Meanings change, though the words remain the same. Awful used to mean “full of awe,” not tragic or terrible. Terrible has shifted too. Rather than bad, it also means more precisely “inspiring terror.” Terror, in and of itself is not a bad thing. Moments of terror are sublime moments where the stimulus exceeds our ability to experience it— pushing life beyond the realm of ordinary consciousness. There is an awful and terrible vision to be found even in the mundane. Of course if you claim this, there is the danger you will be pronounced mad, like William Blake:

When the sun rises do you not see a round Disk of fire somewhat like a Guinea O no no I see an Innumerable company of the Heavenly host crying Holy Holy Holy is the Lord God Almighty. I question not my Corporeal or Vegetative Eye any more than I would Question a Window concerning a Sight. I look thro it & not with it. (VLJ, E: 565-6)

That the words awful and terrible have shifted in this way shows how much that Locke’s view of emotion as opposed to clear thinking has permeated society. That Blake used a guinea as an example of the common view was no mistake. In his time, people chased after money causing the sort of problems crashing down on the US right now, reminding us of our lack of vision. There’s more to vision than valuation; there is also an element of celebration. Is vision a gift? In the 1799 version of The Prelude, Wordsworth thought so.

    The mind of man is fashioned and built up
Even as a strain of music. I believe
That there are spirits which, when they would form
A favored being, from his very dawn
Of infancy do open out the clouds
As the touch of lighting, seeking him
With gentle visitation— quiet powers,
Retired, and seldom recognized, yet kind

The conflict in imagery here is profound. Lightning is a “gentle visitation”?—quiet power? A storm that splits the clouds is— “Retired, and seldom recognized, yet kind?” To Wordsworth’s credit, he takes the visionary power to be democratic:

And to the very meanest not unknown—
With me, though rarely, in my boyish days
They communed. Others too there are, who use,
Yet haply aiming at the self-same end,
Severer interventions, ministry
More palpable— and of their school was I. (1799— 67-80)

Contrasting Blake’s point of view with Wordsworth’s, it seem appropriate to point out that in this example Wordsworth seems nearly pagan— “spirits” rather than spirit. Nature (the capital N type) for Wordsworth always didactic. Wordsworth doesn’t claim to be a favored being here, more like a reluctant pupil. The expansion of these lines in 1805 makes that perfectly clear:

    The mind of man is framed even like the breath
And harmony of music. There is a dark
Invisible workmanship that reconciles
Discordant elements, and makes them move
In one society. Ah me, that all
The terrors, all the early miseries,
Regrets, vexations, lassitudes, that all
The thoughts, and feelings which have been infused
Into my mind, should ever have made up
The calm existence that is mine when I
Am worthy of myself. Praise to the end. (1805— 351-361)

The animism is replaced by piety just six years later. “Ah, me” the present introspection also echoes the shift I noted in the opening lines yesterday. The discordant imagery of the initial version is expanded with more overt statement of the “invisible workmanship” that drives it, and it is actively “infused / Into my mind.” What a difference a few years makes. But nothing like the radical change into the final revision of the poet, the reflections of an old man:

Dust we are, the immortal spirit grows
Like harmony in music; there is a dark
Inscrutable workmanship that reconciles
Discordant elements, makes them cling together
In one society. How strange that all
The terrors, pains, and early miseries,
Regrets, vexations, lassitudes, interfused
Within my mind, should e’er have borne a part,
And that a needful part, in making up
The calm existence that is mine when I
Am worthy of myself! Praise to the end! (1850— 340-350)

“Dust we are” sounds more like Byron than young Wordsworth. Invisible becomes inscrutable. Move becomes cling together. The active infusion of life experiences becomes interfused in passive memories— memories that have “borne a part” of making the man. However, their importance is underscored, as the periods of the final part become exclamations. The actively living young man has become a recluse looking back from his hard fought calm of solitude. Blake would have railed against this— he just couldn’t stomach this sort of passivity, regardless of his age.

The 1805 version retains the concerns of the 1799 poem regarding the presence of “favored beings,” and Wordsworth asserts himself closer to that class, even in youth:

Thanks likewise for the means! But I believe
That Nature, oftentimes, when she would frame
A favored being, from his earliest dawn
Of infancy doth open out the clouds
As at the touch of lightning, seeking him
With gentlest visitation; not the less,
Though haply aiming at the self-same end,
Does it delight her often to employ
Severer intentions, ministry
More palpable— and so she dealt with me. (1805— 362-371)

Wordsworth’s ego seemed to reach a peak in 1805 from which it quickly waned. He is here, “not the less” and at the end of his life he seemed to want to remove any trace of a notion that he might be blessed with poetic power. But with it, he defused the discordant imagery, the passion, and the enthusiasm:

Thanks to the means which Nature deigned to employ;
Whether her fearless visitings, or those
That came with soft alarm, like hurtless light
Opening the peaceful clouds; or she may use
Severer interventions, ministry
More palpable, as best might suit her aim. (1850— 351-356)

In the final cut, concerns over “favored beings” are gone. The storm becomes “peaceful clouds,” the lightning “hurtless light.” The invisible, active force has become passive. Capital N nature introduced in 1805 replacing “spirits” becomes remote with forces which it only “deigned to employ.”

The 1850 Prelude reeks of resignation. Strange how life can change you— make you resigned to the ups and downs rather than a fierce poet braving the wilderness. Intentions are reduced to interventions, and most traces of the proud ego are gone. I find the rewriting of the poem to be both awful and terrible, though you could hardly call any of the versions bad.

I don’t want to get old like Wordsworth. I want to go out singing like Blake.