E20B LECTURE NOTES #4: THE POETRY OF WILLIAM WORDSWORTH
William Wordsworth was born on 7 April 1770 in Cockermouth, Cumberland, the second of five children. His father, John, a lawyer, was very educated and liberal for the time, and encouraged all his children to be the same. William was definitely the wild one of the family, and his sister Dorothy, a year younger than him, was usually his only ally in the family. The Wordsworth children had a pretty happy childhood on the whole, at least until their mother, Ann, died in 1778. William was sent away (I think maybe his father couldn't handle him very well) to a grammar school some distance away. William was allowed to run wild, and became quite the young sportsman.
When John Wordsworth died in 1783, the outlook for the children became really bleak. Though theoretically John's estate was worth £10,485, that amount included many debts which people owed him. The largest debt, that owed by John's employer, the Earl of Lowther, amounted to nearly £5,000 of that sum, and would not be paid to the Wordsworths for 19 years. The kids were foisted on two uncles who were very peeved at having to take care of them. They paid for William to go to Cambridge, where he did very well in his first year, but soon realized Cambridge was no place for him. He chose his own course of studies from then on, and though he did graduate, it wasn't what you would call a real degree.
After graduation, William wandered aimlessly through France for a time. The country was then in the early, glorious stages of the French Revolution, and William was only one of many Englishmen who were fascinated by its Republican ideals. In the city of Orleans, he met a young woman named Annette Vallon. She was a Royalist and a Roman Catholic, but you can't fight chemistry. They had an affair and Annette became pregnant. Before the child was born, however, William had to go back to England. He needed to earn money somehow, and in any case, the Revolution was starting to turn into the Terror. He returned to London with every intention of marrying Annette once things had settled, politically and financially.
He tried to raise money by publishing two poems he'd written, mostly for his own amusement. These were Descriptive Sketches, a very pro-revolutionary piece, and An Evening Walk. They were not very good, and sold accordingly. But some saw potential in them, most notably an old school friend of William's who arranged for a legacy of £900 so William could concentrate on his poetry. William was very grateful for the bequest, and between the income from that and some money he got from another friend (a widower) in exchange for watching the friend's young son, William and his sister Dorothy were able to live together in a little cottage. About this time, William met Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Robert Southey, two young poets who were planning a great socio-political experiment. Robert and Coleridge soon had a terrible quarrel, the scheme died, and Coleridge became William's friend. In 1798, they published a joint volume of poetry called Lyrical Ballads. No one quite knew what to make of it; it was really nothing like what the reading public was used to. It was Romantic, though at the time everyone called it poetry of the Lake School, since William was froom the Lake District.
In 1800, Lyrical Ballads was reworked and a second volume added. William also wrote a preface expounding his theories of what made good poetry. Two years later, the Wordsworths discovered they were at last to get the money owed to their father. Perhaps because of this, William asked Mary Hutchinson, a friend since childhood, to marry him. After a quick visit to Annette to straighten everything out, William and Mary were married in a quiet ceremony. William, Mary, and Dorothy all lived together in their little cottage.
In 1807, William published a two-volume set containing 113 poems, which was again given a very bad review by everyone who bothered to review it, including Lord Byron, then 19 and just getting started in the business of slamming poetry. William tried to take it all in stride, but it was probably no coincidence that he changed his mind about publishing some long poems he'd just finished. He also started writing more prose, at least partly because Coleridge had recently started a magazine that needed articles. But Coleridge's growing drug addiction and paranoia soon put a stop to that literary endeavour, and, unfortunately, his friendship with William as well.
William's home life, generally happy, was nearly shattered in 1812. In June of that year, Catherine, his fourth child, died of convulsions at age 3; in December, the third child, Thomas, died of pneumonia. Mary herself came close to dying from grief, and Dorothy was little better. William wrote a very touching sonnet on Catherine's death some years later, called "Surprised by Joy. The following year, realizing that the family's finances were suffering, William begged and pleaded and called in a lot of favors to get the appointment of Distributor of Stamps for Westmorland, with an income of £200 per year. A couple of years later, he started cautiously publishing some poems again, and actually got a few good reviews. Some even went so far as to compare him favorably with Robert Southey. He was much more popular with the general public--tourists actually came to the Wordsworth house in hopes of seeing William.
