At the (Profound) Risk of Boring You

Harold Bloom cites The Prelude as one of the great works of poetry.  And it is.  It is by no means easy--a book-length poem that is semi-autobiographical but not in anything like a confessional sense.  One walks away with a feeling that one knows less about Wordsworth the person than one knows about what Wordsworth thinks about Wordsworth--the myth of Wordsworth as thought by Wordsworth.  And in knowing this, one comes to know better the act of creating a work of art, and wh

Be that as it may--the poem has many wonderful passages that spring upon one unawares.  One's eye travels down the page absorbing more or less standard romantic poetry and imagery and then the standard is shattered and the poem becomes something more.  As in this passage in which the poet laments his own ability to express the interior world that is so rich and so meaningful.

from The Prelude: Book I
William Wordsworth

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.

This passage strikes me as so completely just and so completely accurate a view of the poet's accomplishment while it is being produced that I can think of no better description of the trials and triumphs.  While Wordsworth speaks only for Wordsworth, he does describe, what seems to me to be a common thread in thought among the poets.

Immediately following this passage is another in which Wordsworth attempts to describe his muse, his source of inspiration, and his faith and spirit in some ways.  The 1850 version of the poem, from which I quote, was a lifelong redaction of a work principally finished in 1805; however, the 1850 work attempts to make more orthodox Wordsworth's thoughts about God and spirituality, but still, some elements creep through that cling to his earlier thoughts and earlier self.

                                               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?

But this experience is not confined to infant years.  Indeed, it follows him throughout life and permeates his memories, if not, in fact the life as lived.  We must remember that the poet's memory is selective and what he chooses to show us, he shows us with intent appropriate to his theme.  Nevertheless:
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.
Once again, it a passage with which a person in tune with nature and called to the poetic vocation can sympathize.  While I cannot myself recall the wild rambles that Wordsworth describes, I can think of myself in some of my childhood frolics as described in these last lines.  It seems the most logical and natural thing in the world.

Then, out of the blue, come two wonderful, pointed, poignant, powerful lines.  Lines that at once summarize what has gone before and forecast what you will read as you continue.

Fair seed-time had my soul, and I grew up
Fostered alike by beauty and by fear:

Again, while we may not experience directly the actions and activities Wordsworth described, and while the disposition is not universal, there is something in these lines that sings to a poet's heart--indeed, if one is to judge by their words--to the hearts of of most poets.  Perhaps not, perhaps I overextend the myth and make universal the personal.  But there is certainly something here that speaks to me as poet and as person.

And I beg your indulgence for one last plunge into the Wordsworthian stream (at least for this post), in which he describes the physical act of theft and the exhilaration and fear that follows.  But what he describes is both more and less than theft.  We must keep in mind the Hemingway adage about what great writers do.

Sometimes it befel
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.
 I hope, in these shorter, more approachable patches, I've given cause for others to seek out this magnificent poem.  Not every word nor every line will be to everyone's taste, but there is much here for those who love poetry, and it isn't exactly what one might think it would be.


  1. I think the first quote doesn't apply to just poets but to all who have high standards regarding what they are trying to accomplish: that unbridgeable gap between the image in the mind and reality.

  2. Fred,

    I would concur. I think of it in terms of my own vocation--but you are right, it is the trial of any person whose "reach exceeds his grasp" or "what's a heaven for?"

    (Okay, a Victorian, not a romantic, but certainly an inheritor of the mantle--see "Caliban upon Setebos."



  3. I felt I had to do something similar when I wrote about The Prelude - get the tediousness of it out of the way first. Then I was free to get to the good stuff.

  4. Dear Amateur Reader,

    Thank you for the note. It sent me scuttling to your site to find what you had written, and I appreciate the alert. While I have only begun serious reading of _The Prelude_ and while it is entirely possible, perhaps even probable that I may not finish it this second time through--I find that it is far more remarkable that it struck me when I read it years ago amidst a welter of other reading. Choosing to read something is quite a different species of reading that having to read it for one course or another.

    Wordsworth is still far from a favorite poet, for a variety of reasons. But, favorite or not, slow and careful reading of _The Prelude_ seems like it might be quite rewarding.

    Thank you for you comment, and thank you especially for the writing you've already done on the subject. It was most interesting reading.




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