The Prelude By William Wordsworth Summary and Analysis Book 7: Residence in London

Summary

Compared with the books preceding and following, there is a curious lack of introspection in this one. Six years have passed, Wordsworth says, since he began his poem, and he bemoans that it has gone very slowly. It was begun (in 1798) with a great gush of enthusiasm which was inspired by the poet's ecstasy in being free of the city. It soon settled to a quiet philosophical flow of reflections. This book, however, will return us to the rawness of life itself. From 1800 to the spring of 1804, there has been an actual lapse in the writing of the work. Now, as Book 7 is begun, a chorus of birds and a solitary glowworm tell the poet of winter's approach.

He resumes his narrative and tells us that he returned from his Alpine journey and has since left Cambridge for good. He is uncertain about his future career. He had been in London before as a transient, but now (1791) he has determined to take lodgings and live the life of a cosmopolitan. All the fairy tales he had ever read about the magic of exotic cities and the records of the pomp of ancient empires were nothing compared to what he imagined of London. As a boy, one of his companions had been permitted to go to the capital, and, on his return, the young Wordsworth questioned him fiercely about the atmosphere of the place. But the boy's account was not nearly as rich as the poet's imaginary picture.

He says his fancy had fed upon the romantic night life in the parks of London. It also dwelt upon many of the city's landmarks — the Thames "proudly bridged," the dome of St. Paul's, Westminster, the monument at Fishgate, the Tower, among others. Now he beholds the originals. Calling London an "ant-hill," he recalls the buzz of activity and the sounds, the shops and wares, the houses and signs, the statuary. A turn away from the main thoroughfares takes him from the din.

In the quiet byways, he encounters some of the street entertainments: a peep show, minstrels, a ballad singer. He describes a jaunt into the suburbs and the types of people to be met there. Back in the heart of town, he sees every nationality and every racial type. He describes the wonder of the museums and the art galleries; he tells of some of the sculpture and scale models he has viewed.

He enjoyed the theater. He mentions Sadler's Wells (then half-rural), where he witnessed vaudeville and pantomimes. He enjoyed watching the absorption of the audience in the spectacle performed. The dramas of the stage made a lasting impression on him; one of these — The Maid of Buttermere — he tells Coleridge is a tragedy concerning a girl of the Cumberland hills whom the poet and Coleridge had known personally, though slightly. They had known her as a graceful and modest servant at an inn. Her tranquility of spirit had always amazed them. She had been seduced by a married man and had had a child. The poet remembers a child who was beautiful and seraphic. He is remembered among the uncouth and dissolute patrons of a tavern. He was admired by all as a child whom the vice and folly ever about him could not touch. Wordsworth remarks ruefully that it was a shame that a spell could not have been cast upon nature such that the infant might have been kept from growing old, with the inevitable coarseness and unfeeling of age. That child, having grown old and jaded, as must most people who live amid the world and its pleasures, might well envy the pristine purity that had been that of a nameless child of the Maid of Buttermere, who lies in the earth beside a mountain chapel.

He digresses briefly to recall how he had first witnessed the woman profane herself. It struck him that this robbed her of her human qualities. The spectacle had caused the poet much distress, though he gradually became reconciled to it.

He found that incidental events of everyday life could be more fascinating and moving than the stage, even though Mrs. Siddons was acting. Nevertheless, the theater was his mainstay. He apparently attended constantly and enjoyed everything from deep tragedy to broad farce. Between watching the members of the audience and the spectacle on the stage, his mind was kept constantly alert. He speaks of his delight in visiting country playhouses. He pauses to apologize for the superficiality of his theme. Loftier subjects could not stimulate his imagination as much as lesser ones which had a certain veneer glamour. Blunt tragedy from life often had a deadening effect on sensibility because it lacked dramatic possibilities. He found, in fact, that subjects taken directly from real life lacked poetry.

The poet tells us that he attended the trial courts in order to enjoy the forensic. He extols the solicitors he heard speak. Apparently he found the courtroom almost as exciting as the stage. He mentions the thrill he had in attending the House of Lords when one of England's famed noblemen stood up to address the assembly. He visited the House of Commons with much pleasure, also. He praises the conservative speeches of Edmund Burke in an admirable tribute. Wordsworth sees him as "old, but vigorous in age" and as an eloquent defender of the monarchy and the established order; the liberals in his audience murmured in discontent. Wordsworth did not share Burke's political orientation, but, young as he was, he could not help being inspired.

While on the subject of oratory, Wordsworth cannot neglect the pulpit. He lauds the clergymen whom he has heard and is particularly impressed by the learned allusions which are sprinkled among the "awful truths" in their sermons. Wordsworth is obviously undergoing a period of intoxication with words and their power.

For the conceited "little" man, the poet has no regard and little attention. He likens the crowd to shells on a beach or daisies swarming in fields. Foolishness and madness exist aplenty, and he will do his best to ignore them. He seeks the singular individual in the act of "courage, or integrity, or truth." He describes some of the people of the streets: a poor laborer who has brought his infant to a square for sun and air; a blind beggar who has a paper which gives his history pinned to him. Wordsworth attributes a certain perversity to the mind in its preference for dramatizing the more routine events: ". . . things that are, are not, / As the mind answers to them, or the heart / Is prompt, or slow, to feel."

The poet turns to a description of the St. Bartholomew's Fair. He skillfully evokes the color of a grand pageant. The judicious selection of sights and sounds sets the reader in the very midst of the bustling fair. The frenzied and confused comings and goings at the fair are an epitome for the poet of the city itself. He sees all its denizens scurrying along on futile ways. He takes them to task for their lack of depth and individuality. The educated man, the poet, has a fuller life:

But though the picture weary out the eye,
By nature an unmanageable sight,
It is not wholly so to him who looks
In steadiness, who hath among least things
An under-sense of greatest; sees the parts
As parts, but with a feeling of the whole.

In thinking of the wide world beyond, he links nature and spiritual beauty:

This did I feel, in London's vast domain.
The Spirit of Nature was upon me there;
The soul of Beauty and enduring Life
Vouchsafed her inspiration, and diffused,
Through meagre lines and colours, and the press
Of self-destroying, transitory things,
Composure, and ennobling Harmony.

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