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The Prelude and the French Revolution

French Revolution

The poster was designed by Carolyn Soule for George's talk at Carleton College.

The Prelude and the French Revolution

by George Soule

A revised version of a talk first given at the Wordsworth Winter School, Grasmere, Cumbria, on February 8, 2003, and given again at the Lawrence McKinley Gould Library’s Atheneum at Carleton College, Northfield, Minnesota, on April 13, 2004. This talk was published in the Charles Lamb Bulletin, January, 2005


Years ago, the literature I read in my high school textbooks was always accompanied by pictures of the authors. I was haunted by the faces of such men as Alfred, Lord Tennyson and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who not only had triple-barreled names, but were old men with wonderful full beards cascading down their chests. Only much later I discovered a picture of the young Tennyson, the poet who wrote the poems I loved, looking as full of zest as did the young Ted Hughes in a superb picture on a recent TLS cover. I first knew D. H. Lawrence as a cadaverous, tubercular, prematurely-aged man squinting under an Arizona sun. Only later I found a photo from about the time of Sons and Lovers—he was young, good-looking, smiling, happy, even jaunty.

So it is with Wordsworth. My first impression of him came from the fine Haydon portrait showing the poet at age 72. I soon found several more youthful pictures. The finest, also by Haydon, shows him at 48: a handsome, wiry, strong middle-aged man--not aged, but not young either. We are concerned today with the Wordsworth who wrote The Prelude. Perhaps the best early portrait was drawn about this time by Henry Edridge. This shows a more mature man: confident, unsmiling but not somber—serious rather, and calm, even resolute.

I dwell on portraits because if we are to think about Wordsworth, The Prelude, and the French Revolution, we must visualize, not an old man or even as a weathered middle-aged man, but the poet Wordsworth of 1804, a youngish man, moving into his 34th year. Even though Duncan Wu may be right that at this time Wordsworth felt doubts about his success as a poet,[1] 1804 was in many ways a good year, an annus mirabilis for Wordsworth himself. It began well, with a climb to high above Grasmere where he read to Coleridge “the second part of his divine Self-Biography,”[2] that is, Book Two of the 1798 Prelude. Coleridge left for the Mediterranean on January 14, 1804, and his departure brought on a remarkable burst of poetic activity on Wordsworth’s part, writing most of the Intimations Ode and a number of short poems, but especially working on his autobiographical poem. By March, he had expanded the 1798 Prelude by almost two thousand lines and divided those into five books. Then, deciding to expand these even further, he wrote over four thousand more lines of what would eventually become Books VI-X of the 1805 Prelude.[3]

Personally 1804 must have been a happy year. He parted from his closest friend on moderately happy terms. He was newly married and had an infant son. His wife Mary and sister Dorothy provided him with enviable love and support. His daughter Dora, on whom he was to dote all his life, was born. Dove Cottage was full, but not too full. The summer brought many visits to friends and relatives. Money from his father’s estate was beginning to be paid. His brother John was about to embark on a voyage to make them all rich. The Wordsworth we deal with today was, I would have to think, a happy man.

On New Year’s Day, 1805, one blow struck: on a drive over Kirkstone pass, Wordsworth eyes became inflamed—the beginning of a malady that plagued him seriously for the rest of his life. (If the later Wordsworth seems prematurely old, my theory is that his eyes had a lot to do with it.) Then the blow that most of Wordsworth’s readers know about: the drowning of his brother John in February. Wordsworth recovered well enough to finish the 1805 Prelude by May.

That, in short, is the biographical context for the books of The Prelude that deal with The French Revolution. In reading them, we need to envision the author as a confident, calm, youngish-looking 34-year-old man in happy and settled circumstances. I’ll call him Wordsworth B, for we must distinguish him from Wordsworth A, the much younger man who, when he was 20, 21, and 22, made two trips to France. (I ignore the possible third trip, for he did not write about it.[4]) A problem: there are no portraits of Wordsworth A. So I must ask older members of the audience to try very seriously to remember what you looked like at 20, and then imagine the young Wordsworth: naïve, slim, serious yet perhaps smiling, detached--a student, not yet an adult.

