The Prelude, Books 12, 13, and 14

March 27, 2010

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.

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