I feel as though I approached (and continue to approach) The Prelude assuming that it runs a primarily chronological course. By the very end of the epic, I am finally disabused of this romantic notion, wonderful though it would be. The Twelfth Book, for example, is much more philosophical than it is a relation of events in Wordsworth’s life. Wordsworth deals with some very difficult issues, one of which is the fact that poets are not always rational, even though reasonability is considered a noble possession for humankind to have. Wordsworth then goes on to decry the notion of pure reason, as much mystery remains in the bosom of mankind and the vast universe that cannot simply be explained away by algorithms or syllogisms.

Wordsworth also deals with the concept of the physical senses in the Twelfth Book, calling the eye the most despotic of the senses for this way in which it monopolizes perception and possesses a ravenous appetite for something ever better. This leads Wordsworth to a discussion of, more or less, the notion of wanting what you have and not letting cupidity forever goad you on to less sensible and more drastic endeavors.

The most notable portion of the Twelfth Book is Wordsworth’s invention of the “spots of time”—the important memories and hours of our lives that teach us that the mind has control over the external world and that imbue us with renewed vitality when the intercourse of daily life and quotidian cares causes our hearts to flag. To illustrate his concept, Wordsworth relates two such spots of time. The first happened in his youth when he and his horse lost their companion and guide and ended up in a valley filled with melancholic and portentous omens, including the carved initials of a man murdered there and a girl walking with a pitcher on her head. A second spot of time is the death of Wordsworth’s father and the natural conditions of the environment at that time, the same conditions that can evoke the same emotions even in the present hour.

The Thirteenth Book, a continuation of the Twelfth, treats similarly philosophical topics. Early in the book, Wordsworth shares his feelings that there is more wealth than simply material wealth, and he does this with a direct mention of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, the 1776 book by the now-famous Scottish economist who argued for the laissez-faire market and the “invisible hand” that guides all its participants to greatest wealth. For Wordsworth, of course, the greatest wealth lies within the interaction of the individual and Nature. Humankind, for Wordsworth, is greater than simply an animal possessed of “appetites and daily wants.”

Wordsworth also briefly treats the topic of love, noting that it is a sentiment common to all mankind, not restricted to an educated and cultured coterie of the elite. Lastly, of note to me was Wordsworth’s treatment of poetry and the poets. In a beautiful piece of literary theory (if we can call it such), Wordsworth states that each poet has a specific faculty and special truths to bring to light for the human race. Although I have unconsciously believed this, as well, I have never heard it placed into words so eloquently. So frequently does literary theory attempt to unify poetry and prose in order to find its trends and its modus operandi. To have Wordsworth break this down and say that each poet is notable for the ways in which they are peculiar, rather than the ways in which they conform, was a thrilling passage containing a precious truth.

The Prelude’s last book, “Conclusion,” begins with Wordsworth’s hike up Mount Snowdon. He goes with a friend and with a mountain guide, and all three of them are struck by the beauty of the moon among the dark sky when the fog finally lifts. The image is a gorgeous one, and it is the last spot of time in the entire epic. After this, Wordsworth begins wrapping up his poem. He notes that no life is perfect, and that although there is an ideal, we all fall from it as we wander and misstep in life. Wordsworth dedicates two portions of the last book to his closest mortal companions, the first to his sister Dorothy, without whom William would have lost his way or become too haughty, and the other to Coleridge, a man that Wordsworth admired tremendously and with whom he shared, for a portion of time, an intimate association. The poem includes a few meta-poetic passages in which Wordsworth talks about The Prelude itself, saying that although it catalogues the development of his imagination in nature, it had to leave out much, including many of the books that Wordsworth read that transformed him and other instances in nature in which he was changed. The epic closes with Wordsworth’s affirmation that the mind of man, more than anything, is the most beautiful and divine entity in existence.

The Ninth Book, “Residence in France,” is narrated in perhaps the simplest to follow and the most chronological verse of any of the books thus far. Wordsworth leaves London (regretting leaving all of its books more than anything other form of culture it possesses) for a journey to France. He first visits Paris, a city replete with beautiful architecture and famous sites. Nevertheless, more than anything Wordsworth finds the painting of Magdalene of Le Brun to be the fairest of the things seen in the great capital of France.

After leaving Paris, Wordsworth takes up residence with some soldiers in the French Revolution. Wordsworth is converted quite strongly to the cause of the patriots fighting for the Revolution—he spends the rest of the book recounting the evils of the aristocracy and the glory of the common man. He relates that his “heart was all given to the people, and my love was theirs.” The best people are not the ones ruling, he states, and to him that is a tragedy for the human soul. Wordsworth makes a friend, one Michel Beaupuis, with whom he connects deeply and discusses the intricacies of governmental theories while putting them in practice on the line of battle. Beaupuis is the object of much of Wordsworth’s praise, as Beaupuis was born into the aristocracy but is a sensible and audacious champion of the Revolution and the common man. The conversation between these two men at times reached a level of a highly intelligent treatise on the role of government and the nature of humankind, the essentially tenet of which is that rule by the capriciousness of one leads the many into disastrous straits.

