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,

And through the silent water stole my way

Back to the covert of the willow tree;

There in her mooring-place I left my bark, –

And through the meadows homeward went, in grave

And serious mood; but after I had seen

That spectacle, for many days, my brain

Worked with a dim and undetermined sense

Of unknown modes of being; o’er my thoughts

There hung a darkness, call it solitude

Or blank desertion. No familiar shapes

Remained, no pleasant images of trees,

Of sea or sky, no colours of green fields;

But huge and mighty forms, that do not live

Like living men, moved slowly through the mind

By day, and were a trouble to my dreams.



As this is an excerpt from a long narrative poem, with the theme of “The Growth of a Poet’s Mind,” I wanted to give some indication as to how the poem flows together. In the stanza preceding our except, Wordsworth is pondering about how man’s mind “is framed even like the breath and harmony of music*” He is interested in how we develop into our adult selves, with all of out interests, passions, demeanors and inclinations. Why does that woman lie when she is under pressure, and why does that man love nothing more than to sit all day on a boat and sink his line into a lake, not caring whether he catches anything or not? In another poem Wordsworth says “the child is father to the man,” meaning that our passions and interests are born in our childhood. There is a beauty like music in the formation of an individual and there is also “a dark invisible workmanship that reconciles discordant elements and makes them move in one society.”


It would be easy to assume that Wordsworth is a determinist, believing that our passions and interests are determined by outside causal factors. This would be wrong. He is an advocate of the workings of one’s own intellect on the formation of one’s own self. This, however, does not imply that the external world has no bearing on the framing of a man’s mind. He says in the 1850 version of The Prelude:


The terrors, pains, and early miseries,

Regrets, vexations, lassitudes interfused

Within my mind, should e’er have borne a part

And that a needful part, in making up

The calm existence of myself! Praise to the end!


Those early childhood events, which the boat-stealing episode is but one, were events that left indelible marks upon him, even though some of the events were not life-changing at the time. Instead, they remained like a lodger in his mind to be examined later. This later contemplation helped to bring a calm existence to him—it was part of maturing into what he dubbed “the philosophical mind.”


He finishes this stanza by setting up the boat stealing memory:


Thanks to the means which Nature deigned to employ;

Whether her fearless visitations, or those

That came with soft alarm, like hurtless light

Opening the peaceful clouds; or she may use

Severer interventions, ministry

More palpable, as best might suit her aim.


Nature, which to Wordsworth was a unified force, may visit one with soft alarms and hurtless light opening the peaceful clouds. These are like little innocent fireflies lighting the way to the formation of your passions and interests. Yet other times, Nature may use “Severer interventions” as we will see presently.



One summer evening (led by her) I found

A little boat tied to a willow tree

Within a rocky cove, its usual home.


Here is the youthful Wordsworth being led by Nature (her) to the discovery of a boat tied to a tree.


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;


Sneakily, he takes the boat out onto the lake, and this brings about the feeling of troubled pleasure mentioned above.


Leaving behind her still, on either side,

Small circles glittering idly in the moon,

Until they melted all into one track

Of sparkling light.


As he rowed, behind him were the ripples which looked like small circles in the reflection of the moon—circles that merged together into one unit 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.


Like a captain at sea, navigating by the moon and stars, young Wordsworth, proud of his abilities, has learned to fix his eye on the peak of the mountain, which in the darkness helps to keep him on a straight path.


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;


Up to this point we have been firmly situated in the world of external objects of nature. So far, there have been only the images of willow trees, caves, rippling water, moon, mountain. Though these images have been organized in such a way as to make us feel like entering an imaginative dream-state, only when his boat transforms into an “elfin pinnace” (an elf boat) do we see that he has been transported into the world of grand imagination and myth. Here he becomes one with nature gliding over the lake “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.


Suddenly, a mountain breaks its bonds with the horizon (The horizon’s bound) and rears its head. This grim shape is a thing with the “voluntary power instinct”—free will.


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.


Try to picture it. He is out in the middle of the lake. It is pitch black except for the stars and moon. His oars are striking the water again and again as he furiously rows away from the “grim shape” that “towered up between [him] and the stars.” Worse, this was no beast of involuntary instinct but rather the mountain moved “with measured motion” like a living thing. This living thing had purpose as it “strode after” him.


With trembling oars I turned,

And through the silent water stole my way

Back to the covert of the willow tree;

There in her mooring-place I left my bark, –

And through the meadows homeward went, in grave

And serious mood;


His arms were trembling so violently it caused his oars to tremble. Turning homeward from his adventure, he returns the boat (bark) to the willow tree. Then he walks through the meadow toward his house. Notice words like “stole” my way back, as though he was a thief in the night who had been reprimanded but sent on his way. On his homeward journey he is in a serious mood and contemplating death (grave).


but after I had seen

That spectacle, for many days, my brain

Worked with a dim and undetermined sense

Of unknown modes of being;


The specter of that mountain looming large and chasing after him stayed with him even then as a child. As though in the background of his consciousness it worked into some new and unknown mode of being. Mode here means a new way life can be experienced. But since it is unknown to him, these new forms of existence remain a mystery.


o’er my thoughts

There hung a darkness, call it solitude

Or blank desertion. No familiar shapes

Remained, no pleasant images of trees,

Of sea or sky, no colours of green fields;

But huge and mighty forms, that do not live

Like living men, moved slowly through the mind

By day, and were a trouble to my dreams.


The entirety of The Prelude is written in retrospect. Thirty year old Wordsworth is selecting moments from his past in which to examine. These are not randomly selected moments. They are moments in time that have been instrumental in the growth of his mind. In the finale to this excerpt he indicates that all the external objects we have discussed earlier have faded away. In their place are “huge mighty forms.” These forms are akin to a god, they “do not live like living men.” From his childhood onward they “moved slowly through the mind by day and troubled his dreams.”


This moment, or what he called a “spot of time” was critical in the formation of Wordsworth’s inner life. He attributes his calm demeanor later in life to this episode. This was not an automatic occurrence however. After his boat incident, and in times of distress and turmoil, he could mediate on this “spot of time.” This would bring calm.


For our purposes, this can serve as a model for examining our own lives. More, the excerpt can serve as a unique experience of childhood. We can recall from it the awe and the terror that accompanies much of our youth, and that sometimes even terror can bring about something good.


*I chose for this line to quote the 1805 version of The Prelude, because I felt it better illustrated the point. All the other passages and quotes are from the official 1850 version.