The Prelude By William Wordsworth Summary and Analysis Book 8: Retrospect — Love of Nature Leading to Love of Mankind

Summary

We have left London and are in the Lake Country again, in Cumberland. There is thematic continuity, however, because a description of a small annual country fair follows that of St. Bartholomew's Fair at the end of Book 7. Shepherds and farmers have brought their families. In contrast to the London festivities, the rural one is orderly and quiet. The poet describes the fair. Livestock abounds. There are a few stalls. A lame man begs and a blind man entertains with music. An aged woman hawks simple wares. There is a peep show. A farm girl sells fruit. The children have been given money for the day. Older couples sit and contemplate the spectacle and relive the days of their youth. Wordsworth stresses the wholesomeness of the people and of their countryside even though they may be almost without importance in the eyes of the world.

He returns to praise of nature, which first opened his eyes to beauty. Amid the turbulence of the city, he has remembered the country devotedly. He praises his childhood habitat because it is more fair than exotic oriental gardens and lush tropical landscapes. He speaks of his home as a paradise and suggests that the freedom and industriousness of the yeoman impart to him a natural beauty and grace. The common man of Westmoreland has become for Wordsworth what the noble savage was for Rousseau.

The poet studies human nature in the abstract. He admired local shepherds at first — these did not resemble the learned herdsmen of classical Rome or Greece or those of whom Shakespeare and Spenser write. The pastoral scenes of Wordsworth's own youth were peopled with unaffected and lustier men and maidens.

He speaks of the happy and easy life of the shepherd in classical times on the banks of the Galesus in Magna Graecia and along the Adriatic, when the climate was mild and Pan protected the flock. Wordsworth has seen English grazing pastures as happily beautiful, though they lack the temperateness and richness of the Italian. He is reminded briefly of lovely scenes in Goslar (Germany). The English shepherd must take into account the severe winter. In very picturesque lines, the poet describes the life of the herdsman through the varying seasons. In winter, he pens the sheep in rocky recesses and carries them food through the snow. In spring and summer, he rises at dawn and breakfasts with his dog, and then goes forth from hill to hill to guard and lead the sheep. His ways as a freeman might inspire even the philosopher. The young poet admired the shepherd as a symbol of man's stature. Through him he came to love human nature as a whole. Wordsworth learned much from the herdsman's simple ritual, though he was not aware of it then. Although he was inexperienced, he saw man as purified and as a giant. He suspects it was because he saw simple people in unadorned natural surroundings that he came to admire the human race so much. Because these people were not called upon to exploit one another, they were free from the meanness and greed exhibited by others in society.

Until he was twenty-two, nature was more important to him than humanity. Then his imagination tried to express itself in poetic form. Every facet of nature was transformed through his fancy. He gives several examples of what stimulated his poetic sensibility. As he became more mature, his fancy turned to human beings and their passions for subject matter:

Thus wilful Fancy, in no hurtful mood,
Engrafted far-fetched shapes on feelings bred
By pure Imagination: busy Power
She was, and with her ready pupil turned
Instinctively to human passions, then
Least understood.

He tells us, too, that it was the abundance of natural beauty around him that stimulated his fancy to the degree of someone well beyond his years. He talks of man amid the glories of nature; man is a glory himself who has not only instinct, but also godhead. His growing interest in real people and their problems began to push abstract ideas from his mind. Folly and vice stimulated his sympathy and caused him to have concern for humanity. He became preoccupied with the nature of good and evil so that his mind was guided and tempered. The moral basis for action, he says, was always the good of humanity. This faith wrought within him a love for the wholesome harmony of all things.

We are whisked abruptly back to London. The poet recollects first coming into town atop an open bus. In a second he underwent a transformation, he says. At that very moment, he felt descend upon him a great weight and a power. The weight was doubtless his obligation to teach humanity through his verse; the awful power was his ability to rise to the challenge.

For the second time in the poem, we have an illustration somewhat reminiscent of Plato's allegory of the cave in the Republic. We are given the picture of a traveler in a grotto who first cannot distinguish shadow from substance. Then all stands out in perfect interrelationship, though flat and lifeless. After a while, through the play of the imagination, little differences develop which break up the monotonous uniformity. This serves Wordsworth as a double-pronged analogy: First, the poet examines the world so minutely that objects are deprived of all individuality; then he must use his own invention to revitalize his world. Second, he likens it to his introduction to London: the first bus ride into town when all was a jumble of sense impressions; his growing familiarity with it, until all seemed matter-of-fact; finally, a seeing again of new patterns in the old familiar picture.

London was the place for an education in worldly ways; as much as the city gave, the poet took. The history of his country excited him anew, and he was thrilled to think he was in the center of history that was being made. He says: "There I conversed with majesty and power / Like independent natures." Not all the vice and misery apparent about him "could overthrow my trust / In what we may become." In fact, the debasement on all sides could only accentuate the unmistakable potential of our souls for goodness.

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