Friday, 24 April 2015

'The Prelude' As An Autobiographical Poem/Development of Wordsworth's Sensibilities


‘The Prelude’, a kind of ‘semi-autobiography’ is only a record of the meaningful experiences of Wordsworth’s life. He tells the story of his inner life from earliest childhood up to 1798, the year of the ‘Lyrical Ballads’. It is not a self-portrait. In it, Wordsworth makes no attempt to bring his personality before the reader. It actually offers us a record of his mental and spiritual growth which starts from his very infant days. As it is concerned with the development of the poet’s sensibilities, only those aspects and events of his life which affected them are included. He selects only those of his actions and experiences which are significant for the evolution of his soul. It is the Nature inspired life which he lived through his childhood and youth that he tries to recapture and record.

The introduction to ‘The Prelude’ ends with a brief account of the paradisiacal state of childhood described as a golden age of poetic radiance and spontaneous creativity. The child is shown as undergoing the baptism of sun and water in Nature, in which he feels utterly secure. How such a state of innocent joy is lost, and how with the help of poetic imagination it may be restored, is the theme of ‘The Prelude’. The introduction in the Book I leads immediately to the account of Wordsworth’s childhood and school-time, and from the five year old child to the boy of ten. The seed of his soul that has been implanted in the world begins to take roots and grow under the influence of the ‘inscrutable workmanship’ which reconciles ‘discordant elements’.

          Fair seed-time had my soul, and I grew up
            Fostered alike by beauty and by fear

In fact, Nature affected her discipline on the growing boy by providing occasions to evoke the emotions of pleasure and fear. We can divide these experiences into three degrees of emotions:

1.   Pure Joy (Innocent Delight)

We find the boy of five enjoying long spells of bath:

     In a small mill-race severed from the stream
      Made one long bathing of a summer’s day

Sometimes Wordsworth would run about in the sandy fields leaping through flowery fraves of yellow ragwort bush. Then the frosty season was perhaps the happiest time of rapture for the poet. The most delightful experiences recalled by Wordsworth is he exciting game of skating in the company of other young friends. The ringing sounds of their moving skates would be echoed by the leafless trees and the surrounding hills and Wordsworth
     ………………wheeled about
      Proud and exulting like an untired horse
      That cares not for his home.

He would even stand aloof watching the earth and rocks turning round and round when they stopped their playful whirling movements on the smooth surface of the ice.

2.   Troubled Pleasure

By the word ‘fear’ Wordsworth implies fear associated with a feeling of wonder. The bird-nesting episode nicely illustrates the experience of such pleasure of fear mixed with astonishment. Wordsworth and his companions used to move about just like robbers in quest of high places to snatch away the nests and eggs of birds. Sometimes he hung alone above the nest of a raven at a high altitude in a very precarious position and then his delight and excitement was much tempered by a sense of great amount of peril.

                   While on the perilous ridge I hung alone
                        With what strange utterance did the loud dry wind
                        Bow through my ears

3.   Pure Fear

In the bird snaring episode Wordsworth has nicely described his first experience of pure fear. During their night wanderings sometimes he would catch hold of a bird that happened to be trapped in the snare of some other boy and then came Nature’s severer intervention:
          And when the deed was done
            I heard among the solitary hills
            Low breathing coming after me, and sounds
            Of undistinguishable motion, steps
            Almost as silent as the turf they trod.

Wordsworth’s boyhood is dominated by beauty and fear of Nature. While snaring birds or robbing nests the boy experiences exultation as well as terror. Here his feeling of joy and guilt are inseparable. These experiences remain in the boy’s mind, transforming the world for him and haunting his dreams. It is from such experiences that Wordsworth’s poetic imagination is formed.

Then the time comes when Wordsworth is chastened by Nature so that the meanest flower that blows gives him thoughts that do often live too deep for tears. Humanity and humility stand now gifted to him. Realizing the power of Nature to teach, elevate and soothe, his mission is to spread his philosophy of love and joy through his poetry.

So, we can say that he traces the details of the mind with extreme care. He holds a microscope over the small, almost invisible links that build up into principles, morals and characters. He makes an attempt to show that he and his poetry are made of, and they are not made only of great events and emotions, but of small things that a less observant mind would have forgotten—of boating expeditions, of dreams, of the noise of the wind in the mountains, of the sight of the ash tree outside his bedroom window. These small apparently disconnected incidents are to Wordsworth neither small nor disconnected. In the poem we see him tracing the links, joining them together, and working out their meanings.