Not only is it among the longest poems ever written, consisting of approximately 13 books (depending on the edition being used – later revised versions reached 14 books), The Prelude was also intended to serve as an introduction to a greater work Wordsworth envisioned. Throughout the work, Wordsworth changes tone, voice, tense and subject frequently, making any attempts to treat the poem as a work in and of itself nearly impossible. However, Reed, through his argument, attempts to show that this changeful nature is the unifying factor by bringing attention to the transient nature of life itself.
Reed begins this argument by illustrating the various aspects of the poem that have prevented earlier scholars from attempting to develop an understanding of the work as a whole, illustrating the dissecting nature of the initial premises upon which these attempts were based. One approach taken is based on the fact that the work is essentially an autobiography of the artist and therefore follows his life story as Wordsworth remembered it rather than developing along a straight line of action. The extended period of time through which the poem was written is another argument scholars have used to prevent them from attempting to approach the work as a free-standing construction. The poem’s heavy revisions and obvious intention to be connected to a longer piece have further complicated the issue while the frequent shifts of character and tone indicate a need for further explanation lies outside the text. Acknowledging that all of these objections are valid to some extent, Reed indicates that while other approaches to the poem are helpful to develop an understanding of Wordsworth’s thoughts, an attempt to understand the poem as an artistic whole is necessary to truly understand Wordsworth’s intentions.