Because this poem is just one part of a much longer work, it's worth delving into some context before breaking down these lines. Wordsworth began writing The Prelude in the 1790s and continued to tweak it for the rest of his life. In fact, although Wordsworth had finished the poem by the early 1800s, he continued to refine his language for another 50 years. The version used here is from his last known draft in the 1850s, generally considered to be his most polished version. The Prelude depicts Wordsworth's spiritual development from childhood into adulthood, as well as his growth as a poet.
The passage used in this guide is a single verse paragraph from Book 1 (i.e., Chapter 1) of the 14-book poem. In this book, Wordsworth introduces the poem and then narrates experiences from his early childhood. Here, the speaker (usually interpreted as Wordsworth himself) describes stealing a boat at night, an experience which then leads him to early spiritual insights.
This passage immediately begins by referencing nature as "her." In the verse paragraph preceding this one, the speaker personified nature as a kind of maternal figure that instructs the speaker. In fact, throughout The Prelude, solitary experiences in nature provide the speaker with valuable insights into his own mind and imagination. These insights also lead the speaker to a greater spiritual understanding of existence, where the human imagination and nature are intertwined. This passage, then, provides an early glimpse into this understanding, both for the young Wordsworth and for the reader.
The speaker is "led" by nature one night to "A little boat tied to a willow tree." The speaker literally means that, following his instincts and the natural landscape, he discovers where the boat is hidden. But by saying that nature "led" him there, he emphasizes how learning from nature involves a certain degree of passivity and openness. He has to treat the natural environment like a person that is communicating with him—that will help him uncover its secrets. Note that a "cove" is a small, secluded inlet. Here, the boat is tied to a willow tree as it floats in the shallows of a lake.
The form and meter of The Prelude is very important. It is written in blank verse, or unrhymed iambic pentameter (meaning there are five feet per line, each of which follows a da-DUM rhythm). The first line is a good example:
One sum- | mer eve- | ning (led | by her) | I found
Furthermore, as the first two lines exemplify, the poem is heavily enjambed. Wordsworth modeled this language after John Milton's epic poem Paradise Lost, written in the 1650s-1660s, which employs blank verse, long and intricate sentences as well as heavy enjambment.
The relationship between Wordsworth's and Milton's language is covered more fully in the Form section of this guide, but one of the most important elements of this relationship is how Wordsworth puts himself at the center of his poem. Whereas Milton wrote about characters from a religious story (the fall of Satan and the story of Adam and Eve), Wordsworth writes about himself. The pronoun "I" is always present, and it's always Wordsworth speaking. The images are all drawn from his own life. As Wordsworth sets the scene, then, he is reconstructing a memory of a place and event that is supposed to have really happened to him.