Though he published a few of the poems he'd been afraid to before, William didn't write much over the next few years, concentrating instead on his family. 1822 saw the re-release of a travel guide to the Lakes which he had earlier printed anonymously; it was an immensely popular guide. In 1829, William returned from a jaunt (he was forever going off on jaunts, usually with Dorothy or his daughter Dorothy, commonly called Dora to avoid confusion) to find his whole household stricken with influenza. Sara Hutchinson, Mary's sister, who had been staying with them, died. Dorothy, already in somewhat precarious health, recovered from the influenza physically but not mentally. For the rest of her life she suffered continual ill-temper and was mostly incoherent, except when quoting poetry.
In 1839, William finished The Prelude, a poetical autobiography of his early life which he'd been working on for years. He sealed it away, to be printed only after his death. By 1840, Robert Southey was beginning to deteriorate, both mentally and physically. He died in 1843, and William was asked to be Poet Laureate in his place. Though he initially refused on grounds of age (he was 73), William eventually agreed as a personal favor to a man named Sir Robert Peel, who had gotten a government pension for William to live on. William died (finally) on 23 April 1850, of pleurisy, an infection of the lung cavity.
His daughter Dora died of tuberculosis in 1847, but his two remaining sons, John and Willy, both married and had children, as did his illegitimate daughter Caroline, so there are still direct descendants of William's around today. No signs of any more poets in the family, though.
The Subject Matter of Poetry:
Wordsworth seeks to depict in his poetry the "primary laws of our nature: chiefly, as far as regards the manner in which we associate ideas in a state of excitement" That is, his goal is the depiction of human nature as it really is in terms of its general and uniform elements, passions and language.
Wordsworth’s outlook on poetry is predicated upon the view that human nature is everywhere the same. Men do not differ with respect to their passions and susceptibilities nor their capacity for reason. The most elemental and uniform aspects of human nature are especially visible in primitive persons, not just ‘chronologically’ primmitive ones but also ‘cultural’ primitives--people dwelling in civilised nations but insulated by their class or rural habitat from the artifice an complications of culture. For Wordsworth, human nature is most reliably demonstrated in those who live acording to nature and consists in an elemental simplicity of thought and feeling as well as a spontaneous and unartifical manner of expressing their feelings in words.
In order to trace the "primary laws of our nature" Wordsworth opted to depict "humble and rustic life" because
Indeed, in that condition of life, Wordsworth argues, "our elementary feelings coexist in state of greater simplicity" principally because the "manners of rural life germinate from those elementary feelings" and the "passions of men are incorporated with the beautiful and permanent forms of nature". The "language" of such people, arising as it does, out of "repeated experience and regular feelings" is a "more permanent and far more philosophical language than that which is frequently substituted for it by Poets". Wordsworth broke radically with traditional poetic decorum by considerinig mad mothers, idiot boys, and reapers as just as suitable subjects for poetic description as Achilles or other noble heroes. Wordsworth turns in his poetry to those feelings and thoughts whose presence in peasants, children and idiots is proof that they are the property of all mankind and not the cultivated classes alone. Wordsworth’s goal is, in short, a very egalitarian one. He looks towards "those who depend for food on bodily labour" as the best practical index to the general sense of mankind. From Wordsworth’s point of view, in short, the "essential passions" and "unelaborated expressions" act as both the subject-matter of the best poetry and the model of the creative process.
If the poet thinks and feels in the way that all men do, Wordsworth’s rhetorical question is whether his language can "differ in any material way from that of all other men who feel vividly and see clearly" . The answer is evidently no. The poetic norm is, hence, the "real language of men", the "language really spoken by men". The term ‘real’ here is interchangeable with his use of the term ‘natural’. Indeed, he speaks of the "real language of nature". (Indeed, Wordsworth’s poetry is almost prosaic in quality, the major difference being the supervention of metre.) The language of nature is not traditional poetic language but the language of mankind. It is not artificially coloured. It is exemplified by the language of the earliest poets and in prose its best instance is the "simple and unelaborated expressions" of essential passions by men "living close to nature". Moreover, natural language is that wich arises from the spontaneous overflow of feeliings into words and is opposed to the deliberate adaptation of means to end and of the adherence to poetic conventions characteristic of art. (Wordsworth ncludes one caveat: the necessity of excluding all that is "painful or disgusting in the passion" if the goal of giving pleasure to the reader is to be maintained.)
Wordsworth’s theory is thus clearly opposed to the theory and practice of poets like Pope for whom "True Wit is Nature to advantage dressed" and "true expression" consists in giving thoughts their appropriate "dress" and "ornament". Pope may draw a distinction between true and false wit but for Wordsworth all wit is false wit when it implies the ornamentalisation of natural language and the peversion of genuine poetry. Figures of speech are justified only when they are naturally suggested by passion, never justified when it is a question of a mechanical adoption of conventionally determined figures inorder to achieve the desired affect of ‘pleasure and learning.’
(Lyric) poetry originates in the poet’s emotional state. It is the sincere expression or overflow of powerful feeling, that is, it emerges from a process of imagination in which the poets uses words to give vent to his true feelings and thus to express his real self. Poetry expresses emotions by virtue of the figures of speech and the rhythm that inhere in the artform and which naturally embody and convey the feelings of the poet. Figures of speech and metre are not mere ornamental additions. Wordsworth is eager not to differentiate too much between poets and other men lest the emotions and feelings of which poetry is the expression be accused of being peculiar to the individual poet. The poet is, hence, a "man speaking to other men" different only in the degree of his sensibility. Indeed, the poet is a man more sensitive and more susceptible to passion, he is "endowed with more lively sensibility, more enthusiasm and tenderness . . . who rejoices more than other men in the spirit of life that is in him". Often the poet speaks to the reader "in his own person and character" but sometimes he does so "through the mouths of his characters" (some of Wordsworth’s best poetry has a dramatic quality to it). In either case, the "passions and thoughts and feelings" expressed are in fact the "general passions and thoughts and feelings of men". The poet, he writes, "thinks and feels in the spirit of human passions". However, although poems are the spontaneous expression of feelings, the best poetry is produced only by men who have "thought long and deeply. For our continued influxs of feeling are modified and directed by our thoughts, which are indeed are the representatives of all our past feelings". Poetry is thus also "emotion recollected in tranquillity", spontaneity the reward of application.
(The earliest and most primitive forms of poetry were written by men from "passion excited by real events; they wrote naturally, and as men: feeling powerfully as they did, their language was daring and figurative". Poetry, qua the expression of an emotional state of mind, is to be contrasted not to prose but to the unemotional assertions of fact of science. The former is predicated upon an emotive use of language while the other is based upon a cognitive use of language.)
In short, for Wordsworth, if poetry is the "spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings" (), these passions and feelings are the "general passions and thoughts and feelings of men" (). The cause of these feelings is external to humankind. Wordsworth lists some of these as the
However, the mind is not merely a sponge formed by the sense-impressions absorbed from without. It is a creative force acting in turn upon everything outside the self. Wordsworth puts it this way: the Poet
Wordsworth puts all this another way in Bk. 13 of The Prelude when he speaks of an "ennobling interchange / Of action from within and without" (375-6). Elsewhere he speaks of "What we half create and . . . perceive" (in "Tintern Abbey").
The Moral Impact of Poetry:
Given that most men have been perverted by false refinements and artificial desires, Wordsworth contends that the most important function of poetry is to foster and cultivate the sensibility, emotions and sympathies of the reader. The "end of poetry is to produce excitement in coexistence with an overbalance of pleasure" in order to "rectify men’s feelings, to widen their sympathies, and to produce or enlarge the capability of being excited without the application of gross and violent stimulants". As he puts it elsehere, the poet ought to "rectify men’s feelings, to gve them new compositions of feeling, to render their feelings more sane, pure and permanent, in sort,more consonant to nature". The fulfilment of these aims would produce what he describes as "genuine poetry, in its nature well adapted to suit mankinid permanently.
M. H. Abrams describes The Prelude as the paradigmatic example of Romantic epic. Something akin to a very extended ode (the final version consists of fourteen books!), it is written, by contrast to classic examples of the epic form, not in the third person but in the first person singular, indicating thereby its personal or subjective, rather than collective, focus. A kind of lyrical autobiography, the poem is described by Abrams as belonging to the genre of ‘crisis autobiography,’ a secularised version (inspired by Rousseau’s Confessions) of seventeenth and eighteenth century religious autobiographies grounded in a narrative of confession and conversion, of retrospection and introspection, and originally based on the literary model supplied by St. Augustine’s Confessions. In support of this, some critics such as Herbert Lindenberger contend that the most crucial moments of Wordsworth’s past are those traumatic (rather than joyful) ones in which the poet experienced a separation from all that he felt most sacred. Some of the most important of these include
However, if The Prelude, not insignificantly borrowing the central tropes from Milton’s Paradise Lost, recounts Wordsworth’s falls from grace, his ‘dark nights of the soul,’ as it were, it also traces, however, his ultimate restoration, his recuperation of grace, or Paradise Regained). His ‘falls,’ in other words, are represented as ultimately fortunate, the one illuminating or paving the way for the other. They lead him to an ever subtler comprehension of his poetic vocation, of the ‘one life’ that flows between himself and external nature, of the enduring coherence of his self, and of the presence of the divine in all material things: he learns that all transient physical objects are symbols of the eternal and spiritual in the climactic episode on Mount Snowdon described in Book 14.
In short, The Prelude constitutes something of a lyrical bildungsroman (novel of self-discovery and education) which is accordingly chronologically structured as follows (this is based upon the posthumously published fourteen book version of The Prelude):
Books 1, 2: childhood and school-time experiences--very much enamored with nature;
In short, The Prelude, like Romantic poetry in general, emanates out from the poet as centre, using the "play of memory across time to narrate the process of growing out of childhood into maturity, a voyage of the self" (Stromberg 42).
By the end of The Prelude, Wordsworth arrives at compete ‘self-consciousness’ or ‘individuation’ in the wake of three broad stages of psychic development:
Throughout The Prelude, he uses several metaphors to connote the growth into self-knowledge: the self is often figured as a river or stream that gathers force as it flows; as a circuitous path or journey wherein one leaves home only to return, spiralling upward to a higher level of knowledge; as a wanderer or tourist exploring the wide universe with the goal of ultimately returning home, and as something organic or plant-like ("Fair seed-time had my soul" , he writes in Book I).
Wordsworth never thought of The Prelude as his magnum opus. His conceived masterwork was to have been the never completed The Recluse which he envisaged as a ‘spousal verse’, a prothalamion celebrating the consummation of the marriage of mind and nature, self and other. Wordsworth hoped to offer a vision of a revitalised, living world in contradistinction to the dead, mechanical universe depicted by Newtonian physics. It was to be a nineteenth century epic to rival Milton’s but it would have had a very subjective, introspective and, thus, Romantic cast to it: its subject was to be the "sensations and opinions of a poet living in retirement’ incorporated in a poem of which the ‘first and third parts . . . will consist chiefly of meditations in the Author’s own person" (qtd. in Abrams 98-9). The Prelude Or, Growth of a Poet’s Mind was to have been just that, a prelude, a prefatory ‘review of his own mind’ and, as such, an autobiographical curriculum vitae, as it were, documenting his training and thus suitability for such a task. Indeed, he wrote that all his poems were collectively to be considered as so many components of a Gothic cathedral in which the poet himself constitutes the principle of unity. The Prelude has to The Recluse, he suggested for our consideration, the same relation "as the antechapel to the body of a gothic church" (99) while the other poems are the "cells, oratories, and sepulchral recesses, ordinarily included in these edifices" (99).
To put all this another way, if Wordsworth was to offer in The Recluse a credible organic world view to rival and even replace that of his Newtonian predecessors, he had to retrace the steps, the formative influences both good and bad and epiphanic moments (what he calls in The Prelude the ‘spots of time’) which had brought him to this point. The central question implicitly posed by The Prelude is whether the poet’s self is the product of his lived experiences and, thus, of his intercourse with everything that is not-self or whether the self that Wordsworth liked to think of as his own at least to some degree transcends his earthly experiences. Wordsworth’s answer falls somewhere in between these two extremes: as Wellek puts it, at times in The Prelude and elsewhere Wordsworth’s imagination is purely subjective, that is, in a position to impose itself and its inherent categories upon the world around. It is creative, capable of transfiguring the world and "investing natural phenomena with an almost supernatural phosphorescence" (Heffernan 166). At other times, it appears formed by its intercourse with nature, it is the "mirror of the fairest and interesting properties of nature" (267), as he puts it in his own preface to the Lyrical Ballads. In short, Wordsworth seems to offer a Kantian solution: it is a question of a dialectical interplay between or synthesis of self and not-self with neither gaining the upper hand.
To what extent is Wordsworth’s self formed and to what degree is it a pre-given: this, then, is the philosophical dilemma at the heart of The Prelude. The debate in which Wordsworth found himself immersed was basically that between Rationalism and Empiricism, Descartes and Locke. What is the precise nature of the relationship between (the poet’s) mind and external nature? Does the mind exist a priori, as the Rationalists claimed, does it precede existence (i.e. is it transcendental)? Or is the mind the post hoc effect of day to day life, as Locke claimed, a passive receptor of sense impressions by which it is entirely formed (the mind qua mirror)? The Prelude is a refutation of Locke’s insistence that the self is nothing more than the transitory function of the intake of sense impressions and the product of the synthesising power of the memory to assemble past experiences. While he does not deny that the world to a large extent does impinge upon and is thus formative of the self, Wordsworth asserts that the self is not formed solely from without by the body’s sensory experience but is something at least in part pre-given, emerging from within to impose itself upon external reality. Adopting a position that is very much inspired by Immanuel Kant, Wordsworth claims, in short, that the mind is to a very large degree a shaper of that reality which it perceives.
Abrams argues in "Two Roads to Wordsworth" that at the core of all Romantic poetry is a tension between the twin polarities of consciousness and otherness, that is, a dialectic between consciousness of self and consciousness of not-self, mind and nature. According to Hegel, human beings historically developed a sense of their distinctive humanness by coming to a realisation of their distinction from the animal kingdom and, by extension, from the natural world. Such a process of differentiation from everything outside of the self is one ultimately designed, therefore, to facilitate ‘self-realisation.’ However, to find one’s self (i.e. to develop self-consciousness) depends paradoxically upon consciousness of everything not-self. Hence, the preoccupation with nature that is the hallmark of Romantic poetry. Romantic poetry is informed, accordingly, by an insatiable yearning on the part of the poet to achieve autonomy or absolute independence from all that is not himself, namely, nature or the world of sensible objects, in other words, to realise himself through the contemplation of nature. Harold Bloom puts it this way with regard to Wordsworth:
His greatest insight, according to Bloom, is the "possibility of a union, by means of imagination, between mind and nature, in a reciprocity that redeems the world of ordinary experience" (156). The theme of all his best poetry is, thus, the "‘reciprocity between the external world and his own mind’ in which the two agents are equal in initiative and power" (157).
In other words, for Wordsworth in his "Preface to Lyrical Ballads," poetry is the "spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings" (271). These passions and feelings are the "general passions and thoughts and feelings of men" (268). The cause of these passions is external to humankind. Wordsworth lists some of these as the
However, the mind is not merely a sponge. It is a creative force acting in turn upon the universe. Wordsworth puts it this way: the Poet
Wordsworth puts all this another way in Bk. 13 of The Prelude when he speaks of an "ennobling interchange / Of action from within and without" (375-6). Elsewhere he speaks of "What we half create and . . . perceive" (in "Tintern Abbey").
Morse Peckham puts it this way: for Wordsworth, the mind is "exquisitely adapted to the outer world" (215) while, inversely, the outer world is
The technical term given to those moments of insight into the dialectical relationship of self to reality/nature is ‘epiphany.’ This means the sudden sense of revelation that one may feel while perceiving a commonplace object, the sudden flare into significance of an ordinary object or scene. The term was originally used by early Christians to signify moments when they recognised particular manifestations of God’s presence within the created world. Shelley in his "Defence of Poetry" speaks of the ‘best and happiest moments . . . arising unforeseen and departing unbidden,’ ‘visitations of the divinity’ which ‘poetry redeems from decay.’ Wordsworth called such epiphanic moments ‘spots of time.’ Indeed, The Prelude is constructed as a sequence of such visionary encounters, all of which were crucially important in the formation of Wordsworth’s subjectivity and which, through memory or the process of recall, are essential ingredients in his emergence into self-consciousness.
The sight of Mont Blanc in Book 6 is such an epiphanic moment for Wordsworth. He compares the mountain to a "book" (473) in which "we could not choose but read . . . The universal reason of mankind" (474-6). "Imagination!" Wordsworth exclaims: "here that power, / In all the might of its endowments, came / Athwart me" (525-9). "In such visitings / Of awful promise," he continues, "the light of sense / Goes out in flashes that have shown to us / The invisible world" (533-6). Wordsworth’s realisation? That all the natural phenomena around him, the pleasant and the unpleasant, "Tumult and peace, the darkness and the light, / Were all like workings of one mind, the features / Of the same face, blossoms upon one tree, / Characters of the great Apocalypse, / The types and symbols of eternity" (567-571).
In a similar epiphanic moment (the significance of which is more fully comprehended in the tranquillity of the following night), Wordsworth comes to realise that spectacle which he witnessed on Mount Snowdon (in Book 13) was the "perfect image of a mighty mind, / Of one that feeds upon infinity" (69-70), the "express / Resemblance, in the fullness of its strength / Made visible, a genuine counterpart / And brother, of the glorious faculty / Which higher minds bears with them as their own" (86-90). In short, for Wordsworth, the study of Nature, a phenomenon seemingly external to man, is in effect the study of the Universal Mind (God, Spirit, Reason) which manifests itself in the analogies offered by natural phenomena and in which the human mind sees a reflection of its own workings.
Here (some describe this poem as a miniaturised version of The Prelude), Wordsworth claims for himself the power to "see into the life of things" (49): he boasts of having "felt / A presence that disturbs me with the joy / Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime / Of something far more deeply interfused, / Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns, / And the round ocean and the living air, / And the blue sky, and in the mind of man: / A motion and a spirit, that impels all thinking things, all objects of all thought, / And rolls through all things" (93-102). Wordsworth acknowledges, fusing Locke with Kant, that the mind and the world are in a relationship of reciprocity (he speaks of his love of "all the mighty world / Of eye and ear–both what they half create, / And what perceive" [105-7]), neither one transcendent, but concludes by stating the pleasure he feels in ultimately recognising in "nature and the language of the sense / The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse, / The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul / Of all my moral being" (108-111).
The Influence of Rousseau’s Confessions
The Influence of Milton’s Paradise Lost
Wordsworth’s View of Poetry
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February 03, 2011