Wordsworth: The Prelude

Whether through personal folly or as a result of the heartlessness of others, there are times in the journey of life when desperation strikes, when all that ever brought meaning is demolished, when existence itself, or its worth, is called into question and there is no apparent path to healing or recovery.

No doubt William Wordsworth endured such from time to time, though his works give no hint that this was the case.

Yet any supposition that he was a pretty poet for pretty places is dispelled upon a reading of his autobiographical epic which came to be known as The Prelude. For a work of this genius, one reading is not enough, and its magnitude increases with every visit, reaching into the knowledge of ourselves and our experiences and bringing to consciousness permanent truths and realities. The poet holds a mystical sway with words, for words themselves have a destiny and purpose of their own which he uncovers, drawing us back again and again so that they form part of our own being. Inasmuch as words may be uttered, or sung or sculpted, the muse may reside as well in music or in the graphic arts.

To all appearances, Wordsworth’s life was of exceptional advantage. There were times of poverty, unhappiness and grief, his father died when he was twelve and his mother when he was eight but his otherwise idyllic childhood, the influences of Nature in his beautiful Cumbrian birthplace and home, sufficient resources to attend grammar school at Hawkshead, to study at St John’s College, Cambridge and to embark upon a tour of Europe single him out as one of the few whom the travails of the times largely bypassed.

Inevitably, then, his time in France before, during and after the French Revolution and the reign of terror wrought a soul-searching revision of his assumptions about human life, its struggles and its relation to Nature.

Always, his homeland restores him and gives him comfort in the face of such agonies for there he was a participant. Never do we find him subjected to the whims, sufferings and misfortunes he undoubtedly understands and describes in his ceaseless iambic pentameters of blank verse, for he is a mere observer. An inspired observer, but an observer nonetheless.

Here he contrasts with that supreme genius of those same times, Ludwig van Beethoven, who was robbed of his hearing, the only vehicle for his muse, and who persisted in defiance to achieve heights of the soul, far exceeding those of Helvellyn that so enthralled Wordsworth.

Given all the spiritual beauties and calms to which I have been exposed, I was once uniquely, unexpectedly and momentarily felt uplifted as never before or since in a place displaying a quite different aspect from that in the poet’s lifetime -Westminster Bridge. Grant me the indulgence to quote some lines of the poet, lines written with his knowledge of everywhere he had visited and lived in: the bustle and variety of London, stilted Cambridge, intoxicating France, overbearing Alps, Scotland, Wales and, above all his beloved Lake District and its people. May I say in all humility that it was the precise feelings he gives voice to that I recognise in my moment of magic. I was twenty, the sun was setting over the river and I had just emerged from the Royal Festival Hall after watching a recital of a Beethoven quartet.

Composed upon Westminster Bridge

Earth has not any thing to show more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty:
This City now doth like a garment wear
The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
Open unto fields, and to the sky;
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
Never did sun more beautifully steep
In his first splendor valley, rock or hill;
Ne’er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
The river glideth at his own sweet will:
Dear God! The very houses seem asleep;
And all that mighty heart is lying still.

(William Wordsworth, 1802)

16 thoughts on “Wordsworth: The Prelude

  1. It would appear that your visit to Wordsworth’s country enlivened your own beauty with words!
    Lovely entry, made lovelier by the poet’s complete capture of images some of us struggle to put to words. Is that why his name was Wordsworth?

    • What it must be to be blessed with such gifts! It entails a grasp of the oneness of all things, so we may legitimately ask whether the poet’s name is more than coincidence, even without enquiring into cause and effect.

      In common with grammar school education of the time, Wordsworth received a grounding mostly in the classics and mathematics.

      In Book VI of The Prelude he writes:

      Yet may we not entirely overlook
      The pleasure gathered from the rudiments
      Of geometric science. Though advanced
      In these inquiries, with regret I speak,
      No farther than the threshold, there I found
      Both elevation and composed delight:
      With Indian awe and wonder, ignorance pleased
      With its own struggles, did I meditate
      On the relation those abstractions bear
      To Nature’s laws, and by what process led,
      Those immaterial agents bowed their heads
      Duly to serve the mind of earth-born man;
      From star to star, from kindred sphere to sphere,
      From system on to system without end.

      In 1817, CF Gauss, probably the greatest mathematician of all time, wrote to Olbers, “I am becoming more and more convinced that the necessity of our geometry cannot be proved … Perhaps only in another life will we attain another insight into the nature of space, which is unattainable to us now.”

      In the mathematician, too, there is something of the poet.

  2. “……Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
    Open unto fields, and to the sky;
    All bright and glittering in the smokeless air……”

    This was of course 215 years ago when the fields next to the above-mentioned ships towers and domes hadn’t yet been built over, and when the surrounding air – bright glittering and smokeless – hadn’t yet become hopelessly polluted.

    How would Wordsworth write his poem were he to stand upon Westminster Bridge today?

    • London may be the most polluted city in Europe, but it is also the largest and most populous.

