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The Prelude Manuscripts

This video looks at the original manuscript of Wordsworth's "The Prelude".
Our main text this week is Wordsworth’s autobiographical poem “The Prelude” in which he describes his childhood growing up in the Lake District. I’ve come back to the Jerwood Centre in Grasmere, which holds Wordsworth’s collection of manuscripts, to talk to Jeff Cowton about “The Prelude.” So, Jeff, I understand there’s more than one manuscript for “The Prelude.” Well, there are 24 surviving ones that we know of. There were many more than that haven’t survived. And the 24 manuscripts, they began in 1798, and the last manuscript that we know of that has survived is 1839. So they cover over 40 years. So this is a poem that changes enormously and grows and develops over a long period of time.
It grows and it changes as Wordsworth grew and as his ideas changed and as his vision of the poem changed, and so it began with a very humble notebook, which we have. This is one of our greatest treasures, and as you can see, it survived well. It’s coming apart a little at the spine, and as you can see from it that someone has labelled it as diaries on the front. And this being helpful, also has been misleading over the years because it’s a notebook that contains all sorts of things, Wordsworth’s writing, his sister Dorothy’s writing, but the lines that relate to “The Prelude” come right at the very back. Why would he write in the back of his sister’s diary?
Is it just a matter of being short of paper? Well, paper was expensive. And when William and Dorothy went into Germany in 1798, they bought a number of little notebooks like this one, and it began in the front of the notebook with accounts of their experiences so their travels, the people that they meet. And then at the back of the notebook, Wordsworth picks up the pen, and he works from the rear in towards the notebook. So the result from when they came back from Germany was the Dorothy, which was writing in her hand at the front and Wordsworth with the early lines of “The Prelude” at the back.
So if we look at this volume, we can see the first lines of “The Prelude” as they were written? As far as we know, these certainly are the earliest surviving lines of the poem. And if we look just inside the back cover, you can see Wordsworth very much at work, so lines written and then lines revised. And then the opening lines of the first version of the poem as it became “was it for this that one the fairest of all rivers?” It’s very sort of squeezed in up at the top there, isn’t it? It is. It’s a narrow page. Sometimes he changes as you can see, so he remains in that format for a while, but then he’ll change.
So he’ll adapt, and that gives more space by writing horizontally. And you can see there too that he’s very conscious of progress, so you have a number which shows the number of lines that he’s written. So he’s marking his progress as he goes. So how much of the poem gets written in this notebook? A lot of the episodes that make up the first book of “The Prelude” are already recorded at this point. So episodes of boat stealing, of stealing bird’s eggs, or of stealing birds from other people’s bird traps. They’re recorded in this notebook. So some of the most important passages of “The Prelude” appear in this notebook. So that’s an extraordinary item.
It’s strangely modest for what then becomes one of the greatest poems in the English language. Well, when Wordsworth began recording these episodes, he would have no idea what it would become. Here he was in Germany. His friend and fellow poet, Coleridge, had almost set him a challenge of writing the great poem of the age, and Wordsworth was sort of coming to terms with this and perhaps begins by thinking, well, why me? Why did it become me? It was the man with this challenge. And so we think that here he is sort of thinking, well, how has my experience so far led me to this point?
So there are a series of episodes rather than with this master plan of an 8,000 line poem at the end. So this isn’t the poem he’s thinking of at all as a masterpiece in the making. This is just a process of self-scrutiny, self-inquiry. Exactly, and looking through his childhood and the education that he received and how he has learned through nature, as he puts it, to become the man, the poet, that he is at this stage of its life. What a fascinating origin for this great poem, so what’s the next stage after that? The next stage is that he returned to England, so that was 1798. And in 1799, he returns to England, and the poem grows.
And the next manuscript– well, not the next manuscript– but the next sort of fair copy, the next full version written out neatly, combines those fragments and other fragments. And Dorothy Wordsworth, his sister, writes it in this neat copy. So you can see that here’s Dorothy taking all sorts of fragments, perhaps with Wordsworth at her side and making it into this poem of two books. And it covers his childhood. It covers his school days and many of those episodes. So it’s a beautiful object, beautiful handwriting. But again, this itself is part of the creative process. We can see the revisions again. Well, here as you say, so there are lines that are crossed out.
There are lines that are written in the margin, and lines just completely removed altogether. So what’s the next major manuscript stage for the poem? Well, it continues to grow. Yeah? So this would take us up to the end of 1799, and then over the next few years, he returns to the poem, particularly in 1804 and 1805. And those fragments appear in any number of manuscripts, so the job, again, it was a similar process of many manuscripts being brought together by Dorothy with Wordsworth’s direction. And I guess we must imagine that even as Dorothy is copying from earlier manuscripts that Wordsworth will be correcting it as he goes. It’s this process of continual continuous revision.
