Wordsworth, The Prelude – Lewis’s List #5



Surprised by Joy – as impatient as the wind – WW SBJ

It is difficult to find words strong enough for the sensation which came over me; Milton’s “enormous bliss” of Eden (giving the full, ancient meaning to “enormous”) comes somewhere near it – CSL SBJ

“When C.S. Lewis first read William Wordsworth as a teenager, he violently disliked him” Mary Ritter begins her chapter on Lewis’s #5 pick on his list of ten books which Lewis felt had “shaped his vocational attitude and philosophy of life.”[i]  Themes of Nature, of Reason and Imagination, and perhaps above all, Joy, are what Ritter cites as the most profound influences of Wordsworth on Lewis.  The theme of Joy, found in the opening lines of Wordsworth’s poem Surprised by Joy, plays a central role in Lewis’s own conversion and approach to apologetics (argument for the existence of God); hence, the (same) title of Lewis’s autobiography, Surprised by Joy (with Wordsworth’s opening line given on the title page).


The Prelude, however, most fully contains Wordsworth’s views, and Ritter considers Lewis’s own Surprised by Joy to be a retelling of Prelude.   Further, Lewis’s allegorical story of his conversion (which he otherwise considered almost too intellectual and philosophical for popular appreciation), Pilgrim’s Regress, had a structure that was fairly directly modelled on The Prelude, notes Ritter.

Wordsworth began The Prelude in 1798 at the age of 28, and worked on it his throughout his life, it being published three months after his death in 1850.  Originally untitled, Wordsworth often referred to it simply as “Poem (title not yet fixed) to Coleridge,” or when referring in letters to his sister Dorothy, “the poem on the growth of my own mind.” It is widely considered his greatest work.  In it, the journey of (his) poet’s mind is traced, “as it grows and apprehends its environment and the poet’s place in it. It is a spiritual journey in which we end up back where we started, but wiser and higher, renovated and renewed… the poem suggests that the poet’s mind develops by perceiving, understanding, and obeying the consciousness of nature.”[ii]  The poem proceeds by considering the poet’s experiences in and with nature, with both philosophical and psychological perspectives. Wordsworth found moments of Joy in what he called “spots of time:”

There are in our existence spots of time

                That with distinct pre-eminence retain

                A renovating virtue … [and by which] our minds

                Are nourished and invisibly repaired.[iii]

Further, the Joy we apprehend in these spots of time (Wordsworth uses the word Joy at least 45 times in The Prelude, Ritter notes) grant us insight into deeper, greater realities, as Wordsworth states:

                 … become a living soul:

                 While with an eye made quiet by the power

                  Of harmony, and the deep power of Joy,

                  We see into the life of things.[iv]

Such moments of Joy Wordsworth experienced during various moments, in nature particularly. For instance, in Book I of Prelude there is the well-known scene in a stolen boat on a lake where Wordsworth experiences a sense of awe, Joy, desire and the numinous – exactly the sense(s) that Lewis would describe in his own experience.  As Lewis states,

“What is certain is that now, at any rate, the numinous experience exists and that if we start from ourselves and trace it a long way back … Going back about a century we find copious examples in Wordsworth – perhaps the finest being that passage in the first book of the Prelude where he describes his experience while rowing on the lake in the stolen boat.” [v]

But it was with sadness, however, that Wordsworth lamented the fleeting nature of such moments of Joy, as in his Surprised by Joy his memory of his daughter who died in infancy he recollects with

                 That thought’s return

                 Was the worst pang that sorrow ever bore,

                  Save one, one only, when I stood forlorn,

                  knowing my heart’s best treasure was no more.[vi]


Lewis had his own moments of Joy: he describes such moments as memories of an imaginary play-world he had fashioned in his childhood, the idea of Autumn from Beatrix Potter’s Squirrel Nutkin, and the lines “I heard a voice that cried, Balder the Beautiful is dead – is dead” from a poem on Norse myth, which was unlike his previous experiences, in which “I was instantly uplifted into huge regions of northern sky, I desired with almost sickening intensity something never to be described.”[vii]


But Lewis ultimately found these moments to merely point beyond themselves, and past what  Wordsworth could find:

“In speaking of this desire for our own far off country, which we find in ourselves even now, I feel a certain shyness. I am almost committing an indecency. I am trying to rip open the inconsolable secret in each one of you—the secret which hurts so much that you take your revenge on it by calling it names like Nostalgia and Romanticism and Adolescence …