Now we must first consider The Prelude as a narrative. First what does it tell us about its central character Wordsworth A, what he did and what he thought? Second, what does the narrator Wordsworth B, the same man but older, think about all this? (Many narratives make it hard to distinguish between the ideas of the principal character and those of the narrator. When this confusion happens in Jane Austen’s Emma, we credit Emma with being smart enough to share her creator’s opinions. Likewise, I think we must assume that Wordsworth A understood what happened unless Wordsworth B tells us differently.

The Prelude relates to the French Revolution because it tells us what happened when one young Englishman, Wordsworth A, encountered it. Wordsworth A was a Cambridge man, but not one heavily involved in university life. In fact, he was proud that he had detached himself from academic competition. In the summer of his third year, he decided to break out of his usual habits and journey to the sublime Alps—very much the destination of young imaginative men of the age (like young people making a pilgtimage to San Francisco in the summeer of 1966). The route he and a friend took landed them in Calais on July 13, 1790, the eve of the Fête de la Fédération in Paris and the first anniversary of the Fall of the Bastille. As they walked toward Switzerland, they came upon villagers celebrating the new regime. They were enthusiastically welcomed, especially since Britain was associated with Liberty since 1688. They enjoyed themselves. Wordsworth A (or at least Wordsworth B) understands the moment: “France [was] standing on the top of golden hours, / . . . human nature seeming born again” (VI 353-354). But the detachment he cultivated at college remains. In spite of their welcome, he and his friend were “A lonely pair / Of Englishmen” (VI, 391-392), not really part of the festivities. Their business was ahead of them, and they soon found Mount Blanc and crossed the Alps. On their way back to England, they encountered Brabant armies fighting for Liberty, but Wordsworth A “looked upon these things / As from a distance—heard, and saw, and felt, / Was touched but with no intimate concern . . .” (VI 694-696).

By Book IX, Wordsworth A has grown up somewhat. (Remember still that now in November, 1791, he is all of 21. Continue to picture this young man as young.) He was sent to provincial France to learn to speak the language better. To get to his destination, he had to go through Paris, and there he visited the sites of various Revolutionary events and found the people far different from the happy villagers of 1790. Wordsworth A found Paris a chaos of “worst and best” (IX 53), a mix of “Joy, anger, and vexation, in the midst / Of gaiety and dissolute idleness” (IX 61-62). Although he did pick up a stone from the rubble of the Bastille, he knew he pretended more emotions than he really felt.

This same detachment continued when he reached his destination, a city on the Loire. (The city is not specified, but we know Wordsworth B conflated what happened in Orleans and Blois.) Even though Wordsworth A read the pamphlets of the hour, he was (as he tells us) as indifferent as a hothouse flower would be to a storm outdoors. He was “without a vital interest” (IX 108). His detachment was aided by the company he at first kept: fashionable people who avoided any serious talk

But then Wordsworth A changed. He entered “a nosier world, and thus did soon / Become a patriot” (IX 124-125)—that is, a backer of the Revolution. Here is where the history of Wordsworth A becomes confusing—for good reasons. (For one thing, Wordsworth B did not want to tell the story of Wordsworth A’s love affair with a slightly older French woman, Annette Vallon, an affair that produced a child late in 1792.) Although he tells us he became a supporter of the Revolution, in the next passage he tells us that he began to spend his time with men from noble families who opposed the Revolution, many of whom joined the Austrian and Prussian armies ready to invade France. In my early readings of The Prelude I could not understand this inconsistency.

Here is how we can sort it out: after Wordsworth began to associate with the military men (and Annette), he was forced to give over the detachment which had from the beginning been his response to the Revolution (and to adult life in general). He slowly became engaged with the “nosier world” of current affairs. On one hand, his sympathy with the officers began to melt his detachment; on the other,so did the plight of young men leaving to fight in the Revolutionary French army. Annette must also have played a significant pert in involving the poet with Life.

