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William Wordsworth (1770-1850)

The Prelude: Book 1: Childhood and School-time

(excerpt)


          271                              --Was it for this
          272That one, the fairest of all Rivers, lov'd
          273To blend his murmurs with my Nurse's song,
          274And from his alder shades and rocky falls,
          275And from his fords and shallows, sent a voice
          276That flow'd along my dreams? For this, didst Thou,
          277O Derwent! travelling over the green Plains
          278Near my 'sweet Birthplace', didst thou, beauteous Stream
          279Make ceaseless music through the night and day
          280Which with its steady cadence, tempering
          281Our human waywardness, compos'd my thoughts
          282To more than infant softness, giving me,
          283Among the fretful dwellings of mankind,
          284A knowledge, a dim earnest, of the calm
          285That Nature breathes among the hills and groves.
          286When, having left his Mountains, to the Towers
          287Of Cockermouth that beauteous River came,
          288Behind my Father's House he pass'd, close by,
          289Along the margin of our Terrace Walk.
          290He was a Playmate whom we dearly lov'd.
          291Oh! many a time have I, a five years' Child,
          292A naked Boy, in one delightful Rill,
          293A little Mill-race sever'd from his stream,
          294Made one long bathing of a summer's day,
          295Bask'd in the sun, and plunged, and bask'd again
          296Alternate all a summer's day, or cours'd
          297Over the sandy fields, leaping through groves
          298Of yellow grunsel, or when crag and hill,
          299The woods, and distant Skiddaw's lofty height,
          300Were bronz'd with a deep radiance, stood alone
          301Beneath the sky, as if I had been born
          302On Indian Plains, and from my Mother's hut
          303Had run abroad in wantonness, to sport,
          304A naked Savage, in the thunder shower.

          305     Fair seed-time had my soul, and I grew up
          306Foster'd alike by beauty and by fear;
          307Much favour'd in my birthplace, and no less
          308In that beloved Vale to which, erelong,
          309I was transplanted. Well I call to mind
          310('Twas at an early age, ere I had seen
          311Nine summers) when upon the mountain slope
          312The frost and breath of frosty wind had snapp'd
          313The last autumnal crocus, 'twas my joy
          314To wander half the night among the Cliffs
          315And the smooth Hollows, where the woodcocks ran
          316Along the open turf. In thought and wish
          317That time, my shoulder all with springes hung,
          318I was a fell destroyer. On the heights
          319Scudding away from snare to snare, I plied
          320My anxious visitation, hurrying on,
          321Still hurrying, hurrying onward; moon and stars
          322Were shining o'er my head; I was alone,
          323And seem'd to be a trouble to the peace
          324That was among them. Sometimes it befel
          325In these night-wanderings, that a strong desire
          326O'erpower'd my better reason, and the bird
          327Which was the captive of another's toils
          328Became my prey; and, when the deed was done
          329I heard among the solitary hills
          330Low breathings coming after me, and sounds
          331Of undistinguishable motion, steps
          332Almost as silent as the turf they trod.
          333Nor less in springtime when on southern banks
          334The shining sun had from his knot of leaves
          335Decoy'd the primrose flower, and when the Vales
          336And woods were warm, was I a plunderer then
          337In the high places, on the lonesome peaks
          338Where'er, among the mountains and the winds,
          339The Mother Bird had built her lodge. Though mean
          340My object, and inglorious, yet the end
          341Was not ignoble. Oh! when I have hung
          342Above the raven's nest, by knots of grass
          343And half-inch fissures in the slippery rock
          344But ill sustain'd, and almost, as it seem'd,
          345Suspended by the blast which blew amain,
          346Shouldering the naked crag; Oh! at that time,
          347While on the perilous ridge I hung alone,
          348With what strange utterance did the loud dry wind
          349Blow through my ears! the sky seem'd not a sky
          350Of earth, and with what motion mov'd the clouds!

