The Prelude Background

The Prelude Background

In 1805, as he was reviewing the long creative process that would ultimately result in the posthumous publication of his epic verse The Prelude, William Wordsworth observed that the poem originated from an intense and overwhelming feeling that he was “unprepared to treat any more arduous subject” than his autobiography. In keeping with such a difficult and time-consuming task of addressing such an arduous subject, there is no such thing as one official version of the poem that is universally accepted as the vision that Wordsworth originally set for himself.

In fact, William Wordsworth never titled his work The Prelude and died before seeing it published. His widow endowed the unrelenting self-examination of what it means to become a poet composed in blank verse with its title shortly before publishing the first version in 1850. Each of the various existing versions to which the title The Prelude has been attached were conceived by the poet with the intention of becoming part of a far more ambitious magnum opus titled The Recluse. Alas, Wordsworth never quite got around to completing The Recluse before his death.

The text which Mrs. Wordsworth published in 1850 was actually based upon a manuscript which had been completed in 1839. And even that version was the result of three comprehensive revisions and a host of other minor editing tasks. Some 45 years before The Prelude finally saw publication, Wordsworth read a version it is entirety to his good friend and fellow legendary Romantic poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge. That 1805 version encompassed 13 books and was highlighted by passages revealing the depths of his despair in the wake of the failure of the French Revolution.

Since the discovery of that 1805 version in 1926, another major version of the work has come to light in the form of a much shorter version given the name The Two-Part Prelude of 1799. The expansion into the much longer epic version eventually published is marked by the incorporation of mythic themes and universal concepts that underscore the more individual and personal nature of its autobiographical conceit of a life lived as a circular odyssey that ends back where it started. Wordsworth’s personal journey through his schoolboy youth, education at Cambridge, his famous tour through the Alps and the dashing of the high hopes raised by the rebellious fervor that stimulated the French Revolution are all seamlessly integrated to create a poem truly epic in scope despite the lack of larger than life heroes, gods, and mighty battles.

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