William Wordsworth
The Prelude Book Vl
Cambridge and the Alps

by Ian Mackean

when the light of sense
Goes out in flashes that have shewn to us
The invisible world


William Wordsworth (1770-1850) completed two main versions of his autobiographical epic poem The Prelude, the original version in 1805, and a revised version which was published in 1850. The 1805 version is the one usually studied, and usually considered the better of the two, being more melodic and spontaneous than the more laboured version of 1850. In this essay I shall be discussing the 1805 version, with one or two references to differences in the 1850 version.

Book Vl, entitled, 'Cambridge and the Alps', is structured as a narrative, telling a story which is complete in itself, as well as being part of The Prelude as a whole. The story has an introduction, a climax, and a dénouement. The basic purpose of the story is the same as the purpose throughout The Prelude - as indicated in its subtitle - to chart the 'growth of a poet's mind', with particular emphasis on the importance of nature, which is always at the heart of Wordsworth's philosophy and poetry.

The book starts by picking up the narrative which was left off at the end of book lV, 'Summer Vacation', in which Wordsworth recounts a spiritual turning point in his life.

I made no vows, but vows
Were then made for me; bond unknown to me
Was given, that I should be, else sinning greatly,
A dedicated spirit. (lV 341-4)

This passage shows the poet having found a deep-seated vocation within himself, which is the source of the inner confidence and certitude which pervades the opening section of book Vl. We should note the passive aspect to this spiritual experience, 'Vows were then made for me'. This is an important indication of the receptive attitude of mind which allows the poet to have the kinds of experience he has in book Vl. The poets attitude towards nature is that he goes out to experience it, and in return nature gives him inspiration, insight, education, and delight. It is a two-way process, in which the poet's mind grows and develops.

The book opens with a valediction for his home district, and in the first lines we see the importance of nature:

The leaves were yellow when to Furness Fells,
The haunt of Shepherds, and to cottage life
I bade adieu; (Vl 1-3)

The poet speaks of the landscape as if it were a close friend or relation.

At Cambridge he returns to his 'unlovely cell', the phrase conveying the sense of confinement he feels there, particularly in contrast to the mountains and open spaces of 'rocky Cumberland'. But he is not dejected, he is in 'lightsome mood'. Even when not actually in the landscape of his home he retains the glad feeling which were nourished there, and the revelation that he was to be a 'dedicated spirit' has stayed with him and grown in his soul.

The poet's soul was with me at that time,
Sweet meditations, the still overflow
Of happiness and truth. A thousand hopes
were mine, a thousand tender dreams, (Vl 55-58)

One of the most important effects university has on him 'melt away' the awe he felt towards great writers.

. . . The instinctive humbleness,
Upheld even by the very name and thought
Of printed books and authorship, began
To melt away, and further the dread awe
Of mighty names, was softened down and seem'd
Approachable, admitting fellowship (Vl 69-74)

But he feels restricted and unfulfilled at university. He feels he has a vocation other than academic work and he conveys a sense of being contained within boundaries until the end of his studies brings him 'liberty' (Vl 338) and he and a fellow student set off for the Alps.

When his trip begins there is a distinct change of mood. Although this is a retrospective account he seems to re-experience the gladness and freedom he felt upon beginning his journey, and as readers we share the experience with him. The narrative becomes free-flowing and exuberant. Where his account of university life was only 'shadow'd forth, as far as there is need' (Vl 337) he now lingers over his experiences and responses, filling his verse with colourful details of place as he recollects the sights and sounds of his first experience of France.

The mood of joyfulness is reinforced by the fact that the whole of France was in a state of gladness and celebration. His personal gladness fuses with France's public gladness until the two are inseparable; the emotion of joy is at once outside and inside the poet's mind.

On the walking tour Wordsworth is truly in his element. He walks, and nature unfolds; he looks, and nature shows.

A march it was of military speed,
And earth did change her images and forms
Before us, fast as clouds are chang'd in Heaven. (Vl 428-30)

He conveys the feeling that he is on equal terms with nature - nature teaches and he is receptive to the teaching. He describes in some detail a specific instance of how experience of nature educates him - modifies his perception of reality.

. . . That day we first
Beheld the summit of Mont Blanc, and griev'd
To have a soulless image on the eye
Which had usurp'd upon a living thought
That never more could be: (Vl 452-6)

He found seeing the real mountain disappointing, because it could not match the picture he had formed in his imagination. As the journey continues, however, he finds fascination in the landscape, which did

. . . make rich amends,
And reconcil'd us to realities. (Vl 460-1)

The scenes of country life, such as small birds co-existing with eagles, a reaper at work in the fields, and the threat of winter in the autumn sunshine are all experienced as edifying.

