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In the stichic passage from William Wordsworth’s autobiographical poem The Prelude, the speaker, who represents Wordsworth himself, encounters unfamiliar aspects of the natural world. The passage is a bildungsroman in verse, a coming-of-age poem that chronicles the psychological growth of the speaker. In the passage, Wordsworth deals with two separate streams of consciousness—one former and one current—to highlight the speaker’s changing responses to his experiences in the natural world.
Wordsworth sets the passage in a secluded part of nature to isolate the speaker, allowing him to form a sense of consciousness, or self-awareness on his own. After finding a boat by serendipity and setting sail in the lake at dusk, the beauty of nature transfixes the speaker. The speaker’s fascination with the natural world causes him to speak in a tone of veneration, as if at the mercy of a force greater than himself.
From the point of view of first-person, Wordsworth creates the speaker who presents the story of Wordsworth’s former self, giving the reader a direct insight to the speaker’s thoughts and feelings. This point of view highlights the speaker’s developing consciousness and his changing responses to his experience in the natural world.
Wordsworth structures the passage to take on the form of a cycle; he first develops the story through diction and imagery, then uses a change in tone to suggest that the speaker encounters a crisis, and finally has the speaker recover from this crisis and ultimately become conscious of himself and his surroundings. The passage makes a complete cycle before the speaker realizes “[the] trouble to [his] dreams” (Wordsworth line 44), meaning that he becomes self-aware, while at the same time recognizing his relative insignificance in the natural world.
This cycle parallels the speaker’s own consciousness, as he too goes from enlightenment to disenchantment. The irony that stems from this process is that the speaker’s disenchantment, not enlightenment, is what ultimately makes him self-aware. Through the use of diction, imagery, and tone, Wordsworth suggests that the speaker’s initial admiration for nature comes from the positive impact it has on his developing consciousness both aesthetically and emotionally. Although the speaker encounters unknown aspects of nature, it nevertheless satisfies and transforms him due to the sense of unity and contentment it brings him. The speaker sees the natural world as a solace—a place where he can reflect and transcend his past.
As the passage progresses, however, Wordsworth uses a change in tone to suggest that the speaker’s attitude towards nature drastically alters. This duality of meaning—of going from one extreme to the other—indicates the speaker’s varying responses to nature. Wordsworth uses the passage as a whole to indicate that the unfamiliar aspects of nature serve as a metaphor for the speaker’s own developing consciousness, and that for the speaker overcome his past, he must experience something unknown. After enduring this process, the speaker will realize the natural world’s true power over humanity, and will therefore become self-aware.
Wordsworth uses diction to convey that the speaker’s initial relationship with nature is harmonious, which highlights the fact that he is still naïve because he is yet to realize the natural world’s dominance over mankind; his hubris, or excessive pride blinds him to reality, and through this indication Wordsworth stresses the importance that the speaker must isolate himself in order to become self-aware. The passage takes place “One summer evening” (line 1). During this uncertain time of day, the sky is neither sunny nor dark. Wordsworth indicates that much like the sky this evening, the way that the natural world looks to human beings constantly changes.
The transient world of nature parallels the speaker’s changing attitude towards his experience in the natural world. Led by Mother Nature, the speaker comes across “A little boat tied to a willow tree” (line 2) and decides to take it out in the water. He describes this decision as “an act of stealth / And troubled pleasure” (lines 5-6), revealing to the reader that he knows of his offense, yet he does not care because his desire for adventure outweighs the potential risks of stealing the boat. The diction that Wordsworth uses—“stealth” and “troubled pleasure”—connotes the wrongdoing of the speaker. The oxymoron of “troubled pleasure” creates a paradoxical image in which the reader can see the speaker’s contradictory attitude towards stealing the boat. On one hand, he is aware of his transgression and its possible repercussions, but on the other, he knows that the natural world will provide him solace from the real world and thus decides to take a risk.
In addition, as the speaker begins to row the boat, he hears the “voice / Of mountain-echoes” (lines 6-7), which serves as a metaphor for his own consciousness.
The personification that Wordsworth uses emphasizes the importance of imagery and how it conveys the unfamiliarity of the natural world to the speaker. Nature provides an endless range of possibilities to which the speaker is unaccustomed, and his description of “the horizon’s utmost boundary” (line 15) symbolizes just that. Wordsworth creates an irony when describing the horizon, suggesting that although the speaker speaks assuredly and knows what he wants, his goal is elusive and therefore his efforts to reach it will ultimately be futile. The symbol of the horizon represents the speaker’s intangible goal. Just like his goal, no matter how close he comes to the horizon, it will always be that much farther from him.
The speaker’s hubris stymies him from reaching his goal. This hubris is evident when he says, “With an unswerving line, I fixed my view / Upon the summit of a craggy ridge” (lines 13-14). The speaker is so confident in himself that his arrogance outweighs his rationality. He is assured in his abilities to overcome the challenges that the natural world presents him. Wordsworth’s use of diction, specifically the word “unswerving” (line 13), delineates the speaker’s excessive pride and egotism.
Wordsworth uses the development part of the passage to emphasize the speaker’s need for adventure and to also indicate that he looks to nature as a source of both excitement and comfort. In this part of the passage, Wordsworth associates the speaker with the sense of freedom—the ability for the speaker to do as he wishes without outside influence—that the natural world brings him.
