In the last post, I looked at the context and form of the extract called Stealing The Boat from Wordsworth’s The Prelude. In this post, I’ll be looking more to analyse the language and the ideas of the poem.
We’ll start with the narrative voice. Here, we have a first person narrator, Wordsworth. It is a self-titled autobiographical poem, so we have no reason to suspect it is anyone other than Wordsworth himself. Like London, the poet is at the epicentre of the experience. Unlike London, the poem is much more about what happens to Wordsworth himself, rather than him wandering about observing screaming prostitutes and unlucky soldiers. This is a private and personal event. There isn’t an audience as such, either. For that, we feel, perhaps, that we are intruding on a private moment, a confessional if you like, like reading part of his memoirs. It was a poem unfinished, so we can’t even know if Wordsworth would have wanted us to read it, though we must assume so. We are not addressed, however, and it is almost as if we are eavesdropping on this story. When we are privy to such stories, we may wonder about why we are being told, what relevance it has to us, the poet’s purpose in explaining it. We should ask: “Why is he telling us this?”
For some poems, it is didactic – a teaching poem. It has a moral message. It might be an overt moral message, or one we take from it. For instance, I take from Ozymandias the message that power is pointless. You can be the world’s biggest dictator, but all you are is dust in the desert and a long time dead. For some poems, it is as if the poet is holding up an image of the world for us to study. It’s like he has a bit of the world under a microscope and he’s using the poem to draw it to our attention. Like “Here, have you seen this?” which is what Blake is doing. It’s a political and moral message. The poem is like an exposé. So what is the purpose of this story?
For me, I think the purpose is an explanation of a sort, but it also allows him the freedom to explore an event and reflect on it. To be honest, with this poem, it’s not like he has a lot to share with you. It’s a poem that’s about him, for him. Sure, it gives you a bit of insight into his character, but beyond that, it’s a personal poem. Perhaps it seeks to explain and justify his outlook on things.
Where also the first two poems in the Power and Conflict section of the anthology are about the present, about issues or ideas that are happening in the here and now, which have a sense of the current, too, as if they will always be true, this poem is very much an event set in Wordsworth’s past. In that way, it is very different from the poems you may have explored so far.
From the beginning, Wordsworth creates a pleasant and gentle feel. It is “summer” and it is “evening”, words which create a pleasant atmosphere. None of the barren desert of Ozymandias or the blood-ridden streets of London. There’s a sense of timelessness, too, with “one summer evening”, as if he can’t pinpoint exactly which one. It has that kind of hazy memory feel, where all the days in a summer holiday seem to blend into one. We certainly wouldn’t get the impression that this is an evening of ill-omen, where bad things would happen. I’m just looking at the description of Frankenstein’s monster being made, and that is very atmospheric with its ‘dreary November’ and ‘rain’ and being ‘one in the morning’. This is decidedly NOT. It’s mild, temperate, serene and tranquil.
On that first line, we also have the parenthetic “(led by her)” in which we are asked to consider these brackets themselves, as well as the addition of the “led by her” bit. Let’s look at the brackets themselves. For me, brackets are very much an aside, an addition. There are ways and means you can do this. First, with the drifty dashes. Second with a pair of commas, and third with brackets. That’s kind of an odd choice. Were I a Poet Laureate, I might have gone with the old commas there. So why the brackets? The information contained within them is somehow less important, less part of the sentence, more coincidental. So there’s that. For me, they’re also more colloquial and less formal, which I think is important too. Many editors steer away from them, and they are something that I don’t think I use very often in my own formal writing. It lends an odd sort of addition, more informal than you might expect.
Plus, we are no doubt wondering who the mysterious female referred to is… we have no reference back to help us. Still, it’s not deliberate. Or, at least it’s not Wordsworth’s fault. He’s referring us back to earlier in the poem where he is talking about “Nature”, which he personifies as a woman.
I know she’s a hundred years later, but I like Alphonse Mucha’s version of “Summer” and I can imagine Wordsworth’s “Nature” in a similar style.
