The Prelude By William Wordsworth

For William Wordsworth, poetry was more than just a form

of creative expression. He regarded it as a learning tool he

could use to educate his readers on significance of history.

Wordsworth believed that history not only shaped the world in

which man lived, but also mankind itself. It could teach

both what to do, but perhaps even more importantly, it could

insightfully teach what not to do. In his autobiographical

epic poem, “The Prelude,” Wordsworth explored how historical

events had influenced his life. In the poem, the narrator,

Wordsworth himself, describes how he saw history happen

around him, and the impact that it had on his thoughts and on

his art.

Books 9 and 10 of “The Prelude” detail the time he

resided in France, which was during the height of the French

Revolution. In Book 9, Wordsworth described his initial

sensations as if he is an enthusiastic tourist, but when he

witnesses the effects of the Revolution first-hand, the poem

takes a decidedly different, and more somber tone.

Wordsworth observed, “I saw the Revolutionary Power / Toss

like a ship at anchor, rocked by storms;… / I stared and

listened, with a stranger’s ears, / To Hawkers and

Haranguers, hubbub wild! / And hissing Factionists with

ardent eyes, / In knots, or pairs, or single. Not a look /

Hope takes, or Doubt or Fear is forced to wear, / But seemed

there present; and I scanned them all, / Watched every

gesture uncontrollable, / Of anger, and vexation, and

despite, / All side by side, and struggling face to face,

With gaiety and dissolute idleness” (282). Wordsworth was

watching history happen before his very eyes, as the French

monarchy was crumbling, and the freedom-seeking

revolutionaries attempt to liberate themselves from tyranny,

despite the warring intellectual factions which have emerged

from within.

When Wordsworth journeyed to France, he was full of the

idealism of youth, and as he recalled in “The Prelude,” “In

honest truth, / I looked for something that I could not find”

(The Prelude: Book 9). He was unable to find it in paintings

or landmarks, but when he paused to read some political

pamphlets, Wordsworth found himself deeply moved by the cause

of freedom, and declared that after reading of their

historical oppression, he “became a Patriot; and my heart was

all / Given to the People, and my love was theirs” (The

Prelude: Book 9).

Recognizing that France was on the brink of change,

Wordsworth paused to remember other such events in the

history of the world. He noted, “We summoned up the

honourable deeds / Of ancient Story, thought of each bright

spot, / That would be found in all recorded time, / Of truth

preserved and error passed away; / Of single spirits that

catch the flame from Heaven, / And how the multitudes of men

will feed / And fan each other” (The Prelude: Book 9). In

this passage, he suggested that the radicals should not be

swept away by passionate ideals alone, but that they should

look back to history to guide them.

Continuing his French history lesson in Book 10,

Wordsworth observed that, “The King had fallen” (The Prelude:

Book 10). France was now calling itself a republic, and

Wordsworth, along with his fellow revolutionaries, believed

that all would be well, now that the monarchy had been

effectively disposed of. However, when he returned to Paris,

Wordsworth was stunned to see King Louis and his family in

the same type of bondage the radicals had claimed they wanted

to be free of. He was further shocked by the dead bodies he

saw littering the once picturesque landscape. The French

people had been fighting for the cause of freedom, the

preservation of human life, and yet in the aftermath of the

revolution, there was seemingly nothing but death. What

happened, Wordsworth pondered. Then, he considered, “I

thought of those September massacres, / Divided from me by

one little month, / Saw them and touched: the rest was

conjured up / From tragic fictions or true history, /

Remembrances and dim admonishments. / The horse is taught his

manage, and no star / Of wildest course but treads back his

own steps” (The Prelude: Book 10). Here, he seemed to

suggest that those who had been fighting for freedom may have

confused romantic fiction with historical reality. They were

thinking only of heroic victory, not of the formidable

challenge awaiting them of establishing a new, democratic

republic. Instead of using history to educate them on how to

move beyond oppression, in Wordsworth’s mind, the French

seemed more intent upon repeating it.

In place of the king was Robespierre, the leader of the

revolution, who chose to use the guillotine to implement

order within the chaos. A despot had been, in essence,

exchanged for a “Reign of Terror.” Wordsworth became

extremely disillusioned, and returned to the safe haven of

his art. Ideals had betrayed him, but his poetry never

would. When he tried to understand what had gone so horribly

wrong during the French Revolution, Wordsworth again looked

at the pages of history. He wrote, “But as the ancient

Prophets, borne aloft / In vision, yet constrained by natural

laws / With them to take a troubled human heart, / Wanted not

consolations, nor a creed / Of reconcilement, then when they

denounced, / On towns and cities, wallowing in the abyss / Of

their offences, / punishment to come; / Or saw, like other

men, with bodily eyes, / Before them, in some desolated

place, / The wrath consummate and the threat fulfilled” (The

Prelude: Book 10). As he discovered by contemplating

history, when past zealots had fought for similar reasons,

the results had been the same — instead of reconciliation,

the victors had chosen retribution. Perhaps had Robespierre

been a better student of history, he would have avoided the

errors made by those who went before. By repeating those

same mistakes, the end result would always be the same —


In Book 13 of “The Prelude,” entitled ‘Imagination and

Taste, How Impaired and Restored,’ Wordsworth contemplated

his disappointment over the French Revolution, and again

looked to history to replace that which had been lost from

his soul. He mused, “The Historian’s pen so much delights /

To blazon–power and energy detached / From moral

purpose–early tutored me / To look with feelings of

fraternal love / Upon the unassuming things that hold / A

silent station in this beauteous world” (The Prelude: Book

10). The one thread which had linked men throughout history,

Wordsworth reasoned, where their mutual existence and desire

to seek a higher moral purpose — a way in which they could

attach meaning to their lives.

William Wordsworth did not allow the repetition of

history’s mistakes to turn him into a jaded cynic. He

productively used what he had seen, experienced and red and

transformed it into poetry which was not only eloquent, but

educational. With “The Prelude,” he was speaking directly to

his readers, in hopes of awakening in them the knowledge that

mistakes of the past can be successfully corrected in the

future. This was a lesson William Wordsworth had learned in

France, and was the legacy he passed along to mankind in his

prose. Unfortunately, however, it is a history lesson the

world has yet to learn.


Wordsworth, William. The Prelude: Books 9, 10 and 13. 30

January 2001.


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