Below, you’ll find a poem and analysis of Wordsworth’s ‘Prelude’, specifically the ‘Extract’ about boating – rowing out on a mountain lake.
What a strange poem! Wordsworth goes out at night by himself, steals a boat, and rows out onto a lake. He’s terrified by a mountain (?) and runs off home again. The experience plunges him into a great depression for days. It may seem odd at first, but this is actually a clever and complex poem that serves as an allegory for the interactions between humans and nature; it concludes that we should always respect the natural world and never abuse it or take it for granted.
The notes are made with GCSE and A-Level AQA / Edexcel students in mind, though they are suitable for higher levels too, as well as other exam boards.
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Extract from The Prelude
One summer evening (led by her) I found
A little boat tied to a willow tree
Within a rocky cove, its usual home.
Straight I unloosed her chain, and stepping in
Pushed from the shore. It was an act of stealth
And troubled pleasure, nor without the voice
Of mountain-echoes did my boat move on;
Leaving behind her still, on either side,
Small circles glittering idly in the moon,
Until they melted all into one track
Of sparkling light. But now, like one who rows,
Proud of his skill, to reach a chosen point
With an unswerving line, I fixed my view
Upon the summit of a craggy ridge,
The horizon’s utmost boundary; far above
Was nothing but the stars and the grey sky.
She was an elfin pinnace; lustily
I dipped my oars into the silent lake,
And, as I rose upon the stroke, my boat
Went heaving through the water like a swan;
When, from behind that craggy steep till then
The horizon’s bound, a huge peak, black and huge,
As if with voluntary power instinct,
Upreared its head. I struck and struck again,
And growing still in stature the grim shape
Towered up between me and the stars, and still,
For so it seemed, with purpose of its own
And measured motion like a living thing,
Strode after me. With trembling oars I turned,
And through the silent water stole my way
Back to the covert of the willow tree;
There in her mooring-place I left my bark, –
And through the meadows homeward went, in grave
And serious mood; but after I had seen
That spectacle, for many days, my brain
Worked with a dim and undetermined sense
Of unknown modes of being; o’er my thoughts
There hung a darkness, call it solitude
Or blank desertion. No familiar shapes
Remained, no pleasant images of trees,
Of sea or sky, no colours of green fields;
But huge and mighty forms, that do not live
Like living men, moved slowly through the mind
By day, and were a trouble to my dreams.William Wordsworth
Stealth – sneaky, secretive behaviour; suggests a thief or cunning
Pinnace – small exploratory boat, driven by oars
Idle / idly – lazy/ lazily, without movement
Unswerving – not moving off course, not moving left or right
Summit – highest point of a mountain
Elfin – elf-like
Stature – can mean the height of a person but it can also mean their reputation, respectability, importance, or status
Craggy – covered in crags, sharp, jagged, rough rock
Desertion – abandonment / being left
Solitude – loneliness/isolation
Mooring-place – a place where you tie up a boat
Bark – boat
This section from a much larger poem called ‘The Prelude’ describes an experience where Wordsworth took a boat out on a lake one evening. He was alone and at first it was fun and exciting, but then a mountain peak loomed over him; its presence had a greatly humbling effect and for days afterwards he was troubled by the experience. The overall idea is that Wordsworth is very confident and sure of himself when he takes the boat out to the lake, but he changes when he encounters the vast and imposing mountain as it reminds him of the fragility and transience of human life in comparison to the eternality and absolute power of nature.
The speaker is Wordsworth himself, using a first-person narrative voice to explore his experiences from a personal, subjective perspective. In the poem, he is ‘led by her’, an unknown female who represents nature personified. This suggests that nature is the poet’s guide and that she encourages him to experience new and exciting, even life-changing moments. The poem has a conversational style which makes it into a narrative form, using anecdotes from the poet’s own life.
