The Prelude affords one of the best approaches to Wordsworth's poetry in general and to the philosophy of nature it contains. However, the apparent simplicity of the poem is deceptive; comprehension is seldom immediate. Many passages can tolerate two or more readings and afford new meaning at each reading. Wordsworth, it will be recalled, likened his projected great philosophical work to a magnificent Gothic cathedral. And he explained (in the Preface to The Excursian) that The Prelude was like an antechapel through which the reader might pass to gain access to the main body of the structure.
The poem begins in his boyhood and continues to 1798. By the latter date, he felt that his formative years had passed, that his poetic powers were mature, and that he was ready to begin constructing the huge parent work. Alternating with his almost religious conviction, there is an unremitting strain of dark doubt through the poem. The poem itself therefore may be considered an attempt to stall for time before going on to what the poet imagined would be far more difficult composition. As he tells the reader repeatedly, his purpose was threefold: to provide a reexamination of his qualifications, to honor Coleridge, and to create an introduction to The Recluse.
It was actually finished in 1805 but was carefully and constantly revised until 1850, when it was published posthumously. It had been remarked that Wordsworth had the good sense to hold back an introductory piece until he was certain that what it was to introduce had some chance of being realized. Moreover, The Prelude contained passages which promised to threaten the sensibilities of others, as well as himself, during the rapidly changing course of events after 1805. The year 1805 is the approximate date of his conversion to a more conservative outlook. However, his later-year recollection was that this change occurred some ten years earlier, and he tries in his revisions to push the date back.
The 1805 original draft was resurrected by Ernest de Selincourt and first published in 1926. A comparison of it with the 1850 (and final) version shows the vast change the work underwent. Some passages in the earlier version do not appear at all in the later; others are altered almost beyond recognition. The 1805 draft contains the clearest statement of Wordsworth's philosophy and is fresher and more vigorously written. The toned-down work as published in 1850 represents the shift of his thought toward conservatism and orthodoxy during the intervening years. The student is likely to find the 1850 version much more accessible for the purpose of reading the whole poem. Yet on the whole, critics tend to prefer the 1805 version when citing actual lines from the poem.
The only action in the entire poem is an action of ideas. Similarly, it would be inaccurate to speak of the poem has having a plot in any standard sense. Its "story" is easily summarized. The poem falls rather naturally into three consecutive sections: Books 1-7 offer a half-literal, half-fanciful description of his boyhood and youthful environment; Book 8 is a kind of reprise. Books 9-11, in a more fluid and narrative style, depict his exciting adventures in France and London. Books 12-14 are mostly metaphysical and are devoted to an attempt at a philosophy of art, with the end of the last book giving a little summary.
Each of these three "sections" corresponds roughly to a phase in Wordsworth's poetic development and to a period in his life. The first dates from the time of his intuitive reliance on nature, when he wrote simple and graceful lyrics. The second represents his days of hope for, and then disappointment with, the Revolution, and his adoption of Godwinian rationalism, during which he wrote the strong and inspiring sonnets and odes. The last coincides with his later years of reaction and orthodoxy, when he wrote dull and proper works such as The Excursion and Ecclesiastical Sonnets. The Prelude is critically central to his life work because it contains passages representing all three styles.
In the last analysis, The Prelude is valuable because it does precisely what its subtitle implies: It describes the creation of a poet, and one who was pivotal in English letters. In fact, The Prelude was so successful in its attempt that there was nothing left to deal with in The Recluse. Wordsworth could reach the high level of abstraction needed for a true philosophical epic only sporadically, in some of the shorter lyrics and odes, and could not sustain the tone.