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Begun in 1798 in Germany and occupying him for the rest of his life, Wordsworth’s great autobiographical poem The Prelude was published only after his death in 1850. Like Home at Grasmere, the Prelude grew out of his failed effort to write a larger philosophical epic, The Recluse (click here to read a passage from Home at Grasmere with a supporting video and photo sphere). The title, given to the poem by Wordsworth’s wife Mary after his death, is bittersweet, recalling the fact that Wordsworth’s greatest work was considered by him a prelude to the masterpiece he never completed. Yet perhaps in failing to write The Recluse Wordsworth discovered his real subject, for in The Prelude, as in Home at Grasmere, he decides on an indirect approach to the grand philosophical themes he projected for The Recluse: instead of writing a treatise in verse, he will reflect on his own experiences, asking how his imagination, convictions, and perspective as a poet have been formed by the environments in which he was nurtured.
Wordsworth relates one such moment in the shaping of his imagination in the well-known passage below from the first book of The Prelude.1 He says that as a young boy he was led by Nature—the “her” mentioned in the first line—to “borrow” a boat under cover of night. The experience he recalls occurred when, as a schoolboy around the age of ten, he took a long holiday journey from Hawkshead in the southeast part of the Lake District to Penrith in the northeast. On the way, he spent the night in Patterdale, a town about twenty miles north of Hawkshead on the edge of a large mountain-ringed lake called Ullswater. At night, the young Wordsworth crept from his bed and stole along the banks of Ullswater until he found an unattended shepherd’s boat tied to a willow tree below a “rocky steep” (394). Untying the boat, he quickly rowed toward the middle of the lake, troubled all the while by guilt. As he sped over the waves under the moonlight, he kept “a steady view / Upon the top of that same craggy ridge” that had loomed over him and the boat when he first loosened it from the willow tree (387-88). All of the sudden, “from behind that” first “rocky steep” a second “huge cliff, / As if with voluntary power . . . / Upreared its head” (405-8). The faster he rowed, the taller this second cliff seemed to grow as “like a living thing” it “Strode after me” (411-12). Trembling, he rowed back to shore. This is of course because the taller cliff had been hidden from his view by the rocky steep under which he first found the boat. As he rowed further out, the obscured cliff rose into view.
Though Wordsworth of course knew his feeling of being chased as a guilty thief by a cliff was a trick of perception, for days his mind was filled with visions of huge inhuman shapes in motion, haunting him with a sense of unsettling mystery. Prompted by his experience of a specific place, his imagination had begun to envision things that had no location in the known world. The mind of a poet was being formed.
Click on the embedded video below to enter our “recreation” of the boat-stealing scene (we rented a canoe by day rather than unloosing a rowboat by night!). Based on our survey of Ullswater and conversations with Jeff Cowton at the Wordsworth Trust, we came to agree with Grevel Lindop2 that the “rocky steep” overhanging the boat was Skybarrow Crag, and that the cliff Wordsworth saw rearing up behind it was Glenridding Dodd. These are on the left (west) side of Ullswater, where a path would have run in Wordsworth’s day. We “stole” our boat (canoe) from there.
1 Text from The Prelude: 1799, 1805, 1850, eds. Jonathan Wordsworth, M.H. Abrams, and Stephen Gill (1979).
2 Grevel Lindop, A Literary Guide to the Lake District, 3rd ed. (2015), p. 262.
The Prelude (1805)
One evening—surely I was led by her—
I went alone into a shepherd’s boat,
A skiff that to a willow-tree was tied
Within a rocky cove, its usual home.
’Twas by the shores of Patterdale, a vale
Wherein I was a stranger, thither come
A schoolboy traveller at the holidays.
Forth rambled from the village inn alone,
No sooner had I sight of this small skiff, 380
Discovered thus by unexpected chance,
Than I unloosed her tether and embarked.
Play video to steal a boat with Wordsworth.
The moon was up, the lake was shining clear
Among the hoary mountains; from the shore
I pushed, and struck the oars, and struck again
In cadence, and my little boat moved on
Even like a man who moves with stately step
Though bent on speed. It was an act of stealth
And troubled pleasure. Nor without the voice
Of mountain-echoes did my boat move on, 390
Leaving behind her still on either side
Small circles glittering idly in the moon,
Until they melted all into one track
Of sparkling light. A rocky steep uprose
Above the cavern of the willow-tree,
And now, as suited one who proudly rowed
With his best skill, I fixed a steady view
Upon the top of that same craggy ridge,
The bound of the horizon—for behind
Was nothing but the stars and the grey sky. 400
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 bound of the horizon, a huge cliff,
As if with voluntary power instinct,
Upreared its head. I struck, and struck again,
And, growing still in stature, the huge cliff
Rose up between me and the stars, and still 410
With measured motion, like a living thing
Strode after me. With trembling hands I turned
And through the silent water stole my way
Back to the cavern of the willow-tree.
There, in her mooring place, I left my bark
And through the meadows homeward went with grave
And serious thoughts; and after I had seen
That spectacle, for many days my brain
Worked with a dim and undetermined sense
Of unknown modes of being. In my thoughts 420
There was a darkness—call it solitude
Or blank desertion—no familiar shapes
Of hourly objects, 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 my mind
By day, and were the trouble of my dreams.