More important than feeling, Wordsworth A began to think. Soon we hear about one particular officer, Michael Beaupuy, who offered him friendship as well as a way of making sense of the situation. Beaupuy was charismatic. He combined noble bearing and ancestry with revolutionary sympathies for the common people of France. He and Wordsworth talked a lot about what government should be like, about the natural nobility of humankind, and about the ideals of Freedom and Equality. This would seem to be how Wordsworth A became a patriot--that is to say, how he became an advocate of the cause of Liberty and Equality for the French people.

The two men also talked about how their ideals were soon to triumph. After seeing a “hunger-bitten girl” (IX 513), Beaupuy and Wordsworth “believed / Devoutly that a spirit was abroad / Which could not be withstood, that poverty / At least like this, would in a little time / Be found no more” (IX 520-524). What a world was about to be created! One memorable quotation (from a later section) sums up how Wordsworth felt:

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very heaven! (X 692-693)

Nobody who, especially when young, was ever stirred by social and political ideals can fail to recognize himself or herself in those lines. According to Wordsworth A, in 1792 these ideals were to be realized not in

Some secreted island, heaven knows where—
But in the very world which is the world
Of all of us, the place in which, in the end,
We find our happiness, or not at all. (X 724-727)

Just as he would do in the “Prospectus to The Recluse,” the young Wordsworth called for Paradise Now.[5]

Let me note a very important distinction, one which I also failed to grasp on my first readings: we must differentiate between advocating the ideals of the Revolution and approving the people in Paris who were running the country. Wordsworth A knew that even in 1792, before the Reign of Terror, “the best” did not rule the nation (IX 216-217). Wordsworth A could be a patriot and still be against the course the Revolution was taking.

In October, 1792, Wordsworth A had to return to England, leaving Annette and his unborn child behind (his money ran out). He stopped in Paris on his way home. Though he realized some terrible things had just happened (the king had been deposed in August and his Swiss guards massacred), Wordsworth A still hoped that the new regime would implement the ideals of the Revolution. But sometimes he doubted. He dreaded that “the earthquake is not satisfied at once” (X 74). He seemed to hear a voice (from Macbeth) “that cried/ To the whole city, “Sleep no more!” (X 76-77). At other times, he kept the faith. Tyranny, he thought, cannot last; it is always weak because “nothing hath a natural right to last / But equity and reason” (X 172-173).

He returned to England, but the French Revolution continued to concern him. He hoped things would get better. But when Britain joined the war against France in the summer of 1793, Wordsworth A suffered a severe shock, as he tells us the most severe shock of his life (X 233-35). Part of him wanted France to win: he rejoiced when British forces were defeated in a battle. Yet he was uncomfortable being at odds with the people of his native land. He became even more confused when Robespierre came to power in Paris and the Reign of Terror began--all that carnage in the name of Liberty! Wordsworth A was in misery, and began to try out different attitudes and evasions.

Then there was a ray of hope. In 1794, Wordsworth A visited the Lake District and had a very significant day, perhaps a “spot of time.” In the morning, his consciousness was raised when he visited the grave of William Taylor, the headmaster at Hawkeshead who had encouraged him. In the afternoon, as he walked along the familiar Leven sands, a traveler electrified him by saying that “Robespierre was dead”! Wordsworth A was overwhelmed by joy—not that the Revolution had been defeated, but because after the fall of the bloody Robespierre, the true ideals of the Revolution could be realized. “Come now, ye golden times” (X 542) he said to himself, “The mighty renovation would proceed” (X 555).

Note in passing that he felt even more exhilarated because years before, as reported in Book II, he had joyously galloped over the same sands. Wordsworth’s account of this exhilaration fits well into his idea of how the memory works. In an account of his childhood written before 1804, Wordsworth tells of finding a gibbet by the Penrith Beacon, a gibbet on which a murderer’s body had hung. Years later he visited the same spot with his wife-to-be and found the intensity of that experience was intensified by memories of the earlier one. In each case a later experience is intensified by an earlier experience that had happened in the same place—even though the earlier experience was very much different in content and in tone from the later one.