Our commonest expedient is to call it beauty and behave as if that had settled the matter. Wordsworth’s expedient was to identify it with certain moments in his own past. But all this is a cheat. If Wordsworth had gone back to those moments in the past, he would not have found the thing itself, but only the reminder of it; what he remembered would turn out to be itself a remembering. The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshipers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.” [viii]


The faculty by which Wordsworth, or Lewis, perceived these momentary glimpses of Joy, is the Imagination.  Wordsworth paid Imagination its due in The Prelude with lines such as

Imagination – here the power so called

Through sad incompetence of human speech

That awful Power rose from the mind’s abyss …

But to my conscious soul I now can say –

“I recognize thy glory:” in such strength

Of usurpation, when the light of sense

Goes out, but with a flash that has revealed

The invisible world, doth greatness make abode,

There harbours; whether we be young or old,

Our destiny, our being’s heart and home,

Is with infinitude, and only there;

With hope it is, hope that can never die,

Effort, and expectation, and desire

And something evermore about to be.”[ix]

Imagination then is the faculty by which we “recognize glory,” have “reveal(ed to us) the invisible world,” provide “our being’s heart and home” and “infinitude” and is imbued with our “hope … expectation and desire.”  While Wordsworth elsewhere noted that the imagination can apprehend truth, both Lewis and Wordsworth see Imagination as offering a view into truth that we might otherwise rationally overlook. Wordsworth apprehends Nature’s (pantheist) divine spirit in experience, which is captured by the (central concept of the Romantics) Imagination. Similarly, Lewis felt our rational faculty needed to be “supplemented by faith in the divine, which is in turn supported by intuition of the divine, which intuition is fueled by the “Imagination” “[x] Hence Lewis’s famous declaration that by George MacDonald’s Phantastes his “imagination was baptized” (Book #1 on the list!).


This relation between imagination and reason, and the centrality of Joy, is illustrated in Lewis’s allegory, Pilgrim’s Regress.  In the preface, Lewis distinguishes his definition of the romantic (among the seven definitions he offers) as the one associated with understanding the notion of Joy (thus following Wordsworth, whose brand of romanticism was ebbing at the time, Ritter contends).  John, the central character of Pilgrim’s Regress, experiences such a flash of Joy as he remembers a wood full of primroses, and imagines an idyllic island; this is parallel to the role played by a gentle breeze on the face of a journeying hiker early in Wordsworth’s Prelude.  Both John and the Prelude’s hiker also experience powerful revelations at the side of a cliff, reminiscent of Moses’s revelations at Mount Sinai, though Lewis does not allow that Nature herself is the teacher, as Wordsworth is wont to do.

Further, Lewis geographically illustrates the divide between Reason and Imagination in the layout of the land in Pilgrim’s Regress.  The North lands represent reason and logic, but without imagination, whereas the lands in the South are full of imagination, but in their excess (devoid of reason), lapse into the occult or mysticism, or for Lewis, the Romantics.  But Wordsworth is just such a Romantic to Lewis, as Wordsworth posits simply Nature, a pantheist solution, where Lewis sees through Nature to its author.


Lewis sympathizes, even learns from, Wordsworth’s appetite for the imagination.  Lewis follows Wordsworth’s “most profound alienation from the standard of morality that Nature had formerly provided him”[xi] as he quotes the Prelude when John passes from the North over to the South: “Sick, wearied out with contrarieties, he yields up moral questions in despair.”[xii]   But, when Wordsworth later regains his powers of moral reasoning once Nature restores the imagination (Prelude’s Book 11 titled “Imagination, How Repaired and Restored”), so does John, upon crossing the canyon (converting to Christianity) regain Reason as his guide, as well as have his imagination restored (as per the title of Book 7 Chapter 7, “John’s Imagination Re-awakes”).

Finally, the desire which was so central to Lewis’s argument from Joy, appears in both Wordsworth’s Prelude and Lewis’s Pilgrim’s Regress.  Ritter notes how, for Wordsworth, “virtue is a passion, which one feels in the limbs, and which is often renovated and re-impassioned by intercourse with that spirit which “rolls through all things” “[xiii] (like so many other Romantics, Wordsworth tended towards an idealist pantheism, with no actual theological doctrine of sin and salvation). Virtue is a passion for Lewis as well, as the character Vertue is overtaken by passion by the spirit of the dragon from the South he defeats, though ends up correcting that later (by slaying the Southern dragon).

