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The Prelude – Stealing the Boat: Power and Conflict Analysis

William Wordsworth was a Romantic poet who lived in the Lake District. Like many Romantics, he was very interested in the power of nature. He believed that truths about humanity could be found in nature.

This poem is an extract from an epic poem he wrote in 1799. It is autobiographical, showing his spiritual journey as he came to understand nature and the society around him. Wordsworth’s latest version was published in 1850.

Poem

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.

William Wordsworth (1850 version)

Poem Summary

The narrator takes a small boat out on a lake at night. He feels very peaceful on this journey, enjoying the beauty of the water and the light reflected from the moon. However, a large mountain appears on the horizon, blocking the light. He becomes terrified by the size and power of this mountain and so heads back to land. He relives this fearful moment for many days and nights afterwards.

The poem’s key message is that nature is beautiful, but also powerful and it can alter a person’s perception of the world.

Language

  • The language in the first section of the poem is very pretty and peaceful. Wordsworth describes the boat going through the water as “like a swan”, giving an image of silent and graceful movement. The boat is also described as “elfin”, relating it to an elf, showing the magical quality of the scene.
  • There are also images of light in the first section. The moon’s reflection is shown “glittering idly” and there is a “sparkling light” on the lake.
  • The images of light are replaced by darkness when the mountain appears. The “black” peak of the mountains blocks the stars and the light they bring. After the event, the narrator describes how “There hung a darkness”. This represents his troubled mind after the experience.

Structure

The structure of the poem can be divided into three sections:

  • Lines 1-20: The narrator takes the boat and feels peaceful on the lake. The tone here is gentle and light.
  • Lines 21-34: He becomes terrified of the mountain. The tone becomes darker and more intense.
  • Lines 34-44: After the event, he is haunted by the memory of this experience. The tone is reflective and sad for the loss of innocent joy.

Form

  • The poem is a first-person narrative showing an important and personal experience from the poet’s life.
  • It is written in blank verse (which means there isn’t any rhyme) and iambic pentameter (five pairs of unstressed and stressed beats per line). Using this form gives the narrative the rhythm of natural speech, which reflects the subject of the narrator telling us a story from his youth.

Themes

ThemeAnalysis
The power of natureNature is shown to control the emotions of the narrator. At first, it gives him confidence and peace, and he is drawn towards the mountain in an “unswerving line”. He feels in control at this point, pleased that the mountain is his “chosen” destination.

However, as he gets closer, he begins to feel utterly powerless against the “huge” peak of the mountain. He even feels it is “growing in stature” to block out the stars. He imagines it as a “living thing” that chases after him, making him completely terrified. Nature continues to haunt him afterwards as a “trouble to my dreams.”  
Individual experiencesThe poem explores the narrator’s changing emotions due to the experience on the lake. He feels a “troubled pleasure” from taking the stolen boat onto the lake, showing his sense of joy but also guilt at what he has done.

We see his imaginings of the mountains being alive, and the lasting fear this causes him. He singles this moment out as one that has changed his perception of the world and his relationship with nature.  
FearAt the beginning of the poem, he is happy to be alone, enjoying the peaceful surroundings of nature. However, his frightening experience causes him to feel a disturbing “solitude” and a sense of “desertion”. The fear causes him to be troubled for “many days”, showing the powerful effect it’s had on him.  

Key Quotes to Learn

QuoteWhy is it important?
“heaving through the water like a swan”His description of the boat with the simile “like a swan” gives a sense of silent and graceful movement. It also gives the impression that he feels part of nature.
“a huge peak, black and huge”The narrator loses his sense of eloquence as he becomes frightened by the mountain. His words become simplistic, as if he is experiencing a childish fear. The repetition of “huge” shows him struggling to cope with the sheer size of the mountain.
“trouble to my dreams”The experience has left him deeply disturbed. He cannot now find peace in his sleep or dreams. Instead, he is haunted by the terrifying moment on the lake.

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