The Cliff in “The 1805 Prelude”

I thought that lines 408-425 in the first book of “The 1805 Prelude” were interesting because they truly captured the moment when a young person realizes that the world is much bigger than they had previously understood, and therefore much more difficult to comprehend than they had once believed. I interpreted this passage as the cliff being a metaphor for this realization. This is why the narrator is so afraid when the cliff looms over him, and why he feels that the cliff “…like a living thing / Strode after me…” (411-2). The narrator feeling that the cliff is following him is representative of the fact that a young person who realizes their own insignificance is forever changed. 

I enjoyed the way that Wordsworth portrayed this realization as a very sudden one, when he states, “…the huge cliff / Rose up between me and the stars…” (409-10). Wordsworth does an excellent job in his poetry of encompassing all aspects of what it means to discover or learn things as a young person. In many of his other poems, he writes about the natural world and how it brings joy and happiness to him in his adulthood because he can remember his childhood spent outdoors. I feel that this poem portrayed another very lifelike sentiment. Often, the natural world teaches us lessons about human nature, life, death, and our own place in the world; these lessons are not always as exciting or exhilarating as Wordsworth paints them as, they can sometimes be quite frightening.

One aspect of the poem that I found particularly significant was the way that Wordsworth describes the narrator’s feelings after he witnesses this great cliff. I had a bit of a hard time understanding these lines at first. He writes, “…In my thoughts / There was a darkness—call it solitude / Or blank desertion—no familiar shapes…” (420-2). I interpreted this as the narrator’s mind being completely blank or, at least, the narrator not knowing what to think. He has been scared by how large the cliff was, and how insignificant he felt beside it. The narrator has realized that he is not as important as he once thought, and this has caused him to reevaluate much of what he once believed, leaving his mind blank.

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