The Prelude is the first major narrative poem in European literature which deals solely with the spiritual journey of the author. In this respect the only predecessor to which it can be compared in Dante’s Divine Comedy, which is similarly a journey from personal confusion to certitude, from ignorance to realization. However, Dante starts his journey at the age of 35, and, through a lengthy rite of passage, involving both moral and intellectual purification, arrives at a state of illumination that he is not really able to describe. In The Prelude, on the other hand, illumination appears as the background on which the story is inscribed. Wordsworth is really no wiser at the end of his journey than he was at the start, but appears more accepting of the inexorable and sometimes bewildering fluctuations in the flow of human life. Despite Wordsworth’s occasional graceful genuflection to Providence, the poem has a secularity which would have been anathema to a writer like Dante, ensconced in the theocratic fastness of the Middle Ages.
The tone of the Prelude is gentle and reflective. Almost completely absent are the crashing cadences of narrative poems like the Aeneid and Paradise Lost, and there is nothing to match the terrible and multifarious griefs endured by so many characters in Dante’s Inferno. Wordsworth led an unheroic life, made remarkable by intensity of observation rather than incident. This is not to suggest that Wordsworth was unfamiliar with either grief or difficulty, but rather that he could accommodate such troubles in his view of life, which seems never to have quite lost its lustre.
The Prelude may be considered as Wordsworth’s crowning achievement, and one not really matched by any other poet. Despite the poem’s intractably self-referential nature, Wordsworth does not come across as either vain or tedious. The avoidance of tedium is largely due to his incomparable versification, which is a shining example of “the art which conceals art.” Nor are we tempted to see Wordsworth as unduly self-centred, because he communicates the potential glory of everyday events in a way that the reader (or listener) is drawn to share them. A hundred years before T.S.Eliot Wordsworth had arrived “'where we started “ and had “known that place for the first time.” (Summary by Algy Pug)
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