William Wordsworth; portrait by Benjamin Haydon, 1842

National Portrait Gallery, London/Bridgeman Images

William Wordsworth; portrait by Benjamin Haydon, 1842

Wordsworth’s The Prelude—a meditative poem on the growth of the poet’s mind—is a unique document of modern consciousness in its constant mobility—of times, thoughts, feelings, prospect, and retrospect. The mode of other treatments of consciousness—expository essays on philosophy, political theory, psychology, and morals—is essentially one of formulated assertion (even if concealed by Socratic dialogue or Platonic myth). And although consciousness is represented in the characters of epic, drama, and the novel, those genres are primarily understood by readers with respect to plot and character, not as experiments in language (unless, like Tristram Shandy, they play so extravagantly with language that it demands primary notice).

Strangely, consciousness as it is revealed in ambitious lyric poetry has been ignored by humanities courses that assign those other genres. Lyric has been implicitly dismissed as a genre containing no “ideas.” Allen Tate once remarked of Keats’s “To Autumn” that the poem “is a very nearly perfect piece of style but it has little to say.” There could hardly be a more mistaken view.

In truth, what a meditative poem contributes to the history of consciousness is a reenactment in real time of the volatile inner life of a human being. Such a poem does not present itself as plot or character portrayal or argument, but rather (in I.A. Richards’s theory) as a hypothesis: “Suppose we see it like this.” The poet’s proposed hypotheses change “minute by minute” (Yeats), and include waverings, self-contradictions, repudiations, aspirations, and doubts; they are not offered as a philosophical system. They actively perform the “mobile and immobile flickering”* generated by the incessant cooperation of the senses, the mind, and the heart. The history of consciousness must include those perplexingly simultaneous organic responses as episodes in thought no less significant than episodes of system-making or of scientific discovery.

William Wordsworth (1770–1850) was rebelliously aware that the artificial isolation from one another of perception, thought, and passion—however necessary in philosophy, psychology, and the natural sciences—is unnatural in the art of lyric poets, who wish to display “the whole man, revolting and desiring” (J.B. Yeats), not in social interaction (the domain of plays and novels) but rather in his interior agitations.

The Prelude—a revelatory rendition of interior consciousness over time—is not a tranquil history; rather, it is a spectacular and troubled one. It centers on a single mistake by an idealistic young man, and traces the consequences of that misapprehension. Orphaned by thirteen, Wordsworth grew up in rustic northern England and was educated at Cambridge; then, in an idealistic surge of hope, he was radicalized by the French Revolution. Seeing—while he traveled in France—an apparently liberated people, he forsook his earlier solitude (whether in nature or in books) for a plunge into sympathy with Revolutionary thought. When the Revolution became the Terror, he was appalled by the executions and massacres in France and, without family support, had to quit France, leaving behind a young Frenchwoman, Annette Vallon, and their daughter Caroline.

When France declared war on England, the poet became grievously alienated in his own country. Unable to endorse his childhood Christianity, but equally unable to approve the eventual morals of the Revolution, he underwent a crisis of consciousness that divided his life in two—the serener phase of his pre-Revolutionary confidence and the catastrophic phase of his post-Revolutionary despair.

In exploring the causes and consequences of that crisis, and explaining its acute influence on his growth as a poet, Wordsworth began the history of his consciousness with childhood, tracking the fragmentary episodes that influenced his mind from infancy to manhood in order to understand how his psyche was formed, consolidated, shaken, and re-formed. He marveled that all his past feelings and thoughts, however distressing, became synthesized in the adult self; how strange it is

                    that all
The terrors, all the early miseries,
Regrets, vexations, lassitudes, that all
The thoughts and feelings which have been infused
Into my mind should ever have made up
The calm existence that is mine when I
Am worthy of myself. Praise to the end!

The Prelude acts out in words the tumult attending those terrors, miseries, regrets, vexations, and lassitudes, as it successively stages the “thoughts and feelings” to which they give rise.

Because The Prelude is a poem thoroughly English in landscape, history, and political controversy, it has been immediately recognizable to its English readers. The case is different for Americans: the landscape is foreign, the history unknown or forgotten, and the author’s political responses intricate in both substance and style. It was therefore with startled joy that I encountered the glorious new edition of The Prelude by my Harvard colleague James Engell, working in collaboration with the independent scholar Michael D. Raymond (who sought out the invaluable illustrations). Handsomely produced by David Godine in a broad horizontal format (twelve by nine and a half inches), the volume is illustrated on almost every other page by paintings or drawings contemporaneous with the poem itself.