So this is one of the great manuscripts of English literature. This takes us from the two-book Prelude into 13 books or 13 sections. And this again, is Dorothy Wordsworth, and this is just magnificent. This is, as you can see, it’s the recto side all the way through where, when I say, recto, I mean the right-hand side of the page all the way through. And I think there’s 8,000 lines of poetry written out with a quill pen, written in Dove Cottage over the winter. Presumably dark, cold, and it’s just a wonderful result really of all that effort. A family industry with Wordsworth creating and Dorothy doing the writing and no doubt contributing to the poem too.
So we can see that the poem’s developed significantly there just in terms of scale. As you say, we moved from a few extracts first joined into two books in the second volume we looked at, and now we’re up to how many books here? 13 books. 13 books. And this takes his life through to the moment of coming to Dove Cottage. So right through to the age of 29. But as you can see again, there’s a process of revision. And Wordsworth returns to the poem perhaps years later. Some of these corrections may have been done 1805 when this was written. Others will have been returned to and so the process goes on.
So that then takes us to Wordsworth at the age of 62 when his wife, Mary, then writes out the poem. So she lends a hand too.
And so this is a complete rewriting, 8,000 lines again. And Wordsworth does what you would expect him to do. He then corrects it of course. And it’s not just the odd word here and there. It’s a wholesale revision. And so it goes, so there’s Mary’s handwriting underneath with Wordsworth’s corrections. So what date did you say this was, Jeff? This is 1832– 1832. –and then revisions through the 1830s. So we’re three decades on from when he first started writing this poem. And a different man, you know, a different stage of his life. His politics will have changed, and his friendship to Coleridge, to whom the poem was addressed, will have changed. And so it becomes a different poem.
It looks like we have sections pasted in here. We do. The amount of revision was so great sometimes that Wordsworth had to add extra lines, so there’s an instance where extra lines are added, but in some instances, there’s crossings out. And a piece of paper is then stuck over if I can find one. There we are. So there’s I mean, there’s not much room for any more revisions there, so another piece of paper is stuck over the top and starts again. So we’ve got this great piece of work begun in 1798, still working on it 1832. So all the time while the poem’s growing and is being revised in this way, it remains unpublished.
It wasn’t published for a number of reasons, but Wordsworth was very conscious of a financial legacy for his family. And so to have published it at the earliest stage, as he later pointed, the copyright would have run out in his lifetime, and the family wouldn’t have had the financial benefit. So he held back from publishing it so that after his time that was the length of copyright for the family to gain the income from it. So when is it first published? Well, it’s first published just after his death. He died in April, 1850. And just a few months later, here it is in its published form. So that’s the first edition of “The Prelude.” This is the first edition.
And this is the first time the poem gets its name. It’s his wife, Mary, who gave the poem its name, and its called “The Prelude” because it is the introduction of the prelude to the great poem that he’d been set the challenge to by Coleridge. I see. So 8,000 lines is the introduction, so the great poem itself, you can imagine would have been some length. But we began with the lines “Was it for this,” and we saw how they were first written in 1798. And there we are. Those lines have made it all the way through to the 1850 edition. “Was it for this that one, the fairest of all rivers loved to blend his murmurs with my nurse’s song.”
So that’s the writing we saw squeezed into that early notebook over 50 years before it’s first published here. And they’ve survived unchanged. So with so many manuscripts versions of the poem, what do people mean by “The Prelude?” Well, I think it largely depends, perhaps, on where you’re brought up. I think in I believe in America that people largely read the 1850 version. I think in this country, it’s more the 1805 version. And it seems to be what you become familiar with is what you come to love. Do you have a favourite version yourself? Well I like the 1799 version. I like that very early response from the boyhood experiences. But it’s a great poem whichever version you read, isn’t it?
Well, thank you very much, Jeff. It’s been an absolutely fascinating illustration of how this poem grows and develops and how Wordsworth revises the masterpiece that is gradually developing and also how other members of the family, Dorothy, you were saying, and Mary contribute to the production of this great work of literature. Thank you.

This week we will be studying Wordsworth’s autobiographical poem, The Prelude, which many people consider his masterpiece.

The poem is particularly admired by readers for its depiction of Wordsworth’s childhood growing up in the Lake District. Watch this video to gain an introduction to the history of Wordsworth’s writing of the poem, which began in 1798 and continued for much of the rest of his life.

As you watch the video, you may like to take notes because in the next step we have set a quiz on the key issues it covers. In the rest of the week, we will examine how Wordsworth began writing The Prelude and explore some of its key passages.

We will focus on Wordsworth’s concept of ‘spots of time’ and investigate how he presents his childhood adventures. In the week’s videos, we will visit some of the key locations in The Prelude, including Hawkshead, where Wordsworth went to school, and Ullswater, the scene of one of his most interesting boyhood adventures.

Hopefully you will have a better understanding of the new tagging feature in this course now. In this week try to re-use tags which relate to something interesting or emergent, to help others focus on relevant themes – #sociallearning #commentdiscovery #cooperativelearning

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William Wordsworth: Poetry, People and Place

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