Wordsworth’s 1805 Prelude, Book 9: “I saw the revolutionary power toss like a ship at anchor”


Excerpts from Book 9 of Wordsworth’s 1805 Prelude, where he begins his story of being in France during the Revolution. Other excerpts are here.


’Tis mine to tread
The humbler province of plain history,
And, without choice of circumstance, submissively
Relate what I have heard.

Book 9, 642-645

Oft then I said,
And not then only, “What a mockery this
Of history, the past and that to come!
Now do I feel how I have been deceived,
Reading of nations and their works in faith –
Faith given to vanity and emptiness –
Oh, laughter for the page that would reflect
To future times the face of what now is!”

Book 9, 170-177

As oftentimes a river, it might seem,
Yielding in part to old remembrances,
Part swayed by fear to treat an onward road
That leads direct to the devouring sea,
Turns and will measure back his course – far back,
Towards the very regions which he crossed
In his first outset – so have we long time
Made motions retrograde, in like pursuit
Detained. But now we start afresh: I feel
An impulse to precipitate my verse.
Fair greetings to this shapeless eagerness,
Whene’er it comes, needful in work so long,
Thrice needful to the argument which now
Awaits us – oh, how much unlike the past –
One which though bright the promise, will be found
Ere far we shall advance, ungenial, hard
To treat of, and forbidding in itself.

Book 9, 1-17

Through Paris lay my readiest path, and there
I sojourned a few days, and visited
In haste each spot of old and recent fame –
The latter chiefly – from the field of Mars
Down to the suburbs of St. Anthony,
And from Mont Martyr southward to the Dome
Of Geneviève. In both her clamorous halls,
The National Synod and the Jacobins,
I saw the revolutionary power
Toss like a ship at anchor, rocked by storms;
The Arcades I traversed in the Palace huge
Of Orleans, coasted round and round the line
Of tavern, brothel, gaming-house, and shop,
Great rendezvous of worst and best, the walk
Of all who had a purpose, or had not;
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, ant-like swarms
Of builders and subverters, every face
That hope or apprehension could put on –
Joy, anger, and vexation, in the midst
Of gaiety and dissolute idleness.

Book 9, 40-62


Oh, sweet it is in academic groves –
Or such retirement, friend, as we have known
Among the mountains by our Rotha’s stream,
Greta, or Derwent, or some nameless rill –
To ruminated, with interchange of talk,
On rational liberty and hope in man,
Justice and peace. But far more sweet such toil
(Toil, I say, for it leads to thoughts abstruse)
If Nature then be standing on the brink
Of some great trials, and we hear the voice
Of one devoted, one whom circumstance
Hath called upon to embody his deep sense
In action, give it outwardly a shape,
And that of benediction to the world.
Then doubt is not, and truth is more than truth –
A hope it is and a desire, a creed
Of zeal by an authority divine
Sanctioned, of danger, difficulty, or death.

Book 9, 397-414