Oxymoron – ‘troubled pleasure’ – this phrase sets an eerie mood and uncertain atmosphere as pleasure is typically a positive emotion but this is complicated by the adjective ‘troubled’. Wordsworth possibly uses this word because he shouldn’t like the act of stealing the boat, yet it’s a thrill to take it out on the lake temporarily and there’s no harm done as he will return it to its rightful place. Alternatively, it may be ‘troubled’ because he shouldn’t like embarking out into the wilderness by himself yet he finds pleasure in it – perhaps he is commenting on his own psyche and identifying that there is something strange or unusual about his habits and tastes. Finally, it may be a form of foreshadowing the fact that this pleasurable experience will be disrupted by a frightening encounter with the mountain.
Repetition – ‘a trouble to my dreams’ – the final line of the extract (not the final line of the poem, as this is only a section of a larger poem) repeats the verb ‘trouble’, showing anxiety and difficulty, restlessness, and the fact that Wordsworth has an uneasy sleep after his experience. Metaphorically, we could say that the experience has haunted his thoughts ever since and ruined his idealistic perception of nature as always fun and exciting. Though this ‘trouble’ causes discomfort, it also incites growth, change, and maturity in the speaker as he is now aware of the deeper complexities of the natural world – nature is not only beautiful and fun, there for humans to enjoy when they please, it also has a much darker, more powerful side to it.
Symbolism – ‘Small circles glittering idly in the moon, / Until they melted all into one track / Of sparkling light’ – the beautiful visual image captures the way in which moonlight, the water, and the speaker’s boat all interact together, symbolically implying that at this moment the speaker feels at peace with nature, and in harmony with it. His boat makes ‘small circles’ as it ripples through the lake, perhaps a metaphor for the way in which a human can have an impact on the world around them. The moon itself is also often associated with enlightenment and ethereal or spiritual realms, so it helps to set a mystical atmosphere for the poem.
Visual imagery – ‘the summit of a craggy ridge’ – the phrase ‘craggy ridge’ creates a harsh, sharp visual image, implying that the mountain is rough and unwelcoming, whereas the summit refers to the very top point of the mountain, though it is also perhaps metaphorical, representing the boundary of the poet’s understanding as it’s the farthest point that he can see – ‘the horizon’s utmost boundary’. This gives a sense of the immense scale of the mountain but also references the idea that humans have incomplete or imperfect knowledge about the world around us.
Personification – ‘silent lake’ – this image contributes to the eerie atmosphere, as well as the semantic field of horror/terror that is being created surreptitiously throughout the extract. The adjective ‘silent’ is a type of personification, suggesting that the lake could speak or communicate but that it chooses not to. It may at first seem serene and peaceful, but this soon transitions into a sense of foreboding as the speaker have a frightening encounter with the mountain. The eerie description of the lake further adds to the sense of the unknown that is being referenced in the poem, as well as the speaker’s fear of the unfathomable power of nature. This in turn relates to the concept of ‘the sublime’, an experience or entity which is both amazing and terrifying at the same time, creating a sense of humbleness in the perceiver.
Repetition – ‘a huge peak, black and huge’ – the repetition of ‘huge’ in this visual image demonstrates the poet’s awe at the scale of the mountain, almost as if he can’t believe its size. The adjective ‘black’ further symbolically suggests the themes of darkness and the unknown, creating a sense of fear in the audience.
Dynamic verb – ‘I struck and struck again’ – this violent dynamic verb is repeated, creating a sense of panic and desperation as the speaker is shocked by the mountain. The monosyllabic lexis reinforces the heavy-handedness of the oars as they strike the water. It contrasts with the verb ‘dipped’ used earlier in the poem, which implies a more gentle approach to rowing when the speaker starts out. As a human, he’s disturbing and disrupting the peace of the natural world and the ‘silent lake’ in order to escape the mountain – curiously, there is an irony in the fact the mountain itself is not active, it is not chasing him or posing any kind of physical threat – so the ruckus that the poet makes as he leaves the scene is the result of a disturbance in his own mind rather than any physical threat.
Narrative structure – the poem is set out like an anecdote, a personal story that sets an example. The setting of the poem which begins on a ‘summer evening’ creates an audience expectation of a pleasant, peaceful story – this is directly contrasted with the frightening experience that is to follow, which adds to the tension of the narrative and its dramatic impact on the reader.
