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May 24, 2014

#38:  THE NOISE OF WOOD AND WATER.    Poets of the Romantic period seem almost all to have felt the urge to write an epic or long poem.  The classic examples of Homer and Virgil and Lucretius were very live to them; Pope’s Homer and Dryden’s Latin translations had returned the classic authors’ presence to English readers; Spenser and Milton towered over them.  Blake as usual went his own way; Byron belatedly turned the form to comic use with Don Juan.  The idea of the long verse narrative grappled with the new popularity of the novel; the notion haunted Keats, whose real gift was lyric; even Clare wrote the book-length Shepherd's Calendar.  And so on, past Southey’s unreadable epics to the present day.  Wordsworth’s Prelude in this context is something of an oddity—the great literary expression of the old joke that life is what happens when you’re making other plans.  Wordsworth had it in mind to write a vast poem, The Recluse, Or Views on Man, Nature and Society, which was intended as his great omnivorous catch-all; “I know not of anything,” he wrote, “which will not come within the scope of my poem.”  The formlessness of the idea eventually defeated him (thank God).  The Prelude was written as a warm-up:  a look within, preparatory to a look around.  Wordsworth, every bit as much as Whitman, contained multitudes, and the look within came to encompass the Derwent, the Lake District, Wordsworth’s school days and time at Cambridge, the hopes and disasters of the French Revolution, and finally “the noise of wood and water”—the communion with nature, wherein the borders of the self are felled.  Much has been made (with some justice) of Wordsworth’s egotism and nature writing, but The Prelude transcends all such easy criticism:  it has dead moments, both Saxon and Latinate, but much of it is as wondrous and enlarging as any verse written in English.  The Prelude seems to me, more than any other poem, a place you can visit—enter it at any point and the tide of Wordsworth’s voice will meet you, welcome you and carry you along.

      The much-revised 1850 text was for years the standard reading version; but Ernest de Selincourt published and popularized the earlier 1805 text.  Each version has its advantages, but the 1805 text is the one I return to:  it’s still in print, from Oxford.  If you’re feeling studious, Penguin did an edition with parallel texts.

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