The Prelude Summary

Although it is now known as “The Prelude” today, during William Wordsworth’s time, it was simple known as the “Poem to Coleridge”, an epic poem. According to the poet himself, this was not the usual sort of an epic since it is not concerned with the arduous struggles and ultimate victory of a hero in the physical world. Rather, it is more of an autobiography; one that Wordsworth had spent many years developing in respect to the growth of his poetic sentiments. Although, he finished writing it in 1805, he never stopped refining it by continuing to update till the end of his life. This is why, although the epic is separated into 13 sections as according the 1805 edition, the 1850 edition has been elongated by dividing the tenth section into two parts and more thoughts have been added to these two parts. We shall be primarily focusing on the 1805 edition, the one with thirteen sections or books.

Each of these books is different to the rest in terms of length. However, Wordsworth does follow a similar conversational style of writing by keeping the verses free from the limitations of rhythm. It is almost as if the epic is not a poem but a prose since the lines follow manner of speech of regular people. This is a deviation from Wordsworth’s usual style of verse writing since his other poems rely on a lyrical flow to get their point across. The books are not title-less, they have been named and each refers to a certain phase of his life starting from his childhood to his present (at that time) adulthood. Many real life characters are documented in the books such as the author’s sister, Dorothy and his peer, the poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge. All in all, “The Prelude” serves as an almanac of William Wordsworth’s hopes, aspirations and observations about his own surroundings and the people that habituate them.

The first two books are named “Introduction-Childhood and School-Time” and “School-Time (continued)” respectively. They mainly consist of the author’s initial experiences as a kid. He reminisces about his childhood memories such as the time when he stole a boat for some time and later on, felt guilty about it and the time when learnt how to ice skate while living at his hometown. This is where he found himself bonding with nature in proximity and states that his spent years at northwest England had been motivating factor behind his references to nature in his poems.

By Book 3 (titled “Residence at Cambridge”), Wordsworth has grown up and is now a college-going student. However, his lessons at Cambridge do not appeal to him and he is also disinterested in making friends on campus. Although he converses with them, he understands that he would rather be alone than hang out with them. He regularly attends classes and makes use of the abundant resources of the university that has been lent to him but does not lose any opportunity to get away by traveling as much as he possibly can in between his schedules. He is edging more and more towards the author, who is to, one day, write the epic, “The Prelude”.

The entirety of the next book, “Summer Vacation” is spent on a vacation during which the author puts full use of his spare time to expand the boundaries of imagination. There is one incident that is described here, a short encounter with a desolate retired soldier who has been wandering aimlessly. Since he himself favors solitude, he is drawn towards others who prefer to keep to themselves.

The fifth book is named “Books” and is the first one to include Coleridge into the memoir. A memorable event in this particular section is a dream that he has about a strange nameless Arab on a camel, a man who speaks to him about the mysteries of the world. He explains to Wordsworth that men are caught in the middle between their sky-ending aspirations and their earth-binding limitations that keep dragging them down. He combines the words of wisdom of the Arab and the lines from a famous epic named “Don Quixote” to give birth to a new vision. The author’s mother dies around this time and this motivates him to spread words about the importance of nature and how its lessons need to be taught to the children as much as ones in classrooms.

6, “Cambridge and the Alps” takes place miles away from England, Wordsworth’s native land. He goes on expeditions to the mountains of many countries such as France, Switzerland and Italy in search of the literal ultimate summits of life with the hope that it would lead him to discover a few literary peaks of his own. He is especially pleased with his journeys in France as it allows him a window into the minds of a population that has been left newly changed after a revolution.

Residence in London” is the sixth book of the poem and as can be guessed from the title, the author is back from his journey and is now residing in London. After spending such an abundant time amidst the buzz of nature, the transition back to city life is striking in nature, forcing him to compare the sensibilities of imagination with the senses of pragmatism. The urban life is described heavily with each of its components being showcased such as the departmental stores, paths, houses, events, churches and others. This is to be noted that this is London during the early eighteenth century, that is, 1795. During the previous book, Wordsworth had experienced a surge in his heights of imagination. This book allows him to return to reality while also retaining integral parts of his imagination.

In Book 8, another lifestyle is introduced in order to coexist with the urban way of living, one of the rural people. Wordsworth, a lover of nature, has never made his preference for the countryside a secret and in this section, “Retrospect: Love of Nature Leading to Love of Mankind”, the author theorizes how it is imperative for men to love nature in order to learn how to love their own kind, mankind.

The ninth book, “Residence in France” takes Wordsworth back to the country of his admiration, France. However, the France from his Europe travels is far different from the one in his adulthood since it is trying to cope with the political repercussions of the revolution. However, this does not bother Wordsworth since he is far more interested in the human affairs than he is in the political ones. He befriends an officer, Michel Beaupuy, and learns a great deal from him prior to his unfortunate death during the riots.

The next book is a continuation of the author’s time in France as he observes the plights of the French people who are suffering from the political instability in the country. Although Wordsworth is a firm believer of reform by peace, he is forced to admit to himself that more blood need to shed in order to bring justice to the common people. He returns home just before England becomes a foe to France. He decides to spend his time researching about theories that may reignite his hope for a better society. Although he is shaken by his experience in France, he refuses to give up hope.

“Imagination and Taste, How Impaired and Restored” follows the author’s internal battles after his return to England. He is caught between his desire for passion and his instinct for reason as he tries to find the perfect balance to re-immerse himself into poetry. However, it is the “spots of time”, small, unimportant incidents that had happened a long time ago in the past, that support him in his fight for balance by becoming the muse for his works. This is the tenth book.

The next book is the second part of the previous one, “Imagination and Taste, How Impaired and Restored (concluded)”. By this time, Wordsworth has returned to solitude by moving to a southern area of England, Salisbury. He calls the place “Sarum’s Plain” and is enamored by all the ancient architecture that surround him. These sites allow him a glimpse into nature from thousands of years ago, the remnants of a civilization that now stand isolated from the present civilization by time.

The final book, Book 13, “Conclusion”, is the final note of this long and memorable epic. Wordsworth again emphasizes on the importance of nature and how it is the best teacher of all in the world. He reminds us to remember our emotions and try to find answers from them. At one point, he reflects on one of his mountain climbing adventures and reveals how the emotions he felt as he reached the peak lead him to discover wisdom. Finally, he acknowledges the importance of many people in his life such as his sister and Coleridge who have always guided him on his path to truth.