First-person singular pronoun ‘I’ – the narrative is told from a personal, subjective perspective as Wordsworth recounts his own formative personal experiences from his youth and childhood. Throughout this passage, his personality progresses from being overconfident – ‘I struck and struck’ – too frightened and depressed – ‘huge and mighty forms…were a trouble to my dreams’. This demonstrates a change in personality and state of mind initiated by the frightening experience.
Juxtapositions – The work is full of contradictions and contrasts — a small boat and huge mountain peaks; a solitary man and the massive power of nature; the comfort of familiar surroundings and the sinister and disturbing effect of overwhelming natural phenomena. These help to increase the dramatic tension of the story as well as exemplifying the typical Romantic literary trope of embracing the extremes of life and nature.
Blank verse– the poem is written in unrhymed iambic pentameter – five feet of unstressed-stressed syllables per line. This creates a dignified effect, imitating natural speech but also giving it a lofty quality where the subject is elevated into a higher position – these are not just stories about Wordsworth’s life, they are clear and detailed experiences that had a real impression on the formation of his character and personality.
Epic poem – the extract is from a much larger autobiographical poem, entitled ‘The Prelude, or the Growth of a Poet’s Mind’. ‘Prelude’ itself is a whole book, which some critics have called an epic poem as it follows the formative experiences of the poet in his boyhood and youth, setting out these experiences in the form of different dramatic episodes. Traditional epics, however, are usually told in the third person about a heroic figure, or a set of figures, whereas in ‘Prelude’ Wordsworth uses himself as the subject and speaks from his own personal point of view, using anecdotes from his past to identify points in his life that caused him to psychologically develop and mature. Therefore, it does also fit within the form of a dramatic monologue – a poem that is told from a first-person perspective with a conversational style in order to reveal a character or persona’s inner thoughts and feelings. The personal subject of the poem also necessitates a reflective, contemplative mood – it is as if the subject is Wordsworth as a child, whereas the speaker is Wordsworth as a mature adult who looks back on his naive younger self. The abstract noun ‘Prelude’ means an introduction to the main event, so the experiences detailed in the poem are intentional ones that Wordsworth thinks of as naive or a little immature.
Fear is not always bad – the extract shows a formative experience in the poet’s life, something that helped to shape his character. It’s a frightening experience that stops him from becoming too arrogant or remaining too naive about nature. When he takes the boat out, he thinks of how beautiful nature is and he doesn’t realise how powerful and frightening it can be; the experience with the mountain is an encounter with the Romantic idea of the sublime: it leaves him humble and with a more realistic view of the world. It is interesting to note that what he experiences is a psychological or metaphorical fear – nothing actually bad happens to him, the fear comes from a realisation about himself and the fragility of human life in relation to the absolute power of the natural – the age and size of the mountain is what scares him: the mountain is so eternal and it’s greater, older and wiser than he could ever be as a human.
Growth requires sacrifice and it is more difficult than staying the same – The subject of the poem is the way in which the mind matures and grows, therefore it explores the development of psychological depth and the way in which a person’s character can be simplistic or unbalanced when young, and then corrected and moulded into a moderate, well-rounded personality through a set of formative experiences. Here, the young Wordsworth is characterised as hubristic – he shows excessive self-confidence bordering on pride or arrogance, as he is so happy to go out into the unknown by himself at night, even stealing a boat that doesn’t belong to him because he feels like rowing on the lake. Then, for many days after his fearful experience, he is plunged into a dark, uncertain mood as his mind adjusts and his character is tempered. The impression is that in the end it was a positive experience overall and enabled him to become a better person, even though at the time it seemed frightening and damaging it did him good in the long term.
To commune with nature is to experience a higher power, and we must always remain humble in the face of it – following on with the idea of hubris (which is also a typical trait of a tragic hero who is ultimately doomed to fail in their endeavours), Wordsworth’s attitude at the beginning of the extract is selfish and brazen: he acts exactly as he pleases, giving in to his urges and impulses without question. It seems as though he feels nature is there for him to enjoy, he makes ‘mountain-echoes’ by shouting at the rocks and ‘small circles’ or ripples in the lake, which we could interpret symbolically as impressions of himself and his ego upon the landscape. The fear and awe that he experiences when seeing the vastness of the mountain reminded him of the higher power that nature holds, its eternality, and infinite complexity. Whether the reader is religious or atheistic, they should be able to agree that the natural world is far more powerful than any individual human being, and it should be respected and revered rather than just used and abused for our own pleasure.
