"The Prelude is the greatest long poem in our language after Paradise Lost," says one critic. Its comparison with the great seventeenth-century epic is in some respects a happy one since Milton was (after Coleridge) Wordsworth's greatest idol.
The Prelude may be classed somewhat loosely as an epic; it does not satisfy all the traditional qualifications of that genre. The epic is customarily defined as a long narrative poem which recounts heroic actions, commonly legendary or historical, and usually of one principal hero (from whence it derives its unity). The Prelude takes its unity from the fact that the central "hero" is its author.
The poem is written in blank verse, unrhymed lines of iambic pentameter with certain permissible substitutions of trochees and anapests to relieve the monotony of the iambic foot and with total disregard for the stanza form. In the middle of the eighteenth century, there was an eclipse of interest in the rhymed heroic couplet. A revival of interest in Milton led to the establishment of Miltonic blank verse as the standard medium for lengthy philosophical or didactic poetical works. The resulting form came to be called the "literary" epic as opposed to heroic and folk epics. To this type, Wordsworth, with his unconventional ideas of diction, brought a natural and conversational tone.
The general procedure in The Prelude is to record an experience from the poet's past and then to examine its philosophical and psychological significance and relate it to nature and society at large. Unfortunately, this results in a certain definite unevenness in the development of the narrative. At times, particularly in the latter half of the work, the narrative dries up altogether, and the reader must pick his way through a welter of disconnected disquisitions. Frequently verbose, diffuse, and bathetic, the verse is carried by those rare moments when it flashes fire or reaches a resounding note of rich poetic song. The unwavering strength and unity of purpose which underlie it also help it to soar. Only a mere fraction of the whole poem may be said to be great, but it is this fraction that has continued to secure it a place high in English literature.
Another drawback of the verse is its blatant repetition. Wordsworth will describe an intellectual experience again and again with only minor variations. Much of this repetition may be due to the poet's episodic efforts to show his shifting point of view in connection with certain basic ideas.
Most of the imagery, as well as the diction, reflects the natural environment, especially the English countryside, and manages to capture much of the wildness and beauty of that terrain. The influence of the English character may be traced in many of the ideas behind the poem. Just as Wordsworth never got far or was long from his native regions physically, so they continued to color his emotional reactions throughout his life. It is doubtful that he would have created an inimitable philosophy of nature had he been reared in London's slums. In his lifetime, his mental outlook swung from youthful radicalism to ultraconservatism. Politically, the fierce independence of character the poet admired in the yeoman of the North Country came to be symbolized by the French patriot; later he felt that conservative British institutions were the bulwark of true freedom. Artistically and religiously, he found youthful inspiration in the hills and vales of the Lake District; he responded to them with his simple ballads and a joyous mysticism. In maturity, it was the high Anglican Church tradition to which he turned, for a personal faith and as a source for many of his later poetical ideas. Of course, we do not witness the entire spectrum in The Prelude. That poem is basically democratic in spirit. Only at the very end do we feel the impending onset of conservatism.
The work seems deceptively free of learned allusions, but the reader is sure to find many obscure classical references. In addition, there are quite a few local place names which are difficult to trace. The poem employs symbols in a somewhat unsophisticated way so that language and feeling tend to be indistinguishable. When Wordsworth puts aside his tendency to pamphleteer, mood and form tend to merge in highest harmony; the words perfectly evoke feeling. In the best instances, there is such mastery of the medium that the true goal of poetry is achieved: There is so perfect a communication of experience that the language as a vehicle is forgotten. From this harmony, a great poetic power emerges; with the very simplest of words and images, Wordsworth creates the impression of terrible intensity.
For many readers, the aesthetic problem may be solved by adopting the fragmentary approach of picking favorite passages singular for their strength or beauty. But the reputation of The Prelude does not stand or fall as measured against the canon of uninterrupted beauty alone. Fortunately, it is the thematic framework behind the poem that holds the greatest lasting reward for the reader. The outstanding virtue of The Prelude is its imaginative interpretation of nature. For Wordsworth, nature forms a cosmic order of which the material world is one manifestation and the moral world is another. Usually, in such a view, either mind or matter must have the upper hand. From the fanciful, mechanistic interpretation of nature in his youth, he moved in maturity to a vitalist view in which mind transcended the physical world and in which a universal spirit provided the ultimate motivation for all things, as exemplified in universal, natural law. This is as close as he comes to building a philosophical system. And it is just this long and painful transition that is related in The Prelude. What Wordsworth offers is not a great philosophical system. He presents an emancipatory attitude toward life and toward art. He forever examines experience. Nothing in the world is so trivial or commonplace that it cannot be a stimulus for the mind. No thought, no matter how pedestrian or contemptuous it may at first seem, is to be excluded from the realm of poetry.