I suspect she would be a whole lot less sultry though.
Either way, she’s not such a mysterious “her” since Wordsworth’s just referring to an earlier bit the poem that you don’t have.
The final words, “I found” split up the subject and verb from their subject, causing the idea to drift onto the next line. It gives us a momentary pause before revealing what it is he found, but it also allows the idea to drift. I like the way the idea drifts – not only like Wordsworth’s memory, but like Wordsworth as a boy too. The willow tree adds to the looseness of the image as well. It’s a very “drapey” tree, with its branches trailing the water. Now, either it was really a willow tree – not a surprise given the fact that willows like watery places – but it could also be a tree that Wordsworth has chosen for its symbolic nature (like Romeo with his sycamores in Romeo and Juliet) We refer sometimes to willows as ‘weeping’ – firstly because they have drooping branches, but with the idea also comes the notion of sadness and grief. It could, then, be a tiny sign that something is wrong.
There’s no sense of who the boat belongs to, or what it’s doing there. We sense too the free-spirited Wordsworth as a child, just taking somebody’s boat (okay, let’s call it theft then) and going on a little journey. What a lovely notion that we could just take something we ‘found’ and return it later without any consequence or anyone telling you off for taking their stuff without asking. It seems like an idyll, a heaven, where things don’t belong to angry neighbours. It also shows us the innocence of the boy that he doesn’t understand the concept of theft.
Don’t forget, too, that in 1802, Paley published his premise about the Watchmaker (which also provides a bit of context for Ozymandias) in which he states that if we came across a watch on our path, we would necessarily wonder about who made it, what it was doing there. In the same way, it suggests that perhaps the boat was there for a purpose. It makes us wonder about who the boat belongs to, what it is doing there, why Nature would take Wordsworth to it. Now I don’t know whether Wordsworth ever read or even heard of Paley’s Watchmaker theory about the world and God, but in the same way (just as in Ozymandias) it forces us to ask the same questions. Whose is the boat? What is it doing there? Why is it there? Who left it there? Those questions in themselves are puzzles.
You will find different renditions of “cove” or “cave” by the way. My Bloom and Trilling edition of Romantic Poetry and Prose says “cave” but I don’t think trees grow in caves. Cove seems to work better. See how important it is that your editor checks your work?
There’s a determination and energy about Wordsworth as “Straight I unloosed her chain” – it’s interesting that both Nature and the boat are females (well, boats are girls… ask any shipbuilder) but in the use of these ambiguous pronouns, the “her” of the first line seems to link with the “her” in this line too. You could read it as if it’s the same “her”, or not. Either way, there’s a female mystique at work in this passage, a gentle, playful spirit that encourages Wordsworth to break away from society and explore. If you want to read the first “her” as the same, you could see it as if the boat itself compels Wordsworth to come and free her, like he’s a knight in shining armour. For me, though, I think the first “her” goes back to the lines you don’t have, to Nature, and the second is a “her” as in the boat. I don’t think it’s ambiguous when you have the whole poem.
You’ve got three active verbs in this bit “unloosed…. stepping… pushed…” which gives the poem a bit of energy at this point, a bit of action.
Were we in any doubt about the innocence of the boy and his taking of the boat, the next lines clear that up. “It was an act of stealth.” Now either the young Wordsworth knows this at the time, and he is therefore not the innocent boy he would have you believe, or he realises it as an adult. For me, I think he knew well at the time that he was stealing the boat, not quite the innocent. Why is this important? Because we have a character who is already moving into adulthood, who is already “experienced” as Blake would tell you. Wordsworth’s very much a man who believes in the fact that children are born innocent, are born good, (like Blake) which he takes from a very influential idea by French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau. Without meaning to reduce ideas to something digestible for GCSE, essentially, Rousseau thought that children should learn more through life, and much less through education in school. He thought that if we all looked at the world around us, if we all became curious explorers, we’d make sense of the puzzles that the world lays out before us and come to an understanding ourselves.
