It is a magnificent autumn day. The poet has, by his own account, been too long pent-up in London and only now has managed to return to the beloved Lake District where he spent his childhood and adolescence. It is difficult to fix his age as the poem opens because time constantly shifts backward and forward throughout the narrative. The start of Book 1 finds Wordsworth speaking from a mature point of view. The body of the poem employs flashbacks to describe the development of the poetic mind during youth. This material is amalgamated with the poet's adult views of philosophy and art (those views held during the writing and endless revision of The Prelude, roughly from 1799 until 1850).
Wordsworth experiences relief in coming back to nature. He immediately identifies spiritual freedom with the absence of the encumbrances of civilization. Feelings of irresponsible freedom and lack of purpose quickly give way to a prevision of an impending period of optimism and creativity. In the delicious quiet, Wordsworth suddenly sees in his mind's eye the cottage of the landlady with whom he stayed as a schoolboy. He recalls that even then he had intimations of his future greatness.
His wish to create some profound work of art calls for a re-disciplining of his mind, which has recently been dulled by the artificiality of society. He mentions in passing the typical moodiness of the poet in likening him to a lover. In assessing his faculties, Wordsworth finds he has the three necessary ingredients for creativity: a vital soul; knowledge of the underlying principles of things; and a host of painstaking observations of natural phenomena. He rejects historical and martial themes, as well as mere anecdotes from his personal history. He is searching instead for "some philosophic song that cherishes our daily life." He is next assailed by doubts about the maturity of his views. If such views change radically after he has recorded them, his analysis of them will be worthless. In his indecision, he feels that if he reviews the ideas he formed in childhood and traces their history up until early manhood, he will find whether they have had any lasting truth and permanence.
He recollects some of his childhood activities, among them river-bathing (he sported like a naked savage) and climbing and robbing of birds' nests while wandering at night. In a discussion of simple education, he stresses the importance of reaction on the part of the child to every action upon it by its natural environment. In this way, nature develops morality in the child. Wordsworth sets the tone of the poem by speaking religiously of nature. He sees it as a great and awesome intelligence. Occasionally he communicates his mood to the reader by employing natural objects as symbols of his feelings.
In a celebrated passage filled with much color, the poet describes how as a youth he stole a boat and rowed one night across Ullswater Lake. At the climax of this experience, he imagined that a peak beyond the lake became a presence which reared up and menaced him because of his misdeed in taking the boat. He confides that for some time thereafter he struggled to clarify a conception of pantheism which had been teasing his brain. He addresses what he terms the spirit of the universe. He decries the artifacts of civilization and praises enduring things — life and nature.
In a more literal section, he tells of his youthful pastimes and mentions winter ice games with a group of companions and games of cards and tick-tack-toe in front of the peat fire. But above all, he tried to be outdoors at all times of the year so that nature could be unstinting in its education of him. He is particularly troubled when he remembers that certain vistas in Westmoreland — particularly the sea — brought him great pleasure, though he had no prior experience of the same kind of joy. Since beauty is eternal, he may have learned to love such sights during a previous existence of his soul. He then proceeds to develop a romantic theory of aesthetics. He maintains that certain individuals create great art because, in the midst of mundane events, they sense the magical urgency in everyday objects. Insignificant things take on a critical meaning over and above their common and instrumental role. They suggest to the practitioner of the fine arts, the clergyman, and the idealistic philosopher that the universe is of vast and harmonious design. The layman, on the other hand, is insensible to this oneness of all things, and the idea must be communicated to him.