Short Summary of The Prelude by William Wordsworth

1. Wordsworth’s autobiographical poem, The Prelude was begun in 1799 and was completed in 1805. However, it was published only after his death in 1850.

2. The first version containing two books was published in 1799. The second version with 13 books was published in 1805 and the final revised version came out in 1850 with 14 books.

3. The poem is subtitled Growth of a Poet’s Mind; An Autobiographical Poem. It is an account of Wordsworth’s growth and development as a poet.

4. Wordsworth begins this poem by describing the impact the natural world had on his childhood by describing its beauty and richness, as he states,

To more than infant softness, giving me, /Among the fretful dwelling of mankind. /A knowledge, a dim earnest of the calm/Which nature breathes among the field and groves?

5. He describes his passage from childhood animal pleasures, through an adolescent, sensual passion for the wild and gloomy, to the adult awareness of the relation of our perception of the natural world and finally to our sense of the human and moral world.

6. The influence of the French Revolution also forms a major part of the poem. Wordsworth describes his early days of political disinterestedness towards the cause of the French people to his days of active involvement in the cause and finally growing disenchantment towards the cause as a result of the failure of ideals associated with the revolution.

7. Richard Clarke describes Wordsworth’s poem as a ‘lyrical bildungsroman’ and chronologically structures the
fourteen books as follows
Books 1, 2 childhood and school-time experiences very much enamored with nature;
Book 3 residence at Cambridge University-growing alienation from nature and self-absorption;
Book 4 summer vacation;
Book 5 describes the books he read;
Book 6 his experiences at Cambridge University and on walking expeditions in the Alps–epiphany on one
climb, where he sees into the “life of things and by which a sense of balance between self and not-self, the
mind and nature is restored by the insight that everything physical manifests the presence of the spiritual;
Book 7 residence in London–depressing first-hand encounters with the down-trodden, the disenfranchised and examples of man’s inhumanity to man;

Book8 restorative insight: how the love of nature leads to the love of man;
Book 10, 11 his experiences in France both before after the revolution and their negative impact him–his disappointment with the bloody outcome of the French revolution;
Book 12, 13, the climax of the poem, while climbing Mount Snowdon, Wordsworth has another epiphany thanks to the Imagination: self and other exist in harmonious balance;
Book 14 Conclusion.

8. A key concept of Wordsworth’s Prelude is ‘the spots of time’. These are epiphanic moments where “Ordinary, everyday events and entities appear extraordinary and transcendent, become charged through the creative imagination with enormous physical, emotional and spiritual meanings” (Arthur Clements).

9. These ‘spots of time’ have a ‘renovating virtue; they nourish our minds and enhance pleasure. They are intense emotional experiences in life that could be recalled by the imagination to revitalize and renew poetic strength. Examples of these are the boat-stealing episode in the opening book and ascent of Mount Snowdon.