The Prelude By William Wordsworth Summary and Analysis Book 3: Residence at Cambridge

Summary

From the introspection and sometimes moody tone of the first two books, we turn to somewhat more forthright events, which are described in a lighter vein. The more fundamental philosophical questions about life have been partially answered. These investigations are to be put aside while the poet explores some of the larger world about him. His views have mostly formed; he must decide now through what occupation he will express those views. In a broad sense, the simplicity of his youthful habitat and companions forced him inward upon his own imagination. Now he is about to be challenged by the stimulating sophistication of gifted young men who come from near and far and from all walks of life.

It is a dreary morning. As the wheels of the coach lumber over the desolate plain, the poet's mood matches that of the weather. However, his heart stirs and beats more quickly as he sees the chapel of King's College. The coach passes a student who is hurrying on his way. The poet speculates about the cause of his haste — whether he is pressed for time or for exercise. The town and its university suddenly seem to draw the coach and its occupants. They pass beneath the castle and across Magdalene Bridge, from which there is a vista of Cambridge town. They alight at a famous inn called the Hoop.

The excitement of the university town begins to take hold of him. He has made a few acquaintances, mostly overgrown schoolboys like himself. He dramatizes much that happens about him. There is a buzz of activity: Students guide one another, make inquiries, and offer opinions. His spirits are up as he explores shop after shop. "I was the dreamer, they the dream," he recalls. Withal, the crowd strikes him as a motley one, but he finds it exciting.

His person has changed. He is now wealthy and well dressed. He sports powdered hair. He has all the clothes of a gentleman, but he cannot yet boast a beard. He moves within a small circle, and his many invitations and diversions have the effect of making time fly. In short, he is leading the life of the dandy.

He chose St. John as his patron. In the first of three courts of the college yard was Wordsworth's favorite spot. It was a nook just below the college kitchens, not far from the clock of Trinity College, which told the quarter-hours night and day. He was also within sound of the Trinity organ.

He mentions the round of college labors, lectures, and the hopes and fears connected with exams. Academic glory was little sought by him, however, and seldom won. He had occasional fears about his future worldly maintenance. As the dazzle of the university wore off, he forsook his companions and sought the countryside. Here, his mood was without fail brightened. He felt a holiness in the permanence and reasonableness of all things. He says he "gave" a moral life to the very stones, and everything in his life was filled with inward meaning. Others who caught him off guard imagined him mad, but he knew they were witnessing the divine madness that is prophecy. He says that he recognized genius and divinity by exploring inwardly not through outward deeds. He praises the immortal soul and claims that every person, however poor, has known "godlike" hours which could not be communicated to others.

The poet suggests that he read rather widely, but it imparted no certainty or useful knowledge. He notices a change in himself: Often to escape loneliness, he leaned toward the throng. He speaks of social acts, riots, bull sessions at night, riding, and sailing on the River Cam. In trying to curb his laziness, he is mindful of the great alumni of Cambridge. He tries in reverie to link them as human beings with the unchanged landmarks of the university. His attempt to imagine them as flesh and blood is not altogether successful. He speaks with awe of Newton (who attended Trinity), Chaucer, Spenser (Wordsworth calls him "brother"), and of Milton ("an awful soul"). One of the poet's friends occupied the room in which Milton once stayed. Wordsworth gives a somewhat naive account of how he not long ago drank too much wine in that very room while toasting the memory of Milton. He relates that he became tipsy and rushed out to find himself late for chapel. He asks Milton's and Coleridge's forgiveness for this escapade.

Wordsworth laments that even an envy of the minds of the great will not rouse him from his lassitude. He has no one to blame but himself for his lack of desire and ambition. He was spoiled by his "education" outdoors. Not that he now has slighted books, but he looked upon indoor study as a kind of captivity and took slowly to it. Though his natural education was random and undirected, it brought genuine conviction. Science, art, and written lore cannot overpower him, but he can imagine a place so austere and so dedicated to wisdom that its atmosphere would compel him to books and make him pay homage to written lore.

He accuses the schools of promoting folly and sophistry and urges that these not be allowed to spread beyond the academic environment. The older ways, when youth were trained at home "in pious service," produced a self-reliance which is now lacking in the youthful character. Furthermore, he takes the school leaders to task for letting their officiousness spread to religion and science. These become ridden with disputation and ambiguity rather than with the simple authority of truth. The poet had long imagined what an enriching experience college would be, but the actuality fell far short of his expectations. He is disappointed to find only trivial and thoughtless ceremony and conversation among students and faculty. In his chagrin, he pictures a utopian grove filled only with the harmony of nature, where music and peaceful pastoral sounds induce reflection and growth of wisdom. He contrasts the life of the latter-day scholar with the university student of the Middle Ages. The latter, out of a love of learning, put up with a life of Spartan simplicity. The medieval scholar lived in a small cell, wore simple clothes, often went without food, kept austere hours, and learned directly from books, without an intermediary teacher. Addressing Cambridge, he cites the Renaissance when youths from indenture sought a patron or scholar-ship by roaming from town to town with a book underarm to beg for an education. What a sorry contrast with learning in the poet's own time.

Wordsworth suddenly decides to stop feeling sorry about the past. His youth might have been much worse: ". . . happy is the gowned youth, / Who only misses what I missed, who falls / No lower than I fell." In what seems like a change of tune, the poet deplores the narrowness of his university curriculum: He "could have wished / To see the river flow with ampler range / And freer pace." (He eschewed the classical and scientific bent to his studies and preferred to learn modern languages and literature.) He remarks that he gave the hardworking students wide berth because he found the mediocre students more diverting companionship.

Once more he speaks of his social whirl at school as a "vacation." Yet, he observes, it was not without utility. It served as a transitional phase from his lonely youth to the manners and ways of human business. College and its life formed for him a microcosm of the larger, competitive world, and exhibited all the virtues and vices in a lesser degree. Without this steppingstone, Wordsworth might have been thrown out upon the world with only his rustic simplicity to fall back on. He and his friends at school apprenticed themselves by attending to all the gossip about the scandals of students and faculty. They were always eager to ridicule the school officials and their ways. The poet compares the latter men with the healthy old shepherds of Westmoreland as alternative ways of aging.

In a somewhat whimsical transport, Wordsworth likens society at large and men's activities to the colors and strands in a tapestry; its complexity is represented by the subtle graduations and intermingling of hues and patterns. Even in maturity, he still remembers odd events and eccentricities of old acquaintances which seem to him now no more than a mime show: ". . . here in all proportions were expressed / The limbs of the great world." All the vagaries of human nature and all the follies of society were to be seen in the fabric surrounding the young poet, and their formative influence upon him was not lost:

. . . for, all degrees
And shapes of spurious fame and short-lived praise
Here state in state, and fed with daily alms
Retainers won away from solid good;
And here was Labour, his own bond-slave; Hope,
That never set the pains against the prize;
Idleness halting with his weary clog,
And poor misguided Shame, and witless Fear,
And simple Pleasure foraging for Death;
Honour misplaced, and Dignity astray;
Feuds, factions, flatteries, enmity, and guile,
Murmuring submission, and bald government,
(The idol weak as the idolater),
And Decency and Custom starving Truth,
And blind Authority beating with his staff
The child that might have led him; Emptiness
Followed as of good omen, and meek Worth
Left to herself unheard of and unknown.

From this frightening description we can imagine the nightmarish college atmosphere of deadly competition and perverted values. How unfavorably it compares to the wholesome countryside and nature with "her tender scheme / Of teaching comprehension with delight." But eight months in this situation have passed, and the ninth month brings a welcome vacation to the poet.

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