Well, the AQA GCSE English Literature anthology on Power and Conflict is not skimping on the greats, is it? First Shelley, then Blake, now Wordsworth… In this post I’ll explore the background of the poem and of Wordsworth, to help you get a bit of contextual information, and we’ll look a little at the form and structure too.
Wordsworth is widely regarded as one of England’s best poets, and his poem The Prelude is seen by many as one of his best pieces. Although every English teacher has a favourite poet no doubt, Wordsworth would probably be in a lot of people’s top ten English poets. Not only that, he’s one of the founders of ‘Romanticism’, a style in art, music and writing that encouraged poets to be expressive and emotional. Some of the big ideas in Romanticism are the past and nature. And here, you’ve got Wordsworth writing about both. It was a movement that was very much about the individual, what experiences make us and all of our great big feelings. Though you get a good few Romantics writing sonnets, like Shelley’s Ozymandias, the Romantic movement tended towards lengthy epics and giant poems. After all, how could you contain all those giant emotions bursting out of your soul?
About the Romantic period…
Nobody can agree on exactly when it started or who started it in England. Nobody can even really agree what it is or what it includes. That’s really helpful isn’t it?
In terms of poetry, most critics and scholars would include Blake’s early poetry (1783) and stop at Tennyson (1830) who was the first real Victorian poet. That said, you’ll see Romantic ideas in fiction and poetry right up to the turn of the century and beyond. We think of English Romantic poets in two ‘generations’: Blake, Wordsworth and Coleridge, and Byron, Shelley and Keats. But then there are lots and lots more. Complicated much?
Not very helpful for a GCSE student if all the English academics can’t agree on who was a Romantic poet and who wasn’t, is it? But one thing is for sure, you can definitely say that Wordsworth is. Nobody disagrees about that.
So if we can’t say who the Romantic poets were, or when they were writing, (though we can loosely all agree on around the 1780s through to the 1830s) can we say what they like to write about?
- A vision of Nature as something powerful and mystical
- Heroes, quests and journeys
- Emotions and feelings
- Looking back to the past
- The self and what makes us individuals
- The poem as a natural ‘growing’ thing as much as a tree
- The imagination
- The supernatural
- The poet in search of themself, trying to find out who they are
- A crisis, especially a crisis of your own feelings
There are many more things as well, but you’ll see a lot of these ideas in the works of the Romantic poets, especially in the writing of William Wordsworth.
The poem that you are reading is in fact an extract, and it’s important to remember that. It’s part of what many people consider to be Wordsworth’s most important poem, The Prelude. It’ll do you no favours to try and read it all, suffice to say it is worth knowing what it is and understanding where this extract fits in it.
A prelude is a term often used in music. It’s a kind of introduction, and lays out the main themes that would be explored in more detail in the main body of the music. In the Romantic era of music, it wasn’t always followed by anything, and Wordsworth’s The Prelude isn’t either.
Here’s a Prelude from Chopin, which you might recognise, just to get you in the mood.
A prelude though is just something that comes before something else, like a child is a prelude to an adult. For Wordsworth, it’s the groundwork that makes him into the person he is. In fact, its subtitle was “Growth of a poet’s mind”. It was intended to be a piece that came before another one (Recluse) but he never finished it. In actual fact, he never even gave it a title. It was his wife who gave it the title after his death, so who knows if Wordsworth wanted us to consider it so very deeply?
He wrote The Prelude over a long period of time, going back and adapting, amending and adding. He’d started writing it in 1798 when he was 28, but it was only published after his death. Who knows if he was ever happy with it? It’s something to write a poem that takes you over fifty years to write!
So why wasn’t he happy with it? Some people think that his early work was his best work, and he was kind of holding on to it, unwilling to publish it because it was so very good, it would be very difficult for his reputation since he had scaled the giddy heights of poetry so very quickly. Other people say it’s that we all find the past harder and harder to deal with as we get older, when we remember how much we have lost.
Many people say the poem is a kind of “search” or quest for those days. As we learn in The Great Gatsby though, you can’t get the past back. It is a time that exists only in the imagination. In many ways, it’s not even real anymore. Reliving the past in our minds is never the same as it was then. It’s subjective. We alter it, forget bits, emphasise others, fill in the blanks, remember bits that never happened. And that’s doubly true in this poem because it’s semi-autobiographical really, even though it claims to be autobiographical. That must be true of most autobiographies though: it depends on how we remember the event as to how we retell it.
