3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
a fine edition, but know what you're getting into,
This review is from: The Prelude 1799, 1805, 1850: Authoritative Texts, Context and Reception, Recent Critical Essays (Norton Critical Editions) (Paperback)
The thing to remember about "The Prelude" is that it covers roughly the first twenty-seven years of Wordsworth's life -- i. e. from 1770 to around 1797 -- and seems to be about how he came to consciousness of himself as a poet, though you have to keep in mind that by "poet" Wordsworth didn't mean exactly what we mean by that word. He meant something like " an imaginative person who realizes the importance of imagination for the healthy mind." That sense of the word places him (and writers like Blake and Coleridge, different as they all were) in relation to the idea, coming out of what we now call the "enlightenment," that "reason" is the quintessentially human faculty -- the faculty that makes us human. In different ways, the romantic poets challenged that simplification, and in Wordsworth's case, the insufficiency of reason as a guarantor of human happiness and human mental health is shown not just in the limits of mathematics and "science" to give our lives meaning but also in the failure of the rationalistic politics of the French Revolution, to which Wordsworth had been, in the early 1790's, committed. The loss of his faith in this "reason" precipitated a spiritual or moral crisis, the overcoming of which is the focus of the second half of "The Prelude." In that part of the poem Wordsworth is concerned to demonstrate the roles of "nature," memory, and visionary experience in enabling his recovery from this crisis.
You also have to remember, though, that while the poem covers his first twenty-seven years, the poem was written over about seven years (roughly 1798-1805), during which time his ideas about nature, memory, and visionary experience were not static -- so this is a book about growth written by a man whose mind was changing (growing?) in the process of writing it. The three versions of the poem that this Norton edition prints gives you some idea of that, but this edition should be supplemented by information from studies that (a) allow you to see in more detail exactly what parts of the poem that Wordsworth was working on at specific times; (b) enables you to think about that process of composition in relation to the other poems of the 1798-1805 period; and (c) discourages you from worrying about the aesthetic status of the various stages of the poem and encourages you to focus instead on the process of the thinking and the writing.
The Cornell edition of Wordsworth is invaluable for this, and works like the chronologies of Mark Reed and studies by Geoffrey Hartman and Kenneth Johnson are also helpful. What's interesting about Wordsworth -- in a way that is less true of, say, Keats -- is the process of engagement over time with difficult questions of what we would now call epistemology and phenomenology in relation to a vision of a desirable human life.