The Prelude (Extract) by William Wordsworth

For hundreds of years, poets and writers have written about mankind’s relationship to nature. While some believe that we are in control of nature, to make it do as we please and to use it to our benefit, others have proclaimed that we are at the mercy of nature, and that it is a powerful and terrifying thing. Still, others have viewed man’s relationship with nature as one of peaceful tranquillity which helps a man gather himself and feel one with his surroundings. In this poem extract of The Prelude, Wordsworth presents two contrasting ideas about nature, and allows the reader to decide what nature means to him or herself personally. The context of this extract from The Prelude also provides insight into the speaker and the author. Wordsworth’s prelude explores his childhood thoughts and the ways in which he has changed and grown over time. This portion begins with the speaker as a boy and explores his feelings of peace with nature. Then, an event occurs which changes the speaker’s feelings toward the world. This represents the boy coming to an age of understanding the dangers of the world.


The Prelude (Extract) Analysis

Lines 1-16

One summer evening (led by her) I found
A little boat tied to a willow tree
Within a rocky cove, its usual home.
Straight I unloosed her chain, and stepping in
Pushed from the shore. It was an act of stealth
And troubled pleasure, nor without the voice
Of mountain-echoes did my boat move on;
Leaving behind her still, on either side,
Small circles glittering idly in the moon,
Until they melted all into one track
Of sparkling light. But now, like one who rows,
Proud of his skill, to reach a chosen point
With an unswerving line, I fixed my view
Upon the summit of a craggy ridge,
The horizon’s utmost boundary; far above
Was nothing but the stars and the grey sky.

The opening lines reveal the speaker’s relationship with “her” or nature. She leads him to a boat. It is clear that the speaker has a peaceful view of nature, as he rows out on the peaceful waters, led gently by Nature herself. As he rowed the boat along, he could hear the “mountain echoes” and see the “small circles glittering” as his boat made ripples in the water. He describes the “sparkling light” as it reflected off the surface of the water. While enjoying all that nature had to offer in that moment, the speaker fixes his gaze on his destination. He has set out to reach a “craggy ridge”. He looks up to “the horizon’s utmost boundary” and sees “nothing but the stars and the grey sky”. This is a tranquil and beautiful picture of nature and a boy’s ability to engage with it.


Lines 17-20

She was an elfin pinnace; lustily
I dipped my oars into the silent lake,
And, as I rose upon the stroke, my boat
Went heaving through the water like a swan;

These lines reveal the boy’s understanding of his own ability to control nature. Even though he had a small boat, but an “elfin pinnace” he was still able to control his little boat and cut “through the water like a swan”.


Lines 21-31

When, from behind that craggy steep till then
The horizon’s bound, a huge peak, black and huge,
As if with voluntary power instinct,
Upreared its head. I struck and struck again,
And growing still in stature the grim shape
Towered up between me and the stars, and still,
For so it seemed, with purpose of its own
And measured motion like a living thing,
Strode after me. With trembling oars I turned,
And through the silent water stole my way
Back to the covert of the willow tree;

With these lines, there is a drastic shift in tone as the boy encounters some type of beast that can only be described as “black and huge”. Whatever it was, it “upreared its head” and even though the speaker struck out at the beast again and again, it continued to rise higher and grow bigger. The speaker thought it seemed as though it had a “purpose of its own”. The beast “strode after” him. Suddenly, the speaker was no longer enjoying a peaceful encounter with nature. Now, there was something to fear greatly. He turned his boat around, and made his way back “with trembling ours”. This change has an important impact on both reader and speaker. While the opening lines paint a picture of the speaker as one with nature, experiencing great joy in the peaceful waters, these lines mark an important change. The experience the speaker has here reveals that nature is not always man’s friend. In fact, there are mysterious and dangerous beings in nature. Nature is suddenly something not only to be enjoyed, but something to be feared.


Lines 32-44

There in her mooring-place I left my bark,
-And through the meadows homeward went, in grave
And serious mood; but after I had seen
That spectacle, for many days, my brain
Worked with a dim and undetermined sense
Of unknown modes of being; o’er my thoughts
There hung a darkness, call it solitude
Or blank desertion. No familiar shapes
Remained, no pleasant images of trees,
Of sea or sky, no colours of green fields;
But huge and mighty forms, that do not live
Like living men, moved slowly through the mind
By day, and were a trouble to my dreams.

The final lines of this extract reveal the effect that this experience has had on the speaker. After having encountered a part of nature which terrified him, the speaker became aware that he was not in control of nature. He was not able to subdue it and use it to his pleasure.

At times, he may be able to enjoy nature, but after this experience the speaker became aware that there are mysterious and dark things hidden in nature, and that nature was something to be feared as well as enjoyed. This marks a turning point for the boy, and symbolizes a maturation of his mind. In a way, he has passed from the carefree, fearless days of childhood into the reality of adulthood. This experience marked a turning point in the boy’s life. He no longer felt safe wherever he went. He was now keenly aware that he could encounter danger at every turn, and this awareness “hung a darkness” over him and made him feel a “blank desertion”. Suddenly, the things around him did not seem so familiar.

The speaker says that what used to be “pleasant images of trees of sea or sky” was not only “huge and mighty forms that do not live”. These thoughts “were a trouble to [his] dreams” by night, and stormed “through the mind by day”. The speaker does not make it clear whether he saw a real beast, or whether the sudden fear that gripped him made him create one in his mind. Either way, the effect was the same. The speaker suddenly feared when he had not feared before. This can symbolize moving from childhood to adulthood.

Many children feel safe in the care of their parents, and are not aware of the dangers of the world until one event or another opens their eyes to the reality that the world is a dangerous place. The speaker makes this idea clear in the shift that occurred in this extract. In a few short lines, he transformed from a fearless, carefree boy, to an adult who was aware of the realities of the dangerous world in which he lived. This realization hung over him for the rest of his days, and he was never able to see the world in the light of childhood again.

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