S. LAXMANA MURTHY
Wordsworth was primarily a poet. He was neither drawn to nor was interested in literary criticism in the way and to the degree his friend and collaborator Coleridge was. Yet Wordsworth meditated deeply on those problems which relate to the vocation of poetry in general and the kind of poetry he was then writing in particular. This is quite inevitable because every creative writer introduces a new possibility in the realm of art which demands proper evaluation. Constant revaluation of the past in terms of the present is an important factor which sustains the function of criticism-explication and elucidation in response to the substantive dictates of a modified sensibility. It demonstrates the incongruity between new experience and old expression. Every moment in poetry is characterised by human self in crisis which urges reaction against the modes both obsolete and obsolescent. It proves all too clearly that the old modes have lost their potential for creative experiment having exhausted the native strength of their idiom. This is the historical dialectics of poetry. The burden of the past is not jettisoned; its usability is under ceaseless review. What is often regarded as finally shed, leaves its subtle impact on its consequent.
The Romantic movement represents a definite stage in this dialectic and Wordsworth is its spokesman. In his criticism of the limitations of the past and in his plan for the present and concern for the future, he has in his mind the undeniable obligation of criticism as part of a literary revolution. It has to establish the literary values in a world that sets a high premium on power and scientific methodicity. The critic must discover the avenues for existence and assert the unique validity of humanity. This critical principle has prompted Wordsworth to state his thoughts on poetry and its function clearly and cogently in his famous Preface to the second edition of Lyrical Ballads in 1800. When the first edition of the slender volume of poems was launched forth two years earlier by Wordsworth in collaboration with Coleridge it did not meet with immediate success. Hazlitt complained that the un-accountable mixture of seeming simplicity and real abstruseness in the Lyrical Ballads was such that fools laughed at it and wise men scarcely understood. He went on to compliment Wordsworth on his remarkable originality of Ballads which brought him the lonely eminence in that the vulgar did not read them, the learned did not understand them and the great despised them.1 Six years after its publication, it was thus greeted by a reviewer in Philadelphia:
I know few performances which have assumed the name of poetry and which have obtained a considerable share of celebrity, so truly worthless as Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads... 2
In fact immediate success would have simply surprised Wordsworth himself. He was conscious that it was an innovation in matter and style which by its very nature could never find ready and acquiescent audience. The strength and validity of an innovation are, not infrequently, in direct proportion to the measure of resistance it provokes and meets effectively. Quiet acceptance is silent absorption which is worse than flagrant denouncement. In the case of Lyrical Ballads, the absence of resistance would have assuredly meant that the 18th century classicism discovered no appreciable challenge in it to its continuance. Wordsworth would have felt sad, had he found that his new efforts were just in consonance with “the present public taste.” This was not to be. He was glad. Before he wrote the Preface, Wordsworth had read a good many reviews of his new venture, and he was able to reflect on the sort of objections his poems were meeting. In spite of his initial reluctance to theorise, he took great care to defend the principles of poetic art on which his collection was based. The Preface thus came to be “a remarkably literate, coherent and rich analysis of what Wordsworth felt throughout his literary career to be the central topics of criticism”.3 He made himself clear on the vital points–the poet, the poetry, its subjects, aims and style. The Preface can be regarded as the manifesto of the Romantic poetry.
Wordsworth believes that a creative artist is obliged to be articulate about the principles of art that shape and mould his practice. In agreement with Coleridge he states that “every great and original writer, in proportion as he is great and original, must himself create the taste by which he is to be relished; he must teach the art by which be is to be seen”. 4 The Preface as a theoretical statement is merely a necessary part of the educative programme without which informed taste could never be consolidated to welcome and establish the new school in opposition to the old. He persuaded to do it as he had “a deep impression of certain inherent and indestructible qualities of the human mind, and likewise of certain powers in the great and permanent objects that act upon it, which are equally inherent and indestructible”.5 For Wordsworth the first volume of his poems was “an experiment...to ascertain how far, by fitting to metrical arrangement a selection of the real language of men in a state of vivid sensation, that sort of pleasure and that quality of pleasure may be imparted, which a poem may rationally endeavour to impart”.6 This experiment, he was sure, would be greeted with derision and not a few might wonder by “what species of courtesy” this could be called poetry. Wordsworth was convinced that he shocked the old sensibilities into new awareness and it was his duty to win them to his school by “a systematic defence of the theory upon which the poems were written.” In what follows an attempt is made to study a few concepts of his defence.
defence has necessitated a new look at what perennially constitutes all literary inquiry: the poet,
the poetry, its nature and aims. “The poet,” Wordsworth states, “is a man who
being possessed of more than usual organic sensibility, had also thought long
and deeply.” He is a responsible visionary firmly rooted to the earth with an
uncanny sense of fact. His active participation in the experience shared by all
enables him to see into the heart of things. Wordsworth defines the poet with
disarming simplicity as “a man speaking to men.” This trite and seemingly
commonplace assertion has for its authenticity the whole French Revolution behind it. The charismatic
triad of slogans –
the addition of all these clauses, it appears that the poet who is introduced
as a man speaking to other men ceased to be as simple as that. He has the power
and ability to an extraordinary degree to display thought and feeling. The
external fact and human self act and react, and the process is continuous. He does
not, however, merely adhere to the fact in order to copy or report faithfully.
