The Boat-Stealing Episode

Re-constructing Composition

One famous early passage from MS JJ – the Boat-Stealing episode – provides a good example for close analysis of revision. In MS JJ this passage reads:

When from behind that rocky steep till then

The bound of the horizon just between

e }

The summit & the stars a hugh} high cliff

As if with voluntary power instinct

{ and

the { oars

Upreared its head I truck again struck


And growing still stature the huge

With measured motion like a living


Strode after [?me]

Rose up between me & the stars & still

With measured motion like a living


Strode after me . . .

(MS JJ, Tr).

When you read this page for the first time, the amount of repetition within it is striking. There are four clear examples of repetition on the manuscript page, occurring for different reasons.

The first one occurs in the line with “struck again” repeated at its end. The nature of this repetition is not absolutely clear. It may be that Wordsworth intends the second “struck again” to be a deliberate repetition of the first, having decided not to use the words “the oars”. Alternatively, though, it may be simple recopying over a rejected revision (“struck the oars again”) which had made the original words unclear on the page, so that the author reentered them. In this case the powerful repetition of “ I struck and struck again” in the final version, may come about half-accidentally as a result of recopying for clarification on the page, which then reveals it as a creative option.

The second two examples of repetition – “With measured motion like a living thing” and “strode after me” look like a case of immediate revision on the page. The first entry ends at the half line “Strode after [?me]” and Wordsworth then adds the new line above. He then continues and immediately incorporates “With measured motion . . .” into its new position, reversing the order of the version above.

The final repetition is that of the “huge cliff”, with the word “huge” occurring again and, at the bottom of the page not given above, the line:


and as before the solitary

Rose up between me & the

(MS JJ, Tr)

Again, it is unclear whether these repetitions are simply part of the process of revision, or show that the poet intended the repetition of the final version deliberately at this stage.

The repetitions on the page of Tr are fairly typical of compositional text where redrafting creates similar versions of lines or repeated words upon the page. What is untypical is that two repetitions in close proximity should be used for dramatic effect in the completed text. In the Boat-Stealing episode the final version of the text acquires at least a part of its power from the use of repetition which unites the boy’s movements upon the lake with his shifting perspectives and the consequent internal effects upon him:

When from behind that craggy Steep, till then

The bound of the horizon, a huge Cliff,

As if with voluntary power instinct,

Uprear'd its head: I struck, and struck again,

And, growing still in stature, the huge Cliff

Rose up . . .

(Reed, Thirteen-Book Prelude, AB-Stage Reading Text, Bk I, lines 406-411 ).