Is that not what happens in this poem? A boy goes on a journey and discovers the world for himself?
But what we have is a boy who learns a very powerful lesson indeed that day, as he takes the boat.
He understands very well that it was “an act of stealth/And troubled pleasure”
The first part of his journey is quite beautiful, as the boat leaves “behind her still” only the ripples as it cuts through the water. I think the ripples too are important: how it reminds us that everything leaves an imprint, as this is what the poem is about: the events in life that leave an imprint on us. For instance, I remember when I was about 9 or so, my friend and I threw a rosehip at a car that went past. The lady who was driving got out and told us off. It was the first time I think that anyone had really told me off, and the first time that I recall realising that you can’t just have fun and hope that it doesn’t leave a mark on someone else. I know it’s the first time I remember feeling really ashamed. This kind of experience is what the experts call a “formative experience” – one that shapes who you are, that alters the very course of your life. It has a strong influence on everything that comes after. For Wordsworth, this incident is about to become a formative experience – the events that happen in your life that determine what you think and believe.
When he describes the “small circles glittering idly in the moon”, I think it’s very beautiful. The repetition of the “i” sound (both short and long) gives it a kind of interesting sound and you can make of that what you want. For me, the “i” is a kind of short, detached sound, maybe not unlike the drops from the oars themselves. What Wordsworth notices is the way the individual droplets all join together eventually to form the wake of the boat as it cuts through the water. That in itself is not unlike the experiences in The Prelude, how they are all separate and distinct events that merge together to trace the route his life has taken. It picks up on the ideas of ripples and reflections. When we think of our lives as adults, we too can track back to those formative experiences that have had an impact on us now, and just like someone staring at a puddle, we can track back through the ripples to find the source. He could also be playing with the notion of “reflection” which works as an actual physical reflection, like in a mirror or in water, but in an abstract sense to say those things which we consider deeply and seriously.
I just love the way those “glittering” circles merge together into “one track of sparkling light”. It sounds magical and perfect. It’s the kind of scene that painters would seek to capture.
It’s a very beautiful, tranquil image and Wordsworth recreates here that moment in a very visual and atmospheric way.
We have a caesura mid-line with “But now, like one who rows,” where the scene takes on even more momentum. This feels like a Wordsworth driven to explore, to achieve something. He determines on a goal, the “utmost horizon”, his focus absolute, “an unswerving line”. You can find a very good link to a wonderful diagram that shows this whole purpose of navigation and how also that mountains can appear out of nowhere, rising up from behind such a craggy point. You’ve got plenty of words here that suggest that he is driven, focused, he is “fixed” and “unswerving”, dedicated and tenacious, and I wonder what it is that is driving him on, spurring him on in his journey, except that desire, perhaps, to conquer the “utmost boundary” – it’s like he’s chasing the horizon itself. I think we get a sense of Wordsworth’s drive to discover.
The magic continues with his description of the boat as “elfin”, as if the boat is something quite supernatural, something perhaps enchanted.
At the end of the “elfin pinnace”, Wordsworth leaves the word “lustily” dangling there, kind of demanding contemplation and discussion. Lustily. So, full of energy and enthusiasm, like if you have a lust for life. It suggests to me this passion, his desire to get to his destination, wherever that might be – for all journeys are about a destination, aren’t they? His desire to reach “the horizon’s utmost boundary”, to get to the answer to whatever mystery it is that he is chasing.
Wordsworth’s simile captures the smoothness and the grace of his movement in the boat, “like a swan”, which gives that notion of cutting through the water effortlessly, like he too has become part of nature. There’s a gracefulness and also a sense of his effort. The word “heaving” gives us both of those – the difficulty of moving a boat through water with nothing but oars, as well as the rhythmic and easy way in which he makes the boat move. It’s tough and physically demanding, but he makes it look easy. Wordsworth is feeling on top form and ready to take on the world.