As the passage progresses, Wordsworth uses a change in tone to suggest that the crisis is forthcoming; through this crisis Wordsworth indicates that the speaker’s hubris has been blinding him to reality, and that in order for him to become self-aware, he must experience a crisis that will destroy his hubris and make him self-aware. Wordsworth writes, “lustily / I dipped my oars into the silent lake” (lines 17-18) to contrast this tone with speaker’s upcoming change in tone after he encounters the crisis. At this point in the passage, the beauty of the natural world still fascinates the speaker. The word “lustily” connotes a sexual reference, as Wordsworth further accentuates the speaker’s enthrallment for nature through his use of diction.
Wordsworth also uses the literary technique of enjambment to delay the intention of the speaker’s emotion towards the natural world by breaking the phrase into two. This enjambment gives the phrase a duality of meaning and directly relates to the speaker’s developing consciousness, suggesting that he still innately possesses hubris. The speaker loses his hubris, however, when the passage reaches its crucial turning point as the tone switches from a sense of confidence to uncertainty and trepidation. The speaker describes the ominous figure he is approaching as, “The ho / rizon’s / bound, a / huge peak, / black and / huge” (lines 22).
Wordsworth uses repetition to emphasize the omnipotence of the peak. He also uses a caesura to indicate the change in tone; by adding this medial pause, he accentuates the importance of the peak and how it directly alters the speaker’s attitude towards the natural world. Additionally, he adds a terminal half-foot to the line, which contains five iambs, to again underline the size of the peak and to diverge from the blank verse structure of the passage. This addition of an extra syllable emphasizes the powering figure of the peak by repeating the word “huge” and varies the structure of the passage by making this line eleven syllables instead of the customary ten.
Also, Wordsworth refers to the horizon with the definite article “the” instead of the indefinite article “a,” signifying that the horizon is a fixed location. This fixed horizon symbolizes the speaker’s unrealistic goal. He only sees his future with respect to only one goal, which indicates that his hubris has ultimately prevented him from reaching this elusive goal. To further emphasize his apprehension, the speaker says that the grim shape “[t]owered / up be / tween me / and the / stars, and / still” (lines 25-26). Wordsworth again adds a terminal half-foot to this line to alter the structure of the passage and to accentuate the size peak. The verb “towered” personifies the peak in a powerful and intimidating way. He also uses diction when he says “voluntary power” (line 23) and “measured motion” (line 28) to describe the peak. Its large stature becomes an adversary that the speaker must overcome.
Further, to confirm the change in tone, Wordsworth says, “For so it seemed with purpose of its own / And measured motion like a living thing, / Strode after me” (lines 27-29). The speaker’s hubris has been destroyed. He no longer sees the natural world as conquerable, but rather as the greatest of supernatural forces. His initial sense of pleasure and contentment turns into trepidation, and through the change in tone, Wordsworth suggests that though the speaker thought that he could subject nature to his goal and that it would yield to him, in reality it would not because of its dominance over humanity.
Wordsworth ends the passage with an overwhelming tone of desolation and despair to indicate that the speaker’s initial perception of nature has completely changed; he now views the natural world with fear and contempt, and through this change in perspective,
Wordsworth suggests that the speaker is finally self-aware because he realizes that nature dominates mankind. After encountering the crisis, the speaker returns “[b]ack to the covert of the willow tree” (line 31). Initially, the speaker viewed the willow tree without regard, but following the crisis, the willow tree turns into a symbol of safety and protection for the speaker. Upon his return to the willow tree, the speaker has time to reflect on his experience in the natural world. He states: “But after I had seen / That spectacle, for many days, my brain / Worked with a dim and undetermined sense / Of unknown modes of being” (lines 34-37). The way that the speaker mediates upon his own life completely changes following his encounter in the natural world. He now reminisces upon his experience in the natural world and is overcome with a feeling of isolation and helplessness. His fear transforms into awareness of himself and of the natural forces greater than him. He claims there are “[n]o familiar shapes / […] no pleasant images” (lines 39-40).
From an initial feeling of foreboding, to one of confidence, and finally to an understanding of nature’s omnipotence, the speaker finally realizes that the natural world is insurmountable and therefore recognizes its dominance over humanity. In this section of the passage, Wordsworth utilizes diction to convey the sense of desolation that the speaker feels. He uses words such as “dim” (line 36), “solitude” (line 38), and “desertion” (line 39) to evoke a feeling of seclusion for the speaker and a sense of hopelessness for the future. After his experience in the natural world, the speaker comes to an epiphany, or sudden realization. He understands the “huge and mighty forms, that do not live/ Like living men” (lines 42-43)—a simile that reiterates human weakness in comparison to nature. In coming to the understanding of mankind’s insignificance in relation to the natural world, the speaker understands that nature rules all forms of existence, which destroys his hubris and makes him self-aware.
In The Prelude, William Wordsworth uses the natural world as a metaphor for the speaker’s developing consciousness, suggesting that the speaker must experience something unknown in order to transform and become self-aware. As the passage progresses, Wordsworth uses a change in tone to emphasize the fact that the speaker loses his hubris, which ultimately makes him aware of himself and his surroundings. Wordsworth uses the passage as a whole to indicate that although the natural world is beautiful and magnificent, it is at the same time omnipotent and unforgiving; the speaker must realize this duality of meaning before he can overcome his past. By the end of the passage, the speaker becomes self-aware through his understanding of the natural world’s true power as a supernatural force.
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