The Prelude

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Spots of Time

I don’t care for free verse. I suppose that’s why I’d really rather read Wordsworth than Whitman. But that’s just a personal bias. I agree with Blake that there should be no competition between poets, and with Thomas DeQuincey that works of literature don’t replace each other, no more than the sight of a new pastoral valley supplants the ones before it. I’m really enjoying Loren and Diane’s discussion of Whitman, because it’s hard for me to study him closely; free verse just doesn’t have the hook for me.

I’d been re-reading and thinking about The Prelude, and the issues of self and society that it raises. But more than that, I have always marveled at the way that Wordsworth butchered it. In my opinion, Wordsworth just plain revised it to death. This isn’t apparent in the lines I’ll examine today, but in sections the poem is tortuous. There are three versions to consider: a two book version from 1799, a thirteen book version from 1805, and a fourteen book version from 1850. I feel that the earliest one is incredibly tight, the 1805 is well rounded and lush, and the 1850 version— the version in most textbooks— is totally flaccid. I want to write about some of the changes.

For those unfamiliar with The Prelude, it is Wordsworth's poetic autobiography— a strong lesson in the way we write and re-write our lives. It can be seen as the ultimate in solipsism, or as I prefer to think of it, a man writing about what he knows best— himself. I believe that knowledge of the shifting value of self and the ways we rewrite it is one of those eternally valuable things to be gained from literature. Our conception of self is never frozen immutable and solid. It is in flux. Spots of time preserved, whether in a blog post or version of a poem, make convenient artifacts to examine to get a sense of where we’ve been, where we’re going, and how we create. Ultimately, that’s The Prelude.

It begins with a memory of a river:
                              Was it for this
That one, the fairest of all rivers, loved
To blend his murmurs with my nurse’s song,
And from his alder shades and rocky falls,
And from his fords and shallows, sent a voice
That flowed along my dreams? (1799—1-6)

These lines were transported, whole and unchanged, into the longer versions of the poem. They ended up landing at line 273 of the first book of both the 1805 and 1850 revisions. A hazy memory of the river Derwent, blending with the human voices around a child. Wordsworth was a country boy.

Most critical articles on The Prelude cut across all three versions with ease, seldom stopping to examine the changes between them. The changes are subtle, and display a complex mind at work. Emotion and Cognition in The Prelude makes some great points regarding Wordsworth’s evolution of an equivalence between emotion and cognition. Rather than a dangerous force, as in Locke, emotion can lead us to making clearer decisions. The shift in emotions across the versions of The Prelude are outside the scope of that article, but they fascinate me. The emotions most often portrayed by Wordsworth are solitary ones, but solitude wasn’t the only thing he knew. Lamenting his experience in the city is how the extended version of The Prelude begins:

Oh there is a blessing in this gentle breeze,
That blows from the green fields and from the clouds
And from that sky; it beats against my cheek,
And seems half conscious of the joy it gives.
O welcome messenger! O welcome friend!
A captive guest greets thee, coming from a house
Of bondage, from yon city’s walls set free,
A prison where he hath been long immured.
Now I am free, enfranchised and at large,
May fix my habitation where I will. (1805—1-10)

The 1805 version of the poem has the despondent and experienced voice of the present. Behind it is a closely guarded optimism, because Wordsworth has left the city for the country, his chosen place to live. “Fix my habitation” is a common phrase, but it’s worth noting that this is the same phrase used by Crusoe as he decides to make the best of being stranded on the island. A direct allusion to Milton a few lines below this recalls the closing scene of Paradise Lost where Adam and Eve leave the garden. Note carefully the difference in the revised 1850 final revision:

O there is a blessing in this gentle breeze,
A visitant that while he fans my cheek
Doth seem half-conscious of the joy he brings
From the green fields, and from yon azure sky,
Whate’er his mission, the soft breeze can come
To none more grateful than me escaped
From the vast city, where I long had pined
A discontented sojourner: now free,
Free as a bird to settle where I will. (1850— 1-9)

There is a shift from active to passive. Instead of saying “Now I am free,” Wordsworth refers to himself distantly as “me escaped” . . . “A discontented sojourner: now free.” The tense doesn’t shift, but there is a remoteness to the language that was not there in either early version. Studying trauma narratives, descriptions of deep seated emotional traumas are often marked by tense shifts into the present. It’s as if the events are still happening. The 1805 version was written in the country, long after Wordsworth dwelled in the city, and yet he speaks as if it had just happened.

A shift into past tense evolves as trauma narratives are re-written; this presents a mythic memory of the events. It’s a part of the healing process. Passive constructions more often signal a kind of denial. The agents are removed from the action, and responsibility remains nebulous. There is something lost in the 1850 revision, similar to a trauma narrative but not identical. The passivity is implied rather than actual. The sense of possibility, perhaps borne from trauma, that the 1805 version demonstrates is diffused and disengaged through revision. This is a subtle point; the other changes are more profound.

The city becomes vast in memory, and the breeze becomes animated as if it were a person: It is “he” not the “it” of the 1805 version. And the choice of adjectives is also worth noticing: instead of being freed from bondage (a human activity, not a natural one) the poet has instead “pined.” And he compares his freedom to that of a bird, rather than of a castaway. I find this stuff fascinating. The changes in other parts of the poem are far more radical than this. But it makes a good prelude for exploration.

Great writers rewrite. And those choices reflect the moment that they live in, though the subject narrated may be the past. Each day we live we reconstruct our own mythic pasts, in the way that suits our emotional cognition of them in the now. Wordsworth’s confidence level has changed, and he dealt with his feelings for the city differently as he aged. It seems to me that Wordsworth has animated nature fiercely, to replace the sociality he left behind. But the progression in these groups of lines, from the dream-like poet of Lyrical Ballads, to the traumatized introspective explorer of 1805, to the poet laureate’s final cut published in 1850, presents a rich text for exploration.

2 Comments

I think wordworth was blue as a horse! steroids were needed in his daily quest for birmingham. True nerdish behaviour! Roger that, Bill.sorry

Got a light? i lost mine over new york way! Tru planks. I drove my mazda and it got stuck in porridge....shit. Love wordsworth...in my opinion best cricketer ever but whats all this dorky poetry about? You trying to ruin his reputation???? Dude your just jealous!