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Wordsworth’s ‘Boat Stealing’

Professor Simon Bainbridge introduces Wordsworth's "boat stealing" episode.
One of the most important of the spots of time in “The Prelude” occurs here at Ullswater in the northwest of the Lake District. It’s another of Wordsworth’s boyhood adventures. He tells us how he was exploring this area when he came across a boat tied to a tree beside a cave. Wordsworth borrows this boat, without permission, and rows out into the centre of the lake. Initially, he’s very proud of his skill as an oarsman, and he’s very excited by this night time adventure. But then he becomes victim of an optical illusion.
As he rows out from the shore, initially, all he can see is a crag, but as he gets further out from behind that crag, starts to appear a large mountain. For Wordsworth, who’s a very imaginative boy, and he’s also troubled by his sense of guilt at having borrowed the boat. He feels that the mountain is starting to chase after him. So it’s another these moments of fear that’s central to that notion of the spots of time. Wordsworth turns his boat around and hastens back to the shore, ties the boat up, and carries off on his way. But this adventure and this troubling incident creates a state of mind for him in which he feels haunted.
He, again, feels as if he’s being chased by some supernatural power, and that state of mind is crucial to his sense of the spots of time. And now we’re going to give you the opportunity to look in a little more detail at this key spot of time.
“One evening, I went alone into a shepherd’s boat, a skiff that to a willow tree was tied, within a rocky cove, its usual home.
It was an act of stealth and troubled pleasure, not without the voice of mountain-echoes did my boat move on, leaving behind her still on either side, small circles glittering idly in the moon until their melted all into one track of sparkling light.
A rocky steep uprose above the cavern of the willow tree, and now as suited one who proudly rowed with his best skill. I fixed a steady view upon the top of that same craggy ridge, the bound of the horizon. For behind was nothing but the stars and the grey sky. She was an elfin pinnace. Lustily, I dipped my oars into the silent lake, and as I rose upon the stroke, my boat went heaving through the water like a swan. When from behind that craggy steep, until then the bound of the horizon, a huge cliff, as if with voluntary power instinct, upreared its head.
And after I had seen that spectacle, for many days my brain worked with a dim and undetermined sense of unknown modes of being. Huge and mighty forms that do not live like living men, moved slowly through my mind by day and were the trouble of my dreams.”

In the next few steps, we are going to concentrate on one of the most important ‘spots of time’ in The Prelude, generally known as the ‘boat stealing’ episode.

Watch this video, in which Professor Simon Bainbridge introduces the episode. This includes a dramatisation of Wordsworth’s adventure.

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William Wordsworth: Poetry, People and Place

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