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About this book

The Prelude is now seen as a central text in the Wordsworth corpus. This Guide identifies and gathers significant critical perspectives, interpretations and debates connected with the poem, contextualising and explaining criticism from the Victorian period right through to the present day.

Table of Contents

Introduction: The ‘Huge and Mighty Forms’ of The Prelude

Abstract
The object of this Guide is to introduce the reader to key critical readings of the great autobiographical poem by William Wordsworth (1770–1850), The Prelude. Commenced in 1798 and periodically expanded and revised until Wordsworth’s death in 1850, the work was never published during the poet’s lifetime, although the manuscript was known to a small circle of friends and relatives, including his sister Dorothy (1771–1855), his friend and collaborator Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772–1834), and the essayist Thomas De Quincey (1785–1859). Despite this history (or perhaps because of it), The Prelude has come to assume a central place in Wordsworth’s literary output. Stated barely, the synopsis of the poem sounds unremarkable: in fourteen books (thirteen in the 1805 version), it charts the poet’s intellectual and emotional development from childhood to early adulthood, encompassing his earliest recollections of growing up in the Lake District and his time at school and Cambridge University, his time spent in London and travelling through France, and his first-hand experiences of the immediate aftermath of the French Revolution in the early 1790s.
Tim Milnes, Nicolas Tredell

Chapter One. In the Cathedral Ruins: The Prelude from Conception to Criticism

Abstract
Few of the great works of English literature had a gestation as troubled and complex as that of The Prelude. Wordsworth began the poem in 1798, and would continue to work on it until his death in 1850. The fact that it was only published posthumously has meant that modern readers often come to the poem unaware that they are dealing with an unusually unstable text, one whose ‘authoritative’ state is the subject of ongoing debate.1 Following the landmark edition of the poem produced by Jonathan Wordsworth, M.H. Abrams, and Stephen Gill for W.W. Norton in 1979, scholars now generally accept that Wordsworth produced at least three main ‘versions’ of the poem at different stages of his career: following an initial, short poem written in 1799, Wordsworth worked steadily on the project until late 1805, when he produced the first version of the full-length Prelude in thirteen books.2 Extensive revisions to this manuscript in subsequent years meant that the ‘official’ text published in fourteen books by his executors in 1850 differs in significant respects to the poem as it had been envisaged by the writer at the age of thirty-five. And yet, until Ernest de Selincourt printed the full text of the 1805 version in 1926, the heavily revised 1850 version of The Prelude was the only one available to the general reader.
Tim Milnes, Nicolas Tredell

Chapter Two. Revaluations: The Early Twentieth Century

Abstract
Despite the decline of the Wordsworthians’, late-Victorian approaches to Wordsworth continued to be framed, overall, within questions of taste, propriety, insight, and personality. These were linked to an index of literary value that owed much to ideas originally developed in Wordsworth’s own time. Thus, for the aesthete Pater, Wordsworth was a poet who captured the quickness of life through his sensory impressions; for the philosopher and intellectual historian Stephen, he was an unsystematic moral philosopher who explored reality through intuition; for the cultural guardian Arnold, he was the critic of ‘life’, whose finest moments appeared in his shorter, lyrical poems. With the advent of the twentieth century, however, important changes occurred to the contexts in which Wordsworth’s poetry was treated. All of these were related, in one way or another, to the single most important reorientation in Wordsworth studies to emerge in the early twentieth century: the ‘rediscovery’ of The Prelude.
Tim Milnes, Nicolas Tredell

Chapter Three. Style, Philosophy, and Phenomenology

Abstract
By the 1960s, a number of new trends are evident in the critical reception of The Prelude. First, critics were eager to locate Wordsworth within a tradition of visionary, prophetic, and apocalyptic writing, one which resonated nicely with the political upheavals in Europe and America in the 1960s and 1970s. At the same time, many commentators were ready to view the complexities of the mind/nature relation in Wordsworth in terms of dialectic rather than paradox. More fundamental still, however, were the transformations that were taking place in the ways in which English literature was studied and taught, changes which, in turn, raised new sets of problems.
Tim Milnes, Nicolas Tredell

