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…
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