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William Wordsworth’s Development of the Idea of the Self

Hope Stebbins

“The mind of man is framed even like the breath

And harmony of music. There is a dark

Invisible workmanship that reconciles

Discordant elements, and makes them move

In one society.”[1]

Romanticism as a literary period began as a reaction against empiricism and the loftiness of reason during the Enlightenment. William Wordsworth, along with other romantic writers, was responding to thinkers like Locke, Hobbes, and Kant who sought to understand the human mind through reason alone. Where the Enlightenment sought to know the mind, the reactionary Romantic Period sought to understand the mind; to do this Wordsworth and the other Romantic writers reimagined what it meant to think of a particular Self. They were concerned with what constituted their identity, what made their soul, and how that affected their work and the world around them.

Wordsworth especially was concerned with his development as a poet. He wrote The Prelude to explore the intangible experiences of Nature that contributed to his poetic development of Self. This exploration is focused in Books I and II which relate his formative years; especially important within these books is a short passage that occurs approximately halfway through the first book. In particular lines 351-355 of Book I mark a turning point for him. Here, he realizes how his experiences and memories of Nature have come together to create his identity: his Self. This passage in Book I shows how Wordsworth’s observation and feelings about Nature aided in the development of his poetic mind, taking it from discord to harmony. In the 1850 revision, the reader sees more clearly the understanding of the Self that he acquired through experience and nature.

Wordsworth employs the analogy of creating music to engage with his idea of how his identity as a poet developed into a particular Self that would embody his poetic ambitions. In the previous 300 lines he agonizes over his artistic ability and despairs over his inadequacy to portray the overwhelming beauty of Nature. The poem is tumultuous as he struggles to reconcile his poetic ambitions with his inspiration in order to find his theme and topic. The reader arrives at this passage rushed by Wordsworth—“hurrying on/ Still hurrying, hurrying onward […] I was alone/ And seemed to be a trouble to the peace.”[2] Wordsworth’s despair and inner discord upsets the peace of the natural world as he struggles to understand his mind and his poetic ambitions. Then, a musical simile arrives and resolves his mental turbulence causing a transition from poetic uncertainty to poetic self-identity. Wordsworth begins this passage by comparing the development of the mind to the composition of music. In music, a harmony is made by blending several different notes. In the same way, Wordsworth realizes that his numerous encounters with humanity and nature, each creating discord and anxiety on their own, could be brought together by his perception of Self. All of his individual experiences create sensations that affect how he responds to later stimuli; which were then affected by his personal feelings. Finally, all of these “discordant elements” are pulled together by “dark / Invisible workmanship” into “one society” creating music out of chaos, poetry out of uncertainty.[3]

A critical element of this exploration of self-development is Wordsworth’s acquiescence to the mysterious workings that shift his individual experiences of nature from dissonance to harmony. The acceptance of the mysterious is what separates his Romanticism from the empiricism of the Enlightenment. Those in the Enlightenment wanted to know every step of an intellectual endeavor—to set out a logical progression. But Wordsworth saw that in order to understand Nature and Self, one had to accept “Invisible workmanship” that transitioned discord into music. He saw the beginning (discord) and the end (harmony) and was satisfied to have a mysterious middle that could not be empirically dictated. For him, that mysterious middle is where Nature comes in as a guiding factor, pushing a person from a jumble of feelings into a specific Self. Nature reconciled all of Wordsworth’s experiences to create his poetic mind. Through this working in his mind Wordsworth is finally able to see that his poetic subject is in fact himself. By understanding himself as his subject matter he was able to turn his mind, his self-identity, into the “breath/ And harmony” of his poetry.[4]

This passage which explores the concept of the Self and compares it to music shows how Wordsworth conceives his growth into poetic identity. However, as Wordsworth continues to age, his understanding of the Self and its relation to poetic growth and nature matures, and by the time of the 1850 revisions of The Prelude his concept of Self is more focused. The revisions show how highly he holds the development and perception of the Self. The primary change between the 1805 and the 1850 versions of this passage can be found in the first statements. The 1805 version starts, “The mind of man is framed even like the breath / And harmony of music” while the 1850 version begins much differently: “Dust as we are, the immortal spirit grows / Like harmony in music” (Book 1, ln. 351/340). Though both express similar ideas they differ in their focus. The 1805 version is focused on explaining the simile while the 1850 text concentrates on the initial object in the simile. Essentially, the 1805 is careful to express how the mind of man is like music—in breath and harmony; and the 1850 version emphasizes the human self—the dust and immortal spirit. This seemingly small change in focus in the transitional passage is an important one. In the later edition the concentration is on Wordsworth as he grows into his poetic mind. He first observes himself as a mortal man, understanding that in some ways he is confined by experience and limited in choice of response. Then he realizes that even though he is mortal, his spirit is immortal and acts upon every experience he encounters, able to move beyond his mortal experience. This is very different from the encounter that the reader receives from the earlier version, which merely hints at this idea of the Self as bigger than a mere respondent to circumstances. The revision put significant weight on the revelation of the immortality of mortals through poetic self-identity.

The expansion of the concept of the Self becomes increasingly prominent in the changes that Wordsworth makes in the 1850 version of these lines. He uses biblical language to convey the lofty ideas of man’s development of Self. Biblical language transforms his argument by placing it onto an epic scheme; it is not just Wordsworth’s words that are saying this, but the Bible affirms the development of the human self as well. His argument becomes bigger and more foundational. The “dust as we are” and the “immortal soul” recall the biblical stories of Creation and the New Heaven, the beginning and the end of man. By comparing his developing understanding of self and his poetic growth to the beginning and end of man, great weight is placed on his words. The idea of infinity starts to be associated with this concept of the Self. No longer is the self bounded by time and particular experiences; instead it is free to be developed by the whole of nature. The poetic mind is both influenced by experience and influential on experience. Wordsworth uses biblical imagery to associate the Self with infinity. Our feelings and experiences contribute to how we experience the past, the present, and the future.

The differences between the 1805 and the 1850 version of this section of The Prelude offer insight into Wordsworth’s focus and purpose within the larger work. Following Romantic ideals, Wordsworth sees Nature as developing the identity of self and raises this identity up as a representation of the ideal which people should strive towards. He invokes musical and biblical imagery to portray his idea of self as he grows into his poetic mind. The concept of the Self is not restrained by his experiences; instead it is expanded through them, so when he finally comes to this realization he is able to progress as a poet. As Wordsworth realizes the loftiness of the Self he also recognizes the topic for his poetry and is finally able to leave behind the turmoil that had earlier characterized his artistic sensitivity. This transitional passage in The Prelude shows how Wordsworth passes from confusion as an artist and person into understanding by viewing his experiences as a unified harmony that combine to create his Self.



[1] William Wordsworth, The Prelude, ed. Ernest De Selincourt (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1926), p. 20, ll. 351-355.

[2] Wordsworth (1926), p. 18, ll. 321-323

[3] Ibid., p. 20, ll. 354; 352-353, 355.

[4] Ibid. ll. 351-352.