Wordsworth’s “Prelude”

In the few lines that make up a single scene of Wordsworth’s “Prelude”, the personified Nature encourages the young Wordsworth to steal a boat and admonishes him for failing to resist the urge. Although the young Wordsworth only focused on the method Nature used to correct him, the adult Wordsworth recognized the contradiction and believed that Nature used this event to guide him and help him understand and control his human desires, and, in the process, demonstrate that the relationship between an individual and nature is the same as that of parent and child. Overall, this scene emphasizes the the contrast between the nature of an individual and Nature, the experience and the perception, and the child and the adult. Through these contrasts Wordsworth demonstrates that his perception of his surroundings were influenced by his own emotions and feelings as a child and by what he, as an adult, perceives the emotions he felt or should have felt as a boy. In the end, the theft becomes a learning experience for the boy and an object lesson for the man.

The boy Wordsworth (hereafter “the boy) is “lead by her,” the personified, feminine and parental Nature, to a small cove where he steals a small boat in “an act of stealth / And troubled pleasure…” (357, 361-2). Ignoring the psychological and physiological explanation for the boy’s “troubled pleasure”, the “troubled pleasure” he felt was caused by completing the theft and giving in to “The passions that build up our human soul” (407). Although the direct effect of the boy’s action was the theft of a boat, the intent behind the action was to follow the direction of Nature–not break the law. While the boy does not make the connection, the adult Wordsworth (hereafter: Wordsworth) is able to see that nature encouraged the behavior solely to punish it, and believed that nature took “The passions that build up our human soul” and intertwining them “Not with the mean and vulgar works of man, / But with high objects, with enduring things,” taught him how to “…recognize / A grandeur in the beatings of the heart” (407, 408-9, 413-14).

To ensure that the boy learned how to do recognize this grandeur, Nature punished the boy for his misdeed by sending a “creature” after him. While this “creature” is literally a cliff that slowly comes into view and the boy recognizes it as such, it seems to him “As if with voluntary power instinct / [it] Upreared its head.” and “with purpose of its own / And measured motion like a living thing / strode after me.” (378, 379-80, 383-5). Literally, as he pulled away from the “craggy steep”, the cliff was no longer shielded from his view, and as he moved further away from it, it seemed to get larger; however, this does not explain his reaction, so one must focus on the context and the abrupt change of emotion in the scene: at first the ridge seems peaceful and elegant and he perceived it as, literally, the edge of the world behind which there is “nothing but the stars and the grey sky”; however, as he moves away from it, the crag reveals that it was not peaceful, but only the facade behind which the cliff hid until it “Upreared its head… / and growing still in stature the grim shape / towered up…” and became part of his nightmares of “huge and mighty forms…” (372, 379-82, 398). The boy realized that the laws of nature cannot be trespassed upon without consequences, and the experience left him so “for many days, [his] brain / Worked with a dim and undetermined sense / …[and] o’er [his] thoughts / There hung a darkness…” which altered his world view replacing pleasant images of the trees, sky, fields and sea with “huge and mighty forms, that do not live / Like living men…” that haunted his days and nights (390-4, 398-9). However, looking back, Wordsworth realizes it was for the best and praises Nature for subjecting him to it because in doing so, nature used “enduring things” and “high objects” to teach the boy its lessons (409).

Aside from showing us the role of nature in the growth of the individual, Wordsworth relates this experience to demonstrate the change of perception based on emotion. The boy’s entire word view changed immediately after he was chastised by nature: “…No familiar shapes / Remained, no pleasant images of trees, / Of sea or sky, no colours of green fields” (395-7). While this is a major change and is understandable after what the boy believed he witnessed, Wordsworth also shows us more subtle changes. In the very beginning, the boat was “tied to a willow tree / Within a rocky cave…”, but afterwards the boy returned the boat “Back to the covert of the willow tree” (358-9). The boat was returned to the same place it started from, but originally, the boy perceived the boat as just being there; however, when he returned it, he realizes that it wasn’t laying out in the open, but that someone had purposefully hidden it which accentuated the theft. This change is also evident in how the boy is rowing: at first when he rows he does it “nor without the voice / Of mountain-echoes…” but then when returning the boat he “stole” his way “through the silent water” (362-3, 395). These shifts in the language Wordsworth uses mirrors the shifts in the boy’s thinking and emphasizes the differences in the way the young and the adult Wordsworth perceive the same events.

The duality of experience that separates the now from the past, the action from the intent, the cause from the effect, and perception from reality is the central theme in “The Prelude”. In examining his childish behaviors from the point-of-view of the adult, Wordsworth is able to use his experience to demonstrate how nature is both beautiful and sublime and how these contrast with the changing human perceptions of the same.

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  • Lee

    This is a pretty good summary/commentary but commits some howlers that I wish you’d change. Nature does not lead the boy to steal the boat; “she” only leads him in the general sense of guiding his wanderings. And the boat was not “laying” out in the open (or not), it was “lying” there. Thanks.

    English Professor

  • Shahid

    very suggestive paragraphs for understanding w worth as high priest of nature. in fact nature guided and taught the poet is the very essence of his poetry and to understand this doctrine of his poetry, the above written essay is the best suggestion with elaborate reference of The Prelude. very nice critical analysis of one episode of the poem. thanks