Poems of William Wordsworth (Selected) | Study Guide

William Wordsworth

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The Prelude, Book 1: Introduction—Childhood and School-Time

Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe provides an in-depth summary and analysis of William Wordsworth's poem The Prelude, Book 1: Introduction—Childhood and School-Time.

Poems of William Wordsworth (Selected) | The Prelude, Book 1 : Introduction—Childhood and School-Time | Summary

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Summary

Book 1 opens the narrative with the poet deciding to leave his life outside England and return to his native area in the Lake District, away from cities and more open to the elements. There he will be able to develop the philosophic ideas for his poems by being in close proximity to the land and nature he knows best. Book 1 gives details on the many possibilities for poetic inspiration that Wordsworth considered, "the hope / Of active days, of dignity and thought, / Of prowess in an honorable field." He thinks of British or classical themes and various approaches that would provide subject matter and inspire his thoughts. Ultimately, he realizes that returning to the River Derwent in the northwest of England, in the heart of the Lake District, he might find the best sources for memories that could lead to new poetry. There he might find "a dark / Invisible workmanship that reconciles / Discordant elements" and leads him to "the harmony of music" he seeks. He recalls all the terrors and the excitements of his youth there, giving details about an incident in which one evening he impulsively "borrowed" the boat shepherd left tied up on the lakeshore. He now recognizes this as a youthful act of thievery that, in fact, terrorized him. He felt himself pursued by the cliff at the shore, which seemed to follow him and make him aware of his transgression until he turned around and brought the boat back where it belonged.

The rest of Book 1 describes his early childhood and his maturation as a schoolboy and the ways in which he went beyond more traditional education and began opening himself to nature and truths of existence. As he grew in age and size, his soul also grew under divine influence and inspiration, and nature was his primary companion among his "boyish sports." His education and stimulating home life opened a world to him of joy and eternal beauty, "drinking in a pure / Organic pleasure from the lines / Of curling mist" and other beauty in the land and clouds above. He speaks of the journey ahead of him as a process of creation and finding the proper themes for his poem. In his words, "Gleams like the flashing of a shield. The earth / And common face of Nature" gave him access to "rememberable things."

Analysis

The first book of The Prelude is an exciting and passionate introduction to the person Wordsworth became. Writing at the midpoint of his life and remembering events of his early childhood and schoolboy years clearly gives him pleasure and vindication for the themes he chooses to pursue.

Book 1 begins with a search worthy of an adult roaming the world in ways a child could not. But he soon shifts into great detail about events that, in fact, only a child could be excited about. No adult would spend such time fleeing across a lake thinking he was pursued by a moving cliff, but to a child this fear goes beyond the real into an impression never to be forgotten. Fear and joy both drive the creative impulse in Wordsworth the poet, and he finds the way as an adult to conquer any possible lethargy and fear—and, perhaps, residual guilt at having taken a boat, even temporarily, that was not his property. The book makes it clear in its invocation of Coleridge as "O Friend"—the fellow poet who inspired him to find his calling—that he will spare no effort or detail to give a full portrait of the influences that have worked upon him to solidify that calling. Just as, in his imagination, a menacing form can follow him in the stolen boat, so these influences can be made into the stuff of literature.

The last stanzas explain that he chose to begin his epic very early in his life to give as complete an indication as possible of his poetic path. He asks his dearest "Friend" to bear with him as he may be guilty of having "lengthened out with fond and feeble tongue a tedious tale." An individual life is thus recognized as perhaps inspirational only to the one who has lived it. This concept is, however, a limitation on his theory of poetry. If Romantic verse is so deeply felt by the person creating it, how will others share in the experiences, no matter how common they may be? Wordsworth knows he may expect "harsh judgments," but perhaps selfishly he notes that the 600-plus lines in the first book may have completed a circle of remembrance of childhood to reinvigorate the adult mind. He admits the theme will be "the story of my life, the road lies plain before me." His search for an epic theme sought in all aspects of the past thus comes down best, he confesses, to himself.

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