The Prelude By William Wordsworth Summary and Analysis Book 12: Imagination and Taste, How Impaired and Restored

Summary

Wordsworth says he has spent too long a time contemplating human ignorance and guilt. The poem began on a more lofty note, and it must end thus. In a gush of emotion, he praises the breezes, the brooks, and the groves for healing his spirit:

Oh! that I had a music and a voice
Harmonious as your own, that I might tell
What ye have done for me.

Spring has returned, and the poet praises the natural agents around him for exhibiting "the wondrous influence of power gently used." The wisdom of nature is always present. It amounted to a counterbalance all during his recent trials so beset with mental anguish.

He reviews his mental history and the record he has made of it. Intellectual power in his youthful mind had brought him the assurance of his love for all things and of the truth of his vision. But his "natural graciousness of mind" was not a match for the troublesome times that intervened. He likens himself to a voyager who is close to blessed shores but who cannot land. He hopes to be a different man in times to come and wonders where to turn for guidance. He rejects the wise men and heroes of the past and finally even the poets. They all fall short of fulfilling his vision of human greatness. The Godwinian tenets which guide his thinking lead him to find the great men of history and art wanting reason and slavishly devoted to passion. In such a "strange passion" he says he warred with himself — an addict to the new cult of reason. He examines everything rationally, but he finds himself cut off from the very sentiment that binds humanity together. He fears he has even examined away the physical world.

He addresses the soul of nature and recalls his former joy in his affection for primitive things. He misses his vision of a harmonious natural universe run by divine law. Then he was strong; now he is feeble in his new intellectualism. He accuses himself of presumption and calls his supposed art mimicry.

The title of the present book (Book 12) is very significant and highly personal. In these passages, the poet tenders a vivid picture of how, through his adoption of the Godwinian philosophy of rationalism and anti-sentiment and the application of it both to his general outlook and to contemporary political events, his imagination was impaired. He finds himself paying too much attention to trivial things at the expense of insight. Nature, in its wisdom, showed him the unreliability of the senses as ends in themselves. He suddenly accuses himself of having desired pleasures always. There is a bitter though vague allusion to his life of idleness and drifting. He confesses he was disappointed in his performance at college and in his lack of plans for a profession. He mentions a girl (the description is reminiscent of Mary Hutchinson) of steadfast character whom he had known and intimates that women are perhaps less troubled with guile and satisfied with a simpler and less demanding life than men:

methought
Her very presence such a sweetness breathed,
That flowers, and trees, and even the silent hills,
And everything she looked on, should have had
An intimation how she bore herself
Towards them and to all creatures. God delights
In such a being; for her common thoughts
Are piety, her life is gratitude.

He suggests that his recent defects and his irresolution are due to his ability to be only a mute witness to things and to his incapability of forming a moral opinion about them. The mood passed, however, and he once again came into his powers.

How, says he, is the impaired imagination to be restored? The mind is master of the human organism, guides it, and heals it when necessary. Furthermore, the mind is able to heal itself by returning to experiences in time when the soul knew truly great moments in rising to the challenge of external events. These return to the poetic mind as vivid memories of natural configurations where the whole was more than the sum of its parts.

He describes one rather enigmatic instance in youth. He had been horseback riding and became separated from his attendant. He dismounts because he fears that his horse may bolt. He comes to a spot where there was once a murder and the murderer's initials suddenly and mysteriously appeared soon after, carved by an unknown hand. The young poet flees in fright and confusion, and the random panorama which floods his mind is of the sullen pool beneath the bare hills, a beacon on the lonely crag, and a maid with a pitcher struggling against the wind. His young mind caught these things up as associative symbols for the terror he felt. Strangely, revisiting the very scene in adulthood, the memory of the earlier experience brought the feeling of happiness and well-being.

Finally, he relates an anecdote. He recalls a time at school when the Christmas holidays were upon him. Exhilarated by his great anticipation, he is impatient for the arrival of the family livery which will carry him and his brothers home, and he climbs a nearby hill to await the first glimpse of the horses. Ten days later his father died, and Wordsworth interpreted this as a kind of retribution for his boyish impatience and preoccupation with worldly pleasures. Whenever he relived these moments in later life, they chastened him to humility and acceptance.

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