These offer to the American reader’s eye an array of scenes indispensable to an understanding of Wordsworth’s world—lakes, crags, nocturnes, ships at sea, the Alps, Stonehenge, Revolutionary France, Cambridge, London. At last—with Engell’s eloquent and succinct introduction, helpful marginal glosses, notes, a chronology, and maps—American readers and students have a Prelude of their own. Wordsworth’s momentous—and surpassingly expressive—document belongs in any account of the evolution of modern secular consciousness in all its frailty, its tenacity, its bitter self-reproach, its existential doubt, its exaltation, and its stern accommodation to the vicissitudes of life.

With immense courage and a corresponding audacity of language, Wordsworth exhibits the difficult complexity of his thoughts, feelings, and sense responses as they evolve over more than thirty years, trusting that others may find that his stages of life resemble their own. His most daring move in The Prelude is to represent the confusions, as well as the conclusions, of consciousness. The most enigmatic brief account of those confusions appears in his famous “Ode: Intimations of Immortality,” as he declares that he is most grateful not for his childhood joys, real though they were, but rather for unaccountable “intimations” that at the time he felt but could not understand. He chiefly gives thanks not for the “delight and liberty” of childhood,

    But for those obstinate
    Of sense and outward things,
    Fallings from us, vanishings;
    Blank misgivings of a
Moving about in worlds not realized,
High instincts before which our mortal Nature
Did tremble like a guilty thing surprised.

When I was young, I was baffled by this sequence of obscure plural nouns and by their uneasy rhythm: What “obstinate questionings”? Which “outward things”? What sorts of “fallings from us”? What “vanishings”? What “misgivings”? I came to realize that in letting these mysterious abstractions stream out unchecked, Wordsworth uncannily transmits the bewildered stirrings of the child’s nascent consciousness. He was raising such questions as: What did I used to have that I now lack? What has vanished, leaving me at a loss? What causes these vague blank misgivings? What is making me feel that the real world is elsewhere? Why do I feel guilty when I have not done anything wrong? These are the first unsettled and unsettling motions of the young child’s introspection—undeniable, but as yet without clarity. These are the motions which, as they mature, prompt inquiry, reminiscence, moral questioning, self-reproach—all that will help to “realize” in words an individual temperament and its relations to others. At this point in the ode, the hazy concepts are not permitted further articulation precisely because the child has as yet no words with which to formulate his inchoate consciousness. (The enigmas are illuminated in the rest of the poem: the child feeds so intensely on the external world that it gradually comes to symbolize his entire interior mentality, till world and mind seem “exquisitely fitted” to each other.)

Although Wordsworth, in France, was radicalized by the ideals of the French Revolution, the subsequent Terror destroyed his confidence in human improvement. No episode in The Prelude more urgently calls upon the poet to find words for a mind in chaos, when the “fit” of mind to world disintegrates, than the recounting of his responses to the destruction of his early enthusiasm, when “Europe was rejoiced/France standing on the top of golden hours,/And human nature seeming born again.” Narrating the Terror’s ruin of his political hopes, the young genius, so proud hitherto of his rebellious intelligence, faced the intense intellectual task of inventing a language vivid and comprehensive enough to convey the breakdown of his nerves, thoughts, and feelings. The result was a hallucinatory analysis of his disturbed and despairing state, pointing frantically in every direction:

                    Thus I fared,
Dragging all passions, notions, shapes of faith
Like culprits to the bar, suspiciously
Calling the mind to establish in plain day
Her titles and her honours, now believing,
Now disbelieving, endlessly perplexed
With impulse, motive, right and wrong, the ground
Of moral obligation, what the rule
And what the sanction, till, demanding proof,
And seeking it in every thing, I lost
All feeling of conviction, and in fine
Sick, wearied out with contrarieties,
Yielded up moral questions in despair.

To transmit his torment at his former credulity, the poet had to find language to discriminate, in retrospect, one aspect of consciousness from another: How are “passions” different from “notions”? How do these two differ from “shapes of faith”? In what sense are these “culprits” worthy of punishment, and must their own worshiper now become their prosecutor at the bar? If “suspicious” of the mind, how can one force it to establish its “titles,” since the “Reason” of the Enlightenment has been betrayed by the Terror? And as for “the moral law,” can any such concept have standing among the nonreligious? And what of the mind’s “honours”? He echoes Hamlet’s dilemma: “What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason…. And yet to me, what is this quintessence of dust?”


