The poem was intended as the prologue to a long three-part epic and philosophical poem, The Recluse. Though Wordsworth planned this project when he was in his late 20s, he went to his grave at 80 years old having written to some completion only The Prelude and the second part (The Excursion), leaving no more than fragments of the rest.
Wordsworth planned to write this work together with Samuel Taylor Coleridge, their joint intent being to surpass John Milton's Paradise Lost (Table Talk II.70–71; IG3). Had The Recluse been completed, it would have been approximately three times longer than Paradise Lost (33,000 lines versus 10,500); often, in his letters, Wordsworth commented that he was plagued with agony because he failed to finish the work. In the 1850 introduction, Wordsworth explains what the original idea, inspired by his "dear friend" Coleridge, was: "to compose a philosophical Poem, containing views of Man, Nature, and Society, and to be entitled the Recluse; as having for its principal subject, the sensations and opinions of a poet living in retirement."
Coleridge's inspiration and interest is evidenced in his letters. For instance, in 1799 he writes to Wordsworth: "I am anxiously eager to have you steadily employed on 'The Recluse'... I wish you would write a poem, in blank verse, addressed to those who, in consequence of the complete failure of the French Revolution, have thrown up all hopes of amelioration of mankind, and are sinking into an almost Epicurean selfishness, disguising the same under the soft titles of domestic attachment and contempt for visionary philosophies. It would do great good, and might form a Part of 'The Recluse'." (STC to WW, Sept. 1799).
In the 1850 edition, Wordsworth pays tribute to Coleridge in his introduction, saying that the "work [is] addressed to a dear friend, most distinguished for his knowledge and genius, and to whom the author's intellect is deeply indebted."