So it’s a quest for the past, a thing you can never hope to reclaim. It’s also a poem about the imagination and also about nature. It’s about freedom and escape, too. At the beginning of the poem (not this extract), he celebrates the freedom and escape that nature brings for him. “The earth is all before me,” he says, “with a heart/Joyous, not scared at its own liberty,” – he feels that the world is his oyster and he wants nature to lead him, “I look about, and should the chosen guide/Be nothing better than a wandering cloud,/I cannot miss my way.”
Here, he has faith that Nature will lead him. This is a man who is not restrained by those ‘mind-forged manacles’ that Blake talks about. For the context of the extract, Wordsworth wants Nature to guide him, to take him where it will, and he thinks he will be truly free. He personifies Nature, sees her as a guiding force who will lead him. He gives her a spirit and an essence.
Okay, so that gives you a little of the context and the guiding ideas in the poem. Let’s explore the form.
Firstly, it’s forty-three lines of one single stanza. In that, it encapsulates the entire episode as one single event. The whole of The Prelude is written in this way. It’s kind of blank verse, going as far as it needs to without constraint or restraint. If the idea takes seven lines, it takes seven lines. If it takes forty-three lines, it takes forty-three. The lack of breaks in it adds to that sense of stream-of-consciousness, that it is just unhampered by rules, regulations, grammar. It is as long as it needs to be without paying attention to convention. There’s a really good contrast with London here, which is constrained and metred, forced into those neat four-line stanzas just as the Thames is corralled by the embankments and the streets. It is penned in, like sheep or cattle. None of that for Wordsworth, where verses and stanzas go. The poem and the ideas in it are free to roam where they like.
That idea of enclosure, by the way, is pretty interesting. Ask your history teacher about the Enclosure Acts. On the one hand, you’ve got Blake annoyed by the contemporary laws that put an end to common land and the ability of the Englishman to wander wherever he likes, and here you’ve got Wordsworth harking back to a time where he could wander “lonely as a cloud” wherever he liked, just like his poem, unconstrained by fences and boundaries. Ironic that you’ve got two poems whose forms reflect the freedom to wander and roam, or the constraint of boundaries and edges in a time when the very freedom of a person to wander through England was very much in question. Wordsworth writes more critically about enclosure – which put up fences around what had been common land and then was generally ‘owned’ by the rich land-owning classes, making the rich richer and the poor poorer – in poems like Simon Lee. Here, though, you’ve got a Nature that is not constrained by anything.
The extract is an easy ten syllables throughout, except for one line that is harder to ‘squash’ into ten:
The horizon’s utmost boundary; far above
Some depends, of course, on how you say boundary. Do you say BOUND-uh-ree or BOUND-ree? For the sake of argument, let’s go with BOUND-ree, because I’m trying to make it more. But that leaves an unarguable eleven syllables. And if you go for twelve, then the line really sticks out. Ironic that you’d have a line about the boundary of the horizon that breaks the ten-syllable neatness.
Now unless this is a line that Wordsworth was unhappy with and just couldn’t bear to take out that word ‘utmost’ (which would leave it as a possible ten-syllable line) or replace it with a synonym like ‘last’ and maybe mess with the stresses, we could assume it’s a very purposeful breaking of the ten-syllable rule.
In order to make that decision, though, I want to think about those syllables before speculating that he could have missed a word out or replaced it.
Let’s do some stress samples.
One SUMM-er EVEning (LED by HER) I FOUND
A LITTle BOAT TIED to a WILLow TREE
So we had a fairly simple iambic pentameter. And then we didn’t. Well, we could, but it wouldn’t sound natural.
PUSHED from/ the SHORE/. It WAS/ an ACT/ of STEALTH/
And I really, really don’t want to say “pushed FROM the SHORE” to turn this into an iambic pentameter line. I like the stronger stress on ‘pushed’. I feel like it should have a stronger stress. It makes the action dynamic and forceful and emphasises the effort you need in the pushing.
So… Wordsworth’s not an iambic pentameter kind of a guy, even though he is writing in ten syllables.
Which… makes it illogical that he would ‘accidentally’ leave an 11 or 12 syllable line in on the ‘horizon’s utmost boundary’. Now it seems deliberate.
So what purpose does it serve to have a line that breaks the boundaries of the syllables of the poem? Doesn’t it just, so very, very beautifully, evoke the breaking of the horizon’s boundary too? It’s not a coincidence that he writes about boundaries and then breaks them, if you ask me. It’s as if saying there is something beyond the horizon (which there is… we don’t fall off the world into space) The horizon is an artificial boundary that looks like a boundary and isn’t.