NOW… and only now, after painting this magical picture, do we get a turning point, where Nature takes on a more frightening presence. It starts with the “When,” which is followed with a comma, adding a bit of weight to it. But we have a delay with an embedded detail that follows, “from behind that craggy steep til then/the horizon’s bound,”… you could take this whole detail out. These ten words only serve as a precision, not a necessary detail at all, and it forces us to slow down, adding suspense and delay to the action that follows, “a huge peak,” which he reiterates as “black and huge” – six monosyllabic words, two of them repeated, “huge”, serves to emphasise the threat. Wordsworth uses a simile to bring it to life, “as if with voluntary power instinct, upreared its head.”
I want to look a little at the sentence that ends with “upreared its head”. Look where it starts.
“She was an elfin pinnace; lustily
I dipped my oars into the silent lake,”
That is a full eight lines before! That is one enormous sentence indeed.
Look at it without line breaks:
“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; 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.”
57 words, two semi-colons, six commas, two conjunctions (one subordinating and one coordinating), a simile, a metaphor, some personification, plenty of embellishment, nine adjectives. That’s a pretty monumental sentence.
Let’s strip it back to bare essentials. No metaphors, no similes, no adjectives. No semi-colons and no commas
“She was a pinnace. I dipped my oars into the lake. My boat heaved through the water as I rose upon the stroke. A peak appeared from behind a hill.”
You can see then just how much drama Wordsworth embeds into the sentence. He’s playing with you, the reader, trying to inspire the same feelings in you as he had himself, leaving you breathless with the effort of reading that enormous, mountainous sentence yourself, just as he was breathless with the effort of rowing. He gives you the magic, the “elfin”, he gives you his zest for life, “lustily”, he gives you the shock factor, that mid-stroke, he sees the peak appear. He gives you sooooo much delay and a colossal build-up… “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.”
What happens is ‘a huge peak appeared.’ but look at the way Wordsworth makes us wait from that turning point “And.” THIRTY-SIX redundant words “And… a huge peak… upreared its head.” as well as TWELVE pauses of a sort (commas, semi-colons and line breaks). It’s like Wordsworth is doing everything in his mighty poet power to stop you getting to the end of that sentence speedily. In one sentence we go from magic to terrifying. One single stroke of the oars turns the evening from enchanted to horrifying.
Magnificent, Mr Wordsworth, quite magnificent.
Well, it’s no wonder I was thinking of Frankenstein’s monster here… who also comes to life in a mysterious and mystical way. That previously benign supernatural fairy-like magical presence suddenly takes on a chill turn. You too would no doubt be a little frightened if a huge mountain seemed to wake up.
For the first time here, Wordsworth’s feelings about the joy and beauty of nature take on a menacing and ominous presence. Nature, here, feels dark and dangerous. It’s no longer a gentle “she” as the mountain is an “it”, like a monster. The young Wordsworth is frightened by the sudden appearance of the “huge peak” and rows faster to escape it – but all that happens is that it grows (you really need to check out the link earlier that explains why that happens – nothing magical about it!). The repetition of the word “struck” in “struck and struck again” shows the poet’s growing fear and panic, as he tries to get away from the monstrous appearance, but the “huge peak” continues “growing still in stature”. He calls it the “grim shape” which makes it seem sinister and fierce, and the word “towered” emphasises its enormity.
In a way, I wonder if the “huge peak” and the fear it inspires in him is Wordsworth’s growing guilt at having stolen the boat and taken off on a watery joy-ride. Either way, it gets bigger and bigger, terrifying the young poet. Not only does it grow to menacing and terrifying proportions, it also seems to move, “with purpose of its own/And measured motion like a living thing,” – it, not unlike Frankenstein’s Monster, is alive – or seems to be. There are moments where Wordsworth says “as if” and “or so it seemed” which shows an adult voice reflecting on his childhood fear, but I have little doubt that the young Wordsworth believed very sincerely that the mountain had come to life and was pursuing him. Just like Victor Frankenstein, you’ve got a creature that pursues you just as actively as your guilt does. No escaping a feeling of guilt!