Wordsworth was a Pantheist, he did not entirely discount Christianity as a religion but he had his own personal relationship with it rather than following the doctrine of the Church. Pantheism is a spiritual belief that God exists in everything – that all matter, animate and inanimate, is an expression of God or a higher power. Therefore, Wordsworth’s poetic persona sees God in the all-encompassing natural world – this perhaps explains why he is so scared of a mountain, as to modern readers it may seem a bit strange that he got so frightened by something so silent and passive. Yet, we can see from his perspective that he suddenly realised that the giant mountain, an expression of God itself, was watching him and judging his arrogant behaviour.
Romanticism – Romantic poetry and literature was a reaction against the restrained values of the 18th and 19th centuries, where most people repressed their characters and believed in the Church-sanctioned idea that this life was a test in order for them to get into heaven. So, they often lived in fear of experiencing the extremes of life or embracing their emotions as they felt that it may lead to sinful behaviour. In contrast, the Romantic poets strove to find beauty and the sublime in our world and to celebrate life with strong emotions – acknowledging that even bad emotions are there for a reason and that we should respect and fear nature, rather than ignoring it or just using it for our own purposes. This also meant that they were socially and politically quite radical for their time, with thoughts and beliefs that were quite different from the average person in their society.
Wordsworth lived and worked in the Lake District, Cumbria, UK. It is a region full of dramatic landscapes with beautiful, ever-changing weather and seasons, there are many lakes in the area and these are typically closed off from each other and surrounded by large mountains, giving each lake its own distinctive character and feeling. This dramatic landscape served as inspiration for his poetry and contributed to the formation and development of his personal character as well as literary themes in his writing.
‘Prelude’ was started as a work of poetry in 1798-99, when he was 28 years old, but Wordsworth edited and revised it as his life progressed, with the final version being published posthumously in 1850. It was intended as an introduction to a more philosophical poem – The Recluse – but Wordsworth never completed this piece.
- Solitude – Wordsworth values isolation from others, he seems happy with his own company, but also venturing out into the world by himself leaves him vulnerable and exposed to danger.
- Night – night time enhances everyday ordinary experiences, in this case, it is also symbolic and representative of spiritual or psychological darkness.
- Harmony – the poem traces the growth of the poet’s mind by stressing the mutual consciousness and spiritual communion between the world of nature and man.
- The sublime – a common theme in Romantic Literature, which refers to an unknowable power that’s beyond our understanding, the sublime is a feeling of awe that is produced when we encounter something that’s both beautiful and terrible – it is used to refer to very powerful ideas such as God, Beauty, Nature – all of which are seen in Wordsworth’s eyes as an expression of the same unknowable power, it is positive but frightening at the same time.
- Natural power – nature is shown to be all-powerful and at times peaceful and beautiful, but at others imposing and dangerous.
- Spirituality – Wordsworth saw all the wonders of the natural world as an expression of God’s work on earth, he finds a deep sense of spirituality in the act of going out into nature and observing it in solitude.
- Human weakness – the experience with the mountain is humbling, it is so large and eternal that just its presence alone frightens Wordsworth into running back home as fast as he can. It is not that there is any physical danger, it’s more than the experience highlights Wordsworth’s own frailty as a human – he sinks into a deep depression after the encounter because it reminds him of his own fragility and mortality, whereas the mountain is so eternal and powerful.
- Maturity – the encounter with the mountain is a maturing experience that creates growth and development of Wordsworth’s own character.
- Compare the ways in which poets present the power of the natural world in ‘Extract from the Prelude’ and ‘Storm on the Island’.
- Compare the ways in which poets present human weakness in ‘Extract from the Prelude’ and at least one other poem of your choice.