Back to 1794. If the Revolution would now be true to Revolutionary ideals, perhaps English institutions might change as well. But as events failed to fulfill Wordsworth A’s hopes, he became disillusioned and turned elsewhere for support—to the utopian, reason-based radicalism of William Godwin. When that “philosophy / That promised to abstract the hopes of man / Out of his feelings” (X 806-808)—when that too did not satisfy, Wordsworth A was left with destructive speculations that “set foot / On Nature’s holiest places” (X 877-878)—and despair. (Remember again that Wordsworth A was a young man. I’ve known students who were similarly cynical, and I seem to remember similar cynical attitudes when I was the age of Wordsworth A.

Thus ends my account of the relation of The Prelude to The French Revolution insofar as the poem tells about one young man who lived through part of it. It is interesting and moving. It is particularly valuable, I think, because it shows what the Revolution was like, not in an historian’s summary, but as it was lived through, day by day. How important this is Southey tells us years later: “Few persons but those who have lived in it, can conceive or comprehend . . . what the French Revolution was, nor what a visionary world seemed to open up upon those who were just entering it.”[6] As Wordsworth A says, the pages of history will not “reflect / To future times the face of what now is!” (IX 176-177). Wordsworth A’s story does give us the “face of what” it was like to live those actual days. As Wordsworth B puts it, he has been “tracing faithfully / The workings of a youthful mind, beneath / The breath of great events . . .” (X 942-944).


Now what about Wordsworth B, the narrator of Wordsworth A’s story? We know, because we have read the earlier books of The Prelude that he is an older version of the person who went to France. The narrator in fact tells us that, when he is writing Book VI, he has just turned 34. Passages toward the end of Book X point to dates later in 1804.

Wordsworth B is an intrusive narrator. Sometimes he hints at his judgments subtly, as when he smilingly belittles the young Wordsworth and his friend as they “sallied forth” (VI 340) or when he describes the Paris of 1791 as a “hubbub wild” (IX 56), echoing as the Norton editors point out, Milton’s description of Chaos. He suggests his reservations about Wordsworth A’s ideas when he summarizes that in 1790 “human nature [was] seeming to be born again” (VI 354, emphasis mine). Sometimes he looks ahead, as when he speculates on what might be the long-term effects of Wordsworth A’s idleness at Cambridge or when he notes meeting his future wife, or when he reports Beaupuy’s death. He expresses his disgust at the Pope’s crowning Napoleon late in 1804. Once he confesses he has forgot a name.

Usually Wordsworth B’s intrusions are variations on one idea: half-way through Book X he says: “juvenile errors are my theme” (X 637). What Wordsworth A called his virtuous guilt at not competing at Cambridge, Wordsworth B labels “cowardise,” “over-love / Of freedom” and “indolence” (VI 44-46). In Book IX, he explains what predisposed Wordsworth A to sympathize overmuch with the Revolution, though he remarks that he still agrees with one of Wordsworth A’s opinions. He is pained to record that Wordsworth A rejoiced at a British defeat, yet he is sometimes circumspect and “cryptic” (to use the Norton editors’ word: X 289n.) when English policy under Pitt is treated. [In 1804 Wordsworth B does not seem eager to elaborate his earlier subversive ideas.] Many of Wordsworth B’s intrusions underline Wordsworth A’s youth and his early detachment from the events of the Revolution. Even when he discusses Wordsworth A’s patriotism, he is careful to emphasize that the young man was not wrong in all respects: his ideals were worth holding, and Wordsworth B has continued to hold some of them in a different form.[7]

I’d like to emphasize that Wordsworth meant what he said, at that time and later. Despite what has been charged, the older poet was faithful to the ideals of Liberty and Equality held by the younger Wordsworth A. It was his insistence that the lowliest of human beings had inner lives of worth that provoked some of the negative responses to Lyrical Ballads and many years later brought on even nastier ones to The Excursion.

