The Prelude: Haunted by the Artistic Vocation

I am prepping for a lecture on William Wordsworth and as such I am revisiting The Prelude. Every time I read the poem, I ask myself why I don’t read it more often. It is quite simply one of the best reflections on the psychology of the artist.

For example, take the following striking passage from Book I. The poet has just recounted all the many poems he has tried to write, poems with ambitious and noble themes, but poems that ultimately fall flat, that fail to satisfy. He wonders if and hopes that “mellower years will bring a riper mind / And clearer insight.” He feels an intense call to create beauty, but he can’t seem to deliver.

He continues:

Thus my days are passed

In contradiction; with no skill to part

Vague longing, haply bred by want of power,

From paramount impulse not to be withstood,

A timorous capacity, from prudence,

From circumspection, infinite delay.

Humility and modest awe, themselves

Betray me, serving often for a cloak

To a more subtle selfishness; that now

Locks every function up in blank reserve,

Now dupes me, trusting to an anxious eye

That with intrusive restlessness beats off

Simplicity and self-presented truth.

Ah! better far than this, to stray about

Voluptuously through fields and rural walks,

And ask no record of the hours, resigned

To vacant musing, unreproved neglect

Of all things, and deliberate holiday.

Far better never to have heard the name

Of zeal and just ambition, than to live

Baffled and plagued by a mind that every hour

Turns recreant to her task; takes heart again,

Then feels immediately some hollow thought

Hang like an interdict upon her hopes.

This is my lot; for either still I find

Some imperfection in the chosen theme,

Or see of absolute accomplishment

Much wanting, so much wanting, in myself,

That I recoil and droop, and seek repose

In listlessness from vain perplexity,

Unprofitably travelling toward the grave,

Like a false steward who hath much received

And renders nothing back.


(lines 237-69)



A fruitful counterpoint here.


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