The Prelude By William Wordsworth Summary and Analysis Book 9: Residence in France

Summary

Wordsworth likens his own attempt to recapture the formative past to the meandering of a river. When it is threatened with dissolution by absorption into the sea, it tries to work its way back to its origins. He apologizes for his digressions and compares himself to a traveler who has reached a commanding summit and views all before him. He "strives, from that height, with one and yet one more / Last Look" lest he disregard some significant feature. The poet vows once more to forge ahead.

In London, he was free as a colt. He went everywhere and sought not the distinguished person but the simpler things in life. After a year, he determined to return to France; he had fond memories of it from his earlier journey. His destination was Orléans, a small, quiet town on the Loire River. His route from the Channel lay through Paris. There he visited some of the sights connected with contemporary history. He mentions the Champ de Mars, the Faubourg St. Antoine, Montmartre, and the Pantheon (in his day the Church of St. Geneviève). He says: "I saw the Revolutionary Power / Toss like a ship at anchor, rocked by storms." He describes the hectic scene around the Palais Royale. He saw in the faces of the crowd both hope and fear. At the site of the Bastille, he picked up a stone as a souvenir "affecting more emotion than I felt." The Magdalene of the painter Le Brun thrilled him more than the places connected with the Revolution.

Going on to Orléans, he found himself fascinated with local manners and customs and tended to ignore the revolutionary fervor. He confesses an ignorance of the origins of the Revolution and its aims. He read the pamphlets and attended the meetings of learned societies. But he was brought to identify with the Revolution only after the initial violence had died, and then only through his love for the ordinary people. However, he found himself presently most at home with a certain band of military officers stationed at Orléans. They were all members of the upper classes. In political sympathies, they were Royalists, naturally, and almost to a man they dreamed of turning back the tide of the growing Revolution.

At this point, Wordsworth began a friendship with Michel Beaupuy that was to have a profound influence on his intellectual outlook. He says of the officer who befriended him that he was a young man in the prime of life, but that the trials of life and circumstances of the time have aged him prematurely. The poet says it is "an hour of universal ferment"; he thinks the future will judge the present harshly. He says that the group of officers befriended him and tried to win him to their cause because he was an Englishman and a youth.

The poet was simply indifferent to the political and social lessons of history; he responded to events only as drama. He always felt dislike for royalty and mere pomp and observed that those who ruled were often the least worthy. In his childhood environment, he had been taught that money and noble blood were worthless if strength of character did not accompany them. He praises the academic institutions in that they strive to create a democratic community and award honors only on the basis of personal merit. In fact, the slow development of Wordsworth's enthusiasm for the liberating effect of the Revolution was because he took it for granted that liberty was an inalienable right and long overdue.

All about him the youth of the country were proceeding to the frontier to confront the nations in coalition against France. Some of the scenes of farewell rent the poet's heart. He looked upon them as part of the redeeming price to pay for liberty.

His favorite officer (Beaupuy) was a patriot, he says, and was hence rejected by his fellows. Wordsworth calls him meek and benign, and describes him as passing through the revolutionary chaos with perfect faith in man:

Man he loved
As man; and, to the mean and the obscure,
And all the homely in their homely works,
Transferred a courtesy which had no air
Of condescension.

Alone together, the two frequently talked politics. They also discussed humanity's inclinations and noble aims, history and its leaders, the foundling or amalgamation of new nations where none existed before. To natural man they imputed only the loftiest motives:

Elate we looked
Upon their virtues; saw, in rudest men,
Self-sacrifice the firmest; generous love,
And continence of mind, and sense of right,
Uppermost in the midst of fiercest strife.

Wordsworth says it is wonderful on

some nameless rill,
To ruminate, with interchange of talk,
On rational liberty, and hope in man,
Justice and peace.

He likens Beaupuy to the type of deliverer who arises in time of crisis — the true philosopher who risks his life to try and put his political philosophy into action. The poet recollects Beaupuy's death on the banks of the Loire and is glad the soldier did not live to see the tyranny of Napoleon, who had declared himself emperor in 1804.

Wordsworth recalls their walks along the Loire prior to Beaupuy's death. They talked of politics; but the poet's mind kept wandering away from the subject to people and the woods with fanciful characters. The sight of convents closed by the revolutionaries caused the poet remorse. The sight of Chateau de Blois causes them to reflect on the dissoluteness of kings and on their absolutist ways. The sight of a half-starved peasant girl who leads an emaciated cow causes the poet's friend to cry out against the injustice which produces the many poor and the few rich. Both the companions were filled with a faith that the ancient regime and its system of privilege would soon pass.

Wordsworth refers to the tale of Vaudracour and Julia, which was told to him by Beaupuy. It was a tale of young love, typical in its frustration which was caused by the overvaluation of status and position in pre-revolutionary France. Vaudracour and Julia had grown up together in a small town in the heart of France. They feel deeply in love, but Vaudracour's father disapproved of any union because a member of the nobility would degrade himself in marrying a maid of no rank. The lovers finally decided to defy the father. Julia had an illegitimate child. The father continued to conspire against the couple. Julia at length entered a convent to escape persecution. Her lover retired with the child to a lodge in the forest. Soon after, the child died, and Vaudracour was left to lose his reason in the lonely solitude.

The passage was originally written in 1804 and intended for Book 9. It ran to 380 lines and made Book 9 disproportionately long. However, for some reason Wordsworth excised the section, reduced it to 308 lines, and published it as a separate poem in 1820. It was considered one of his dullest, but critics valued it as an autobiographical account of his affair with Annette Vallon. The passion, frustration, and remorse in the poem are reminiscent of the feelings which actually pervaded the affair of the poet with his French mistress. In the lines that remain in Book 9, Wordsworth alludes to these feelings and remarks ruefully that the leveling of class distinctions by the Revolution came too late to save Vaudracour.

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