So much, then, for all of his innocent “in’t nature brilliant?” feelings at the beginning. In this moment, he sees Nature as something terrifying and frightening, looming and menacing. Wordsworth, the great nature lover, with his poems about daffodils and wandering lonely as a cloud and the heavenliness of nature, beauteous evenings and the loveliness of rainbows, is here terrified by the duality of Nature. Nature’s dark side. But what is it that provokes Nature’s dark side?
The stealing of the boat itself maybe?
The image becomes more horrifying indeed when Wordsworth tells us that the peak “strode after” him. That’s a very telling and interesting word, conveying both the passion and the haste of the peak – it seems to gain in life very quickly indeed.
For this reason, the story takes on another turn. Wordsworth turns around and rows back “through the silent water”. The use of the word “stole” here in “stole my way” is interesting. It echoes the stealing of the boat, of course, but it also means that he moved back through the water stealthily. It’s a word that means “theft”, referring to taking the boat without permission, but it also means moving stealthily and secretly, with none of the pride and passion he felt before. Gone is that pride in his marvellous rowing and now he creeps back home. Before, he was all “Proud of [his] skill” and ‘look at me with my marvellous rowing like a swan in my stolen boat’ and now he’s creeping back through the water, like the thief he is, trying to escape this half-man/half-mountain who’s risen out of the ground like a monster to chase him in the dark. There’s a real contrast between his going and his return. In the going, it was magical and enchanted, but now it is “silent’ and dark.
He takes the boat back to the place he took it, the covert of the cave/cove and then goes home “in grave and serious mood”.
The event lingers in his mind though as he struggles to come to terms with the two sides of nature, and what troubles him are these “unknown modes of being” – how little we know about the planet, about how there is so much more to understand about the world. It leaves him feeling lost, alienated and alone. Rowing out on that lake has left him with a profound sense of isolation and loneliness, “call it solitude/Or blank desertion.” The caesura there adds a nice emphasis to the “blank desertion” to show how Wordsworth feels utterly lost, abandoned by a world in which he felt at one. He’s haunted by the “huge and mighty forms” that move slowly “through the mind by day” and give him nightmares at night. Sounds very much like Blake’s “mind-forged manacles” there.
So where is the power, and where is the conflict?
First, you have the power of Nature, which we’ve not looked at before. The terrifying nature of the world around us is certainly an issue explored in other poems (my favourite is Heaney’s Death of a Naturalist in which he is terrified by some loved-up frogs) and this is a moment at which Wordsworth, who usually wanders like a cloud and whose mind “dances with the daffodils”, comes to realise there are some weird and preternatural things out there. In fact, it puts me in mind of the sands in Ozymandias which have more power over life and death than Ozymandias himself, who have eternity on their side, long, long after tyrannous dictators have disappeared. We are a long time dead, and the world around us will live on when we are long-since forgotten. It’s like Wordsworth has woken up to the power and might of the world, which forces him to contemplate our own puny and short-lived, insignificant existence. making him realise that the world is a cold and lonely place. Instead of enjoying that solitude as Wordsworth does in other poems, he is frightened by it. That anxiety and anguish in feeling our own insignificance can be a depressing and frightening experience.
As for conflict, unlike Blake who sees the conflict of man vs mind around him, but does not feel it within him, this is a first-person account of the conflict that comes from within, where we battle with two different ideas and can’t make sense of the world. It is very much an internal conflict that Wordsworth explores here, a conflict of conscience in many ways, as he links the notion of stealing the boat with the sense that Nature itself will rise up to punish him.
There is such a lot going on in this poem that it is no doubt going to be one that challenges you to write about it, especially in consideration to the difficulty of selecting a few brief moments to write about and compare with other poems in the Power And Conflict section of the anthology. Some poems just give you such a lot to get your teeth into. This is one of them. Good luck!
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