Poems of spontaneity and poems of necessity

In the thirteenth book of his 1805 Prelude, Wordsworth describes a hiking trip that he and a friend took up Mount Snowdon in Wales. The imagery that Wordsworth employs while describing the hike is just as vivid as in any other poem, but it seems different to me in tone: so many of Wordsworth’s poems present flawless, impeccable images of the natural world, all soaring vistas and soul-piercing mountains. In the 1805 Prelude, we see more examples of disappointing landscapes, perhaps most famously Mont Blanc: Wordsworth’s description of Mont Blanc is limited, though, and he promptly moves on.

When he details his hike up Mount Snowdon, though, the scene he paints is almost oppressively real: it took place on “a close warm night, / Wan, dull, and glaring,” humid, and with a storm brewing. The images are so tactile that, for the first time reading one of these poems about the natural landscape, I could truly identify with the hikers. The sensory input described is so close to the skin that it could be anywhere, and I’m fairly confident that every reader knows the feeling of walking through a muggy night.

Of course, the scene gets more sublime once the hikers break out of the mist, and Wordsworth then goes on to describe “The perfect image” — but I cannot help but wonder if the body of this poem was born of the some spontaneous overflow of powerful emotion that gave rise to so much of his other work, or whether it was written out of necessity, to lay the groundwork for his musings on that “perfect image.” I know that when I write, I am usually interested by only a handful of scenes, usually some towards the beginning and some towards the end, and filling in the language in between can feel like a laborious slog. I may be projecting (in fact, I probably am), but in this poem, I detect some of the same desire to simply get to point B, be it the top of the mountain or the discussion of the sublime.

2 thoughts on “Poems of spontaneity and poems of necessity”

  1. This is a really interesting thing to think about, especially as someone who knows what you’re talking about in terms of wanting to highlight certain images/scenes and not knowing how to fill in the rest! The section Wordsworth writes about his feelings after having crossed the Alps is so much more vivid and interesting than some of the earlier sections in this book, and it seems like he definitely mean to highlight this.

  2. Notice how much the painting that is the background/icon of this webpage is like the scene that WW describes in the Snowdon passage. The painting is by Casper David Friedrich, and I believe he was thinking of Byron here, not Wordsworth. But Byron was thinking of Wordsworth.

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