A Window into Wordsworth’s World In his book Romantics and Renegades: The Poetics of Political Reaction, Charles Mahoney contends that apostasy is “a failure which is figured as a falling” (3); he furthers his claim by analyzing “the dilemma of romantic apostasy as the poetics of a political reaction” (ibid, 12). Having spent time in both France and London during the years of revolutionary upheaval, William Wordsworth permeated his autobiographical epic, The Prelude, with a comprehensive consciousness that is based on his eyewitness account of the way in which Britain politically responded to France in the aftermath of the French Revolution (Gill, 20). Wordsworth’s apostasy in the wake of the French Revolution led William Hazlitt, in his essay lauding the necessity of “Consistency of Opinion,” to label the poet “a vile antithesis, a living and ignominious satire on himself” (33). Criticizing Wordsworth’s political about-face, a number of critics contend that this reversal led to a decline in the poet’s work that he was unable to recover from. An examination of the so-called “Revolution books” of The Prelude, IX, X and XI, will show that, far from being an author who’s “political theories sit loose upon him, and may be changed like his clothes” (ibid, 34), Wordsworth’s seemingly abrupt political defection resulted from an internal and conflicting depression caused by utter disillusionment with the violence of the French Revolution, a depression he referred to as “the crisis of that strong disease / …the soul’s last and lowest ebb” (Prelude, XI. 306-307)1; additionally this alternate analysis will provide an insight into his later poetry, The Excursion in particular, as benefiting from the way in which Wordsworth responded to his “crisis,” with an analogical and instinctive movement towards nature that “conducted [him] again to open day, / Revived the feelings of [his] earlier life, / Gave [him] that strength and knowledge full of peace / … never more to be disturbed” (X. 923-926). Despite his deep disenchantment and despondency regarding the failure of the French Revolution Wordsworth was able to ingeniously turn his personal crisis of political allegiance into a reconstructing of his ideals so that his understanding of the failure of his previously held political principles allayed itself into the creation of some of his greatest works of post-apostasy poetry.
We must, says George Soule, consider The Prelude as a narrative. This assumption leads to two questions: what the narrative is saying about the central character in terms of his thoughts and actions during the chronicle and what the narrator of the story, the same man, speaking retrospectively, thinks about his earlier persona.
Richard Gravil opens his essay, “Some Other Being: Wordsworth in The Prelude,” by stating that “there is no doubt that the three revolutionary books of the 1850 text of The Prelude are intended to present a spectacle of woe, an illustration of human ignorance and guilt” (321). According to Gravil, Wordsworth confesses that he “has been capable of being parted from his better self” and presents himself as ‘lured’ into France, “overconfident in his capacity to understand the course of history, and ‘enchanted’ by revolutionary illusions” (ibid). The poet presents a cautionary tale of the dangers of becoming excessively overwhelmed by the fervor of something without a true understanding of its nuances. True to Gravil’s assertion of Wordsworth’s inadequate grasp of history, the poet himself confesses his ignorance: I stood ‘mid those concussions, unconcerned, Tranquil almost, and careless as a flower ……………………… While every bush and tree, the country through, Is shaking to the roots: indifference this Which may seem strange: but I was unprepared With needful knowledge, had abruptly passed Into a theater, whose stage was filled And busy with an action far advanced