The greatest long poem in modern English letters began its life, unexpectedly, in the winter of 1798, in an uncomfortable lodging in Goslar, Lower Saxony, where Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy found themselves marooned for four miserable months. The weather was terrible – it was reputedly the coldest winter of the century – and leaving town was practically impossible: ‘When we left the room where we sit we were obliged to wrap ourselves up in great coats &c in order not to suffer much pain from the transition,’ Dorothy wrote home to their brother Christopher, ‘though we only went into the next room or down stairs for a few minutes.’ The Wordsworths had travelled to Germany in September, ostensibly to learn the language, but really because they had nothing better to do in England, and were happy to be swept along in the charismatic wake of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, with whom they had just shared an enchanted year of poetry and talk in the Quantocks in Somerset, and who was now eager to learn about German science. The principal production of their year together was the collaborative volume, Lyrical Ballads, with a Few Other Poems (1798). The little book opened with ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ and closed with ‘Tintern Abbey’, so it would scarcely have been unreasonable for the poets to have had high hopes at least of a succès d’estime; but their declared ambitions did not extend much further than raising some money for their Continental trip.
If they had all been looking forward to a new adventure together, however, that soon came to nothing: the poets went their separate ways almost as soon as they arrived in Germany. Coleridge headed for the bright lights of Ratzeburg, a pretty and expensive place, where he threw himself boisterously into a round of parties and top-notch chat: ‘A very different world,’ as Dorothy observed, ‘he is all in high life, among barons, counts and countesses.’ Goslar, by contrast, had financial prudence to recommend it but not much else: ‘an old decaying city’, thought Coleridge, who considered Wordsworth’s intellectual life hampered anyway by his unclubbable manners and the presence of Dorothy. ‘You have two things against you,’ he wrote, ‘your not loving smoke; and your sister.’
Stuck in this enforced, accompanied solitude, Wordsworth turned to writing. ‘William works hard,’ Dorothy reported, ‘but not very much in German.’ He worked with the utter absorption that would always mark his greatest periods of self-discovery, and not for the first time Dorothy worried that the strain of making verses was making him ill. Wordsworth was writing with troubled urgency, as though his poems were a necessary psychological bulwark: ‘As I have had no books I have been obliged to write in self-defence,’ he told Coleridge. His new work included some of the cryptic and beautiful lyrics known as the ‘Lucy’ poems: their relationship to Wordsworth’s own experience at the time is enigmatic, but the way they dwell on foreshortened lives spent in unvisited obscurity suggests the unhappy isolation of Goslar. Beside these poems, he was suddenly writing a lot of autobiographical blank verse that recollected incidents from his Lake District childhood. Dorothy transcribed a few passages in a letter they sent to Coleridge, including an account of ice-skating that she prefaced with a sturdy moral: ‘A race with William upon his native lakes would leave to the heart and the imagination something more dear and valuable than the gay sights of ladies and countesses whirling along the lake of Ratzeburg.’ This blank verse was unlike anything Wordsworth had written before. What would become The Prelude would occupy him in one way or another for the rest of his life.
Coleridge was on their minds all through that awful winter, quite apart from any disgruntlement at his dropping them for a glitzier life. If Dorothy sounded a little overprotective about William’s new work, that was doubtless because she knew that Coleridge was keenly expecting quite a different sort of poetry from him. Lyrical Ballads had not carried a very large burden of their authorial ambitions because Wordsworth had something much grander in prospect – and it was mostly of Coleridge’s devising. ‘The Recluse, or Views of Nature, Man, and Society’ was to be an immense work of philosophical blank verse in which, as Wordsworth had ingenuously explained to a friend, ‘I contrive to convey most of the knowledge of which I am possessed … Indeed, I know not any thing which will not come within the scope of my plan.’ The encyclopedic ambitions are ringingly Coleridgean, and indeed Coleridge had himself entertained for a time thoughts of a similar long poem (his was to be called ‘The Brook’), which would have interwoven natural description and metaphysical reflections. Like many of Coleridge’s grandest schemes it came to nothing; but in Wordsworth, he clearly felt, he had found just the man to take over the testing commission. However sticky their relations became in later life, Coleridge never wavered from his earliest conviction that Wordsworth was the finest poet of the age, the peer of Shakespeare and Milton; and for such genius only one sort of production could possibly be appropriate: ‘the first & finest philosophical Poem’.
