Wordsworth - The Prelude Notes on The Prelude

Be sure to read the head note to the poem

(Numbers refer to lines)

1-45: Preamble--ideas of freedom. Corresponding breeze--see footnote. Problem of too much freedom and inspiration--chosen task as poet (46-48)? See footnote. Key Idea: Freedom vs. boundaries

60-93: Continues ideas of preamble but gives "respite" to passion--disengagement

95-131: Attempt to recover passion again but fails--Eolian harp--see footnote//tries to justify loss//

114-15: longing rises again--determined aim//find a noble theme to write about

132-249: These lines consider various subjects for the poet's project: stories of freedom/liberty but they also would tie the poet to tradition (222--poet wants a tale from his own heart)

269-325: Poet chooses the history of his mind's development as his theme--description of childhood Depicts the image of childhood made famous by Wordsworth (This image is associated with Romanticism. Think of Blake--although Blake critiques this image of natural, innocent childhood with the dialectic of innocence and experience. "TA"--"thoughtless youth")

The Sublime

390-414; 453-474: The sublime (e.g., Burke and Kant) refers to the confrontation of the mind with nature. The mind is overwhelmed by the magnitude of what it comprehends as natural forms inspire awe. Feelings of terror and fear, though not deadly, put the mind at risk and force it ultimately to transcend sense perception and interpret that which it initially cannot comprehend. The result of these confrontations with nature is expressed in lines 597-612.

Finally, the last paragraph of the poem (640-647): the speaker-poet has found a theme, single and of determined bounds. Note the balance (tension?) between form (boundaries, restraint) and freedom (his theme--growth of the poet's mind/a break from tradition). Although he implies his theme may be "feeble" and "tedious," the speaker-poet means the opposite.

The Sublime 

Here, the poet-speaker (close to Wordsworth) introduces the concept of the sublime, central to the growth of his mind.  The two key episodes (that we discussed and read in class) are the stealing of the eggs from the raven's nest and the boat rowing scene.

Beauty: refers to a subjective experience in which there is a harmony between an individual's physical encounter with the world and freedom.  As a subjective experience, beauty is not located in the property of the (natural) object.  However, beauty can be "universal" because it can affect all individuals.  Beauty suggests a fitting of the mind and world.   

Sublime: refers to a rupture between the mind and world.  The mind is confronted with an experience beyond its comprehension that challenges the limits of sense perception.  In doing so, the mind must address feelings of terror and awe, but the ulitmate effect is increased percpetion and imaginative powers.   The final outcome is a refitting of the mind and world since through the operation of the sublime, the mind now understands the limits of sense perception (its cognitive abilities) and is able to move beyond these limits, leading back to the beautiful.

This is a basic summary of Emmauel Kant's ideas, but Kant was familiar with the ideas of both Edmund Burke and Longinus.  For Burke, the sublime, located in nature, refers to terror, vastness, and obscurity.  Beautiftul refers to the brightness (e.g., color) and the finite.  For Longinus, the sublime elevates the listener's mind through a combination of noble sentiments and elevated language, among other things.  The interest in the sublime shifts from an effect on a listener or produced by a writer (discourse) to natural objects (Burke) and in Kant, the mind itself.