Origins and history of the poem
There are various accounts of the origins of Wordsworth's decision to write The Prelude. For instance, one attributes it to a creative urge arising from recollections of childhood; another to self-questioning about his vocation as a poet; and a third to his preparation for the task of writing The Recluse, the great philosophical poem that Coleridge had convinced him that he could and should write. Possibly all were true, but there can be little doubt that the reason it was never published in his lifetime was that Wordsworth had failed with The Recluse, whose first published instalment, The Excursion, was so ill received by the critics, the public, and even Coleridge, that Wordsworth became discouraged. The poem went through half a dozen major versions (see below), and remained without a title during Wordsworth's lifetime. Dorothy Wordsworth tended to refer to it as "the poem to Coleridge" and this is probably how William thought of it. The title by which it is now known was conferred by the poet's literary executors.
Wordsworth was an inveterate reviser of his work, and with published poems went so far as to send late alterations to the printer, but the alterations to The Prelude are extensive even by Wordsworth's standards. The first draft of the poem in a form recognisably similar to the final version was completed in 1805, the last just before Wordsworth's death in 1850. In between there were three other coherent versions. The first version was in 13 books, the final one in 14 books and 7883 lines.
But before the 1805 version Wordsworth had written, in 1799, a very much shorter poem, complete in itself, running to 978 lines, in two parts. All of it was incorporated in some form in the later texts.
Although the poem is primarily autobiographical, it goes backward and forward in time, and contains long passages of summary and reflection.
The Books of the poem in the 1850 version are as follows, with 1805 variations, if any, shown in square brackets
- I Introduction - Childhood and School-time
- II School-time (Continued)
- III Residence at Cambridge
- IV Summer Vacation
- V Books
- VI Cambridge and the Alps
- VII Residence in London
- VIII Retrospect - Love of Nature leading to Love of Man
- IX Residence in France
- X Residence in France (Continued) [X Residence in France and French Revolution]
- XI France (Concluded) [no equivalent]
- XII Imagination and Taste, how Impaired and Restored [XI Imagination, how Impaired and Restored]
- XIII Imagination and Taste, how Impaired and Restored (Concluded) [XII Same Subject (continued)]
- XIV Conclusion [XIII Conclusion]
Themes and features of the poem
The major themes of The Prelude are Wordsworth's two usual subjects, love of nature and love of humanity, with a third added: his dedication to a life of poetry. In common with other Romantics, Wordsworth laid particular stress on the period of childhood, and showed remarkable success in dealing with it.
The achievement of the poem is in the unity between the diction and movement of the verse, the thought, the emotion expressed and aroused, and the narration of events.
The changes between the 1805 and 1850 versions show some striking new passages, a general tightening up in some places, and a loss of immediacy and vividness in many others. Although Wordsworth became more conservative as he aged, he never renounced or disguised his early enthusiasm for the French Revolution, though he did tone it down in one or two passages.
In recounting the period of his life when he was resident in France, he makes no reference to his love affair with Annette Vallon which resulted in the birth of his illegitimate daughter. Instead he recounts in its place the tale of Vaudracour and Julia, by no means an exact parallel.
Reception and present assessment
The Prelude had a mixed reception on its first publication, but it was not long before it was recognised as Wordsworth's greatest achievement.
Now that the history of the various texts has been elucidated, It has been argued that the earliest version (1799) has a greater artistic unity than the sprawling poem which came out of it. However, without the later poem, we would be lacking much good poetry and some highly expressive and striking passages which demonstrate Wordsworth's power not only to capture moods of exaltation but also to create them in the receptive reader.
- Gill, S. William Wordsworth: A Life. Oxford University Press. 1989.
- Wordsworth, J, Abrams, M H, Gill S (eds). The Prelude 1799,1805, 1850. Norton & Co. 1979. Preface
- De Selincourt, E (ed) The Prelude (Text of 1805). Oxford University Press. Revised impression 1960. Introduction p. x
- Gill, S. p 185
- Wordsworth, J, Abrams, M, Gill, S (eds). pp515-526
- Drabble, M (ed). The Oxford Companion to English Literature. Oxford University Press. 1993
- De Selincourt (ed). pp xix-xxxii
- Wordsworth, J. The Two-Part Prelude of 1799, in Wordsworth et al (eds). pp 567-585