Wordsworth seems to have been only too happy to assume the task – his confidence no doubt boosted by Coleridge’s certainty that he had enjoyed just the right sort of childhood to prepare him for it. Coleridge had spent most of his boyhood in London, a place he represents in his poems as one of hellish confinement; but Wordsworth’s early life had been spent among the Cumbrian mountains and lakes, and, according to the quasi-pantheist theology Coleridge professed at the time, that was tantamount to spending it in the company of divinity itself. No wonder Wordsworth looked on Coleridge with such wonder during that year in Somerset: Wordsworth had had the experience but missed the meaning; and now here was Coleridge to supply it. When in ‘Frost at Midnight’ Coleridge imagined an ideal childhood for his infant son, it was a Wordsworthian childhood imagined in a fantasy Cumbria (he had, as yet, never been to the real place):
But thou, my babe! shalt wander like a breeze
By lakes and sandy shores, beneath the crags
Of ancient mountain, and beneath the clouds,
Which image in their bulk both lakes and shores
And mountain crags …
Coleridge considered himself a Christian (of a heterodox kind) and Wordsworth wasn’t to follow him in that respect for several years; but otherwise he seems to have eagerly accepted Coleridge’s myth of his elect childhood, and regarded it as the foundation of an immense poetical enterprise.
And so, just a few months after the tribute of ‘Frost at Midnight’, now stranded in Goslar and with nothing to do but write, Wordsworth gathered himself to begin ‘The Recluse’. What happened then remains a matter of mild controversy. What we do know (because the manuscript survives among the extensive papers held by the Wordsworth Trust in Grasmere) is that he picked up a pocket notebook in which Dorothy had been keeping a journal about their trip and, turning to the back page and starting halfway along a line of blank verse, he began to write:
was it for this
That one, the fairest of all rivers, loved
To blend his murmurs with my nurse’s song …
The rhetorical formula (‘Was it for this’) is repeated insistently as Wordsworth calls to mind scattered memories of childhood – playing alone in the river and meadow and climbing alarming rock-faces. But was it for what, exactly? In his edition of the early Prelude manuscripts, Stephen Parrish suggested that ‘this’ is ‘the powerful disturbance of mind occasioned by a superabundant flow of inspiration’, which would be a confirmation of the powers expected of Wordsworth. But Jonathan Wordsworth offered what has probably become the mainstream view: ‘this’ is a disorientating sense of sudden disability, of colossal hopes unexpectedly embarrassed. The questions, according to this view, are full of troubled self-reproach: with that childhood, still I can’t write this thing? The lines betray a ‘crisis in reckoning’, as Susan Wolfson put it in her book Formal Charges, excerpted in Stephen Gill’s finely judged anthology of the best recent criticism of the poem. Once he had got going on that track, Wordsworth seems to have proceeded very rapidly, working his way back through the notebook, bringing to mind further episodes of his youth, until, finally pausing to take stock, he returned to count the number of lines. He wrote in a firm hand: ‘94’. He hadn’t meant to embark on a piece of autobiography at all, but the act of totting-up suggests a growing awareness about the potential implicit in what he had found himself doing.
If Wordsworth had been looking into his personal history for reassuring evidence of nature’s benedictive influence, as Coleridge’s theology predicted, then the remembrances that suggested themselves must have been deeply puzzling. For the boy Wordsworth recollects is not wandering seraphically in the company of God, but is a solitary figure, bewildered, frightened, guilty, forsaken. In nothing is Wordsworth more emphatically our contemporary than in his central perception that adult sensibility is the product of childhood experience – and, further, that the experiences that matter most are the unsettling and scary ones. The 18th century might call them sublime; we might prefer traumatic.
Oh, when I have hung
Above the raven’s nest, have hung alone
By half-inch fissures in the slippery rock
But ill sustained, and almost, as it seemed,
Suspended by the wind which blew amain
Against the naked crag, ah, then,
While on the perilous edge I hung alone,
With what strange utterance did the loud dry wind
Blow through my ears; the sky seemed not a sky
Of earth, and with what motion moved the clouds!
