Event Segmentation as an Explanation for the Seemingly Inconsistent Structure of Wordsworth’s Prelude

By Cynthia Whissell.

Published by The International Journal of Interdisciplinary Cultural Studies

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William Wordsworth’s long poem the “Prelude,” published in the middle of the nineteenth century, has been criticized for its inconsistent structure. The poem describes the poet’s life quest for a theory of poetry. The emotional tone of the poem, defined in terms of its pleasantness, was measured using the Dictionary of Affect in Language. The presence of an overarching quest structure is verified by the presence of significant differences in pleasantness among the fourteen Books of the poem (analysis of variance, p<.001), and by the presence of a quadratic trend across Books (trend analysis, p<.001). Pleasantness falls to an unpleasant crisis point about two-thirds of the way through the poem and then rises again when the quest is resolved. In spite of this overarching structure, it was noted that some segments of the poem are very different in pleasantness from the Books in which they are included (t-tests, p<.01), and that there is considerable variability in the emotional tone of adjacent 500-word segments (analysis of variance, p<.001). Event segmentation theory suggests that frequent changes in emotionality encourage readers to segment (divide) the poem into several sub-sections: if readers were expecting to encounter a story with a linear development across Books, an excess of sub-sections would promote a sense of discontinuity or inconsistency in their reading of the work.

Keywords: Event Segmentation, Emotion, Literature

The International Journal of Interdisciplinary Cultural Studies, Volume 12, Issue 1, March 2017, pp.23-33. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 770.818KB).

Dr. Cynthia Whissell

Full Professor, Psychology Department, Laurentian University, Sudbury, Ontario, Canada