Although he has “the general passions and thoughts and feelings of men” he
should realise the need to impart “immediate pleasure
to a human being possessed of that information which may be expected from
If any literary work is emotionally ‘depressing,’ there is something wrong with either the writing or the reader’s response. Art seems to produce a kind of buoyancy which, though often called pleasure, as it is for instance by Wordsworth, is something more inclusive than pleasure. 10
Wordsworth indicates its inclusive nature in his assertion that by the grand elementary principle of pleasure man “knows, and feels and loves and moves.” In other words, Man has his entire being in pleasure. Wordsworth’s emphasis on pleasure goes much deeper than this. The poet, Wordsworth feels, works under the only restraint of giving pleasure and no other obligation would ever bind him. His ability to evoke pleasure derives its sustenance from his abundant enjoyment of self, and it is not divorced from the experience of fact. Celebration of feeling and pleasure to the neglect of fact would lead the poet into the workings of fancy, an inferior agency which brings in its train allegories and exploded mythologies. Devotion to fact in exclusion of feeling would, on the contrary, make an odious presentation of sensory data in verse. Prof. Basil Willey has shown convincingly how delicately Wordsworth balances his statement that poetry should deal boldly with substantial things under the poetic obligation of imparting pleasure. The entire discussion converges into the subtle and pivotal distinction of “imaginary” from “imaginative.”
Being “the rock of defence of human nature” poet will follow “an atmosphere of sensation.” Even the scientific knowledge with its positivistic reductions is welcome to his domain where his humanising power is at work. Wordsworth makes it boldly clear:
...he (the poet) will be ready to follow the steps of the man of science, not only in those general indirect effects, but he will be at his side, carrying sensation into the midst of the objects of the science itself...if the time should ever come when these things shall be familiar to us, and the relations under which they are contemplated...shall be manifestly and palpably material to us as enjoying and suffering beings. 11
In the pursuit of scientific knowledge, the pleasure obtained by the scientist is essentially subjective and does not lend itself to expression. The poet on the other hand feels, communicates and thus enables men to share it. Wordsworth suggests that while in the vocation of scientist man is lost, in that of poet man is present as its essence. Poet matters as man. With his unique gift of humanization which derives itself from the deep realisation of relationship and love poet becomes an “upholder and preserver” of human nature. He will find the vast empire of human society “in spite of difference of soil and climate, of language and manners, of laws and customs: in spite of things silently gone out of mind, and things violently destroyed.”
Poetry should interest mankind permanently. Wordsworth’s definition of poetry as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” is often commented upon as inadequate. The injustice done to this important definition in critical analyses is largely due to the failure to read it in connection with earlier remarks. It is in fact inseparably connected with the source and purpose of poetry. Almost all the critics who have taken an anti-Romantic stance have picked up “the spontaneous overflow” in isolation as their starting point. Wordsworth, it should be remembered, has never undermined the importance of conscience and deliberate efforts on the part of the poet. He has pointedly said that poet has no divine afflatus. He has a purpose and an obligation. When the poet is conscious of obligations, duties and purposes of his art, he cannot in the same breath be unconscious of what he is doing while doing it. This compels a new look at the “spontaneous.” The word does not mean automatic or frenzied outburst. The poetry has its origin in the sensibility which is found in “a man...who had also thought long and deeply.” Wordsworth is not simply repeating the central premises of Romantic criticism–the importance of poet’s mind and passions and the usual belief that creation is natural, automatic and effortless. The emotion alone would not become poetry. Neither its sudden expression. It is contemplated till the tranquillity disappears and “an emotion kindred to that which was before the subject of contemplation is gradually produced, and does itself actually exist in the mind.” These remarks should be read in the context of the primacy of pleasure in poetry. Poet should be able “to excite rational sympathy.” His expression is bodied forth deliberately with common experience for its source “as other men express themselves.” Poetry, as Wordsworth finds it, cannot be fanciful, imaginary and fantastic. It alone has the power to lend ‘divine spirit’ to science and welcome it as “a genuine inmate of the household of man.”