Wordsworth always wrote well about things suspended, as Christopher Ricks once pointed out in an outstanding essay (also anthologised by Gill); and here, in this scene of hanging, is the full strength of his imagination, peculiar and paradoxical without being witty. One of his greatest audacities was the discovery of a poetic resource in inarticulacy: the sheer immensity of the child’s experience exceeds the adult’s power to find words for it. How beautifully, for example, the verse plays with the redundancy of the merely tautological (‘with what motion moved’) as if to show language running up against the limits of what’s sayable. Repetition is another kind of inarticulacy: the lines enact recollection so persuasively in part because they are themselves so insistently self-recollecting, turning with stalled wonder on reiterated words (‘hung … hung alone … hung alone’). Wholly characteristic, too, is the way Wordsworth presents us with something that is an anecdote but not exactly a story: the verse certainly admits the normal expectations of narrative (‘When … then’) but then disappoints them, for we come to no plot twist or dénouement, merely a description of the wind and the clouds. Wordsworth is discovering in consciousness itself a new place where the decisive moments of a life might happen, and such turning points involve, in the retrospect of retelling, a self-estranging mystery or perplexity. The sense of disproportion between the profundity of recollected feeling and the apparent inconsequentiality of the incident that prompted it is quintessentially Wordsworthian. He would later conceptualise his revolutionary principle in the Preface to the second edition of Lyrical Ballads (1800): ‘That the feeling therein developed gives importance to the action and situation, and not the action and situation to the feeling.’ It might be the motto of modern poetry.
By the time the Wordsworths finally left for England in February 1799, William had completed more than 400 lines of autobiographical verse, singling out from his past what he had come to think of as ‘spots of time’. That autumn he wrote a second book, moving on to his schooldays, and also speculating in some remarkably forward-thinking lines about the lasting psychological importance of the earliest contact a baby has with its mother. The work as a whole was now addressed to ‘my friend’: Coleridge was honoured by the gesture while still thinking the poem in a way a distraction from proper business. ‘I long to see what you have been doing,’ he wrote. ‘O let it be the tailpiece of “The Recluse”, for of nothing but “The Recluse” can I hear patiently.’ But although Wordsworth made a brave start (in lines later entitled ‘Home at Grasmere’), the project had already stalled. Both Coleridge and Wordsworth thought of the two books of autobiography as an appendix to the main work; but it was the appendix that continued to grow over the next few years. A third book was added in 1801, and by early 1804 Wordsworth was finishing a version in five books; but in the spring of that year he had a change of heart and recast the whole thing in 13 books, a task he completed the following summer. The poem now extended to take in Wordsworth’s unsuccessful career as a Cambridge undergraduate and his residence in London (about which he felt much as Coleridge did); he added descriptions of walking in the Alps during a college vacation, and a magnificent account of climbing Snowdon; and, most substantially, he gave over two long books to his time in post-Revolutionary France in the early 1790s. ‘It will not be much less than 9,000 lines,’ Wordsworth calculated, ‘an alarming length! and a thing unprecedented in Literary history that a man should talk so much about himself.’ What had begun as the poetry of a private history, dwelling on elusively numinous moments of being, was becoming increasingly a poem of very public history, with Wordsworth cast as a representative eyewitness to the defining events of the age.
The lives of all the English Romantic poets were decisively shaped by the Revolution and the long war with France, but Wordsworth was unusual in actually having been there at the time. He wasn’t there for the original uprising in 1789, but travelled through France the following year on his way to the Alps, and in 1791-92 returned for a longer stay. The first visit coincided with the anniversary of the Revolution, ‘France standing on the top of golden hours’, and the country (as he saw it) full of the ‘joy of tens of millions’; but during the second, Wordsworth fell in with a group of Girondist republicans. The account in The Prelude vividly re-creates his fiery enthusiasm for the cause while insinuating, in retrospect, its basis in fantasy and wishfulness: ‘O times,/In which the meagre, stale, forbidding ways/Of custom, law, and statute took at once/The attraction of a country in romance.’ He is naturally much more reticent in the poem about the affair he had with Annette Vallon, with whom he had a daughter. (Wordsworth’s tactful silence on the matter was maintained so successfully by his descendants that the facts were unknown outside the family until 1916, when the Princeton scholar George McLean Harper broke the news.) Quite what part Wordsworth otherwise took in these violent times is obscure, but in old age he told an inquirer that he was ‘pretty hot in it’, and his response to revolutionary atrocity in the poem is strikingly personal and full of dark, unspecific self-reproach, as though he were seeking to exorcise a complicity: ‘I felt a kind of sympathy with power,’ he writes, a great line in the way it implies some dreadful circumlocution. ‘The soil of common life was at that time/Too hot to tread upon,’ The Prelude says of those days, which is a regret but also a recollected excitement: ‘And in their rage and dog-day heat I found/ Something to glory in.’ Part of what is so impressive about the Revolutionary books is the honesty with which Wordsworth admits his dalliance with inhumaneness: Richard Gravil writes very well in his essay here about the curious tenacity of this ‘Robespierrean alter ego’ in Wordsworth’s self-portrait – a lingering sense of the terrible excitement that might attend what Auden called ‘the necessary murder’.
