William Wordsworth Steals a Boat: An Excerpt from The Prelude

Updated: Dec 31, 2020

In preparing for this post, I watched a video on youtube by Lancaster University. The video described and dramatized the short excerpt we will be examining below. And in the video the speaker discusses this famous scene, exclaiming that Wordsworth “borrowed” a boat one night. The video had a single comment, which, to me, represented the great tragedy of living in an era with unlimited access to all of world literature, but with few minds able to grasp any of it.

The comment said, “How can you borrow a boat without permission, isn’t that stealing?”

While it is within the realm of possibility for this commenter to indeed have a full understanding of Wordsworth’s eight thousand line epic poem, The Prelude, from which this excerpt is extracted, but I doubt it.

Whether Wordsworth is culpable for pecuniary fines some two hundred and forty years after this incident is irrelevant to the grand experience the poet has given to us. The role he may play in our lives, if we allow him, is as organizer of our senses, guide to our passions, prophet of human nature. In this very short moment from his life, we will see the workings of a poet who has examined the interior of his own soul as Newton examined the nature and function of optics.

Poetry can provide new modes of seeing the world, or it can offer us material upon which to ruminate. The below excerpt, I intend, will provide entrance into a unique mode—a conveyance, If you will—into examining our own childhood.

When we are children, Wordsworth believed, and I concur, much of our experiences, particularly in solitude, can be summed up by the terms Awe and Terror. As a young boy, I recall a game my friends and I would play. It was more a challenge than a game. On certain clear nights we would sneak out of our houses, always sometime after midnight, and meet at a nearby field. Though I never remember feelings of true endangerment, since I felt secure and invincible, there was a “troubled pleasure” which followed me until I returned to bed. Walking through the abandoned streets of my hometown, I would witness shapes and shadows, hear the distant sounds of a lone car, watch the cat leaping from a fence onto a nearby branch, these were all infused with a totality of life experience; and although the particulars of these nights have mostly evaporated somewhere into the midst of my cranium, they have left emotional remnants I can experience to this day.

William Wordsworth, like myself and hopefully like you too, also scampered out of his house to explore his surroundings as a young boy. He just so happened to live in the beautiful Lake DIstrict in England in the 1780s. In a moment of childhood fervor, he finds and borrows a little boat tied to a willow tree. Pushing off from the shore he paddles out to the middle of the lake. He is filled with the troubled pleasure of one enjoying wrongdoing, and the accompanying fear that lives on the threshold of our darker desires. The night is so dark he must fix his eye on one craggy mountain peak, which is outlined by the gray, starry sky. He is gliding on the lake as gracefully as a swan, when:

from behind that craggy steep till then

The horizon’s bound, a huge peak, black and huge

As if with voluntary power instinct

Upreared its head.

The young Wordsworth’s paddles “struck and struck again,” but the towering mountain grew larger still, eventually blacking out the entire sky. It seemed to have “purpose of its own and measured motion like a living thing,” and most terrifyingly of all it appeared that the mountain “strode after” him!

As quickly as he could manage, he returned the boat to its tree and traveled home, now “in grave and serious mood.”

Many of us would leave this moment as it is and perhaps never think of it again. For Wordsworth the spectacle worked within his brain some sense of “unknown modes of being.” That is, a sense that another way of existing may be out in nature, or perhaps that more was within him than he had previously imagined. His thoughts were now canopied by a new darkness—”Call it solitude or blank desertion.” Being alone now brought the scene back to him, but not with “familiar shapes… no pleasant images of trees of sea or sky, no colours of green fields,” rather he is left with the mighty form of nature that “do not live like living men.” Those burgeoning new passions moved through his mind and troubled his dreams.

Before doing a close reading of Wordsworth’s text, I would encourage you to read the excerpt for yourself. If you have listened to my podcast, Troubadour Podcast, you know there are two important reading principles for poetry. First, whenever possible read out loud. Poems are meant to be heard by the ear. Second, poems are not meant to be read; they are meant to be re-read. You will not comprehend these words on a first (or even a second) reading. Rather, give yourself up to the sounds and the flow and try to grasp what you can. I will provide a close reading beneath the excerpt for those who are interested.

The Boat Stealing Scene from the 1850 Prelude by William Wordsworth:

One summer evening (led by her) I found

A little boat tied to a willow tree

Within a rocky cove, its usual home.

Straight I unloosed her chain, and stepping in

Pushed from the shore. It was an act of stealth

And troubled pleasure, nor without the voice

Of mountain-echoes did my boat move on;

Leaving behind her still, on either side,

Small circles glittering idly in the moon,

Until they melted all into one track

Of sparkling light. But now, like one who rows,

Proud of his skill, to reach a chosen point

With an unswerving line, I fixed my view

Upon the summit of a craggy ridge,

The horizon’s utmost boundary; far above

Was nothing but the stars and the grey sky.

She was an elfin pinnace; lustily

I dipped my oars into the silent lake,

And, as I rose upon the stroke, my boat

Went heaving through the water like a swan;

When, from behind that craggy steep till then

The horizon’s bound, a huge peak, black and huge,

As if with voluntary power instinct,

Upreared its head. I struck and struck again,

And growing still in stature the grim shape

Towered up between me and the stars, and still,

For so it seemed, with purpose of its own

And measured motion like a living thing,

Strode after me. With trembling oars I turned,