One other kind of intrusion needs to be mentioned. As he does earlier in The Prelude, Wordsworth B here addresses Coleridge as “friend” or “dear friend”--often, and at length. Now Coleridge is present throughout The Prelude as its implied audience, but when Wordsworth B uses the word friend, it is almost always the signal of a lengthy intrusion. Often these intrusions divert our interest from Wordsworth A, the poem’s ostensible subject, to Coleridge himself and Wordsworth B’s sincere and tender concern for him.[8] Book VI tells us that Coleridge has departed for “milder breezes” (VI 250) and presents an edited history of Coleridge’s unhappy youth. Wordsworth B wishes he could have been there to help. In Book X, written later in 1804, Wordsworth B locates Coleridge in Sicily and hopes his trip will be restorative.

Sometimes Coleridge is addressed to underscore an important point, as when Wordsworth B explains why Wordsworth A was not immediately enthusiastic about the Revolution. But usually these intrusions signal that Wordsworth B is about to reveal the most intimate details of Wordsworth B’s mental life--details that can only be told to a close friend or at least must, for rhetorical reasons, be presented as such. In Book VI, Wordsworth B tells Coleridge about how important Dorothy was to him after their reunion in 1787. He refers tenderly to his wife as well. In Book IX, he asks Coleridge to realize that Beaupuy was not only a thinker but a man of action-unlike those who did their speculating on the banks of the Rothay, the Greta, and the Derwent, far from any conflict. In Book X, with surprising intimacy Wordsworth B tells Coleridge how deeply wretched he became when he heard about the Reign of Terror and how these atrocities caused him to have bad dreams then and for years to come—“I speak bare truth, / As if to thee alone in private talk” (X 371-372). Wordsworth B’s devotion to Coleridge can be seen when he admits he can almost picture Coleridge with Dorothy, Mary, and himself in about 1787 and when he inaccurately says that Coleridge’s friendship helped him recover his mental health in 1795. (This misstatement was later removed from the manuscript of The Prelude by someone who has not yet appeared in my story: Wordsworth D—the older man who edited and revised the poem after 1805.[9] I’ll not mention him again, but his existence implies there is a Wordsworth C. I will introduce Wordsworth C shortly.)

Back to Wordsworth B—the narrator and judge of Wordsworth A’s youthful travels to France. His addresses to Coleridge (and his talk about his sister) may appear to be digressions from the story of Wordsworth A. How much more digressive Wordsworth B seems when he ends Book IX with 400 or so lines of the story of Vaudracour and Julia. This tale does illustrate the harsh life under the ancien regieme--but 400 lines? We know now that with this tale Wordsworth B was both acknowledging and covering up Wordsworth A’s affair with Annette Vallon. So Wordsworth B can be a bit devious. His concern to obfuscate may have caused our earlier confusion after we were told that Wordsworth A became a patriot.


Now to introduce Wordsworth C. (I promise no more Wordsworths today.) Wordsworth C lived in the same body as Wordsworth B in the same year, 1804. But whereas Wordsworth B was simply the narrator of and commentator on his younger life, Wordsworth C is a narrative poet writing a long poem that would include Books VI, IX, and X—and much more besides.

A narrator must worry about his ethos, the character he presents to his audience. Although Wordsworth C’s audience was in one sense Coleridge, it was also the reading public. From early on, certainly by 1804,[10] Wordsworth admitted the poem would be published someday; later on, he revised it for publication. So Wordsworth C the artist must think about the ethos he presents. What does this narrator seem to be like? He is believable: he certainly has the facts; years before, he was there and did that and thought that. The narrator is no fool: he realizes that Wordsworth A is a young man and makes many mistakes. The narrator is wise. He sometimes judges harshly and sometimes less so, yet he is always sympathetic.

