveals more of them. 

When I finished reading The Prelude I turned to some of the sonnets and other shorter poems that I remembered liking long ago. They are even better than I remembered, and are the solid foundation of his reputation. I doubt that I'll ever read the entirety of The Prelude again, but I'll certainly go back to those. There are many that would be new to me, and almost certainly some gems among them.


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I've not read The Prelude although I've dipped into it here and there. I've read a great deal of his other poetry though, and would agree that he's at his weakest when being philsophical or abstract. I imagine this is why in "selected poems" editions of his work (I have several, including one from the 1860's) the more abstract/philosophical poems tend to be kept to a minimum.

I would guess that that section where he's describing rowing at night is one of the most reprinted parts, if not THE most reprinted, of The Prelude.

I'm not surprised at all. Should have marked it, though it probably wouldn't be too hard to find. It's in one of the earlier books so that narrows it down some.

That 1860s edition must be interesting.

Yeah, found it in a used bookstore many years ago for $5.00. For a book of its age it's in very good condition, and inscribed: "To my wife, with birthday congratulations," then a signature, which looks like "G.M. Mackey," and dated Dec. 8 '68. I'm assuming the book's from the 1860's but it may be older. Seems that the selection originally came out in 1841, but it must have been a popular one, as it was reprinted at least twice. As my copy isn't dated I don't know which edition it is.

It contains a preface by Henry Reed, dated 1841, who edited the selection. According to a brief note on he was the editor of WW's complete works and the first popularizer of his poetry in the U.S. The preface closes with the observation that WW had at that time outlived many of his contemporary poets (he was born in 1770), and a hope that he would be granted health of mind and body to continue his work.

The selection is interesting in that it is comprised of what must have been at that time considered Wordsworth's best and most representative poetry. Here we are 180 years later and the contemporary list is not too far off from it.

I've read "The Prelude" twice, and it sounds like I like it quite a lot more than you. You're right that the Romantic Artist is part of the picture, and I share your skepticism of or antipathy toward that big idea, but it's also a young man's poem, a gifted young man who feels a responsibility to make something of his gifts, and I think the "holy services" can be read in that light too.

When it comes to long-form, personal poems in English I don't know of much, or even anything, that can compare with it. I found the verse consistently wonderful. (Lately I've been trying to read poems of Robert Lowell, and more than once I've wanted to pick up Wordsworth just to refresh my spirits with elegance and music!) I even liked the section on the French Revolution for its detailed portrait of a young man feeling the allure of revolutionary thinking but doubtful too of its wisdom.

Anyway, it's a poem that has a special place in my heart.

I sort of thought I remembered you speaking well of it on your blog. As I'm sure you know, it was eventually published with someone else's subtitle, "The Growth of a Poet's Mind." That's the problem in a nutshell to me. Too much mind. And, to be blunt, and possibly unfair, too much ego.

"When it comes to long-form, personal poems in English I don't know of much, or even anything, that can compare with it." I don't know that there is anything. I mean, it's not just long, it's *really* long. Everything else I can think of that's of comparable length is narrative. Tennyson's "In Memoriam" is at least as personal, but quite a bit shorter.

What Lowell are you reading? His earlier work is often fairly musical, but also often cryptic, to me anyway--the great flaw of modern poetry.

Rob: "...and a hope that he would be granted health of mind and body to continue his work."

There have been many who would have preferred that he not have continued as long as he did. :-) There seems to be a general agreement that his best work was done fairly early. I remember Arnold mentioning "the address to Mr. Wilkerson's spade" as an instance of how the later work was a decline. At least that's what I remember.


Mac, I started reading Lowell's early collections ("Lord Weary's Castle"). Formally rigorous, and surprisingly Catholic. I liked it well enough, although, as you say, it was often hard to understand.

I moved on to "Life Studies", which I guess is considered an important reference point for modern poetry. I didn't like it much at all. Still hard to understand, but moving away from poetic form in favour of free verse. Thorny. I'm not sure if I should try something else of his.

You've read as much Lowell as I have now, I'm pretty sure, but I feel nearly as sure that if you aren't enthusiastic about him now you aren't going to be. I can't say I've ever been enthusiastic. The big deal about Life Studies, apart from the move to free verse, is what quickly became known as the confessional mode: intimately personal poems usually of a pretty negative cast: I don't like my wife/husband/parents/life....

I think the consensus is that Wordsworth got more conservative and religious as he got older and that as a result his poetry suffered. I've not knowingly read enough of the later work to say whether that's accurate or not, as it may just reflect prejudice against his conservatism/religion.

He definitely got more conservative and religious. More orthodox Christian. As did Coleridge. I think the consensus about the quality of the poetry is probably accurate, though I haven't read it either. It seemed to take hold even while he was still alive.

"The verse drama and the narrative poem of scope comparable to that of the novel are no longer an important part of literary culture."

I'm hoping that epic poetry will make a resurgence, but I think it will be difficult for people who are used to thinking of movies (and almost nothing else) as "epic" to appreciate something as truly epic which does not make an immediate and powerful impression on the senses. I think movies have destroyed or greatly diminished the common poetic imagination. But it also seems to be the case today in almost all the fine arts that subtlety is replaced by sensationalism.

I'm in the process of writing an epic about Charlemagne's campaign against the Lombards. It's supposed to end up having somewhere between 2500 and 3000 lines of iambic tetrameter.

