The Prelude By William Wordsworth Summary and Analysis Book 2: School-Time (continued)

Summary

Wordsworth continues the account of his simple childhood. Though he is reviewing his period at Hawkshead and his early education, he never speaks of the grammar school he attended there. The only learning that he mentions takes place outside the classroom, at the hands of nature. He remarks somewhat ruefully that if the mature sense of duty and truth could be joined to childish enthusiasm, we might have a better human species. He once more mentions the games and sports of childhood. He bemoans a missing rock on the site of which a meeting hall has now been erected. In his youth, the rock was occupied by a woman street vendor from whom Wordsworth and his chums bought goodies. Here — as elsewhere — we feel the poet's remorse at the prospect of what was at one time simple and charming having yielded to things more contrived.

Above all, the year moved swiftly. Wordsworth describes the boating races in summer. Three isles in Lake Windermere were favorite haunts of the boys. The poet tried to strike a happy balance between companionship and meditation. Instead of prizing skill and strength in group competition, he came to value a quiet independence and seemed to derive an inner power from solitude. He is mindful of his onetime fare of frugal meals and general poverty. He and his schoolmates did spare-time jobs during the summer and returned to the school with "weightier purses." He talks of horseback excursions by the pupils. They borrowed horses from a nearby innkeeper and sometimes lied to him about the distance which they meant to ride. In rich tones, he describes trips through far woods and valleys to ruins of temples and abbeys. The music of the wren affected him particularly.

Wordsworth recalls a tavern on the eastern shore of Lake Windermere replete with all the elegance and frivolities that high society might wish. The memory of the inn's futile pomp delights him. The manner of its patrons seemed odd indeed to a rough country lad. In any case, the young scholars made excellent use of its grounds. They enjoyed the garden and picnicked in the grove and had some of the wild strawberries for dessert. In a somewhat precious passage, the poet describes how, after an outing such as this, the boys rowed across the lake and deposited a solitary member on an islet to blow a flute in the gathering dusk.

Following praise of the sun and the moon as great natural gifts to humanity, Wordsworth turns again to the role of nature in education and religion.

There is a turning point in the mental development of the young poet. Heretofore, nature had been an arena with varied distractions, where idle participation afforded continual amusement. Manipulation of the environment was more important than observation of it. Now amusement of a more subtle kind came as a result of the study and valuing of the objects of nature in themselves. Wordsworth praises the awareness of Coleridge (the "Friend" to whom The Prelude is addressed) of the unity of all things. He mentions infant sensibility and describes maternal love as the intermediary between nature and the childish mind. The feelings of the mother toward her surroundings suffuse the baby's mind and instill the first urgings of poetry. Childish candor continues right into maturity as artistic inspiration. In the ordinary mind, however, it is much abated during aging by too much attention to the incidentals of living. Wordsworth thanks nature for having kept him innocent of the feelings of egotism and greed so widespread at the time. In a nation and epoch where material wealth and free enterprise are highly admired, Wordsworth points out the two extremes which cripple the public mind. On the one hand, some see nothing but a multiplicity of unrelated objects in the world around them; they are unaware of the abstract ideas which establish an interconnectedness among these objects. Others suffer from an opposite deficiency: They do not look closely enough at things to recognize the wealth of individuality that still exists among similar objects.

The loss of his mother was a blow to his affections. He half expected his spirit to flag, but it went on staunchly and independently. He speaks of his youthful delight in knowledge and his satisfaction that every moment on every hand there was something new to learn. The seasons and events moved swiftly, and it was owing to the "most watchful power of love" that his poetic intelligence overlooked nothing. He recalls his solitary nocturnal ramblings and communings during which the elements evoked in him "the visionary power" and his soul foresaw its spiritual development to the point of near sublimity. His morning walks — often five miles around the lake — were sometimes undertaken with a companion whom he remembers fondly but has not seen since that time in childhood. The poet remembers sitting in the woods at dawn, when the magnificent solitude overwhelmed him with such inner peacefulness that he was uncertain as to the source of the feeling. So perfect was the experience that he could not tell how much of it was reality and how much a dream on his part.

It was with "religious love" that the youth responded to nature. The monotonous routine of everyday activities could not stultify his soul. A higher faculty within him continued to heighten ordinary objects and events with a refreshing excitement that kept them perennially interesting. Nothing in the poet's world was immune: the sun, birds, breezes, fountains, the midnight storm. As a result of this attitude, the poet never scorned the meaner tasks of life, but welcomed them as elevating.

Toward the close of Book 2, Wordsworth has just turned seventeen years old. His childhood and adolescence are now behind him. Finally, in a paean of great beauty and power, the poet gives unstinting praise and thanks to nature. As he has before, he addresses the natural features of the land around his birthplace as living, feeling presences. "The Child is father of the Man," says Wordsworth in an epigraph to his famous immortality ode. Nature alone kept him pure in heart and satisfied with his simple, rustic pleasures. In contrast, more important men — men who acquire ambitions and set out to fulfill them — become filled with apathy and greed. But nature has insinuated that it will help people once again to rise above their baser selves. Says Wordsworth: "O Nature! Thou hast fed / My lofty speculations; and in thee, / For this uneasy heart of ours, I find / A never-failing principle of joy / And purest passion." He then suggests that ambition may come from too much concern with society; people become status-seekers competing with their fellow humans to acquire the material symbols of status. They are made petty and grasping because they are confined to the city, the arena for ambition, and are cut off from nature.

There are, however, rare exceptions, and Coleridge is one of these. Though reared in the city, and having traveled a different road, he has sought the same goal as Wordsworth: truth in solitude and simple, natural living. The poet wishes his mentor health and a long and happy life.

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