Hmm. Interesting. Things that look like they are something and aren’t. Things that look like they are defined and clear-cut and… turn out not to be. A horizon ISN’T an utmost boundary – you are free to keep moving beyond it if you like. It LOOKS like it is the absolute and final end, but actually, when you think about it, there is more beyond.
And isn’t this a poem about what is BEYOND, what is more than, what is outside the understanding, how horizons and boundaries, well… they aren’t at all. When we get into looking at the language and the ideas of the poem in the next post, I want you to remember this line. I want you to remember his ‘far above’ and what comes next. Wordsworth could very well be signalling to you that this line is breaking the boundaries and it’s very likely in that case that he’s asking you to think about what lies beyond, what lies further above. This is a poem, after all, where Nature takes on a semi-supernatural power. It is a poem about all the things you cannot see. And in breaking with that ten-syllable pattern he’s established, the poet too, in a super-subtle way, uses the form to break boundaries and push beyond as well.
Well, if you ask me.
I’m sure there are plenty of other reasons why he might well have broken his patterns there. You’ve just got to consider why that might be. We’ll come back to these lines, of course, when we look at language.
Other than those syllables, which Wordsworth keeps at ten, he’s loose with rhythm – it follows a kind of iambic pentameter, and then doesn’t in places (like the ‘pushed’) and he’s loose with rhyme. It’s constrained in a way within those ten syllables, but then other than that, it is blank verse.
Now blank verse is a VERY common form of verse. Shakespeare uses it. More importantly, Wordsworth’s great muse Milton used it (oh he who wrote the epic poem Paradise Lost) and Milton kind of brought a revival in blank verse. It’s flexible and versatile, which suits Wordsworth’s purpose perfectly. It allows the poetic, but it gives you poetic freedom (the opposite of London with all its constraint) So you’ve got a form that allows Wordsworth to be flexible and versatile too, not governed by the form. Blank verse is a blank canvas. Rhyme is also constrictive, so we have nothing that can ‘contain’ the verse itself.
We also have a poet who is using enjambment to move from line to line with relative freedom, from the first line,
A little boat tied to a willow tree/
Within a rocky cave, its usual home.”
You can see how the first two lines aren’t bound by sense, since “I found” is the subject and verb. In fact, “find” in this sense is used as a transitive verb – that means it needs three bits, not two. It needs an object. Like, if you say “I found”, it sounds unfinished. I want to know WHAT you found. “I found love”. That would be complete. So to split “I found” from the subject that completes the verb, “a little boat”. It does lots of things, that. First, it gives a momentary pause – not a massive one – but a little curiosity over what he found (that is immediately answered). It puts a stress on the word “found” too, making it more emphatic and intriguing. And finally, it runs into the next line, so the action is not constrained by the lines.
It’s not jerky or unharmonious – the full stop falls at the end of the line, but the sentence weaves its way over a couple of lines, kind of meandering, punctuation-less.
Wordsworth uses the emphasis of the end of line position to emphasise the word “found” just as he uses the beginning of line position with “Pushed” to give a bit of oomph to the pushing. You’ll find lots more enjambment and caesura in the lines which we’ll explore in more depth next time, because it’s more about the interplay with specific words, but it’s a feature of the form that is worth considering, how he lets the ideas run from line to line and uses the form to emphasise them, to play with rhythm at points. The bit I find particularly emphatic is the surging of the lines. They seem to swell at points, to gather momentum, unweighted by punctuation to tie them to a particular line or to conclude the sentence (and thus the idea), like this:
When, from behind that craggy steep til then
The horizon’s bound, a huge peak, black and huge,
As if with voluntary power instinct
Upreared its head…
The idea seems to grow over the lines, like the huge peak itself. More on that when we’re looking at language though. Suffice to say that the blank verse fits perfectly that sense of freedom and discovery and we have a poet ‘unconstrained’ (unlike Blake in London for instance). We also have one single section, one single stanza. Those ideas are not bound by rules, by the convention of structuring and stanzas, forming the same guidelines as paragraphs. No, this is one whole rambly-shambly kind of stanza, unbroken, an episode where the ideas run into one another. If you think about paragraphs and/or stanzas and the purpose they serve, much of it here would be about time – but using one stanza allows Wordsworth to mark it as one particular event with each action within it melding into the next. It’s all as one.
So, in the next post, we’ll look more specifically at voice and tense, at language and at the ideas in the poem, particularly in what they reveal about power and conflict.
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