Back in England, which was by now at war with the French Republic, he felt an alien in his own land, and, seeking solace, turned to political theory, an unlikely and as it turned out quite ineffective choice of consolation: William Godwin’s Enquiry Concerning Political Justice was then in vogue among the radical intelligentsia, but its unmitigated rationalism induced some kind of mental collapse in Wordsworth. This is the low point of the narrative of The Prelude; and it was from this abyss, as Wordsworth reconstructed his life in 1805, that he was rescued by the odd alliance of Coleridge, his sister Dorothy and ‘Nature’s self’. In truth, Wordsworth didn’t really get to know Coleridge properly till some time later: this is not the only point where The Prelude is inventive with biographical fact in the interests of a more shapely story.
Remaking his poem around the experience of France gave the much enlarged version of the poem a structure which the original autobiographical verse had lacked. The ‘spots of time’, which had been the first things to come to Wordsworth, were revised (not usually for the better) and redistributed: some were kept in a rejigged version of Book One, but some of the best were shifted to the other end of the poem, following the disillusionment of France, where they were conscripted to a new and tendentious role. Such moments were now to be cherished as lasting proof, invisibly retained through all the dark days of revolutionary fervour and political abstraction, of the mind’s innate creativity, ‘visitings of imaginative power’ that cast a ‘beneficent influence’. Restoration came at the close of the poem, with the false dawn of France and the lure of revolutionary politics successfully resisted, and with Wordsworth (and his reader) all set for Nature once again and for ‘The Recluse’, which was to be the epic of Nature. Except, of course, ‘The Recluse’ never came, and, in its absence, The Prelude remained a poem known only to the family circle and one or two intimates, including Coleridge: ‘This Poem will not be published these many years,’ Wordsworth explained to a friend, ‘and never during my lifetime, till I have finished a larger and more important work to which it is tributary.’ Wordsworth never stopped reworking the poem, so that by some calculations there existed at the time of his death 16 discrete versions in manuscript, which continue to be lovingly preserved in Grasmere. The Prelude, or Growth of a Poet’s Mind; An Autobiographical Poem finally appeared shortly after Wordsworth died in 1850, the text seen through the press by his relatives and executors, who did not hesitate to make numerous changes and corrections. Among the editorial contributions was the title, which was his widow’s idea: Wordsworth himself had always thought of the poem as ‘the Poem addressed to Coleridge’ or simply ‘the Poem on his own Life’. The textual issues that arise from this mass of variants are endlessly complicated and have occupied rival scholars for decades: Stephen Gill sets out the principal points of controversy with wonderful clarity in his introduction; but the main point for the layman to keep in mind is that there is simply no reading text of The Prelude that isn’t, to some degree, the creation of editors.
As Gill says, there is ‘something odd’ about the great poem, and its extreme textual instability is one aspect of this. At first acquaintance, nothing could appear more monumental or secure in its achievement than the big Prelude: it casts itself as a historic life story of progress, with an emphatically redemptive shape – as Wordsworth entitled one of the latter books of the 1805 poem, ‘Imagination, How Impaired and Restored’, a Paradise Lost and Regained for the times. Like Wordsworth at large, the poem exhibits a steely determination to be positive – to look back at life and (however it felt at the time) recognise it as ‘All gratulant if rightly understood’. As the essays collected here remind us, so much about the poem feels definitively modern – its emphasis on individual growth, its appreciation of the importance of childhood, its exploration of man’s relationship with the natural world, its understanding of the need to define a properly human life in times of historical catastrophe – and the major schools of contemporary criticism have each found something in the poem to talk about, from Marxism and feminism to psychoanalysis and eco-criticism, as this Casebook demonstrates very well. But in one respect it is incorrigibly un-modern, and that is in its obligation to be cheerful.