Wordsworth C has a special task. He must convince the reader that he is not now the same person who twelve to fourteen years before did foolish things and was seduced into revolutionary enthusiasms. The passages in which Dorothy, Mary, and Coleridge are thanked for their support all help the narrator establish the fact that he is now a changed man—a wiser man than in his youth, a man to be trusted. Note too that Wordsworth C makes sure that his narrator does not seem jaded. He reassures us that, even though he is 34 years old, “the morning gladness [that I had back when I was 20] is not gone” (VI 63). This statement presents a very different view of aging than that which the poet gives in the Immortality Ode: “But yet I know, where’er I go, / That there hath past a glory from the earth” (17-18).[11] The Ode was finished at about the same time as the quite different passage in The Prelude was written. I do not wish to tax the poet with inconsistency. My point is that The Prelude passage had to say something quite different because The Prelude required a different sentiment to establish the ethos of its narrator.

The artistry of Wordsworth C is even more apparent when we ask why Books VI, IX, and X were written in the first place. (And Book VII, for that matter.) In 1799, Wordsworth wrote a two-part poem about himself, the theme of which was in the words of J. R. MacGillvray, “the awakening of the imagination.”[12] Wordsworth seems to have felt the poem was not truly finished and added material over the next few years.[13] After Coleridge left Grasmere in January, 1804, Wordsworth was moved to work on the poem again (perhaps because he and Coleridge realized it could be incorporated into the Recluse scheme).[14] By mid-March, he finished what we now call the “Five-Book Prelude,” in which the material of 1799 was rearranged and augmented. Although the “Five-Book Prelude” does not mention the French Revolution, its ending bears upon my topic. Its final book probably incorporated the newly-composed ascent of Snowdon in its climax.[15]

In mid-March, 1804, Wordsworth C decided to expand the Five-Book Prelude, and he spent the rest of 1804 (and a bit of 1805) doing just that. Why did he want to expand? The Norton editors suggest that Wordsworth did not want to work on the Recluse without Coleridge near at hand and that he wanted to incorporate more biographical material, in particular his journey in 1790 to France and the Alps, into his autobiographical poem.[16] But why exactly would he want to do that? Moreover, the editors do not speculate at all on why Wordsworth C wanted to write about his French trips—the material that has most to do with the French Revolution. (Or about London, for that matter.) I can’t believe that Wordsworth just wanted to rattle on.

To the question “why did he want to expand?” I answer that Wordsworth C, the narrative artist, realized that his experiences of the French revolution, both in 1790 and 1792, and also (I must emphasize) his despair after he returned to England—these were necessary for his poem for two reasons. First of all, as Mary Moorman said many years ago, they were needed to tell the full story of his development as a poet—and that is what his poem was about.[17] The years 1791-95 were tempestuous ones for Wordsworth. His enthusiasms and mental conflicts about France, his conversion to Godwinism and his subsequent despair were states through which he passed before being rescued by his sister’s love and by getting back to his roots in the countryside. He needed to tell the details of much of the story of these years or at least hint at them (like the affair with Annette Vallon) to round out the story of his mind’s development. (Perhaps even more would have been told if, as Kenneth Johnston suggests, John’s death had not caused the poet to hurry to a conclusion.[18])

The second reason Wordsworth wanted to expand was that the French Revolution material was necessary to give form to the poem itself. Let us look back. The 1799 poem was essentially cheerful. Duncan Wu argues that the Five-Book Prelude has a logic missing from the earlier one, recalling “the archetypal sequence of fall and redemption.”[19] Wordsworth, Wu tells us, found his fall in the “aimlessness of [his] undergraduate career” and in his seduction by “the mechanistic habits of the picturesque.”[20] Wu here disagrees with Jonathan Wordsworth, who earlier in The Borders of Vision had argued that, even though Wordsworth announced that his Cambridge experiences represented a descent from glory, they did not. Wordsworth fully understood Cambridge’s temptations, and he knows he did not yield to them. Likewise in his accounts of other experiences in Books IV and V of The Five-Book Prelude, he cannot convince his readers or himself that very much bad really happened. As a result, Jonathan says the conclusion of this work is at odds with its structure.[21]

Exactly. I agree with Jonathan, and I wish to elaborate and extend his argument. I’d guess that as Wordsworth C worked on his Five-Book Prelude in March, 1804, he realized that he had already written his triumphal conclusion, the Ascent of Snowdon passage. To get to that moment of renovation, he needed something to renovate. To get to salvation, he needed a fall. But his material for that fall in the Five-Book Prelude was not adequate.