We were not left untouch'd. With such a book
Before our eyes, we could not chuse but read
A frequent lesson of sound tenderness,
The universal reason of mankind,
The truth of Young and Old. (Vl 473-7)

In the 1850 version the message is clarified, line 475 above changing to 'Lessons of genuine brotherhood' (Vl (1850) 545) emphasising his view that responding to nature can lead to a greater understanding and love of mankind.

The climax of Book Vl comes at line 524, when it dawns on them that they have unknowingly crossed the Alps, and its immediate effect spreads over the next 50 lines. The element of surprise is perhaps the most important factor in this climax, and perhaps it shares a quality with the coincidence of arriving in France on a day of national celebration. The common element is that they are both things which 'happened to' the poet, but they are so significant for him that perhaps he 'allowed them to happen'. Although ostensibly the results of chance, or accident, they are deeply personal experiences for him.

He experiences a spiritual catharsis at the point of discovering that his journey is unexpectedly completed, the free-flowing spontaneity of the language conveying to us the uplifting rush of exaltation.

Imagination! lifting up itself
Before the eye and progress of my Song
Like an unfather'd vapour; here that Power,
In all the might of its endowments, came
Athwart me; (Vl 525-9)

The effect is completely spoiled in the 1850 version by the halt in the flow, and the prosaic content:

Imagination - here the Power so called
Through sad incompetence of human speech (Vl (1850) 592-3)

At this climactic moment the poet suddenly found himself 'without a struggle to break through', and found that his existence had been geared towards that struggle. For a moment he glimpsed the mechanism at work in his mind.

Effort, and expectation, and desire
And something evermore about to be. (Vl 541-2)

He feels the ambition to cross the Alps was a trivial one, but it is more than that. Something profoundly mystical, beyond the apprehension of reason, happened.

. . . when the light of sense
Goes out in flashes that have shewn to us
The invisible world, (Vl 534-6)

The strange reversals in this image, in which lights flash out, and, in the absence of light, we see invisible worlds, conveys an uncompromising denial that the normal faculties of consciousness are adequate to discover 'our destiny, our nature, and our home' (Vl 538).

The following section is pervaded by the spiritual insight of the climax, but at a lower and longer-lasting intensity. Descending from the mountains the poet looks around him in the afterglow of the 'flash' he has just experienced. In the natural surrounding he finds himself surrounded by

The types and symbols of Eternity,
Of first and last, and midst, and without end. (Vl 572-3)

This section is evocative of great inexhaustible power, and works through images in which seemingly contradictory ideas combine to form a picture which is full of contained energy and motion.

Of woods decaying, never to be decayed
The stationary blasts of water-falls, (V1 557-8)

Winds thwarting winds, bewilder'd and forlorn,
The torrents shooting from the clear blue sky, (Vl 560-1)

Tumult and peace, the darkness and the light (Vl 567)

In this prolonged climax the poet feels that through communion with nature he has seen into the heart of his own, and by implication, all men's existence.

Formally, the book could have ended with the night's rest in the 'Alpine House', but in keeping with the chronological narrative Wordsworth continues in order to complete the account of his European journey.

The curious incident in which the poet and his companion wake in the middle of the night, thinking it is nearly morning, and walk to the lake in the woods, brings them back down to the physical reality of nature. It is almost the reverse of the climax, though similarly triggered by misapprehension. It is dark, they are afraid, and the sounds and the insects make them uncomfortable. Thus the spiritual catharsis in the Alps was not the end of anything, but was one step on a continuous journey. In fact the continuity of his experience is something the poet is most concerned to emphasise in the closing lines.

. . .not,
in hollow exultation, dealing forth
Hyperboles of praise comparative,
Not rich one moment to be poor for ever, (Vl 662-5)

. . . whate'er
I saw, or heard, or felt, was but a stream
That flow'd into a kindred stream, a gale
That help'd me forwards (Vl 672-5)

This explanation hardly seems necessary, as its meaning suffuses the whole of The Prelude - that is, that for Wordsworth man and nature form an inseparable unity, and no early experiences are lost, they all act upon is to educate us and mould our minds.

Wordsworth, William. The Prelude. 1805. Ed. Ernest de Selincourt. Oxford University Press 1970
Wordsworth, William. The Prelude. A Parallel Text. Ed. J. C. Maxwell. Penguin Books. 1971

© Ian Mackean, April 2007


Search this site
Search the web
Privacy Policy