The University of Toronto at Scarborough

ENGB02Y: English Literature: Historical Survey (Spring Term)

Instructor: Melba Cuddy-Keane

The Prelude

Wordsworth began to write this poem in 1798; he worked on it until 1839;but it was not published until after his death in 1850.

"Prelude" signifies what comes before; Wordsworth thinks of the early part of his life as a preparation, an education leading him to his vocation as a poet.

Note the subtitle: "Growth of a Poet's Mind." Do you know James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man? Both works present semi-autobiographical stories of growing up; of maturation into manhood. Both also concern the process of the forming, or shaping of the poet.

Book I of The Prelude has two different "plot-times":

1) the past: the little boy and his growing up

2) the present: the adult poet and his struggle to recover his poetic inspiration

How do the plots intersect? The poet speaks of his difficulty in writing poetry, his lack of a fit subject, his loss of inspiration. But narrating the story of his past, he recovers his past. He doesn't just THINK about his childhood; he FEELS once again an immediate contact with nature, the sense of a surrounding spiritual life, the inspiration of poetic power.

Some themes to consider:

Childhood; Memory; Imagination; Subjectivity; Spiritual Reality; Loss and Recovery; The Relation between Narrator (the one who tells a story) and Narratee (the one to whom the story is told)

Some larger questions to ask:

What role does memory play in this story of loss and recovery? What is the function of memory in our lives? What is the relation between narrative (story-telling) and memory?

Language and Metaphor:

"Fair seed-time had my soul" (l. 301) If youth is seed-time, what relation between youth and adulthood is implied? (Is this necessarily how our past and present can be seen to relate to each other? what other kinds of relationship might there be? What assumption is implied here about time and personality?) What type of metaphor is "seed time?" What link or connection is implied through the KIND of metaphor that Wordsworth uses?

The Beautiful and the Sublime:

"Fostered alike by beauty and by fear" (l. 302)

beauty--the gentle aspect of nature, smaller forms, associated with love, harmony, interelatedness

fear--the violent aspect of nature, immense shapes, associated with awe, power, force, moral sentiments

If the daffodils ("I Wandered") represent nature's aspect of beauty, the mountain peak in the boat scene, by provoking fear, embodies the element of the "sublime."

The boat scene, (ll. 357 ff.)

How does the child in this episode compare to the children in Blake's poems? Is this child "innocent"? How do the events here contribute to the making of a poet? What is the correspondence between nature and the mind? How does nature stimulate the mind's associative powers? How does nature help to interact with, or even impose a discipline on, the boy's native capacities? 

Nature and Spiritual Reality

Wordsworth's representation of nature hovers between the following two interpretations:

1) nature as a symbolic expression of spiritual truth which the mind comes to know through recovering unity with nature

2) nature as offering to the mind symbolic forms with which it can perceive/create spiritual reality; i.e. nature supplies the metaphors, symbols, for the mind's thinking processes

The second "narrative" in Book I:

This narrative, a "quest narrative" is primarily in the "frame": the beginning and end of Book 1. The poem begins with the poet's leaving the city (ll. 7-8) to return to his boyhood home in the country. His quest is for his earlier self, his younger self, the self more in touch with the world of nature and spiritual forces: in other words, his poetic powers. But he is uncertain about his subject matter and uncertain about his abilities (ll. 261-264).

And so he asks a question: what was the purpose of his past, his boyhood(l. 269), if all it leads to is paralysis in the present? And the question in turn leads to his narrative of his boyhood.

At the end of Book I, we begin to see his recovery and the return of his poetic powers. "Invigorating thoughts from former years"(l. 622) "my mind has been revived" (ll. 637-38)

Narrative and Nature have a redemptive force, helping the poet to recover what had been lost. A fellow poet (Coleridge) has been the "listener": O Friend!/so prompt in sympathy" (ll. 618-19). The listener/reader has prompted the narrative, has helped to sustain it. Communication plays a role in recovery.

These notes are intended for the use of students in a lecture course; for any other use, please acknowledge this site.

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