Greater depth was necessary—and at hand. To this end, he (probably) first thought of an experience to add: the crossing of the Alps, in which terrible and inscrutable powers contended with themselves and with the tranquil heavens and led to a vision that subsumed them all. He also had his experiences in London, then in France, and then back in England which would show him participating in politics and in the “noisy” affairs of men, show him as an adult actor deeply involved in a fallen world. These experiences, I think he saw now, were not only essential to his development as a poet and a man, but they were essential to the structure of his poem.

We can see Wordsworth C constructing his poem at the opening of Book IX, where the poet tells us that his narrative course in Books VI, VII, and VIII has been like a river avoiding the not very welcoming “devouring sea” (IX 4) about to come. Now he will begin “afresh” to write a new part of his long work, of which the “argument” is “much unlike the past”—that is, unlike the stories of the poet’s growth. The new argument is “One which, though bright the promise, will be found / Ere far we shall advance, ungenial, hard / To treat of, and forbidding in itself.” (IX 9-17). Wordsworth C knew his Milton, and it easy to see a parallel here (and also in Book XI) with the invocations of Paradise Lost that announce a change of topic—and a deepening tone. A notable parallel is with Milton’s Book IX, which tells of mankind’s fall from innocence. In both poems, a Book IX brings in a deeper note, a very deep note, of human evil. Wordsworth C’s account of France shows a fallen world of confusion and bloodshed in which beauty is destroyed, children suffer, and the central character loses his innocence. (I suppose that makes Annette Vallon into Eve.) Placed about two-thirds of the way though the 1805 Prelude, Wordsworth’s account provides the new and darker notes necessary to go before the poem’s climax, the ascent of Snowdon passage, in order to give that passage the power it needs.

Elsewhere[22] I have called attention to another narrative pattern, one that resembles that of fall and redemption. We find Descents into Hell in many narratives, especially in The Excursion. Northrop Frye once said that such descents usually lay bare some ugly truths that an age is trying to avoid.[23] In The Prelude we do not exactly have a descent[24] (though much of the action of Books IX and X takes place near low-lying rivers, as opposed to more inspiring experiences on the Lake District fells, in the Alps, and on Snowdon). But we do have our poet shedding his detachment and getting emotionally involved with the affairs of men. He enters (descends to?) the ordinary world and discovers its conflicts and horrors.

An even greater horror in this case lies in what these conflicts do to his mind. And what they did to his mind and to the minds of others like him is exactly what Wordsworth thought his age failed to grasp. This was the concern that he emphasized to Coleridge: remember “I speak bare truth, / As if to thee alone in private talk” (X 371-372)? Over and over he laments that the best young men of his generation (I am reminded of Howl!) are being tortured by many conflicts—between their love of the ideal of the French Revolution and their knowledge of its horrors, between love of one’s native land and the policies of the British government—and by their reaction into Godwinism and destructive reasoning. The torture is magnified because most Britons are indifferent to their anguish. The sufferings of a young man of this sort make up one of Wordsworth’s central stories: we find it soon in The Borderers; it is implicit in “Tintern Abbey”; it was his concern years later in The Excursion. In this later poem, The Solitary suffers deeply and may or may not be on the road to recovery by the poem’s end. By the end of The Prelude, Wordsworth A fares better, much better.

