Stumbling Upon Old Memories: Nostalgia and Self-Reflection in “Book I” of Wordsworth’s The Prelude

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As the Olympic theme song fills living rooms all around the world at prime time each evening and people suddenly become experts on gold medal slopestyle form and proper bobsled strategy for sixteen days, I can’t help but reflect on my own Winter Olympics sport of choice: figure skating. Though it’s been four years since I stepped off the ice and thus concluded my ten-year stint with the sport, I look back on the victories, challenges and lessons I learned from ice skating with serene reminiscence and self-reflection mirroring that conveyed in William Wordsworth’s The Prelude, an autobiographical exploration of one of the first English Romantic poet’s growth as a man and master of poetry, which was published posthumously in 1850. Specifically, “Book I: Introduction—Childhood and School-time” details the nostalgic thrill and elated pleasure of witnessing a group of children ice skating and tracing the influences of one’s identity.

As our speaker comes across a group of children ice skating outdoors, he pleasantly reflects on his formative years through vivid diction and tangible images of winter. With excitement, Wordsworth writes:

“And in the frosty season, when the sun
Was set, and visible for many a mile
The cottage windows blazed through twilight gloom,
I heeded not their summons: happy time
It was indeed for all of us—for me
It was a time of rapture! (lines 425-30)”

These lines evoke the energy and pleasure associated with walking through the countryside and seeing children play games outdoors reminiscent of one’s own childhood, conveying the similar experience for me of flipping through channels and stumbling upon Olympic figure skating—a pleasant surprise that brings forth cherished memories of youthful fun.

Using imagery from nature as a stand-in for the speaker’s developing feelings, Wordsworth describes nature’s ability to instill important values that shape a child’s identity. He writes, “Fair seed-time had my soul, and I grew up / Fostered alike by beauty and by fear” (301-2), indicating the developmental experiences that influence a child’s identity. Essentially, Wordsworth underscores nature’s role in shaping a child’s thoughts and emotions, ultimately establishing a set of morals and forming “a grandeur in the beatings of the heart (414)” that lasts beyond the formative years. Further, Wordsworth suggests that his skills as a poet gained a similar “grandeur” and refinement through the influences of his childhood spent in nature, enjoying the comfort of the familiar outdoors and acquainting himself with consequent pleasure and morality.

While Wordsworth transformed into the man and poet he was by his influential relationship with nature, my character was shaped by the discipline and endurance of practicing figure skating. Just as Wordsworth’s childhood games in nature influenced the poet he became, I can trace my aptitude for working hard and never giving up, my ability to fall with and without grace, and maybe most importantly my resilience that drives me to get up and try again to my years of ice skating.

Though many years have passed since our respective formative childhood years, the late Wordsworth and I each experience nostalgia and pleasure by stumbling upon old memories, whether they come to mind while walking through the countryside or channel surfing on cold nights in February. We explore the intricate ways our morals, values, and skills developed as we grew up, whether spent playing games outdoors all seasons of the year or attempting—and failing—the same trick over and over again until it was finally learned.

Citation: Wordsworth, William. “Book I: Introduction—Childhood and School-time.” The Prelude. London: Edward Moxon, 1851. Online.

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