So many words have been devalued. "He made an epic response to their criticisms." And everything enjoyable is "amazing."

Wow. Quite a project! Good luck with it. I assume you mean it would be unrhymed? If you could write a 3000 line poem with rhymes that didn't mostly seem forced, it would be...amazing. :-)

I too have read, for the first time just a few years ago, and have enjoyed The Prelude. Perhaps helped by reading it in this handsome hardback volume which seems to have gone up quite a bit in price since I bought it:

About Wordsworth's later, more conservative poetry: as an older man he wrote a long series of sonnets about church history: the Ecclesiastical Sonnets! I actually read them a few years ago. They were pretty dry. Even I, who might have a greater interest in such material than your average Joe, didn't find much in them to be enthusiastic about. Looking back at my notes, I see that there were a dozen or so that I marked as having something of interest in them, but I never got around to writing about them. Fairly anti-Catholic, as you'd expect, in the late going.

That's an ambitious project, Thaddeus! I wish you well.

Yes, unfortunately I would expect at least some anti-Catholicism in late Wordsworth religious poetry. Also dryness, also unfortunately.

CK, that looks like a great edition. Color plates having to do with the countryside would definitely enhance the experience. However: "the sweeping and awe inspiring landscape that served as the subject for the poem." Only partly true. I would like the poem more if that were more true.

I have that edition of The Prelude too, CK. Beautiful book. Can't remember what I paid for it, but it was pricey.

$129 at Amazon! I was thinking I might get it but... Even used copies are over $100.

"...with rhymes that didn't mostly seem forced..."

I'm actually writing rhyming couplets. There are certainly parts where the rhymes seem forced, but I'm hoping to iron out as much of it as I can in rewriting. Right now, in the first draft, I'm mostly trying to get words on paper. I'm working on book V of an intended XII total.

I think I probably paid close to $100 for it, and this was four or five years ago. I'm pretty sure it's the most expensive book I've ever bought. The only other thing that was in the same ballpark was Marion Montgomery's big two-volume study of Flannery O'Connor, Hillbilly Thomist, which I think was about $90.

Rhyming couplets--that's ambitious indeed. And quite a lot of work. I hope you're successful.

I've been reading here and there in some of the journals kept by Dorothy Wordsworth, William's sister. Last night, I read some of what she wrote about their tour of the Continent in 1820, during which they spent a lot of time visiting cathedrals. Here's some of what she wrote about that:

"Calais, Wednesday, July 12th.—We rose at five; sunshine and clear, but rather cold air. The Cathedral, a large edifice, not finely wrought; but the first effect is striking, from the size of the numerous pillars and arches, though they are paltry in the finishing, merely whitewashed and stuck over with bad pictures and tawdry images; yet the whole view at the entrance was affecting. Old men and women—young women and girls kneeling at their silent prayers, and some we espied, in obscure recesses, before a concealed crucifix, image, or altar. One grey-haired man I cannot forget, whose countenance bore the impression of worldly cares subdued, and peace in heavenly aspiration.... Another figure I must [Pg 165] not leave unnoticed, a squalid, ragged woman. She sate alone upon some steps at the side of the entrance to the quire. There she sate, with a white dog beside her; no one was near, and the dog and she evidently belonged to each other, probably her only friend, for never was there a more wretchedly forlorn and miserable-looking human being. She did not notice us; but her rags and her sickly aspect drew a penny from me, and the change in the woman's skinny, doleful face is not to be imagined: it was brightened by a light and gracious smile—the effect was almost as of something supernatural—she bowed her body, waved her hand, and, with a politeness of gesture unknown in England in almost any station of life, beckoned that we might enter the church, where the people were kneeling upon chairs, of which there might be a thousand—two thousand—I cannot say how many—piled up in different parts of the Cathedral...."

"Coblentz, Sunday, July 23rd.—Cathedral.—The music at our entrance fixed us to our places. The swell was solemn, even aweful, sinking into strains of delicious sweetness; and though the worship was to us wholly[Pg 182] unintelligible, it was not possible to listen to it without visitings of devotional feeling. Mary's [William's wife] attention was entirely absorbed till the service ceased, and I think she never stirred from her seat."

That's beautiful. Thank you. Wonder what her brother thought about it. Sometimes you find a sort of guardedness among English in this kind of circumstance--uneasy that they might be drawn in.

"...with a politeness of gesture unknown in England..." That's an amusing contrast to the portrayal of a French woman in Bleak House. She is in fact a sinister character, but she's definitely not very polite, and as she's the only French person in the story I can't help seeing an element of satire about the French in general. And there are some very funny bits in Dombey and Son where someone, Captain Cuttle I think, voices a general suspicion of all foreigners based on the actions of Bonaparte.

And I laughed at the description of the French woman when Esther first encounters here: there's some observation about various peculiar and vaguely sinister things about her, then the final remark: "And she was a Frenchwoman." As if clinching the case that there was something wrong about her.

Maybe Dorothy Wordsworth didn't share that animosity towards the French because of William's illegitimate daughter, who lived in France and whose mother was French.

If I had been writing a longer article, I would have mentioned that the fact that he fathered a child during his time in revolutionary France, but says not a word about either her or her daughter in The Prelude, doesn't speak well of his exalted sense of quasi-priestly vocation. I don't necessarily blame him greatly for that. I suppose mentioning her would have been a pretty horrible breach of manners, exposing both the child and her mother to bad opinion. Still, it doesn't sit well.

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