Tag Archives: William Wordsworth William Wordsworth The Prelude William Wordsworth The Prelude Or Growth of a Poet’s Mind Roger Smith Roger W. Smith Ernest de Selincourt The composition of verse is infinitely mor

the product of prolonged, intense labor



Even if Wordsworth had published The Prelude on its completion in 1805, it would not have appeared exactly as it is found in the A text; for no poet ever revised his work for press more meticu­lously than he. Writing in 1816 of some minor pieces which he had just composed he calls them ‘effusions rather than compositions, though in justice to myself I must say that upon the correction of the style I have bestowed, as I always do, great labour’. ‘The composition of verse’ , he wrote later, ‘is infinitely more an art than men are prepared to believe, and absolute success in it depends on innumerable minutiae . … Milton speaks of pouring “easy his unpremeditated verse”. It would be harsh, untrue, and odious to say there is anything like cant in this, but it is not true to the letter, and tends to mislead.’ He might have added that his own description of poetry as ‘the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings’ was liable to the same misconstruction. For experience had taught him that this ‘spontaneous overflow’ was no more than the raw material of art. It was easy enough to give those feelings a loose impressionistic language adequate to record them for himself. But such language was not poetry: it had not really expressed them, and could not transmit them to others. The poet, Wordsworth knew well, was a craftsman, who must toil with unremitting patience at every detail of his work, till it has gained a clearer outline, a fuller substance: not otherwise could it acquire that organic power which is the sure touchstone of art:

The vital spirit of a perfect form.

The labour that Wordsworth bestowed on revision was at least equal to that of first composition, and was pursued when less scrupulous artists would have been well content to leave their work untouched. To Coleridge in 1798 “The Ruined Cottage” [The Excursion, Book I] was ‘superior to anything in our language which in any way resembles it’, yet three years later Wordsworth is found wearing himself out in trying to make it better. The slightness of the difference be­tween many passages found in the rough notebooks, where they were jotted down in the hurry of immediate inspiration, and the form they have assumed in the A text, affords ample proof that Wordsworth was postponing correction rather than that he was satisfied with his work as it stood. It is reasonable, therefore, to suppose that had he prepared it for press in 1805 he would have introduced into the text many of those changes which made their first appearance at a much later date.

Cf. the following fragment of verse, found in an (unpunctuated) autograph manuscript belonging to 1798-1800, which shows how fully Wordsworth understood a principle underlying all great art:


nor had my voice
Been silent oftentimes, had I burst forth
In verse which, with a strong and random light Touching an object in its prominent parts, Created a memorial which to me
Was all sufficient, and, to my own mind Recalling the whole picture, seemed to speak An universal language. Scattering thus
In passion many a desultory sound,
I deemed that I had adequately cloathed
Meanings at which I hardly hinted, thought
And forms of which I scarcely had produced
A monument and arbitrary sign.


[Then is a lacuna in the MS. here; the argument clearly requires some such words as When I reviewed this random and desultory verse I saw its worthlessness, and came to realize that an artist reveals his true power only]


In that considerate and laborious work
That patience which, admitting no neglect,
By slow creation doth impart to speech
Outline and substance even, till it has given
A function kindred to organic power,
The vital spirit of a perfect form.

So, in a letter to Beaumont (July 24, 1804; Letters, i. 167), he praises Reynolds for his ‘deep conviction of the necessity of unwearied labour and diligence, and the reverence for the great men of his art’. Wordsworth’s own reverence for the great masters, and his strenuous efforts to gain perfection of form, are seldom “sufficiently realized.


— William Wordsworth, The Prelude Or Growth of a Poet’s Mind (Text of 1805), , edited by Ernest de Selincourt (Oxford University Press, 1933), pp. xviii-xix




We see that true creative writing, attributed ordinarily to inspiration, is the product of prolonged, intense labor. I believe this is true of composers of classical music as well.


— Roger W. Smith

   December 2019