So: before Wordsworth launched into the 1805 Prelude, he knew how it would end. He had already written the Snowdon passage and most of the rest of the ending. He had already experienced material which would provide the low point from which he would emerge. The structure of the poem was to be essentially comic, with the poet’s imagination triumphing at the end. The low point of Books IX and X corresponds to a similar low point in Paradise Lost before Adam and Eve begin their long journey toward what will be a happier future. Wordsworth’s situation in Books IX and X of The Prelude corresponds to Rosalind’s in Act IV of As You Like It, or to Tom Jones’s at the beginning of his last book, or for that matter to Lucky Jim’s a few pages before the end. These last characters are rewarded by finding their lovers. Wordsworth is rewarded by reclaiming his Imagination.

“The Prelude and the French Revolution” is my title. What does “and” exactly mean? I’d say that The Prelude shows that Wordsworth the man (Wordsworth A and even B) suffered because of the French Revolution. On the other hand, Wordsworth C, the artist, turned the tables. He took his memories and made the French Revolution an integral part of his story, of his poem.

[1] William Wordsworth, The Five-Book Prelude, ed. Duncan Wu. Oxford (Blackwell, 1997), 11.

[2] Juliet Barker, Wordsworth: A Life (London: Viking, 2000), 312.

[3] William Wordsworth, The Prelude: 1799, 1805, 1850, ed. Jonathan Wordsworth, M. H. Abrams, and Stephen Gill (New York: Norton, 1979). My calculations here and other similar observations elsewhere are based on this volume’s essay “The Texts: History and Presentation,” Pp. 510-526. All quotations from all texts of The Prelude are cited by book and line number from this edition. Quotations are from the 1805 Prelude unless otherwise specified.

[4] Kenneth R. Johnston, The Hidden Wordsworth: Poet, Lover, Rebel, Spy (New York: Norton, 1998), 358.

[5] Clarification: the poet in 1804 writes about what he thought in 1792; the “Prospectus” was probably written around 1798 or 1800, though not published until 1814.

[6] Letter of 1824 quoted in The New Penguin Book of Romantic Poetry, ed. Jonathan and Jessica Wordsworth (London: Penguin, 2001), xxv.

[7] Stephen Gill stresses that Wordsworth did not so much repudiate his earlier ideas as imply that his later ideas developed out of earlier ones. That Wordsworth’s attitude toward the government of France had changed is shown by the fact that he joined he local Volunteers to help repel any French invasion. William Wordsworth: A Life, 233-235.

[8] This comment is made in a slightly different context by Robert Woof, quoted by Duncan Wu in The Five-Book Prelude, 5.

[9] The Prelude, X 907n.

[10] Letter to De Quincey, March 6, 1804, The Prelude, 531.

[11] William Wordsworth, The Poems, ed. John O. Haydon (London: Penguin, 1977), I, 524.

[12] Cited in The Prelude, 512.

[13] The Prelude, “The Texts: History and Presentation,” 513, 516.

[14] Duncan Wu, Wordsworth: An Inner Life (Oxford: Blackwell, 2002.), 192.

[15] The Prelude, “The Texts: History and Presentation,” 516-517.
[16] The Prelude, “The Texts: History and Presentation,” 517.
[17] Moorman, Mary, William Wordsworth: The Later Years (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1965), 12. But Moorman is not very helpful on other reasons for these books. She gives us a poet who is “started off again” by seeing some birds (16) and who every once in awhile is unable to resist writing to Coleridge (16-17).
[18] Johnston, 813.
[19] The Five-Book Prelude, 6.
[20] The Five-Book Prelude, 6-7.
[21] Quoted by Wu, The Five-Book Prelude, 167-178.
[22] “’Spots of Earth” in The Excursion” in The Charles Lamb Bulletin, No. 85 New Series (January, 1994, 19-24; and “True and False Princesses in The Excursion” in The Wordsworth Circle, Vol. 26, No. 3 (Summer, 1995), 137-140.
[23] Northrop Frye, Words With Power (New York: Harcourt, 1990), 238-243.
[24] But see III 195-196.