Poems of William Wordsworth (Selected) | Study Guide

William Wordsworth

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The Prelude, Book 11: Imagination and Taste, How Impaired and Restored

Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe provides an in-depth summary and analysis of William Wordsworth's poem The Prelude, Book 11: Imagination and Taste, How Impaired and Restored.

Poems of William Wordsworth (Selected) | The Prelude, Book 11 : Imagination and Taste, How Impaired and Restored | Summary



In Book 11 the poet moves from depression and despair over the breaking of his hopes for great events to come from the French Revolution, to the realization that those hopes were false. France and England went to war as enemies, and his dream for the betterment of man seemed empty to him. Wordsworth was saved from deepest despair by his developing love for Mary Hutchinson, whom he had long known and who became his wife and mother to his children. She brought him back by her humility and simplicity and her goodness and love for nature.

The famous image of the "spots of time" appears in this book. The image conveys the idea that memory can soothe the external disturbances of the mind, just as poetry lives on long after events recorded in it have taken place. The poet can see himself rescued by the sensitive nature of his creative soul when he recalls two specific occurrences. At first he remembers coming upon the site of an execution when he was a small child on horseback and being deeply afraid when the scene is worsened by the figure of a woman being tossed about by the wind as she attempts to carry a water jug. Then, he relates, he experienced at Christmas time a particularly depressing view atop a misty mountain, only to learn soon afterward that his father had died and he was an orphan. Wordsworth's faith and human connectedness enable him to deal later with such memories, revisit the places, and transform them to affirm life.


"There are in our existence spots of time" is one of Wordsworth's most significant observations and beliefs. It may lack the immediate and personal drama of great joy found in an idea such as the "clouds of glory" found in the "Ode." But in its abstraction, it is also very real. The poet must dig very deeply into his past, which he never hesitates doing. And in this book, as The Prelude begins its final arc of development, he synthesizes many important points into a single strong and general observation. Now it is clear why he has spent the time and energy narrating moments of awareness and clarification. He has experienced doubts and delusions, disappointment and dark fears, but throughout it all, the goal has remained clear. The "spot of time" is vital because it has invigorating strength against "false opinion and contentious thought." Such resistance is important for Wordsworth because he has gone out of his way to engage opinions and troubling thoughts all his life. He senses that if he continues to do this, he will eventually get past the memories he rejects and, instead, gain an illumination of what is good and lasting. So while a "spot" of time may appear minute or less than the high point of a mountain, it nevertheless "lifts us up when fallen."

Again, as happens so often in Wordsworth's poetry, it is childhood to which we are returned through spots of time. Childhood provides moments that are captured in memory when the content is least and the receptivity the greatest. Later, the more experienced adult returns to those moments and meditates with grown-up abilities on how they have worked on his consciousness and what direction they may point him to now. Finding the "spots" is not an easy task, as The Prelude shows in its thousands of lines, but the adult makes the strong effort to get back to a childhood vantage point and is richly repaid.

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