In a highly vivid spot of time, Beaupuis and Wordsworth both see a starving little girl walking with a heifer and realize that they are truly fighting the unjust forces that maintain the indigence and wretchedness of that little girl’s condition. After this sight, the two elaborate on the goals of the French Revolution, citing the following as foremost among them: blotting out exclusive institutions, stamping out poverty, and placing the power of framing laws within the hands of the entire populace.

The 1850 edition of the book ends abruptly hereafter, as Wordsworth expurgated the events in which he created an illegitimate child with une très belle fille française. The chapter thus ends curtly, opening nicely into the Tenth Book, “Residence in France—Continued.”

The Tenth Book contains the horror and the bloodshed of the French Revolution that we do not see in the Ninth. Robespierre’s Reign of Terror has set in, and people are being beheaded mercilessly and in exorbitant numbers. Instead of the democratic government for which all had hoped, Robespierre is yet another monarch, if not more lethal than the kings that preceded him. Wordsworth leaves for England at this point, noting how his opportune timing may have saved his life. Unfortunately, however, his return to England does not symbolize a departure from violence, as France declares war on England soon after Wordsworth arrives. This war is carnage ridden and unjust, prematurely truncating the lives of many of the nations’ youth.

A touching spot of time in the Tenth Book occurs when Wordsworth visits the grave of a former teacher of his. Noting how the teacher had loved poetry, Wordsworth states that the teacher would have loved him and the poetic promise that resided in his breast.

The Eleventh Book is, in some ways, the climax of the entire epic. Wordsworth undergoes a mental crisis when he realizes that the ambitions and ideals of the French Revolution cannot be so simply and sweepingly accomplished. The Book begins, however, with Wordsworth’s unaffected confidence in France and in human nature. He sees the best of both, stating that he approaches “the shield of human nature from the golden side.” He is simply enraptured to be alive during this most exciting of times when liberty and democratic rule are true possibilities. However, when France itself starts declaring wars on other nations under the monarchy of Napoleon Bonaparte, Wordsworth is completely disillusioned not only with the French but with all of humankind. In a most sardonic and tragic of soliloquies, Wordsworth asks why humans have will and choice, as we so frequently use them for ill anyway. We are unconcerned with ethics and the questions of good and evil, preferring instead to act selfishly, no matter the morality of such a decision. This is certainly the darkest passage of the entire epic thus far, as Wordsworth so frequently finds the good and the redemptive in even the difficult. To see him so futilely converted to cynicism and pessimism is shocking.

 He is redeemed, of course, by his best friend. Dorothy is a woman that I want to know, for she plays such a significant role in Wordsworth’s most beautiful poems. His sister helps him maintain his course during the heartbreak of that time, and during the darkness “she whispered still that brightness would return.”

The Seventh Book of Wordsworth’s Prelude, “Residence in London,” treats an entirely different subject than the rest of the epic. In fact, it can almost be seen as the antithesis chapter, providing Wordsworth’s recollections on a city as a contrast to his feelings about Nature. The Seventh Book begins with Wordsworth forever finishing his time at the university. After graduation, like many students today, Wordsworth had less direction in his life and thus moved to the big city, London, to try his hand there.

London, of course, is not Wordsworth’s “natural habitat.” (The pun on “nature” was fully intended).  Wordsworth guides us through the descriptions of the scenes that he has witnessed, and they range anywhere from circus-like figures to deformed and begging individuals. He notes that, although people live so geographically close, they are emotionally extremely distant, a problem that will later be explored by Thomas Carlyle when he remarks that the only things people in London share are infectious diseases. In general, the city to Wordsworth is too face-paced and unimaginably filled with individuals from all walks of life. It is a “blank confusion” filled with a “perpetual whirl of trivial objects.”

It is within the Seventh Book that Wordsworth is first disillusioned regarding the French Revolution. He realizes that the goals of the revolution are not being attained but rather that anarchy, terror, and bloodshed have set in. Wordsworth praises Burke, whose Reflections on the French Revolution was the major book decrying the outcomes of the bloody revolution and who is considered the father of English conservatism. We thus see the changing of Wordsworth’s mind from his quixotic and radical idealism to a more sobered realism.

The Eighth Book, entitled “Retrospect:–Love of Nature leading to Love of Man,” explores through Wordsworth’s memories the various circumstances that led him from trivial, selfish pursuits to encounters with Nature’s sublimity that ultimately led him to a love of humankind. The book begins by Wordsworth recounting the festival and market-day of the people of Helvellyn. He uses the unfettered joy of these simply and content country folk to thank Nature for having been present during his adolescence, as his education was much different from someone raised in the metropolis of London.

