Beyond’s “revise” blogs are designed to help GCSE English students prepare for the AQA English Literature Paper 2 exam, providing in-depth analysis of selection of key texts. This blog explores William Wordsworth’s The Prelude poem, focusing on:
- William Wordsworth biography
- The Romantic poets
- The Prelude analysis
William Wordsworth’s The Prelude Poem
A prelude is an opening of some kind, whether it be a piece of action or a piece of music. It suggests that something larger or more dramatic is about to happen.
William Wordsworth biography
William Wordsworth was born in the Lake District in 1770. As a young man, he went to Cambridge University.
In 1791, he left Cambridge and went on a walking tour of Europe. In France, the Revolution was beginning to stir. Wordsworth was inspired by its cause of the common man rising up against the monarchy. Whilst there, William fell in love with a French woman called Annette Vallon and she became pregnant. William left her and returned to England before the baby was born.
William was extremely close to his sister, Dorothy, and the two lived together in a cottage in Devon. William eventually married an old school friend, Mary Hutchinson, and they had five children together.
As a poet he worked closely with Samuel Taylor Coleridge, writing a collection called ‘Lyrical Ballads’. He became England’s Poet Laureate in 1843 and died in 1850.
William Wordsworth summary:
- Born in 1770
- Attended Cambridge University
- In 1791, Wordsworth left university and embarked on a walking tour of Europe
- While on his tour, Wordsworth was exposed to the plight of the “common man” as the French Revolution began to stir
- Wordsworth fell in love with Annette Vallon but left her after she became pregnant
- As a poet, Wordsworth worked closely with Samuel Taylor Coleridge
- Wordsworth became England’s Poet Laureate in 1843
- He died in 1850
The Romantic Poets
The Romantic literary movement, which occurred in the late 1700s and early 1800s, saw poets rebel against the strict, more formal requirements of poetry which had preceded them.
Romantics were interested in the power of nature, humanity and emotion; they were opposed to the industrialisation and scientific progress which were sweeping through Europe at the time. They were also concerned about the rights of the poor, feeling that they were often exploited by the Establishment.
Wordsworth, along with his good friend Coleridge, were considered key players of the Romantic movement. Other Romantic poets include Blake, Keats, Byron and Shelley.
The Romantic poets summary:
- The movement began in the 1700s & early 1800s
- The Romantics rallied against the formal requirements of poetry at the time
- The Romantics explored nature, humanity, and emotion
- They opposed industrialisation and science
- Wordsworth was a key player in the Romantic movement, along with Coleridge, Blake, Keats, Byron, and Shelley
The Prelude Analysis
There is a dreamlike quality to the language used in The Prelude, helping to convey the sense of a memory, viewed hazily across the years. The ‘small circles glittering idly in the moon’, the ‘sparkling light’ and the ‘elfin pinnace’ in the first section of the poem have an ethereal tone. There is a lot of sibilance here, too, adding to the feeling that it is a hushed experience. Wordsworth uses a simile to describe the grace of his boat: it is ‘like a swan’, and this image is one of peace and natural beauty.
However, this pleasant, dream-like quality changes with the sight of the ‘huge peak’ – as if the experience turns into a nightmare which is almost gothic in tone. The repetition of ‘huge’ here emphasises how overwhelming the sight is for Wordsworth, and the repetition in ‘I struck and struck again’ indicates a rising panic as he tries to escape. The poet personifies the mountain, adding to its nightmarish quality. It ‘upreared its head’ and seems to move towards him ‘like a living thing’; it becomes the poet’s antagonist.
The terror of the poet is conveyed in his ‘trembling oars’. There is an echo from the beginning of the poem and his ‘act of stealth’ when he describes how he ‘stole’ his way back – only this time he is scared and shamefaced, rather than full of adventure.
