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Beginning The Prelude: analysis

Professor Simon Bainbridge discusses the opening two sentences of Wordworth's The Prelude, explaining how these lines introduce the poem’s key themes.
William Wordsworth begins “The Prelude” by asking himself a question, “Was it for this?” As you’ll remember from our discussion with Jeff Cowton in The Jerwood Centre, when we looked at the manuscript of this passage, Wordsworth wrote this opening phrase in the back of a small notebook that contained lots of other pieces of writing. As Jeff explained, when Wordsworth was writing these lines, he had no idea that they would eventually grow into the 8,000 word masterpiece that “The Prelude” became. Rather, Wordsworth was struggling to write another poem in response to a challenge that he had been set by his friend, Samuel Taylor Coleridge. This other poem was going to be called “The Recluse.”
It was Wordsworth’s difficulty with writing “The Recluse” that prompted him to ask himself the question, “Was it for this?” Wordsworth never fully explains what the “this” in his question refers to. But we can take it to imply his present situation, and particularly his problems in writing “The Recluse.” His opening question is about the relationship between this present moment, a moment of creative frustration, and his past life. What Wordsworth starts to describe in the rest of this sentence are his very earliest memories. The first things that he can remember. And these earliest memories are of sounds. One set of sounds that the poet remembers are those produced by the River Derwent, described here as the fairest of all rivers.
This river, the Derwent, ran along the bottom of the garden of the house where Wordsworth was born, in Cockermouth, in the northwest Lake District. So Wordsworth is describing the sounds, or voice, of this river as it runs through the landscape. Through the “alder shades,” or woody areas. And “rocky falls,” or waterfalls. And through its “fords and shallows.” And he tells us that these sounds entered into his mind when he was young. The voice of the Derwent “flowed along my dreams.” Wordsworth also describes how in his memory the sounds of the river at the bottom of the garden were blended with his nurse’s song.
So they became mixed with the song sung by the woman who looked after him as a young child. The whole feel of this opening sentence is rather dreamlike. With the lines of poetry themselves flowing like a river and creating music from the sounds of the Derwent and the nurse’s song. And this image of the river introduced at the very start of “The Prelude” becomes one of the poem’s key ideas. Throughout “The Prelude,” Wordsworth returns to the image of the river, and he uses it as a metaphor for the journey of his own life. Like a river, he grows and develops through the course of his life.
So the question with which Wordsworth begins “The Prelude,” “Was it for this?”, is about the relationship between his past life and his present self. Between his earliest memories and his current situation. And his reason for asking this question becomes a little clearer in the next sentence, which once again takes the form of a question. A long and quite complex question beginning, “For this didst thou.” Wordsworth continues to describe his memories of the sounds, or “ceaseless music,” made by the River Derwent as it flows near Cockermouth, his “sweet birth place.” But now, Wordsworth starts to describe the effect of the River Derwent on him.
You’ll remember how in our discussion of “The Tables Turned,” in week 1, we saw Wordsworth presenting nature as a positive educational force, proclaiming, “Let nature be your teacher.” Here in the opening of “The Prelude,” Wordsworth starts to describe how nature, in the form of the River Derwent, has had a positive educational effect on him. The river’s musical sounds, its steady cadences, have played a role in his own growth and development. They have given, “A knowledge, a dim earnest of the calm which nature breathes among the fields and groves.” So nature, Wordsworth argues, was even at this early stage in his life having a positive, beneficial influence on him. It was starting to make him the person he became.
So in these opening lines of “The Prelude,” Wordsworth is already engaging with what would
become the poem’s key issues: The relationship between his past and present selves. The influence of his childhood on his growth and his development. And the part that nature played in his education, in making him the person that he has become. And it’s this issue of education, and nature’s role in it, that we are going to explore in the next section of our course.

In this video, Professor Simon Bainbridge discusses the opening two sentences of The Prelude, explaining how these lines introduce the poem’s key themes.

As you will remember from this week’s opening video, Simon and Jeff looked at the manuscript of these lines held in the Jerwood Centre. You can download an image of this page of the manuscript from the downloads section below.

Do you think it makes a difference to your understanding of the poem, and of how it was written, to be able to see the manuscript version?

Please note, you may need to use the zoom function on your pdf reader to enlarge the manuscript.

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William Wordsworth: Poetry, People and Place

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