A final deep similarity between the journeys of Wordsworth’s Prelude and Lewis’s own spiritual autobiographies, Pilgrim’s Regress and Surprised by Joy, is evident in the way the journey circles back onto itself.  Wordsworth returns from his journeys in Nature to find a deeper calling, and a sense that he would be a poet and prophet of Nature.  Pilgrim’s Regress’s John reaches that point, but finds he must go further.  Ritter notes that “Mr. Halfways” (who represents the Romantic poet John Keats (1795 – 1821) ), indicates, by his name, how Nature-loving Romanticism can only take John part of the distance he must travel to reach the Island which is the goal of his journey. In Book 8 of Pilgrim’s Regress, John begins as a Nature-inspired pantheist (like Wordsworth), but ends up by praying to a God who is more transcendent (and explicit Being) than immanent (the pantheist’s “immanent” sense of the divine, in Nature), then shortly thereafter meets Christ and accepts his offering.

“Lewis thus suggests that pantheism is a significant stepping-stone to Christianity: it grasps God’s immanence but not his transcendence” Ritter states.[xiv]  Nature is in fact considered a preparation for true faith, “the real praeparatio evangelica” as Lewis describes in the preface, where he also notes that Wordsworth’s Prelude “is the most “romantic” poem in the world.”[xv]  In Book 8, the character History explains to John that Nature is but “the most recent of the revelations sent by God to man in order to guide man to Himself.”[xvi]  But Lewis is not satisfied with Wordsworth’s fading memories of Joy, as he states “when they called Romanticism “nostalgia” I, who had rejected long ago the illusion that the desired object was in the past, felt that they had not even crossed the Pons Asinorum [bridge of (dumb donkeys), a problem which confounds the abilities of the unexperienced, as Lewis used it]. In the end I lost my temper.”[xvii]

And even in Lewis’s non-allegorical spiritual autobiography, after stating the importance of these moments of Joy, he concludes with the following passage:


“But what, in conclusion of Joy? For that, after all, is what the story has mainly been about.  To tell you the truth, the subject has lost nearly all interest for me since I became a Christian. I cannot, indeed, complain, like Wordsworth, that the visionary gleam has passed away. I believe that the old stab, the old bittersweet, has come to me as often and as sharply since my conversion as at any time of my life whatever.  But I now know that the experience … had never the kind of importance I once gave it.  It was valuable only as a pointer to something other and outer. While that other was in doubt, the pointer naturally loomed large in my thoughts. When we are lost in the woods the sight of a signpost is a great matter. He who first sees it cries “Look!” The whole party gathers round and stares. But when we have found the road and are passing signposts every few miles, we shall not stop and stare … or not much; not on this road, though their pillars are of silver and their lettering of gold.  “We would be at Jerusalem.” Not of course, that I don’t often catch myself stopping to stare at roadside objects of even less importance.”[xviii]

[i] Mary Ritter, “William Wordsworth, The Prelude” in C.S. Lewis’s List: The Ten Books That Influenced Him Most, ed. David Werther and Susan Werther (New York: Bloomsbury, 2015), 93-94.

[ii] Ibid., 95.

[iii] William Wordsworth, The Prelude [1805] (New York: Norton, 1979), XII, 208-11. Also in Ritter, p.95. Online http://www.bartleby.com/145/ww287.html, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/45542/the-prelude-book-1-childhood-and-school-time.

[iv] William Wordsworth, Tintern Abbey, 45-50.

[v] C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: Harper COllins, 2001), 7. Quoted in  Mary RItter, “William Wordsworth” in CS Lewis’s List, 99.

[vi] William Wordsworth, Poems, 1815. Online https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/50285/surprised-by-joy.

[vii] C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy (Glasgow: Collier, 1986), 20.

[viii][vii] C.S. Lewis, “The Weight of Glory” in The Weight of Glory and Other Essays (  ) .

[ix] Wordsworth, Prelude, VI:47-63.

[x] Ritter, C.S. Lewis’s List, 107.

[xi] Ibid., 108.

[xii] Lewis Pilgrim’s Regress (Glasgow: William Collins ,1933), 145, Wordsworth Prelude X,899-900. Ritter 108.

[xiii] Ritter, 109.

[xiv] Ibid., 103.

[xv] Lewis, Pilgrim’s Regress (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983), 6.

[xvi] Ritter, Lewis’s List, 103.

[xvii] Lewis, Pilgrim’s Regress, 11.

[xviii] Lewis, Surprised by Joy, 190.

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