The Prelude By William Wordsworth Summary and Analysis Book 5: Books

Summary

A lilting passage evokes the mood of solitude. The subject of the poet's habitual contemplation is humanity. Wordsworth laments that it is not life's pains that are our worst affliction; the chief cause of despair is our winning a little fame after constant and unending labor. In some of the very strongest and most resounding lines so far, Wordsworth contrasts the immortality of the physical universe and the human soul with our own attempts at eternal self-perpetuation. He suggests that we yearn to have immortality through our ideas and dreams; while the supreme Intelligence is infinite and timeless, man's intelligence is neither of these: "Oh! why hath not the Mind / Some element to stamp her image on / In nature somewhat nearer to her own?"

Wordsworth finds that a friend is troubled by similar fears. The poet relates something that had happened to him previously. One day in summer, he sat in a rocky cove overlooking the sea and read Don Quixote. This same feeling of futility and despair seized him. He closed the book and began to meditate "on poetry and geometric truth." At length, he fell asleep and dreamed the following dream:

He was alone in the desert and afraid. An Arab appears on a camel. He carries a lance, a stone, and a shell. Wordsworth is happy in the anticipation of being guided out of the desert by the newcomer. The Arab explains that the stone he carries is Euclid's Elements, while the resplendent shell is alleged to be a prophetic book of song. Bidden to hold the shell to his ear, the poet hears an ode which amounts to an apocalypse telling of the coming destruction of humanity in a great flood. The Arab declares he will bury the books he carries to prevent them being destroyed in the deluge. Wordsworth asks that he may be allowed to accompany him. The Arab, however, rides off, with the poet trailing behind. The poet suddenly sees the rider as Don Quixote. Keeping apace, Wordsworth presently sees a glittering wave in the distance. The Bedouin tells him it is the approaching flood and immediately rides off. Wordsworth awakes in terror to see the sea and the volume of Don Quixote lying beside him.

Clearly this fanciful episode is an allegory dramatizing Wordsworth's despair over human attempts to gain immortality through works of art. The poet has subsequently imagined the Arab a living being on the very quest which took place in the dream. He should be held in great reverence even though a symbol, says Wordsworth. In the case of a calamity as a great flood enveloping the world, the multitudes would only be concerned with protecting their loved ones, but not the wise knight-errant. Often Wordsworth has had the feeling that he would sacrifice himself to protect the creations of the great writers.

Book 5 next gives us a glimpse of the child learning from juvenile literature and his deep, though perhaps unuttered, thankfulness. Wordsworth then passes to praise and to a benediction for all creators of verse and story and calls them "Powers for ever to be hallowed" and depicts them as great benefactors of humanity. They are second only to nature, which is "the breath of God." Addressing Coleridge, Wordsworth once again lauds nature and its teaching and asks where would the two poets be if they had not been able to take to the field and open road, unlike the over-protected children of the time at which he writes.

He likens the wise mother to a hen with her brood: She gives her offspring only a judicious amount of attention and lets them have independence to develop their own enterprise. He speaks of his own mother, on whom he and his sister and brothers depended. Her death left them destitute. In life she was wise and permissive toward them. She felt that God and his deputy, nature, would protect and educate them. She was extremely patient and contented with her lot, not wishing for things beyond her reach. In fact, we see in her the very qualities we saw in Wordsworth's landlady.

Wordsworth proceeds to portray what is considered the model child of his time, a product of the "modern system." He is a proper gentleman, courteous, beneficent, fearless. He is innocent but not naive. He loves the kind of knowledge he can put to use and knows boats and navigation, geology, astronomy, politics, political geography. But greater than wisdom, says Wordsworth, the model child loves vanity. All he would have to do is go abroad among the fields and along the streams, but his conceit prevents this. The poet extols the youth who has imagination and mentions the educative power of some of the fanciful tales from childhood lore. Fortunatus and the wishing cap are particularly to the point; the moral of that tale is that material wealth alone is insufficient for happiness. He summarizes: "The child, whose love is here, at least, doth reap / One precious gain, that he forgets himself."

Wordsworth once again reminds the educators and administrators of his day that even though nature's way seems slower and less reasonable, it has humanity's good as its aim. He suddenly recalls a childhood companion who liked to stand in the evening by the lake and imitate the hooting of the owls. The owls would be provoked to response across the water in a wild profusion of cries and then be silent. The boy was then able to contemplate the lovely landscape. He died at twelve years of age. The poet has on summer evenings stood looking long at his grave in the grassy churchyard. His mournful gravestone looked down upon Wordsworth and his companions who were "wanton, fresh, / And bandied up and down by love and hate." They were as happy as children could be because simplicity and honesty molded their minds.

Wordsworth recalls his first coming to Esthwaite's Lake and its little valley. At twilight, he crossed one of the peninsulas and discovered some discarded clothing, on an opposite shore, left perhaps by some nocturnal bather. He watched until it was dark, but no one claimed the garments. The next day, there was a crowd upon the shore and people in boats on the lake were sounding with poles. Suddenly Wordsworth imagines the drowned man rising as a ghostly apparition from the lake. But the poet is unnerved:

. . . yet no soul-debasing fear,
Young as I was, a child not nine years old,
Possessed me, for my inner eye had seen
Such sights before, among the shining streams
Of faery land, the forest of romance,
Their spirit hallowed the sad spectacle
With decoration of ideal grace;
A dignity, a smoothness, like the works
Of Grecian art, and purest poesy.

Wordsworth prized a book of selections from the Arabian Nights. He learned from companions that the complete tales extended to four large volumes and determined that he and his friends must save to buy them. The scheme was never successful, however. The poet describes how he loved to read beside Derwent Water, another of the lakes. He praises the entertaining power of romances; humanity will always have a need for them. In a passage of loveliness and strength, he lauds the ability of the dreamers of romances and legends to bring some color to a drab everyday world and to make life a little more exciting for the ungifted child. The writer fulfills the subconscious wish in humans to do the marvelous and supernatural. Growing older brings the desire for literature in which there is more of the immediate world. The desire for magic that is wizardry gives way to a craving for the magic which the poet's eye sees in the world around him.

Wordsworth tells of a common experience — how deeply he was moved by some poetry in youth, only to find that it lacked beauty and meaning. He was ten when he came to love verse. He and a friend would go along the lake, happy as birds, and recite favorite stanzas together. They were exhilarated by the poetry to a state beyond intoxication. The poet remarks ruefully that the idols of their reverence were often found unworthy upon later reflection. But that factor could not diminish the memory of the first great rapture of the original experience. He himself alleges that escapism was important "in that delicious world of poesy."

A pause is in order. Wordsworth likens the joy derived from nature itself to that experienced in poetry. The poet is given the power of prophecy. He is able to look into the heart of things and see their hidden message.

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