Revise ‘The Prelude’ by William Wordsworth

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Listen to an audio version of the poem here.

Download the Prelude lesson pack here.

A Prelude

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.

Meet the Author

Wordsworth graveWilliam 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.

The Romantics

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.

Language

There is a dreamlike quality to the language used in this extract, 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.

Structure

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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.

Apply understanding of the poem with questions that target each of the AOs.

Or for a quick revision tool have a look at our The Prelude Revision Sheet.

Identify key quotations across the Power and Conflict cluster with this matching card activity pack.

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