Chapter Four. Writing the Self: Deconstruction, Feminism, and Psychoanalysis

Abstract
Hartman’s Wordsworth’s Poetry 1787–1814 marks a watershed in Prelude criticism and commentary. After Hartman, it became increasingly difficult to take Wordsworth’s assertions of the unity of the creative consciousness (and its universal validity) at face value, as what once appeared as the confident, visionary poetic acts of the creative imagination now emerged as fraught compromises between an aggressive but homesick intellect and the authenticating but potentially suffocating presence of nature. Where Hartman treated this instability from the viewpoint of the phenomenology of experience, however, many subsequent critics and theorists would interrogate the very concepts of ‘consciousness’, ‘experience’, and ‘dialectic’ at the heart of his approach. In particular, from around the late 1960s, the intersection of three critical orientations helped to shape an axis of interpretation (or, in many cases, anti-interpretation) that presented a powerful critique of the notion of subjectivity around which Wordsworth’s poem was constructed. Accordingly, this chapter concentrates on the influence of deconstructive, feminist, and psychoanalytic approaches to The Prelude in this period.
Tim Milnes, Nicolas Tredell

Chapter Five. Spots of Time: The New Historicism

Abstract
Notwithstanding the latest developments in Prelude commentary discussed in the following, final chapter of this volume, critical debate over the poem continues to be influenced (positively or negatively) by the methods and agendas of the New Historicism. Originally a reaction within Renaissance studies against the textual formalism of both the New Criticism and the ‘Yale School’ of deconstruction, New Historicism emerged in North America in the early 1980s, and soon formed a British offshoot (sometimes termed ‘Cultural Materialism’) with its own distinct characteristics. It had its roots in the theory of the fluid interrelationship between representations and ‘regimes’ of truth and power advanced by the French thinker Michel Foucault (1926–84); the account by the American anthropologist Clifford Geertz (1906–2006) of the indispensability of ‘thick’ evaluative descriptions in interpretation, and the concept of ‘metahistory’ as the ineliminably rhetorical narrative of history, as propounded by the American historiographer Hayden White (born 1928).
Tim Milnes, Nicolas Tredell

Chapter Six. The Prelude and the Present

Abstract
As Wordsworth himself discovered while writing The Prelude, the closer historical events press on the writer, the more difficult it becomes to represent them with a sense of coherence and direction. And so, as we turn to survey the most recent and ‘present’ Prelude criticism, detecting ‘developments’ and ‘new directions’ inevitably involves more than a modest amount of guesswork and a certain amount of divination. At the close of the first decade of the twenty-first century, it is probably fair to say that no new theory or methodology has emerged to dominate Romantic literary criticism in the manner that New Criticism did in the 1950s and 1960s, or the way that New Historicism managed to do in the 1980s and early 1990s. It may be, indeed, that the age of major critical orthodoxies, those master narratives of literary studies, is itself at an end. That said, it is possible to descry certain movements in the types of debate being conducted about the poem over the past decade or so, and the purpose of this chapter is to introduce students of The Prelude to the most significant and interesting of these.
Tim Milnes, Nicolas Tredell

Conclusion: The Prelude Revisited

Abstract
In concluding, I would like to return to Jonathan Bishop’s claim, originally cited in Chapter 2, that ‘The Prelude is at the center of our experience of Wordsworth; at the center of our experience of The Prelude are those “spots of time” where Wordsworth is endeavouring to express key moments in the history of his imagination’. These ‘spots’ he lists as the events surrounding
■ the famous Stolen Boat episode, the Dedication to poetry, the Discharged Soldier, the Dream of the Arab-Quixote, the memory of the Winander Boy, the Drowned Man, Entering London, the father and the Child and the Blind Beggar, Simplon Pass, The Night in Paris, Robespierre’s Death, and Snowdon?1
Tim Milnes, Nicolas Tredell
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