26 Oct 2017

The Prelude, Wordsworth: Context, Analysis, Annotation and Likely Exam Questions

What is the Prelude (Extract) About?
Literally: as a child, the poet steals a boat and rows across the lake. At first, he feels alive in his own power. He wonders at the beauty of nature, then feels a kind of awe, or terror, as if the great hills are alive. The mixed emotions of this ‘spectacle’ haunt his memory, shown as it ‘troubled my dreams’. He does not try to explain what it means within this extract; it is pure emotion.

Context of the Poem
This is an extract from a much longer lyric poem where Wordsworth explored ‘the growth of my own mind’ as a poet. This extract is from the first part, titled: ‘Childhood’ and is a flashback to a time he stole a boat at home in the Lake District. The journey symbolises his emotional journey as a poet, which started with a mystic, and emotional connection with the power of nature. It also symbolises a journey within memory, looking for meaning. Wordsworth was a great Romantic poet - a movement interested in emotion, nature and a mystical connection with a higher power. The full poem was considered by Wordsworth as his masterpiece.

The point of view is of the poet remembering, so it includes the theme of memory as well as identity: 'to arrive where we started / And know that place for the first time' (T.S. Eliot). As an adult, Wordsworth understands the significance of the feeling he had: of a communion with a higher power. When he writes ‘(led by her)’, he is referring to Nature personified.

The section just before this extract refers to ‘the means which Nature’ used to open him up as a poet: ‘fearless visitings, or those/ That came with soft alarm, like hurtless light /Opening the peaceful clouds; or she would use / Severer’ methods more vivid, ‘as best might suit her aim.’

He talks of his purpose here too, which makes the meaning of the story about the boat clearer:


Dust as we are, the immortal spirit grows

Like harmony in music; there is a dark

Inscrutable workmanship that reconciles

Discordant elements, makes them cling together
In one society.
In other words: the poet's immortal spirit grows like music, shaped by barely understood forces, into a perfect harmony. The ‘spectacle’ he felt on his boat journey - and the ‘dark inscrutable workmanship’ of nature shaped him as a poet.

Likely Exam Questions:
How is power presented? (of the boy, poet, nature)
How is conflict presented? (poet’s mind, with nature)

Compare it with ‘Exposure’, focusing on the presentation of nature.


=hope, promise
Symbolises journey/the poet as a vessel on a journey





Troubled pleasure > oxymoron=conflicted emotions



=moon is mystic, symbolises change
=one track - as if it is showing him the way, things are coming together
proud=boy’s power, sure of direction (unswerving line) also symbolises poet’s journey

Horizon =symbolises ultimate destination as a poet





Swan = vessel transformed by the boy’s power (swan=symbol of beauty and grace in classical literature)

voluntary=living, thinking
instinct=emotional reaction


Towered up = Mystical transformation - a linking or blocking him to/from the divine (stars)

trembling=fear




bark= the boat, but seems more fragile now, changed



spectacle=mystical but he cannot interpret it yet (dim)

unknown=mystical, new ways of being, dimly understood (as a child)
No familiar=old simple view of nature is destroyed


mighty=a sense of a greater power (nature/mystic)


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.
She was an elfin pinnace [peak]; 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;
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;
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..
her=Nature (see notes above)



Unloosed =symbolises boy’s power, setting imagination free


Voice =power of nature personified - as if nature is calling to him

=pure beauty, wonder: liquid sounds (l) create a fluid effect, while the sibilance (s) creates softness.
Light symbolises revelation, hope


fixed=his original fixed purpose, which will later be changed by his experience

Stars = celestial beauty

elfin=mystical

=pure beauty (liquid sounds)






Sinister plosives (p, b), threatening power, repetition

Struck (repetition) = Boy’s power or panic




purpose=personification of nature as a force, bringing a message - or intention towards him

silent/willow=repeats, a circular journey, but the poet is changed (seeing the same thing, but not with the same eyes)








darkness=contrasts with the earlier images of light (peaceful and simple), but ironically, this darkness represents growth - sensing a larger power behind the simple beauty of nature, though he cannot understand it yet

Do not live like=i.e. immortal

dreams=imagination, emotion and to his future as a poet