As belief and disbelief oscillate in panicked alternation, the radicalized youth asks himself whether his actions issued from an emotional impulse, a logical motive, or a moral confusion of right and wrong. “Is there any ground of virtue? Was there a correct rule I was following, or, if not, what will be my punishment?” The strife of conceptual and emotional “contrarieties” devolves into a sickness of the soul. Doubting that he can be saved from his own collapse, he abandons all hope.

Wordsworth’s fine-grained, dramatic, and cinematic graphing of consciousness carries the reader into the plight of a passionate youth unable to see his moral way forward. Because of the invisibility of the flailing vacillations of human consciousness, the poetry seeking to render the inner life has to invent its own drama. In novels and plays, the characters of the plot are (fictive) human beings, but in poetry the characters of the action are the poet’s successive acts of original language—uttering a concession, a myth, a boast, a hope, a self-correction, an aspiration. And since Wordsworth writes in a recognizable personal idiom, his styles and structures, as they appear and vanish and reappear and change, are the “characters” of his fiction. They create the “plot” and drama of the verse.

The Prelude embodies its fascinated tracking of emotion in a seductive syntax, multiplying, as it goes, sensory, intellectual, and imaginative distinctions. When the poet stops an action in mid-flight and meditates on its import, the dramatic “characters” of his language accumulate in bizarre and visionary ways. In a famous episode the young poet, seeking out sublimity in the Alps and preparing himself to find it when he reaches the summit of the Simplon Pass, experiences a sharp disappointment when he is told that he has already crossed the Alps. Frustrated in his aesthetic desire for exaltation, he is unexpectedly granted it precisely in his chagrin. In the claustrophobic pass, a sudden revelation throws him back from immersion in Nature to immersion in his own mind, as he sees that the physical features of the scene, once internalized, become alive, speak and threaten, exert symbolic as well as material force:

      The immeasurable height
Of woods decaying, never to be decayed,
The stationary blasts of water-falls,
And every where along the hollow rent
Winds thwarting winds, bewildered and forlorn,
The torrents shooting from the clear blue sky,
The rocks that muttered close upon our ears,
Black drizzling crags that spake by the way-side
As if a voice were in them, the sick sight
And giddy prospect of the raving stream,
The unfettered clouds, and region of the Heavens,
Tumult and peace, the darkness and the light
Were all like workings of one mind, the features
Of the same face, blossoms upon one tree,
Characters of the great Apocalypse,
The types and symbols of Eternity,
Of first and last, and midst, and without end.

At such moments, the accurate rendition of consciousness must transmute incident into hallucination. Counting on gesture as well as words, the passage directs the eye now vertically, now horizontally, now left, now right; it directs the ear to hear surrealistically muttering rocks, speaking crags, and the blasts of waterfalls; it pierces to the emotions of a “sick sight” and a “giddy prospect.” It counts equally on sound to ratify not only the physical intimidation of phrases such as “black drizzling crags,” but also the peaceful antiphonal motions of “tumult and peace, the darkness and the light.”

John Constable: Stonehenge, 1835

Victoria and Albert Museum, London/Bridgeman Images

John Constable: Stonehenge, 1835

This moment of The Prelude, like other visually dramatic ones, is evocatively deepened for the American reader by the paintings accompanying the text: for the Simplon Pass, we see Turner’s sublime Glacier and Source of the Arveiron, Chamonix (hanging, like so many of the paintings in this edition, in the admirable Yale Center for British Art); and for the moment when Wordsworth sees “lines, circles, mounts, a mystery of shapes” we find Constable’s Stonehenge, a stormy panorama of the erect and fallen monoliths.

J.M.W. Turner: Glacier and Source of the Arveiron, Chamonix, 1803

Yale Center for British Art, New Haven

J.M.W. Turner: Glacier and Source of the Arveiron, Chamonix, 1803

The whole of the poem, abandoning the impersonal voice of classic epic, is cast as a sustained address to the poet’s intimate friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge. In a secularizing of religious practice, the adolescent poet finds his transforming vocation not in some temple but rather—in one of the consummate moments of the poem—after an evening of a dance accompanied by “slight shocks of young love-liking.” During his early walk homeward, the young man drinks in the unadorned magnificence of morning in an atmosphere “more glorious than I ever had beheld,” one that brings about a harmony of the grand phenomena of sea and sun and mountains, the agricultural landscape in “the sweetness of a common dawn,” intangible “dews” and “vapours,” birdsong, and finally the human focus—“Labourers going forth into the fields.” Wordsworth, besides being a poet of the sublime, is also a moving creator of the beautiful, gathering sense perceptions together to form a complex scene:

The Sea was laughing at a distance; all
The solid Mountains were as bright as clouds,
Grain-tinctured, drenched in empyrean light;
And, in the meadows and the lower grounds
Was all the sweetness of a common dawn,
Dews, vapours, and the melody of birds,
And Labourers going forth into the fields.

