This manuscript draft of William Worldsworth's ambitious autobiographical poem, The Prelude, was written out in the hand of Wordsworth’s wife Mary. In places, Wordworth has corrected and edited the text.
Childhood and imagination
The first extracts shown here are some of The Prelude's most famous.
In Book I, Wordsworth describes stealing a boat and taking it for a row on Ullswater. The mixed feelings this act arouses lead to the young Wordsworth feeling pursued by the landscape – the mountains even haunt his dreams. This is a characteristic piece of Wordsworth poetry, showing the power of memory combined with, and transformed by, imagination.
Book XI sets out Wordsworth's concept of ‘spots of time’ – memories that affect our imagination and the person we become; many of these stem from childhood events.
The French Revolution
Three of the extracts shown here provide an account of Wordsworth's reaction to the French Revolution. In Book IX, Wordsworth describes a seemingly insignificant moment from his time in France:
… And when we chanced
One day to meet a hunger-bitten girl
Who crept along fitting her languid self
Unto a heifer’s motion – by a cord
Tied to her arm, and picking thus from the lane
Its sustenance, while the girl with her two hands
Was busy knitting in a heartless mood
Of solitude? – and at the sight my friend
In agitation said, ‘ ‘Tis against that
Which we are fighting,’ I with him believed
Devoutly that a spirit was abroad
Which could not be withstood, that poverty,
At least like this, would in a little time Be found no more
Wordsworth’s ‘friend’, the soldier Michael Beaupuy, sees the girl as an emblem of the revolutionary struggle: it is not simply that she is poor, but that she is ‘heartless’ and helpless. Thus, at the beginning of Book X, Wordsworth describes his joy at the potential of the Revolution: ‘Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive...’.
Wordsworth’s energy and optimism soon turned to fear, however, after witnessing the Revolution’s violence. Later in the Book X, Wordsworth describes passing through Paris a month after the September massacres and the new emotions this brings with it:
The fear gone by
Pressed on me almost like a fear to come.
I thought of those September Massacres,
Divided from me by a little month,
And felt and touched them, a substantial dread
Wordsworth’s fear is justified: this is the point at which many of the ideals of the Revolution are lost in a period of violence known as ‘The Terror’. Wordsworth is writing ten years after the events he is describing, and so perhaps knowledge of what was to come affects his memory.
The poet later abandoned his revolutionary principles.
- Article by:
- Philip Shaw
Professor Philip Shaw explores the role of the sublime in Wordsworth's autobiographical Prelude, explaining how the poet uses the concept to investigate nature, imagination and the divine.
- Article by:
- Stephanie Forward
Dr Stephanie Forward explains the key ideas and influences of Romanticism, and considers their place in the work of writers including Wordsworth, Blake, P B Shelley and Keats.