          351     The mind of Man is fram'd even like the breath
          352And harmony of music. There is a dark
          353Invisible workmanship that reconciles
          354Discordant elements, and makes them move
          355In one society. Ah me! that all
          356The terrors, all the early miseries
          357Regrets, vexations, lassitudes, that all
          358The thoughts and feelings which have been infus'd
          359Into my mind, should ever have made up
          360The calm existence that is mine when I
          361Am worthy of myself! Praise to the end!
          362Thanks likewise for the means! But I believe
          363That Nature, oftentimes, when she would frame
          364A favor'd Being, from his earliest dawn
          365Of infancy doth open out the clouds,
          366As at the touch of lightning, seeking him
          367With gentlest visitation; not the less,
          368Though haply aiming at the self-same end,
          369Does it delight her sometimes to employ
          370Severer interventions, ministry
          371More palpable, and so she dealt with me.

          372     One evening (surely I was led by her)
          373I went alone into a Shepherd's Boat,
          374A Skiff that to a Willow tree was tied
          375Within a rocky Cave, its usual home.
          376'Twas by the shores of Patterdale, a Vale
          377Wherein I was a Stranger, thither come
          378A School-boy Traveller, at the Holidays.
          379Forth rambled from the Village Inn alone
          380No sooner had I sight of this small Skiff,
          381Discover'd thus by unexpected chance,
          382Than I unloos'd her tether and embark'd.
          383The moon was up, the Lake was shining clear
          384Among the hoary mountains; from the Shore
          385I push'd, and struck the oars and struck again
          386In cadence, and my little Boat mov'd on
          387Even like a Man who walks with stately step
          388Though bent on speed. It was an act of stealth
          389And troubled pleasure; not without the voice
          390Of mountain-echoes did my Boat move on,
          391Leaving behind her still on either side
          392Small circles glittering idly in the moon,
          393Until they melted all into one track
          394Of sparkling light. A rocky Steep uprose
          395Above the Cavern of the Willow tree
          396And now, as suited one who proudly row'd
          397With his best skill, I fix'd a steady view
          398Upon the top of that same craggy ridge,
          399The bound of the horizon, for behind
          400Was nothing but the stars and the grey sky.
          401She was an elfin Pinnace; lustily
          402I dipp'd my oars into the silent Lake,
          403And, as I rose upon the stroke, my Boat
          404Went heaving through the water, like a Swan;
          405When from behind that craggy Steep, till then
          406The bound of the horizon, a huge Cliff,
          407As if with voluntary power instinct,
          408Uprear'd its head. I struck, and struck again
          409And, growing still in stature, the huge Cliff
          410Rose up between me and the stars, and still,
          411With measur'd motion, like a living thing,
          412Strode after me. With trembling hands I turn'd,
          413And through the silent water stole my way
          414Back to the Cavern of the Willow tree.
          415There, in her mooring-place, I left my Bark,
          416And, through the meadows homeward went, with grave
          417And serious thoughts; and after I had seen
          418That spectacle, for many days, my brain
          419Work'd with a dim and undetermin'd sense
          420Of unknown modes of being; in my thoughts
          421There was a darkness, call it solitude,
          422Or blank desertion, no familiar shapes
          423Of hourly objects, images of trees,
          424Of sea or sky, no colours of green fields;
          425But huge and mighty Forms that do not live
          426Like living men mov'd slowly through the mind
          427By day and were the trouble of my dreams.

          428     Wisdom and Spirit of the universe!
          429Thou Soul that art the eternity of thought!
          430That giv'st to forms and images a breath
          431And everlasting motion! not in vain,
          432By day or star-light thus from my first dawn
          433Of Childhood didst Thou intertwine for me
          434The passions that build up our human Soul,
          435Not with the mean and vulgar works of Man,
          436But with high objects, with enduring things,
          437With life and nature, purifying thus
          438The elements of feeling and of thought,
          439And sanctifying, by such discipline,
          440Both pain and fear, until we recognize
          441A grandeur in the beatings of the heart.

          442     Nor was this fellowship vouchsaf'd to me
          443With stinted kindness. In November days,
          444When vapours, rolling down the valleys, made
          445A lonely scene more lonesome; among woods
          446At noon, and 'mid the calm of summer nights,
          447When, by the margin of the trembling Lake,
          448Beneath the gloomy hills I homeward went
          449In solitude, such intercourse was mine;
          450'Twas mine among the fields both day and night,
          451And by the waters all the summer long.

