Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Wordsworth's Prelude (Lines 150-169)

Wordsworth’s poem, The Prelude, begins by telling us about Wordsworth’s narrator’s idyllic childhood when he lived in some sort of harmony with nature, moving easily about between the snares he left to catch birds in the woods (31-49), the nests from which he once stole ravens’ eggs (53-59), and other such scenes of balance between the young man and the environment. Yet in the midst of this peace, Wordsworth suddenly changes his tone and foreshadows the alienation from nature that the narrator will experience as he grows older. The first signal of this approaching gulf might comes from the fact that this verse is set in “the frosty season” (150), when the waters and crags are covered by “polished ice” (157). The frosty season (which the reader understands to be winter) is a time when nature seems dead to human observers, the greenery that we associate with the outdoors being killed by the chill, most animals being more dormant than in warmer times, and much of the normally available water supply being at risk of freezing (making access to it a more difficult, if not impossible, matter). This sense that these sources of life and beauty are dormant or inaccessible (as well as the fact that winter is itself associated with aging) plays a major part in Wordsworth’s argument that nature as a whole is becoming less accessible to the narrator as he grows older. Wordsworth makes a point that his narrator is only losing touch with nature and has not yet lost touch when his narrator does not “heed the summons” of the bell tower that would call him back to the civilized world of the town (153-154). Yet even this show of resistance is marked for termination–though at first Wordsworth seems to be relating himself to a wild horse that “cares not for its home,” he then reveals that the horse of his metaphor is already domesticated and therefore bound to be drawn into civilization again eventually despite his love for untamed nature (155-156). The domesticated nature of this horse is revealed when Wordsworth shows that his horse is “shod with steel,” referring to the shoes that owners put on their horses to protect their hooves (156). A horseshoe works by preventing a horse’s hoof from making contact with the earth beneath it, acting as a barrier between the horse and a form of nature, the ground itself. It is this alienating device that Wordsworth places on his narrator’s feet, though in this case it is in the form of an ice skate which the narrator and the other people who have apparently accompanied him (indicated by the “we” of line 157). The ice skate also represents man’s innovation being put to use to subjugate nature, overcoming the obstacle of ice and forcing nature to serve as a means of transportation for humans skidding across the frozen surfaces of ponds. This is a relatively harmless device of subjugation, and Wordsworth presents it more as a child’s means of play in this verse, but it foreshadows harsher devices that man makes out of iron that are used to domesticate nature for man’s careless use. The sounds of the children’s voices create a chaotic “din” (162) in the once-silent (and once-peaceful) woods and craggy peaks, and the only noise that the narrator describes apart from this din of human voices is the sound of “iron” echoing back to him from the precipices and narrow places in the cliffs (165). These echoes of manmade sound are “alien” (166) to the narrator, who has grown up with little more than the sublime quiet of nature around him. Not only does the word alien here describe the humans and mark them as out of place in this natural haven, but the fact that these strange noises are echoing back to him from a natural place suggests the perception of nature as the source of alien things that the narrator will acquire as he grows into his identity as a civilized human being. To finish off this neat package of age and alienation, Wordsworth ends the verse with a brilliant sunset as the “orange sky of evening died” (169) as though to mark the rapidly approaching end of Wordsworth’s days as a child living in harmony with nature, the last beautiful glimpse he will have of a fully accessible nature for a long time.

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