Wordsworth’s 1805 Prelude, Book 12: “making verse deal boldly with substantial things”


Throughout the summer I hope to post my favorite bits from Wordworth’s 1805 Prelude. Book 12 continues his meditations in Book 11, which was titled “Imagination, How Impaired & Restored.” Other excerpts are here.


Such benefit may souls of humblest frame
Partake of, each in their degree; ’tis mine
To speak of what myself have known and felt –
Sweet task, for words find easy way, inspired
By gratitude and confidence in truth.
Long time in search of knowledge desperate,
I was benighted heart and mind, but now
On all sides day began to reappear,
And it was proved indeed that not in vain
I had been taught to reverence a power
That is the very quality and shape
And image of right reason, that matures
Her processes by steady laws, gives birth
To no impatient or fallacious hopes,
No heat of passion or excessive zeal,
No vain conceits, provokes to no quick turns
Of self-applauding intellect, but lifts
The being into magnanimity,
Holds up before the mind, intoxicate
With present objects and the busy dance
Of things that pass away, a temperate shew
Of objects that endure – and by this course
Disposes her, when over-fondly set
On leaving her incumbrances behind,
To seek in man, and in the frame of life
Social and individual, what there is
Desirable, affecting, good or fair,
Of kindred permanence, the gifts divine
And universal, the pervading grace
That hath been, is, and shall be. Above all
Did Nature bring again this wiser mood,
More deeply reestablished in my soul,
Which, seeing little worthy or sublime
In what we blazon with the pompous names
Of power and action, early tutored me
To look with feelings of fraternal love
Upon those unassuming things that hold
A silent station in this beauteous world.

Book 12, 15-51

With settling judgements now of what would last,
And what would disappear; prepared to find
Ambition, folly, madness, in the men
Who thrust themselves upon this passive world
As rulers of the world – to see in these
Even when public welfare is their aim
Plans without thought, or bottomed on false thought
And false philosophy; having brought to test
Of solid life and true result the books
Of modern statists, and thereby perceived
The utter hollowness of what we name
The wealth of nations, where alone that wealth
Is lodged, and how increased; and having gained
A more judicious knowledge of what makes
The dignity of individual man –
Of man, no composition of the thought,
Abstraction, shadow, image, but the man
Of whom we read, the man whom we behold
With our own eyes – I could not but inquire,
Not with less interest than heretofore,
But greater, though in spirit more subdued,
Why is this glorious creature to be found
One only in ten thousand? What one is,
Why may not many be? What bars are thrown
By Nature in the way of such a hope?

Book 12, 69-93

Oh, next to one dear state of bliss, vouchsafed
Alas to few in this untoward world,
The bliss of walking daily in life’s prime
Through field or forest with the maid we love
While yet our hearts are young, while yet we breathe
Nothing but happiness, living in some place,
Deep vale, or anywhere the home of both,
From which it would be misery to stir –
Oh, next to such enjoyment of our youth,
In my esteem next to such dear delight,
Was that of wandering on from day to day
Where I could meditate in peace, and find
The knowledge which I love, and teach the sound
Of poet’s music to strange fields and groves,
Converse with me, where if we meet a face
We almost meet a friend, or naked moors
With long, long ways before, by cottage bench,
Or well-spring where the weary traveller rests.

I love a public road: few sights there are
That please me more – such object hath had power
O’er my imagination since the dawn
Of childhood, when its disappearing line
Seen daily afar off, on one bare steep
Beyond the limits which my feet had trod,
Was like a guide into eternity,
At least to things unknown and without bound.
Even something of the grandeur which invests
The mariner who sails the roaring sea
Through storm and darkness, early in my mind
Surrounded too the wanderers of the earth –
Grandeur as much, and loveliness far more.
Awed have I been by strolling bedlamites;
From many other uncouth vagrants, passed
In fear, have walked with quicker step – but why
Take note of this? When I began to inquire,
To watch and question those I met, and held
Familiar talk with them, the lonely roads
Were schools to me in which I daily read
With most delight the passions of mankind,
There saw into the depth of human souls –
Souls that appear to have no depth at all
To vulgar eyes. And now, convinced at heart
How little that to which alone we give
The name of education hath to do
With real feeling and just sense, how vain
A correspondence with the talking world
Proves to the most – and called to make good search
If man’s estate, by doom of Nature yoked
With toil, is therefore yoked with ignorance,
If virtue be indeed so hard to rear,
And intellectual strength so rare a boon –
I prized such walks still more; for there I found
Hope to my hope, and healing and repose
To every angry passion. There I heard,
From mouths of lowly men and of obscure,
A tale of honour – sounds in unison
With loftiest promise of good and fair.

