In Which We Come to the End of Book III

Our Wordsworthian Odyssey continues with Wordsworth telling us why he wrote at such length about his first year in college.  (Though, truth to tell, it was not much length, and more truth to tell, he didn't actually tell us very much about Wordsworth in College--which, in fact, is fine.  I suspect the real story behind the poetry would not make nearly as fine a pattern of verse.)

from The Prelude Book III
William Wordsworth

I play the loiterer: 'tis enough to note
That here in dwarf proportions were expressed
The limbs of the great world; its eager strifes
Collaterally pourtrayed, as in mock fight,
A tournament of blows, some hardly dealt
Though short of mortal combat; and whate'er
Might in this pageant be supposed to hit
An artless rustic's notice, this way less,
More that way, was not wasted upon me
In the track and trail of poetry that has gone before, in the incidents discussed and the prinicples derived therefrom, Wordsworth argues, we have a microcosm of the world-at-large.  And the details he has chosen and the impression these events have made upon him and upon his life are not for nought.

And yet the spectacle may well demand
A more substantial name, no mimic show,
Itself a living part of a live whole,
A creek in the vast sea; for, all degrees
And shapes of spurious fame and short-lived praise
Here sate in state, and fed with daily alms
Retainers won away from solid good;
And here was Labour, his own bond-slave; Hope,
That never set the pains against the prize;
Idleness halting with his weary clog,
And poor misguided Shame, and witless Fear,
And simple Pleasure foraging for Death;
Honour misplaced, and Dignity astray;
Feuds, factions, flatteries, enmity, and guile
Murmuring submission, and bald government,
(The idol weak as the idolater),
And Decency and Custom starving Truth,
And blind Authority beating with his staff
The child that might have led him; Emptiness
Followed as of good omen, and meek Worth
Left to herself unheard of and unknown.

My goodness--what a first year that must of have been: idleness, shame, fear, death, honor misplaces, dignity astray, feuds, factions, flatteries, enmity, and guile.  Yep, sounds like a prototypical college experience to me.  We take high-school and remove what few checks were in place and we have college.  Indeed, something of a microcosm of portions of the world at large.

We end this book with a reminder that the poet is constructing the reality of that time:

Of these and other kindred notices
I cannot say what portion is in truth
The naked recollection of that time,
And what may rather have been called to life
By after-meditation. But delight
That, in an easy temper lulled asleep,
Is still with Innocence its own reward,
This was not wanting. Carelessly I roamed
As through a wide museum from whose stores
A casual rarity is singled out
And has its brief perusal, then gives way
To others, all supplanted in their turn;
Till 'mid this crowded neighbourhood of things
That are by nature most unneighbourly,
The head turns round and cannot right itself;
And though an aching and a barren sense
Of gay confusion still be uppermost,
With few wise longings and but little love,
Yet to the memory something cleaves at last,
Whence profit may be drawn in times to come.

Wordsworth tells us clearly that he cannot say what is raw recollection and what is summoned upon thinking extensively about the event.  He can't say whether at the time he thought the things he has detailed or whether time has added those thoughts to his experience, bringing forth the salient and salutary lessons that can be derived from meditation and study.  He notes further that the art is necessarily selective.  He can't tell us everything and so he chooses to tell those things that have within them the greatest potential for the good of all.  He brings together in his art neighbours that are not "neighbourly."  Things are closely joined that have no natural junction because they fit the fabric of the points that Wordsworth wishes to make. 

It is moments like these, ruminations and meditations on the art of poetry and composition, that we have the greatest insight into what Wordsworth thought he was about as a poet.  In that sense The Prelude while saying little of his life, says all that he feels important about his life--the creative impulse and the genius of poetry.  It is an introspective, psychological, or, perhaps better, spiritual autobiography, that seeks to lay bare how an art is conceived and brought to light--how a poet pursues the life of poetry.  In that sense, it is a rare and precious document, even if its fabric is woven through with self-delusion and misconception (I'm not saying it is), it gives rare insight into how the poet thought about his work and how he thought we went about the act of writing poetry.

Wordsworth grows on one as one comes to spend time with him and thinks with him through the things he shows us.  You can read a stanza and not really get the gist of it the first time through.  Then you read it again, more slowly, or in a different frame of mind and the poetry kind of locks into a focus that makes sense with respect to all that is around it.  The Prelude is a masterpiece and a masterwork--a book-length poem that says much about the Romantic rebellion, even though, in many way, Wordsworth was the least romantic of the romantics.  (Perhaps because both he and Coleridge made it out of their thirties.  Somehow, Byron, Keats, and Shelley are all more romantic because of early demises adding a patina of the common sense of romantic to the sheen of the search which constitutes the real romance of Romantic Poetry.


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