Matthew Arnold was not the only 19th-century reader keen to find in Wordsworth’s cheer an answer to the problems of his age, ‘this strange disease of modern life’. But it is just the passages in The Prelude that dwell on indefatigable joy, invoking their mighty capitalised abstractions, that are likely to strike most readers as hardest to accept – ‘Oh soul of Nature, excellent and fair,/That didst rejoice with me, with whom I too/Rejoiced,’ and so on. The greatness of Wordsworth’s poetry doesn’t lie in its assertions of confident natural piety and simple joy, but in what A.C. Bradley memorably identified as its ‘perplexed persistence’. Bradley, writing in the first years of the 20th century, was perhaps the first critic fully to appreciate the centrality of The Prelude to Wordsworth’s achievement, and he saw that it mattered not because of its upbeat assertiveness but because of what Bradley called its ‘trouble’. There is a tremendous poignancy in Wordsworth’s need to pull things together in The Prelude, as though to forge a positive connection between the different episodes of his life and to think well of it all; but in truth the experience of France, as much as the dark trouble of the ‘spots of time’, resists easy conscription into a Good News story about ‘Nature’. The obvious thing to say about the poem is that it is egocentric, and its spiritual claims can sound boisterous and hectic, as though protesting too much:
Of genius, power,
Creation, and divinity itself
I have been speaking, for my theme has been
What passed within me.
But the secret of its genius lies not really in boundless confidence, as Wordsworth himself seems occasionally to have realised. Eliot said of Tennyson’s In Memoriam that though its faith was a poor thing its doubt was ‘a very intense experience’; and one could say of The Prelude, too, that it is in hesitancy and doubt that it finds its truest intensity. The poem began, in that freezing German winter, in a state of uncertainty about proceedings that was never fully resolved: like the boy Wordsworth, the poem continues to hang ‘but ill sustained’, waiting for the solid ground of the real work (that will never come) to support it and justify it. ‘It is not self-conceit, as you will know well, that has induced [me] to do this, but real humility,’ he told his patron Sir George Beaumont. ‘I began the work because I was unprepared to treat any more arduous subject, and diffident of my own powers’; and a sort of diffidence accompanies all its most haunting assertions of success:
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.
Hard to say, for example, which holds the balance of power in that sentence: the calm towards which it moves or the recollected terrors that it seeks to make good.
Writing to his brother Stanislaus in 1905, James Joyce conceded: ‘I think Wordsworth of all English men of letters best deserves your word “genius”.’ Joyce was unlikely to be much taken by nature mysticism: what he may have found to admire in Wordsworth was his awareness of the momentousness that can attend the ordinary. Wordsworth could not have written Ulysses, of course, and would not have wished to; but the animating principle of Joyce’s novel, that ordinary events may possess an epic potential, is one at the heart of Wordsworth too. Joyce’s epic sense was Homeric and comical, where Wordsworth’s was Miltonic and sublime, but they both articulate a kind of double-vision in which the ordinary becomes extraordinary. As when the boy Wordsworth, separated from his companion, frightened, stumbles across a girl carrying water back to her home, and discovers in that perfectly normal occurrence a scene that he could never forget:
It was in truth
An ordinary sight, but I should need
Colours and words that are unknown to man
To paint the visionary dreariness
Which, while I looked all round for my lost guide,
Did at that time invest the naked pool,
The beacon on the lonely eminence,
The woman and her garments vexed and tossed
By the strong wind.
Wordsworth got used to being attacked by contemporary critics for a tendency to get things out of proportion – ‘to look at pile-worts and daffydowndillies through the same telescope which he applies to the moon and stars’, as his friend Southey complained – as though he were inadvertently producing a kind of mock-heroic by deploying the resources of verse on all the wrong things. In a way, although obviously unsympathetic, the critics were not being obtuse; but where they detected a perverse denial of taste, Wordsworth staked a poetic vocation. In later years he looked back on ‘what I should myself most value in my attempts, viz the spirituality with which I have endeavoured to invest the material Universe, and the moral relations under which I have wished to exhibit its most ordinary appearances’: the tone, like many of Wordsworth’s ex cathedra announcements, comes across as faintly ludicrous (‘viz’), but the achievement was real, and its impact amazingly long-lived. In one way or another it is what most English and American poets have been doing ever since. Before Wordsworth, who would, or could, have written a poem about, say, catching an old fish and staring at it and then just letting it go? As Elizabeth Bishop told Robert Lowell, ‘I find I’m really a minor female Wordsworth.’