The tone of the poem once more changes, this time from terror to introspection, as he describes his return home and the days after his experience. The ‘dim and determined sense / Of unknown modes of being’ is reflective but again dreamlike – as though the poet cannot quite define the nature of what he has experienced. The final image of ‘huge and mighty forms, that do not live / Like living men’ has a menacing quality – Wordsworth has realised the power and awe of nature and is aware of how much he does not know about the landscape around him.
Although undoubtedly narrating an actual experience, this extract is highly symbolic and reflects Wordsworth’s development as a poet. His voyage out on the boat, fixing his eyes on the ‘horizon’s utmost boundary’ could be read as a metaphor for his eagerness and enthusiasm for life and nature.
The appearance of the ‘grim shape’ which ‘Towered up between me and the stars’ is both physical but also symbolic: Wordsworth’s light has been blocked, and the subsequent ‘darkness’ which hangs over him is metaphorical – he is battling with a bleak and terrifying prospect as he tries to understand the power and awe of the natural world. However, at the end of the extract we have a feeling of resolution; Wordsworth has come to an uneasy understanding of the nature around him, and realises that it is alive in ‘huge and mighty forms’. This experience has been a rite of passage for him, as he passes from the naivety of childhood to adulthood.
- There’s a dreamlike, almost ethereal quality to the poem, conveyed with the phrases “glittering idly under the moon,” “sparkling light,” and “elfin pinnacle”
- In the opening sections of Wordsworth’s Prelude poem, sibilance is used to create a hushed, secretive tone
- This experience is interrupted by a “huge peak”
- The poem shifts in tone here, becoming almost Gothic
- Repetition of “huge” portrays Wordsworth’s awe at the mountain
- The mountain is personified as it “‘upreared its head” and came towards him “like a living thing’
- Terror is expressed in the poet’s “trembling oars”
- The tone of The Prelude once again changes, taking on an introspective quality as the poet tries to reconcile what’s he’s witnessed
- Wordsworth grapples with the”darkness” of the natural world, realising that it is “alive with “huge and mighty forms”
Structure in The Prelude Poem
The extract is part of a much larger, epic work charting formative moments from throughout Wordsworth’s life. The tone of this piece, though, is not epic but personal and anecdotal. The events of the poem are narrated in chronological order, starting with the act of stealing the boat and leading through to its consequences.
Wordsworth uses a loose iambic pentameter throughout, which lends a measured, conversational rhythm to the poem without allowing the form to restrict his expression. There are no stanzas to arrange the writing more consciously. This lack of overly formal structure contributes to the personal feeling – almost as if Wordsworth is simply narrating ideas as they occur to him.
He builds tension throughout the first half of the extract, describing taking the boat as an ‘act of stealth / And troubled pleasure’, which hints at events to come. The pace of the first half of the poem echoes the calm confidence he feels as he rows in an ‘unswerving line’.
However, the introduction of the ‘huge peak’ in the middle of the extract indicates a change of tone and pace. As he describes how he ‘struck and struck again’ to escape the sight, his lines become more hurried in pace, with frequent enjambment to indicate his panic.
- The Prelude is part of a larger body of work which charts Wordsworth’s life
- The tone of the poem is anecdotal
- The events of Wordsworth’s The Prelude poem occur in chronological order
- Wordsworth writes in iambic pentameter throughout, creating a measured rhythm to the poem
- There are no stanzas in The Prelude
- Tension is built in the first half of the poem which builds to a climax as the “huge peaks” reveal themselves
- The peaks seemingly incite panic, which we can infer from its hurried pace and through enjambement
The Prelude Lesson Pack from Beyond
If you’d like to explore Wordsworth’s The Prelude poem in more detail, download our comprehensive lesson pack below!
The theme of national identity can also be explored in the poem ‘Checking Out Me History’, ‘The Emigrée or ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’. The theme of memory can also be explored in ‘Poppies’ and the theme of the power of nature can be found in ‘Ozymandias’ and ‘Storm on the Island’.
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