The Prelude By William Wordsworth Summary and Analysis Book 6: Cambridge and the Alps

Summary

Autumn arrives and summer vacation is at an end. The poet must return to Cambridge. He is not as eager to return to school as he was to leave it. On the other hand, neither is he depressed. He recalls the girls of the Lake District and their nightly revelries.

Wordsworth says the time was uneventful — nothing of importance occurred during his second and third school years, and he intends to skip over them. He does tell us that he drew farther away from the crowd he had known previously and took to independent reading and study.

As he writes, he is thirty-four. He recollects the return to his second year at college. He was already a poet by ambition, and some of the success and fame he envisioned at that time has since come to pass.

One of his favorite activities that winter was taking nocturnal walks in the college grove. He was commonly the last one to be seen there. The trees lent a special tranquility to the place. One huge ash tree was the poet's favorite spot for meditation: The wind sang through its upper branches. Watching the winter moon through them, the young poet had visions which he imagined noble enough to compare with those of the youthful Spenser.

His reading continued without much direction and discipline. More frequently, he admits, his mind eschewed what he read. However, there was always recourse to reality, which he used as a yardstick to measure what he read. He did not advance very far into the study of geometry, but he was fascinated with its ability to make nature orderly. He also found it comforting as evidence for eternity and an immutable deity. He gives a little illustration of a shipwrecked man who was without food and clothes but who had managed to have a book of geometry, and how it took his mind off his predicament. The pure reasoning of geometry provides a balm for the tortured poetic soul.

After he once more mentions his indolence, he recalls his summer rambles with his sister Dorothy in Derbyshire and Yorkshire. He expresses his affection for his sister and his happiness in being reunited with her. She seems to have been as eager to explore as he was. He describes the countryside through which they wandered; he states that their happiness was so full that he cannot, in retrospect, help but place Coleridge beside them in his mind's eye. He addresses Coleridge who, at the time of writing, is off in the Mediterranean in order to regain his health. But though Coleridge may be far from Wordsworth's sight, he is never far from his mind. Wordsworth once more compares their similar ideals, which derived from divergent backgrounds. He recalls how he had no sooner left Cambridge than Coleridge was lured there. He was a serious and eager student, but he was always handicapped by debts. He was forced by poverty to withdraw from school for a time. Wordsworth imagines that had they attended college at the same time, he might have had a steadying influence on his junior.

Wordsworth turns once more to his own activities. During his third summer vacation, he and a youthful friend — another aspiring mountaineer — took off on a long walking trip and were bound for the Alps. Apparently Wordsworth had been expected by school and family to devote the summer to studying, but he was willing to accept censure for not doing that. He is about to obey the call of nature once more.

The friends land at Calais on the anniversary of the French Revolution. Such a journey would be exciting at any time, "but Europe at that time was thrilled with joy, / France standing on the top of golden hours, / And human nature seeming born again." As the Englishmen proceed southward, they see many vestiges of the recent celebration of Bastille Day. They watch the young people dance in village after village. They travel south through Burgundy on the Saone, and then on the Rhone, past "woods and farms and orchards." For a time, they have as fellow passengers some delegates returning from the renewal of the civic oath in Paris. They prove a very rowdy group. Wordsworth and his companion are saluted by them as free Englishmen.

Proceeding on foot, the two youths come to the Convent of the Grand Chartreuse; they rest there in the "awful solitude." Wordsworth suddenly "foresees" the expulsion of the monastics (in 1792) by the revolutionary republicans and is aghast. He hears the ominous voice of nature cry out in defense of the monastery. Wordsworth himself defends the justice of the Revolution and praises the new liberty (this is his first mention in The Prelude of the Revolution). But like the Revolution, says Wordsworth, allegiance to the monastic vow also levels the difference between aristocrat and peasant. He asks that the monastery be spared because it has been devoted to unworldliness and has been a fountainhead of truth. Seeing a cross upon the monastery, the poet reflects that it has withstood many a natural storm, but it may not withstand the political storm which now rages in the French nation.

They resume their journey at a very rapid pace. There is the panorama of quickly changing vistas, and Wordsworth speculates upon the peaceful life of the peasant. From a ridge overlooking the Chamonix Valley, the companions are first moved by the sight of the summit of Mont Blanc. The poet describes the contrast in the valley of summertime activities alongside streams of ice bringing a touch of winter down from the mountains. Wordsworth somewhat jestingly terms himself and his friend "social pilgrims":

Whate'er in this wide circuit we beheld,
Or heard, was fitted to our unripe state
Of intellect and heart. With such a book
Before our eyes, we could not choose but read
Lessons of genuine brotherhood, the plain
And universal reason of mankind,
The truths of young and old.

The five lines 557-561 of this book are thought to be a somewhat cryptic reference in retrospect to his 1792 visit to France and to his notorious, though long unpublicized, love affair with Annette Vallon.

The two youths travel across the Vallais Canton and through the Simplon Pass. Stumbling upon a band of muleteers, they join them for lunch. After a time, the group moves on, while the pair lag behind. When their guide has gone ahead, they commence the journey once more but can find neither the guide nor their way. A path lies down the hill, where it stops at a stream, only to begin again across the stream. After they ford the stream and climb a mountain, they meet a peasant who tells them they must return to the valley. At this, they discover they have crossed the Alps. The poet's keen disappointment at the venture having reached its climax causes him to philosophize about anticipation and effort. In addressing his soul, he says, in often-quoted lines:

. . . whether we be young or old,
Our destiny, our being's heart and home,
Is with infinitude, and only there;
With hope it is, hope that can never die,
Effort, and expectation, and desire,
And something evermore about to be.
Under such banners militant, the soul
Seeks for no trophies, struggles for no spoils
That may attest her prowess, blest in thoughts
That are their own perfection and reward,
Strong in herself and in beatitude
That hides her, like the mighty flood of Nile
Poured from his fount of Abyssinian clouds
To fertilise the whole Egyptian plain.

They descend and go along the way they sought previously. In the wild and rugged scenery, Wordsworth sees evidence of the unity of all things. After a night's lodging, they travel on into Italy, pause at Lake Maggiore, and go on to Lake Como. The gardens attract them. Wordsworth praises the houses, groves, and walks of Como. He mentions the sweetness of the colorful town.

They travel around the lake. Two nights later, they misinterpret the chimes of a church clock and expect dawn to break, although it is actually the middle of the night. Soon after they start out, they are lost. They finally pause and try to sleep but are annoyed by insects and frightened by unidentifiable sounds.

But the poet must break off. He could describe day after day details of the trip. They traveled ever forward, until the first snowfall. When he analyzes his trip, he says that almost all he saw was heightened by intelligence. In turn, what he saw was having an effect on his sensibilities that was evident only much later, if ever. He returns to the exciting spectacle of war and the prospect of liberty for all. He has mixed feelings about war: He feels himself a spectator apart, with curiosity, but not with much interest. He claims he is too happy with everyday living.

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