          452     And in the frosty season, when the sun
          453Was set, and visible for many a mile
          454The cottage windows through the twilight blaz'd,
          455I heeded not the summons:--happy time
          456It was, indeed, for all of us; to me
          457It was a time of rapture: clear and loud
          458The village clock toll'd six; I wheel'd about,
          459Proud and exulting, like an untired horse,
          460That cares not for its home.--All shod with steel,
          461We hiss'd along the polish'd ice, in games
          462Confederate, imitative of the chace
          463And woodland pleasures, the resounding horn,
          464The Pack loud bellowing, and the hunted hare.
          465So through the darkness and the cold we flew,
          466And not a voice was idle; with the din,
          467Meanwhile, the precipices rang aloud,
          468The leafless trees, and every icy crag
          469Tinkled like iron, while the distant hills
          470Into the tumult sent an alien sound
          471Of melancholy, not unnoticed, while the stars,
          472Eastward, were sparkling clear, and in the west
          473The orange sky of evening died away.

          474     Not seldom from the uproar I retired
          475Into a silent bay, or sportively
          476Glanced sideway, leaving the tumultuous throng,
          477To cut across the image of a star
          478That gleam'd upon the ice: and oftentimes
          479When we had given our bodies to the wind,
          480And all the shadowy banks, on either side,
          481Came sweeping through the darkness, spinning still
          482The rapid line of motion; then at once
          483Have I, reclining back upon my heels,
          484Stopp'd short, yet still the solitary Cliffs
          485Wheeled by me, even as if the earth had roll'd
          486With visible motion her diurnal round;
          487Behind me did they stretch in solemn train
          488Feebler and feebler, and I stood and watch'd
          489Till all was tranquil as a dreamless sleep.

          490     Ye Presences of Nature, in the sky
          491And on the earth! Ye Visions of the hills!
          492And Souls of lonely places! can I think
          493A vulgar hope was yours when Ye employ'd
          494Such ministry, when Ye through many a year
          495Haunting me thus among my boyish sports,
          496On caves and trees, upon the woods and hills,
          497Impress'd upon all forms the characters
          498Of danger or desire, and thus did make
          499The surface of the universal earth
          500With triumph, and delight, and hope, and fear,
          501Work like a sea?

          501                            Not uselessly employ'd,
          502I might pursue this theme through every change
          503Of exercise and play, to which the year
          504Did summon us in its delightful round.

          505     We were a noisy crew, the sun in heaven
          506Beheld not vales more beautiful than ours,
          507Nor saw a race in happiness and joy
          508More worthy of the ground where they were sown.
          509I would record with no reluctant voice
          510The woods of autumn and their hazel bowers
          511With milk-white clusters hung; the rod and line,
          512True symbol of the foolishness of hope,
          513Which with its strong enchantment led us on
          514By rocks and pools, shut out from every star
          515All the green summer, to forlorn cascades
          516Among the windings of the mountain brooks.
          517--Unfading recollections! at this hour
          518The heart is almost mine with which I felt
          519From some hill-top, on sunny afternoons
          520The Kite high up among the fleecy clouds
          521Pull at its rein, like an impatient Courser,
          522Or, from the meadows sent on gusty days,
          523Beheld her breast the wind, then suddenly
          524Dash'd headlong; and rejected by the storm.

          525     Ye lowly Cottages in which we dwelt,
          526A ministration of your own was yours,
          527A sanctity, a safeguard, and a love!
          528Can I forget you, being as ye were
          529So beautiful among the pleasant fields
          530In which ye stood? Or can I here forget
          531The plain and seemly countenance with which
          532Ye dealt out your plain comforts? Yet had ye
          533Delights and exultations of your own.
          534Eager and never weary we pursued
          535Our home amusements by the warm peat-fire
          536At evening; when with pencil and with slate,
          537In square divisions parcell'd out, and all
          538With crosses and with cyphers scribbled o'er,
          539We schemed and puzzled, head opposed to head
          540In strife too humble to be named in Verse.
          541Or round the naked table, snow-white deal,
          542Cherry or maple, sate in close array,
          543And to the combat, Lu or Whist, led on
          544thick-ribbed Army; not as in the world
          545Neglected and ungratefully thrown by
          546Even for the very service they had wrought,
          547But husbanded through many a long campaign.
          548Uncouth assemblage was it, where no few
          549Had changed their functions, some, plebeian cards,
          550Which Fate beyond the promise of their birth
          551Had glorified, and call'd to represent
          552The persons of departed Potentates.
          553Oh! with what echoes on the Board they fell!
          554Ironic Diamonds, Clubs, Hearts, Diamonds, Spades,
          555A congregation piteously akin.
          556Cheap matter did they give to boyish wit,
          557Those sooty knaves, precipitated down
          558With scoffs and taunts, like Vulcan out of Heaven,
          559The paramount Ace, a moon in her eclipse,
          560Queens, gleaming through their splendour's last decay,
          561And Monarchs, surly at the wrongs sustain'd
          562By royal visages. Meanwhile, abroad
          563The heavy rain was falling, or the frost
          564Raged bitterly, with keen and silent tooth,
          565And, interrupting oft the impassion'd game,
          566From Esthwaite's neighbouring Lake the splitting ice,
          567While it sank down towards the water, sent,
          568Among the meadows and the hills, its long
          569And dismal yellings, like the noise of wolves
          570When they are howling round the Bothnic Main.