      Take a trip on a fast Thames Clipper, the modern river bus, from the Mother of Parliaments to Greenwich. Pass the bubbling cosmopolitan throng on the South Bank Walk. Watch the looming graceful shape of Wren’s cathedral to your port, where once stood Diana’s temple and the largest Norman cathedral in Europe, destroyed by the great fire in 1666. Be reminded of our literary heritage as you pass the Globe Theatre to starboard and embrace modern art in Tate Modern against which it sidles. Navigate under London Bridge, sited approximately where the Romans chose to cross the river in 43 AD, a famous previous bridge surpassing anything Florence has to offer. Glance at the Roman City of London and Wren’s Monument to the Great Fire, the tallest free-standing pillar in the world, even today. Compare some of the eras of our heritage together – the Tower of London, a Royal Palace, Tower Bridge, a legacy of our pioneering industrial past, and, to starboard, the the new home of the new Greater London Authority. Sail on where once dipping cranes heralded the mighty trade that London inspired. Note where the negro was detained and who was released in 1772 by Lord Mansfield by writ of Habeas Corpus, of which they have not the like elsewhere in Europe, for our Common Law never sanctioned legitimised slavery. The Common Law had to be fought for, Henry VIII’s notorious Star Chamber was an inquisitorial court. There are those today who wish to sideline the Common Law; mercifully, it is enshrined in the American Constitution. Call in at the financial capital of the world at Canary Wharf and speed on to Greenwich and the Cutty Sark, the tea clipper that broke all records in competing to bring tea from China. Be overwhelmed by the vista offered by the National Maritime Museum. Most of what there is to see you will miss for I have not mentioned it and great volumes of it I am unaware of anyway. What you will not notice, I guarantee, is pollution. You may feel a little tired, but who wouldn’t.

      That Beethoven recital was in 1963, when, despite the Clean Air Act of 1956, which did so much to clear away the dirt, we still had London smog and soot-soaked monuments from such as Labour’s South Bank power station, sited deliberately opposite St Paul’s Cathedral and the City of London, on some principle I fail to fathom. Yet still the spirit was there.

      Many of Wordsworth’s domes and towers were flattened by the Luftwaffe in 1940-41 and the ships were removed by restrictive practices and strikes. Yet still the spirit was there.

      In 1858, there was The Great Stink that nearly halted government. Faraday took a boat to the middle of the River and noted how a piece of paper instantly disappeared. Yet the spirit was still there. The engineering genius of Bazalgette created the sewerage system which only now is beginning to fail us, largely because of misuse and abuse.

      May the spirit of London, with its allies, long fight for freedom, enterprise and the relief of suffering, those endeavours which so undeniably depend upon each other.

      • Ray Davies of The Kinks obviously knew the spirit was still there. So he saw beauty even in the murky polluted Thames:

        Dirty old river, must you keep rolling, rolling into the night
        People so busy, make me feel dizzy, taxi light shines so bright
        But I don’t, need no friends
        As long as I gaze on Waterloo Sunset, I am in paradise
        Every day I look at the world from my window
        But chilly, chilly is the evening time, Waterloo sunset’s fine…..

        Not quite Wordsworth. But still……….!!

  3. Wordsworth was fortunate to come from the place my forebears left so many years before. I wonder they could leave such beauty. “Earth has not anything to show more fair.”

    Your “trip” through London was heartwarming, and I pictured fully each place mentioned.

    • But see where your forbears’ illustrious descendant is now to be found! That is why they moved.

      When I was a child, my mother took me on the same trip to Greenwich but in an old-fashioned chugging river-bus. It took an age. She introduced me to much of London, although she was a Portsmouth girl. My father sometimes took me, on a Saturday, to his office in Moorgate. He led me through mesmerising passages and Underground tunnels, all with crowds and crowds of people, pointed out the places of importance and, above all, showed me the devastation of the Blitz around St Paul’s. Often in those days a pall of smoke hung over everything, much of it from the steam locomotives that drew the trains into the eight major railway termini, but the constant, ever-changing activity and vibrancy, the noise and the excitement, the crowded, dirty river, the colourful and brimming markets, the shouts from the stevedores as they unloaded the cargoes from ships moored by London Bridge, the knowledge that the Romans had done the same at their piers 2000 years before all made an indelible impression upon me. We now know from recent excavations that London was a major Roman city, that there was an amphitheatre where the Guildhall now stands and that it was frequented by the notables and wealthy from those ancient times, many of whom would have worshipped at Mithras’ temple, discovered in the 1960s.

      So much is now sanitised for the benefit of the tourist, who received scant attention in those days.

      I have many books about London, from the story of the Underground, the world’s first underground railway, the idea of a London solicitor, with trains hauled by steam, to encyclopaedias and learned histories I can hardly tackle. I love it, but I can never know it. It is, after all, my home. In the time of Canaletto it was thought of as the most beautiful city in the world. In my eyes, it still is. It will never die. It harbours, alas, as it always did, some of the worst human wretchedness and misery you will find anywhere.

        • It would be my privilege, although I doubt my knowledge meets your exacting standards.

          I’d better start reading.

          Hmm – where to start? A single day without getting too tired. A museum or two? A gallery or two? A walk through a park – Hyde Park from Abbey Road to the Albert Memorial, The Albert Hall and Exhibition Road with some of the Museums? A concert? A theatre? A trip down the River? A tour of The City? The tourist hotspots – Westminster Abbey, St Paul’s, Trafalgar Square, The Tower of London, Buckingham Palace and the Changing of the Guard, Madame Tussaud’s, The London Dungeon, Windsor Castle and Eton College (a bit out of the way)? Do we eat somewhere? A single theme, historical perhaps? Shopping in Oxford Street, Regent Street, Kensington High Street, Harrods? Antiques? Books? The Inns of Court? The Law Courts? Architecture? Engineering? Science? Institutes of Learning? Literature? Mostly just gaping, it seems, sometimes superficially monotonous.

          Any one of those is a steep learning curve for me.

  4. You bring it alive Richard. Thank you so much. I have Edward Rutherford’s books Sarum and London which are pretty good general histories. My first trip to England included a search for Kendal, from where ostensibly our family name of Kendall derived. I came away with Kendal Mint; probably the strongest and worst tasting “candy” ever made, though little else, till we explored the Lake country,Wordsworth’s home.

    London, however, after many lovely visits, remains thoroughly intriguing, and I have been pleased that my granddaughter Kate has found it so as well. Even though their plans to live there fell through when he found himself working out of Beijing, Estonia, etc. they have still returned many times to London.

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