There are those who think that strong affections, love
Known by whatever name, is falsely deemed
A gift (to use a term which they would use)
Of vulgar Nature – that its growth requires
Retirement, leisure, language purified
By manners thoughtful and elaborate –
That whoso feels such passion in excess
Must live within the very light and air
Of elegances that are made by man.
True is it, where oppression worse than death
Salutes the being at his birth, where grace
Of culture hath been utterly unknown,
And labour in excess and poverty
From day to day pre-occupy the ground
Of the affections, and to Nature’s self
Oppose a deeper nature – there indeed
Love cannot be; nor does it easily thrive
In cities, where the human heart is sick,
And the eye feeds it not, and cannot feed:
Thus far, no further, is that inference good.

Yes, in those wanderings deeply did I feel
How we mislead each other, above all
How books mislead us – looking for their fame
To judgements of the wealthy few, who see
By artificial lights – how they debase
The many for the pleasure of those few,
Effeminately level down the truth
To certain general notions for the sake
Of being understood at once, or else
Through want of better knowledge in the men
Who frame them, flattering thus our self-conceit
With pictures that ambitiously set forth
The differences, the outside marks by which
Society has parted man from man,
Neglectful of the universal heart.

Here calling up to mind what then I saw
A youthful traveller, and see daily now
Before me in my rural neighborhood –
Here might I pause, and bend in reverence
To Nature, and the power of human minds,
To men as they are men within themselves.
How oft high service is performed within
When all the external man is rude and shew,
Not like a temple rich with pomp and gold,
But a mere mountain-chapel such as shields
Its simple worshippers from sun and shower.
“Of these,” said I, “shall be my song. Of these,
If future years mature me for the task,
Will I record the praises, making verse
Deal boldly with substantial things – in truth
And sanctity of passion speak of these,
That justice may be done, obeisance paid
Where it is due. Thus haply shall I teach,
Inspire, through unadulterated ears
Pour rapture, tenderness, and hope, my theme
No other than the very heart of man
As found among the best of those who live
Not unexalted by religious faith,
Not uninformed by books (good books, though few),
In Nature’s presence – thence may I select
Sorrow that is not sorrow but delight,
And miserable love that is not pain
To hear of, for the glory that redounds
Therefrom to human-kind and what we are.
Be mine to follow with no timid step
Where knowledge leads me: it shall be my pride
That I have dared to tread this holy ground,
Speaking no dream but things oracular,
Matter not lightly to be heard by those
Who to the letter of the outward promise
Do read the invisible soul, by men adroit
In speech and for communion with the world
Accomplished, minds whose faculties are then
Most active when they are most eloquent,
And elevated most when most admired.
Men may be found of other mold than these,
Who are their own upholders, to themselves
Encouragement, and energy, and will,
Expressing liveliest thoughts in lively words
As native passion dictates. Others, too,
There are among the walks of homely life
Still higher, men for contemplation framed,
Shy, and unpractised in the strife of phrase,
Meek men, whose very souls perhaps would sink
Beneath them, summoned to such intercourse:
Theirs is the language of the heavens, the power,
The thought, the image, and the silent joy;
Words are but under-agents in their souls –
When they are grasping with their greatest strength
They do not breathe among them. This I speak
In gratitude to God, who feeds our hearts
For his own service, knoweth, loveth us,
When we are unregarded by the world.”

Book 12, 126-277