Remembering that unforgettable moment when he knew himself to be a poet, Wordsworth turns warmly to Coleridge, who will understand the power of a poetic vocation intuited rather than comprehended:

—Ah! need I say, dear Friend, that to the brim
My heart was full; I made no vows, but vows
Were then made for me; bond unknown to me
Was given, that I should be, else sinning greatly,
A dedicated Spirit. On I walked
In blessedness, which even yet remains.

As Wordsworth undergoes the painful journey from that “blessedness” through the racking torment of massacre and mistake, he finds himself no less attached to nature, but with a heart deepened by exposure to “the still, sad music of humanity” (“Tintern Abbey”). He had found a way to articulate his first visionary moments through the “spots of time”—like the one described in the Alps—that were moments of ratification of experience in a visual image. The poet resuscitated the childhood “spots of time” as tableaux—voiced in words the child would not then have possessed.

This eerie double exposure—as arrested “spots” fuse past and present into a single drama—is a paradigm of the process by which moments of consciousness integrate themselves into a continuous self. Although these “spots of time” have often been singled out as the greatest imaginative moments in The Prelude—not least for the verbal eternity of their arrested state—equally original are the poet’s transmissions of his interior quickenings and questionings. In closing his tribute to books, Wordsworth finds only in the winds and shadows of nature adequate symbols of the workings of the mind as they appear transfigured by the transparent veil of verse—transfigured, yet through that enhancement becoming for the first time “recognizable”:

      Visionary power
Attends upon the motions of the winds
Embodied in the mystery of words.
There darkness makes abode, and all the host
Of shadowy things do work their changes there,
As in a mansion like their proper home:
Even forms and substances are circumfused
By that transparent veil with light divine,
And through the turnings intricate of Verse
Present themselves as objects recognised,
In flashes, and with a glory scarce their own.

Wordsworth closes The Prelude with a tribute to human creative power. Poetry teaches how the mind of man becomes—and he reaches for an unexpected superlative—“a thousand times more beautiful” than the earth itself. Not only is the mind more beautiful, but its beauty, spiritual and material, rises to the divine:

What we have loved
Others will love; and we may teach them how,
Instruct them how the mind of Man becomes
A thousand times more beautiful than the earth
On which he dwells, above this Frame of things
(Which ’mid all revolution in the hopes
And fears of Men doth still remain unchanged)
In beauty exalted, as it is itself
Of substance and of fabric more divine.

The soul is renamed the mind, supporting the material “fabric” of the body. And that mind is “more divine” than the earth itself. Replacing an external divinity with an internal one, Wordsworth transforms human beings into the questing heroes of their own story.

Systems are dull in their reduction of the mind’s protean motions to philosophic categories—the intellect, the will, the senses: only poetry can adapt its musicality to the polyphonic strands of human response. Although Wordsworth kept The Prelude—his greatest work—from publication during his lifetime, since its posthumous publication in 1850 it has risen in esteem and weathered criticism, but it has been honored more for its repeated homage to nature than for its unprecedented minute sensitivity to the fluctuations of consciousness. Within it, Wordsworth shows human consciousness engaging in constant approximations of occurrences resistant to formulation, creating a continuum of penetrating emotional analysis.

The poem could be called a manual of introspection, derived from a stringent practice of honesty and enunciated in a dazzling fluidity of language. Yes, it is a fictive reconstruction of “the growth of the poet’s mind” (Coleridge’s description), shaped for aesthetic ends by its own laws of symmetry and drama, but it is also one of the great manifestos of modern consciousness, still shocking in its bravery. In “Home at Grasmere,” intended as a preface to The Prelude, Wordsworth laid out his claim:

          Not Chaos, not
The darkest pit of lowest Erebus,
Nor aught of blinder vacancy, scooped out
By help of dreams, can breed such fear and awe
As fall upon us often when we look
Into our Minds, into the Mind of Man,—
My haunt, and the main region of my song.

He mapped the region that we still inhabit, inventing an acute psychology of mind not yet replaced in discourse, not yet surpassed in verse.