Wordsworth uses the shepherd as the liaison between his love of Nature and his love of mankind. In a passage that is heavily primitivist, Wordsworth shows how the shepherds live closer to nature and are thus almost a nobler, more virtuous breed of people. He uses the eulogized position of the shepherds to warn that a life lived strictly in the “dead letter” can cause the individual to lose the beneficial effects of Nature. Wordsworth recognizes that mankind, like the worm, is made of dust, but he nevertheless states that humans are the crown achievement of Nature.

The book ends with Wordsworth’s remembrances of his time in London. As Wordsworth is wont to do, he recollects his experiences there with a more positive light than the one in which he experienced them. London is almost praised at this point, being noted for its ability to impart knowledge to the hungry soul and its examples of the unity of humans. The previous book, therefore, is made a part of the whole through Wordsworth’s positive memories.

I am fascinated by the way that this chapter both does and does not presage Darwinian evolution. On the one hand, humankind is said to be a product of “Nature.” However, this Nature is not Tennyson’s amoral, “red in tooth and claw” cycle of death and evolution but is rather the experiences of transcendence and sublimity that the natural order inspires. I am also deeply interested in Wordsworth’s psychology—it seems to me that, no matter the severity or gravity of the situation, he tends to look back and accept all the portions of his life, seeing how they combine to make him the man that he is. It is for this reason, I believe, that people find his poems saccharine. Although the negative is mentioned, it is never the final word in the same way that it is in Shakespeare’s tragedies or Melville’s Moby-Dick. For Wordsworth, things always seem to end up all right.

Wordsworth’s autobiography is not written completely chronologically, a fact that can be disorienting as I approach this work for the first time. The Fifth Book, entitled “Books,” concerns itself with some of the reading the Wordsworth did beyond the requirements of Cambridge and how that literary exposure affected his development. The central spot of time in the book is, perhaps, the dream of the Arab, a man who has a Don Quijote feel to him and who holds a shell and a rock in his hand. To Wordsworth’s dream-drowning imagination, however, these items are, in fact, books. The passage raises to me more questions than it answers, and I am particularly interested in what Wordsworth thought of Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra and the ways that Don Quijote’s imagination makes him gallant only in insanity (fighting windmills, anyone?).

In Book Five Wordsworth also excoriates educational models that attempt to restrict children’s minds into certain pre-established ways of thinking. This condemnation is in no way shocking, as Wordsworth prizes the imagination beyond any other human power.

For a reason not particularly understood to me (although I could make a tenuous conjecture), three deaths occur in this book: that of his mother, a young boy, and the drowned man in the lake. I do not claim to understand the reason for their placement in a book about books, although Wordsworth does continually refer to the mortality of the pages of the book but the immortality of the words and meaning within those pages. Perhaps he is merely contrasting the life of a book and the life of a human, musing about the ephemeral nature of all material things.

 Wordsworth begins to deeply understand the power and joy of words at this point in his epic narrative. Many passages illustrate this, such as Wordsworth’s reciting poetry with his friend as they stroll around the lake, the power of words to move us with “conscious pleasure,” and Wordsworth’s nascent fun with rhyme. To conclude, Wordsworth draws upon perhaps his two most important themes—education from poetry and education from Nature—and states that the two are actually intimately entwined, as the best poets encapsulate in their Nature in its purest form.

The Sixth Book, entitled “Cambridge and the Alps,” documents Wordsworth’s return to Cambridge and subsequent travels in Europe. His second time around in Cambridge, Wordsworth is more solitary and less social than his was during his first year. He becomes a voracious reader, but he nevertheless looks back upon his collegiate years and says that he worked much less hard than he intended to and that the words “good-natured lounging” apply better than anything else to describe his time there.

Wordsworth gives brief mention to the woman who would later become his wife, and he then continues to adorn his relationships with Coleridge in encomia, mentioning how similar in mind the two are. Wordsworth then returns to the past and tells of his adventure hiking in the Alps with a friend of his from Cambridge. It is while abroad that the Nature once again becomes sovereign in Wordsworth’s mind, and human nature itself seems to be “born again” while he is on his hiking excursion. France is, of course, in the midst of celebrating the fall of the Bastille and enjoying what they perceive will be a new era of human society based in “liberté, égalité et fraternité.” The jovial air is contagious, and Wordsworth undergoes a strikingly beautiful experience when he ascends Mont Blanc and realizes that he has effectively crossed the Alps. 

The Mont Blanc episode is particularly enticing, and I was so jealous of Wordsworth’s trip there that I found a couple images of it online and imagined (a fitting process, I believe) how magnificent it would be to see it in person. I must say, however, that being a Wyomingite I have seen some mountains of comparable sublimity. I’m a fortunate fellow.