Sunday, 10 February 2013

'The Prelude': A poem through time

MS JJ: How does The Prelude change through time?
I'm currently working as the Research Assistant on a really exciting project led by Dr Bradley Stephens (University of Bristol) and Alex Butterworth from Amblr called 'The Next Time(line)'. As part of the Books and Print Sandbox, funded by the REACT Knowledge Exchange Hub for the Creative Economy, our project is looking at how to redesign literary timelines for the digital age.

At present, the timelines offered by literary apps don't do much more than their paper counterparts, so we're exploring how touch screen devices can be used to offer a more dynamic, intuitive, and ultimately interesting form of timeline. In developing our prototype, we are using three texts - Wordsworth's Prelude, Hugo's Les Misérables, and Shakespeare's Henry V - and, as the resident expert on British Romanticism, I have been spending the past few weeks thinking about how time flows through The Prelude, as well as how the text itself is shaped and altered through (and by) time. 

As part of the project, we have been keeping an online journal detailing our thoughts, questions, and discoveries, and this week I contributed a post, reproduced below, on Wordsworth and time. The original post can be read here, alongside some other fascinating entries from Bradley and Alex on adapting Les Misérables and contemplating pace and time. I hope that you enjoy exploring our project and will follow our blog over the coming weeks to see our work develop.


Wordsworth: The Growth of a Poet's Mind in Time

                                                Many are the joys
Of youth, but, oh, what happiness to live
When every hour brings palpable access
Of knowledge, when all knowledge is delight,
And sorrow is not there.

William Wordsworth, The 1805 Prelude (II, 304-08)


The Romantics, writing in an age of revolution and change, were fascinated by cycles of time. My doctoral research has focused on the second-generation Romantics, looking at how writers such as Mary Shelley and Lord Byron were inspired by the latest developments in geology and archaeology, as well as by contemporary thinking on population, empire, and posterity, to look ahead to the end of time and the death of mankind.

As Research Assistant on The Next Time[line], I am excited by the opportunities presented by this project to look at how time flows through texts, and this week have been thinking about the complexities of time in Wordsworth’s Prelude.

Wordsworth around the time that he started The Prelude
The Prelude is a poem obsessed, and enmeshed, with issues of time. Charting the poet’s formative years across some 8500 lines of verse, the text both adheres to a linear chronology and disrupts this order, playing with the flow of time and layering the years in which it was composed (1799-1805) over the years it describes (1770-1798). While the poem maps Wordsworth’s poetic development through time, it is simultaneously aware of the difficulties of transcribing time, and explores how the memory skips over whole years even as it focuses in on small, specific moments in great detail.

Wordsworth inserts markers of time into The Prelude on an almost obsessive level, but these can be as unsettling to the reader as they are indicative of stability and linear progression. Alongside numerous references to measurable hours, days, months, and seasons, Wordsworth scatters disconcerting moments where time can be observed to move at unnatural speeds.

In the dizziness of youth, for example, the solitary cliffs wheel by the young Wordsworth ‘even as if the earth had rolled ǀ With visible motion her diurnal round’ (I, 485-86). The natural flow of time, usually imperceptible, is here transformed into something fantastic which is both exhilarating and terrifying to watch. As the poet proceeds through his childhood, this sense of time rushing before his eyes recurs, and Wordsworth explains how ‘the year span round ǀ With giddy motion’ as he and his friends ran ‘a boisterous race’ through time (II, 48-49).

Wordsworth’s unsettling uses of time can be explored further if we look at the ways in which he revised his poem. Moving between different versions of the text, we can see that sometimes what appear to be definite, grounding markers of time are not always as they seem. ‘Well I call to mind’, Wordsworth states with reassuring certainty of an episode in Book I of the 1805 Prelude, ‘’Twas at an early age, ere I had seen ǀ Nine summers [...]’ (I, 309-10). If we turn to the 1850 rewriting, however, we find this marker corrected to read ‘Ere I had told ǀ Ten birth-days’ (I, 306-07).

Discovering that even seemingly fixed and accurate markers of time in the text can be destabilised in this way can remove the reader’s faith in the ‘authority’ of the poem’s chronology. In this sense, the older Wordsworth writing from memory about time can unsettle us as much as the younger Wordsworth’s giddy and immediate perception of wheeling time.

Taking these ideas forward over the next two months into The Next Time[line], our team will be looking at how The Prelude is shaped through time from its origins as the two-part 1799 version of the poem through to the 1805 thirteen-book text and possibly the 1850 rewriting. Charting how developments in Wordworth’s life and times flow through the text, we will explore possible external taxonomies such as the impact of Wordsworth’s reading on the growth of the poem through time, as well as perhaps looking at how we can categorise markers of time in the text itself into a useable set of data.

Just as it is often the instances of moments and minutes charted by Wordsworth in The Prelude which are most significant in his poetic development, so we hope that in pulling out some of these small strands we will gain a more complete understanding of the poem as a whole.

Having spent the past two days thinking about what some of these strands could be, and considering how they can be combined to form various pathways through the text, the team is excited to move forward to the next stage of the project. Over the next fortnight, we will begin collecting data and planning how this can be developed into a prototype timeline which is both intuitive and illuminating, allowing readers explore how a text is shaped both by and through time.

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