          571     Nor, sedulous as I have been to trace
          572How Nature by extrinsic passion first
          573Peopled my mind with beauteous forms or grand,
          574And made me love them, may I well forget
          575How other pleasures have been mine, and joys
          576Of subtler origin; how I have felt,
          577Not seldom, even in that tempestuous time,
          578Those hallow'd and pure motions of the sense
          579Which seem, in their simplicity, to own
          580An intellectual charm, that calm delight
          581Which, if I err not, surely must belong
          582To those first-born affinities that fit
          583Our new existence to existing things,
          584And, in our dawn of being, constitute
          585The bond of union betwixt life and joy.

          586     Yes, I remember, when the changeful earth,
          587And twice five seasons on my mind had stamp'd
          588The faces of the moving year, even then,
          589A Child, I held unconscious intercourse
          590With the eternal Beauty, drinking in
          591A pure organic pleasure from the lines
          592Of curling mist, or from the level plain
          593Of waters colour'd by the steady clouds.

          594     The Sands of Westmoreland, the Creeks and Bays
          595Of Cumbria's rocky limits, they can tell
          596How when the Sea threw off his evening shade
          597And to the Shepherd's huts beneath the crags
          598Did send sweet notice of the rising moon,
          599How I have stood, to fancies such as these,
          600Engrafted in the tenderness of thought,
          601A stranger, linking with the spectacle
          602No conscious memory of a kindred sight,
          603And bringing with me no peculiar sense
          604Of quietness or peace, yet I have stood,
          605Even while mine eye has mov'd o'er three long leagues
          606Of shining water, gathering, as it seem'd,
          607Through every hair-breadth of that field of light,
          608New pleasure, like a bee among the flowers.

          609     Thus, often in those fits of vulgar joy
          610Which, through all seasons, on a child's pursuits
          611Are prompt attendants, 'mid that giddy bliss
          612Which, like a tempest, works along the blood
          613And is forgotten; even then I felt
          614Gleams like the flashing of a shield; the earth
          615And common face of Nature spake to me
          616Rememberable things; sometimes, 'tis true,
          617By chance collisions and quaint accidents
          618Like those ill-sorted unions, work suppos'd
          619Of evil-minded fairies, yet not vain
          620Nor profitless, if haply they impress'd
          621Collateral objects and appearances,
          622Albeit lifeless then, and doom'd to sleep
          623Until maturer seasons call'd them forth
          624To impregnate and to elevate the mind.
          625--And if the vulgar joy by its own weight
          626Wearied itself out of the memory,
          627The scenes which were a witness of that joy
          628Remained, in their substantial lineaments
          629Depicted on the brain, and to the eye
          630Were visible, a daily sight; and thus
          631By the impressive discipline of fear,
          632By pleasure and repeated happiness,
          633So frequently repeated, and by force
          634Of obscure feelings representative
          635Of joys that were forgotten, these same scenes,
          636So beauteous and majestic in themselves,
          637Though yet the day was distant, did at length
          638Become habitually dear, and all
          639Their hues and forms were by invisible links
          640Allied to the affections.

