Understanding MS JJ in Context

What is MS JJ?

Most simply understood, MS JJ is the earliest surviving manuscript for The Prelude, Wordsworth's major epic work. This is what gives it value and status as it provides the earliest draft material for this poem.

To explore MS JJ in the context of The Prelude click on the links below:

The approach to MS JJ taken on this site has been to try and present the manuscript contextually, in the full history of the time, place and space of its writing. Our aim is to counterbalance a purely retrospective definition of it as the earliest surviving work towards The Prelude and to encourage access to it through the different contexts that colour and shape its existence.

MS JJ as "Proto-Prelude"

What is MS JJ? It is a loosely connected sequence of fragmentary blocks of writing containing draft material of many of the famous boyhood scenes of the first two books of The Prelude. It was written in Goslar, Germany in the winter of 1798-99. The manuscript looks ahead to the "Two Part Prelude" in so far as it contains the important lines beginning "Was it for this" and articulates a kind of poetic ambition and exploration. However, there is no real sense in MS JJ that the poet was clearly and decisively making a start on a major work. In the Cornell Edition, Stephen Parrish tells us:

The earliest state of The Prelude may now be summed up as follows: fragments of a preamble appear to precede a coherent 150-line passage which, expanded and rearranged, became the basis for Part One of the 1798-1799 Prelude; this passage is followed by detached pieces written to be inserted into it. (8)

To understand the internal structure and organisation of MS JJ click on the link below.

It is important, then, to consider what MS JJ was at the time it was written, rather than approaching it only from a retrospective perspective which views it as the first work towards a major long poem. Mark Reed sounds a helpful note of warning:

"The Prelude" is a term convenient for designation of a poem for which W himself never fixed upon a formal title; and W does not appear to have formed a conception of this work that he was able to realize as a poem that he regarded, even temporarily, as complete until 1804-05 . . . (Chronology MY Appendix V, 628).

Later, when the Wordsworths refer to The Prelude they habitually call it "The Poem to Coleridge" but MS JJ has not yet even been shaped into such a form.

MS JJ in 1798-99

A second crucial context is that of the time and place of writing. Letters written from Goslar and Grasmere in 1798-1800 give a strong sense of the psychological, domestic and physical surroundings which bear directly upon the need to write. Famously, Wordsworth tells Coleridge in a letter from Goslar of 1799 that "as I have had no books I have been obliged to write in self-defence" (EY 236). This comment bears directly upon the composition of MS JJ which occurs at this time. Wordsworth was drawing upon his own inner resources – memories of his childhood in the Lakes – at a time of social and geographical isolation.

You can understand the geographical movements and activities of William and Dorothy from 1798-99 in the context of their letters by going to the link below:

MS JJ in the Context of Wordsworth's Other Writings in 1798-1800

One other context for understanding MS JJ is that of Wordsworth's other writings at this period. Both J. R. MacGillivray in his article "The Three Forms of The Prelude 1798-1805" and Stephen Parrish in the Cornell edition make comparison between other works and the early Prelude draft. MacGillivray states that:

The themes which Wordsworth had first used in MS. B of "The Ruined Cottage" and to which he had given the first formal expression in Tintern Abbey could not be ignored for long. (234)

Stephen Parrish reminds us that:

The last poem Wordsworth wrote before leaving England was Tintern Abbey, completed in mid-July, and the affinities between Tintern Abbey and the autobiographical verse he began to write in Germany three months later help to point up The Prelude's earliest design. (7)

In the full tables given on this site for "William and Dorothy's Movements 1798-1800" Wordsworth's location and travel is directly correlated with his writing. The point that Parrish makes above can be clearly seen, as can the fact that Wordsworth prepares Lyrical Ballads for publication and then leaves the country. In fact, the early Prelude is developed between completion of the first edition of Lyrical Ballads in 1798 and of the second edition in 1800. This provides a second perspective in terms of public reception and criticism of his poetic principles, and the writing of his unpublished masterpiece.

Later development of the "Two-Part Prelude" at the very end of 1799 also brings it into close conjunction with Home at Grasmere (begun in early 1800). Wordsworth's tour of the Lakes with Coleridge and John in Autumn 1799 anticipates the completion of the Prelude in two books – with direct personal and textual references to Coleridge, and to changes at Hawkshead – as well as leading to the separate poem "The Brothers" in late 1799. Soon afterwards, the journey of William and Dorothy from Sockburn to Dove Cottage in December 1799 anticipates Home at Grasmere which includes a poetic account of that journey, as well as the separate poem "Hart-Leap Well". But the two texts are also connected perhaps through the "Glad Preamble" which eventually stands at the start of the 1805 Prelude and celebrates the poet's escape from internment, and pleasure at choosing a "dwelling", in ways that are strongly reminiscent of Home at Grasmere at its most celebratory:

Now I am free, enfranchis'd and at large,

I sate, and stirred in Spirit as I looked,

May fix my habitation where I will.

I seemed to feel such liberty was mine,

What dwelling shall receive me? In what Vale

Such power and joy; but only for this end:

Shall be my harbour? Underneath what grove

To flit from field to rock, from rock to field,

Shall I take up my home, and what sweet stream

From shore to island and from isle to shore . . .

Shall with its murmurs lull me to my rest?

From high to low, from low to high, yet still

The earth is all before me: with a heart

Within the bounds of this huge Concave; here

Joyous, nor scar'd at its own liberty,

Should be my home, this Valley be my World.

I look about . . .

(Reed, The Thirteen-Book Prelude, A-B Reading Text, Bk I, lines 9-17).

(Darlington, Home at Grasmere, MS B Reading Text, lines 34-38, 41-43).

MS JJ in DC MS 19

The Cornell series for Wordsworth, which enables all of the work on this site to take place, necessarily focuses on the development of a particular poem across many notebooks. However, the effect of this is to hide the alternative context for understanding provided by the notebook in which each manuscript is held. It is easy to forget that many different poetic and prose writings are often held together, as well as entries by Dorothy being alongside those of William. One final approach to MS JJ then, is to view it as a block of work, slid into the back of a shared notebook, held in common by William and Dorothy.

To explore this further go to: