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The Prelude by William Wordsworth: Poem Analysis & Overview

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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jacob Erickson

Jacob has his master's in English and has taught multiple levels of literature and composition, including junior high, college, and graduate students.

This lesson will explore Wordsworth's The Prelude, which is one of Wordsworth's most influential and cited poems. We'll look at the context, history, form, and significance of the poem.

Introduction to Wordsworth & The Prelude

It's not uncommon for artists to be concerned with how early experiences have shaped and altered them in deep and fundamental ways. One terrific example of this is William Wordsworth's The Prelude. This poem was Wordsworth's attempt to explore and understand how his poetry and perception of the world around him has been influenced by the events throughout his life. Notice the natural background of this picture of Wordsworth, which symbolizes the importance of the natural world in the poetry of Wordsworth.

To fully appreciate the poem, we must understand the context that Wordsworth was writing in: particularly, the concern that many writers had with the way in which people perceive the world around them. Wordsworth, who lived from 1770 to 1850, was one of the first and most influential poets of the Romantic era, which lasted from about 1798 to the mid-1800s. Romantic writers were suspicious of the ideals of the Enlightenment, which lasted from the mid-1600s until about 1800 and emphasized the importance of reason and logic. Despite the advancements made during the Enlightenment, Romantic writers believed that its emphasis on using sterile logic as a way to understand the world harmed people more than it helped them. In contrast, Romanticists were deeply humanistic and emphasized the importance of personally engaging with the world and the individual right to do so however one chooses.

The Prelude is considered one of Wordsworth's most impressive works and has a complicated history of revision and editing. Wordsworth wrote the first version in 1799, and it contains only two books that consist of less than one thousand lines in total. In 1805, Wordsworth expanded the contents and separated the poem into thirteen different books. Wordsworth then spent the next 35 years of his life revising the poem's style and aesthetics, and when he died in 1850, he had divided the poem into fourteen total books.

Overview of The Prelude

The final 1850 version of The Prelude is composed of fourteen different books and can be thought of as a journey that ultimately ends where it begins. That is, it depicts Wordsworth's return to where he started (among many things, this starting place is his childhood), but this time with the ability to actually understand and appreciate it. The first book begins with him remembering his childhood and his freedom from the distractions that society has introduced to him during his older age. Wordsworth, moreover, explains that he hopes to 'rediscipline' his mind through the inward process of exploring his life. The second book continues his childhood and explains his concern that his ability to fully perceive beauty has been harmed as a result of society.

The third book introduces Wordsworth's experience entering college, which marks his first real entry into sophisticated culture; Wordsworth contrasts his unfruitful experience of formal education with his profound childhood education that took place in solitary nature. The fourth book marks his return to his childhood countryside and his realization that he has become more vain as a result of his experiences in college. In the fifth book, the poet despairs over human vanities. He explains that people are preoccupied with gaining glory and have forgotten that nature always has man's best interests in mind.

In the sixth book, the poet returns to college, which is neither good nor as bad as it had been previously, and then explains his adventures hiking in France. Here, we learn about Wordsworth's experiences of the French Revolution, which lasted from 1789 to 1799. At one point, he unknowingly crosses the much-anticipated Alps, a moment that introduces Wordsworth's famous claim that humans are in a constant state of hoping for an expected event or feeling.

With his return to England in the seventh book, we learn that Wordsworth is not returning to college and is determined to live in London. Here, Wordsworth describes his love for the theater, explaining that fictional works often better stimulate people's imagination than real subjects.

The eighth book describes Wordsworth's return to the country and his beginning to understand people as they really are rather than in an abstract, conceptual sense. The ninth and tenth books both depict his experiencing the French Revolution in France and his return to England. Towards the end of the tenth book, Wordsworth begins to explain the evolution of his political views, a theme which is further elaborated in the eleventh book.

In the twelfth book, we learn of Wordsworth's return to nature and are again introduced to Wordsworth's attempts to heal his mind. The thirteenth book outlines Wordsworth's poetic philosophy that poetry comes from emotion that is recalled in 'tranquility'. The Prelude ends with Wordsworth coming to terms with the experiences that distracted him from beauty and explaining that these events were ultimately productive.

Analysis of The Prelude

Many critics point out that The Prelude offers particularly unique insight into Wordsworth's own personal life and the events that influenced his poetry. The poem, however, can also offer a tremendous amount of insight into the Romantic mindset in general. Wordsworth's anxiety, for example, that his ability to understand his experiences may have been limited by these same experiences is a fairly common theme in Romantic literature. Additionally, Wordsworth's belief that poetry can play a crucial role in alleviating his anxieties is a similarly Romantic idea.

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