          640                                     I began
          641My story early, feeling as I fear,
          642The weakness of a human love, for days
          643Disown'd by memory, ere the birth of spring
          644Planting my snowdrops among winter snows.
          645Nor will it seem to thee, my Friend! so prompt
          646In sympathy, that I have lengthen'd out,
          647With fond and feeble tongue, a tedious tale.
          648Meanwhile, my hope has been that I might fetch
          649Invigorating thoughts from former years,
          650Might fix the wavering balance of my wind,
          651And haply meet reproaches, too, whose power
          652May spur me on, in manhood now mature,
          653To honorable toil. Yet should these hopes
          654Be vain, and thus should neither I be taught
          655To understand myself, nor thou to know
          656With better knowledge how the heart was fram'd
          657Of him thou lovest, need I dread from thee
          658Harsh judgments, if I am so loth to quit
          659Those recollected hours that have the charm
          660Of visionary things, and lovely forms
          661And sweet sensations that throw back our life
          662And almost make our Infancy itself
          663A visible scene, on which the sun is shining?

          664     One end hereby at least hath been attain'd,
          665My mind hath been revived, and if this mood
          666Desert me not, I will forthwith bring down,
          667Through later years, the story of my life.
          668The road lies plain before me; 'tis a theme
          669Single and of determined bounds; and hence
          670I chuse it rather at this time, than work
          671Of ampler or more varied argument.

Notes

271] The Prelude was first published in 1850, shortly after the poet's death. It had been completed in 1805, though revised on three occasions afterwards. It was composed to accompany and form part of a more extensive and ambitious work, The Recluse, which was never finished. The Prelude remained without a title until the poet's widow named it, shortly before publication. Wordsworth had referred to it as "the poem on my life" or "the poem to Coleridge." The earliest passages in the poem go back to the beginning of 1798; the earliest and briefest version of the poem was completed, in two parts, in 1799-1800. This earliest version, in its extent, general subject, and to a considerable degree in its episodes and phrasing, corresponds to the part of The Prelude printed here. The text used is that of the poem as first finished in its longest form in 1805. Selections are reprinted here by the permission of The Clarendon Press, Oxford.
Was it for this, etc. In all early manuscripts (1798-1800), the poem begins in this way, the broken line and the initial phrase implying a preceding passage and a known meaning for this. The earliest surviving manuscript for what is now the first 270 lines of the poem belongs to 1804.

278] my 'sweet Birthplace': Cockermouth, in Cumberland. The quotation is from Coleridge's Frost at Midnight composed early in 1798. Wordsworth, writing towards the end of the same year, associates his own memories of childhood with those recorded by his friend.

298] grunsel: groundsel, a common European weed.

299] Skiddaw: a mountain about ten miles east of Cockermouth.

308] That beloved Vale: the vale of Esthwaite with its village of Hawkshead where Wordsworth attended the Grammar School, 1779-87.

317] springes: snares.

385] struck: pulled on the oars; cf. stroke, a single pull on the oars.

425] H. W. Garrod suggested that there should be a comma at the end of the line to make the true meaning clear.

428-89] First published in Coleridge's periodical, The Friend, Dec. 28, 1809, and then in Poems, 1815.

452-89] Dorothy Wordsworth quoted this passage, as recently composed, in a letter to Coleridge on Dec. 21 (?), 1798.

525] Ye lowly Cottages, etc. The students at Hawkshead Grammar School lodged and boarded with the villagers. Wordsworth and his brothers lived in the cottage of a widow, Ann Tyson, in the near-by hamlet of Colthouse.

541-62] Wordsworth plainly had in mind the famous game of cards in The Rape of the Lock; "plebeian cards" (549) echoes a phrase in Pope's poem (III, 54).

645] my Friend: Coleridge, to whom The Prelude was addressed.

652-53] The Prelude was to be preliminary to a more ambitious work, The Recluse.

664-71] These lines were composed early in 1804, at least four years after the preceding passage.


Online text copyright © 2003, Ian Lancashire for the Department of English, University of Toronto.
Published by the Web Development Group, Information Technology Services, University of Toronto Libraries.

Original text: William Wordsworth, The Prelude (1805). The Prelude: or, Growth of a Poet's Mind (Text of 1805), ed. Ernest De Selincourt (London: Oxford University Press, 1933). PR 5864 A12 D (University College Library, Toronto).
First publication date: 1805
RPO poem editor: J. R. MacGillivray
RP edition: 3RP 2.336.
Recent editing: 2:2002/3/20

Composition date: 1798 - 1800
Rhyme: unrhyming


Other poems by William Wordsworth