Wordsworth was aware that his view of poetry, being very un-conventional, would put much of the time-honoured literature beyond its confines. He has remarked that “in order entirely to enjoy the poetry which I am recommending, it would be necessary to give up much of what is ordinarily enjoyed.” He was clearly in revolt against the accepted norms in regard to subject matter and language. He comes out boldly,
Why should there be
A history, only of departed things,
Or a fiction of what never was? 12
He is convinced that “the discerning intellect of Man” would discover that love and passion are “a simple produce of the common day.” He puts forth his manifesto:
The principal object...proposed in these poems was to choose incidents and situations from common life, and to relate or describe them, throughout, as far as was possible in a selection of language really used by men...and...to make these incidents and situations interesting by tracing in them...primary laws of our nature...Humble and rustic life was generally chosen, because, in that condition, the essential passions of the heart find a better soil in which they can attain their maturity, are less under restraint, and speak a plainer and more emphatic language; because in that condition of life our elementary feelings co-exist in a state of greater simplicity...; because the manners of rural life germinate from those elementary feelings,...are more easily comprehended, and are more durable; and...because in that condition the passions of men are incorporated with the beautiful and permanent forms of Nature. 13
This passionate concern for the common man and the language as spoken by him as evidenced in the Preface have made Carlos Baker call it “a declaration of the need for democracy in poetry”.14 Nearly hundred and eighty years have gone by, we fail quite understandably to realise the risk Wordsworth ran when he declared his programme of independence from the strictures of old themes and dry poetic diction. Wordsworth found that there was no essential difference between the two modes of language employed in prose and poetry. He repeatedly asserts with emphasis that the language of a large portion of every good poem, save with reference to metre, is no different from that of prose when it is well written. Wordsworth is echoed subtly when Eliot remarks that poetry should be written atleast as well as prose. Nevertheless he is undeservedly mauled for his comments on poetic diction and the importance of metre. In regard to poetic diction all that Wordsworth wants to state categorically is that new authentic and realistic experience of the poet can never find adequate expression in old inauthentic and stale vocabulary which he may inherit as family property. It is difficult to disagree with Wordsworth on basic issues. He has however failed to be precise and clear about metre. His view that a selection of the spoken language made with true taste and feeling and “if metre be superadded thereto” would establish its own distinction, has landed him into endless trouble. Coleridge in his Biographia Literaria led not a very friendly attack on Wordsworth for his views. It must be admitted that the Wordsworthian belief that metre could be Superadded is unfortunate and indefensible. It very much needed and deserved the Coleridgean check. The critical battle on poetic diction and metre has a long history. A large bulk of adverse criticism has however banked on the supposed description in Preface of the metre as “superadded charm.” What amuses one is the often overlooked fact that the much-quoted phrase attributed to Wordsworth with a good deal of ridicule, does not appear in Wordsworth. He has thus stated very clearly his views on the use of language.
...the language of prose may yet be well adapted to poetry... a large portion of the language of every good poem can in no respect differ from that of good prose. We will go further. It may be safely affirmed, that there neither is, nor can be, any essential difference between the language of prose and metrical composition...They both speak by and to the same organs; the bodies in which both of them are clothed may be said to be of the same substance, their affections are kindred, and almost identical, not necessarily differing even in degree. Poetry sheds no tears ‘such as angels weep,’ but natural and human tears; she can boast of no celestial ichor that distinguishes her vital juices from those of prose; the same human blood circulates through the veins of them both. 15
It is a remarkably fresh evaluation of the function of language in poetry. He recognised that language and human mind “act and react on each other,” and the process involves the entire society itself. Wordsworth discovered a new poetic world and his revolution as Helen Derbyshire remarks, emancipated the poetic subject and brought poetic language to its source in the living tongue. 16 It was, as she further emphasises, an assertion of the supreme value of life at all costs in poetry. Wordsworth was a conscious artist deeply committed to human values. His place can be ignored only on pain of total insensitivity to the voice raised in defence of man about to be engulfed in “a universe of death.’ Basil Willey aptly commented on the importance of Wordsworth.
yet as he is the first, so he remains the type, of the “modern” poets who, “left alone” with a vaster material than his, must bear as best they can, unaided by any universally held mythology, the “weight of all this unintelligible world”. 17
Wordsworth bore the brunt of it cheerfully and looked ahead with prophetic vision. His conception of poetry, though not unassailable, has enough to provide and stimulate fresh insights into the poetic continuum.
1 Hazlitt, The Spirit of the Age, Oxford University Press, London. 1960. p. 136.
2 The Literary Magazine and American Register (Philadelphia), I (1804), p. 336.
3 Stephen Maxfield Parrish, The Art of Lyrical Ballads, Harvard University Press. 1973. p. 10.
4 W. J. B. Owen (ed.), Wordsworth’s Literary Criticism, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London. 1974. p. 115.
5 Preface to the second edition of Lyrical Ballads, 1800 rept. in English Critical Essays: Nineteenth Century. Edited by Edmund D. Jones, Oxford University Press, London. 1971. p. 6.
6 Ibid. p. 1.
7 Prelude ii, p. 254.
8 “Preface to the Excursion” in Wordsworth’s Literary Criticism, Op. cit. p. 173.
9 Preface to the Lyrical Ballads, Op. cit., p. 14.
10 Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism, Princeton University Press. 1957. p. 94.
11 Preface to the Lyrical Ballads. Op. cit. p. 16.
12 Preface to the Excursion.
13 Preface to the Lyrical Ballads. OJ. cit. p. 3.
14 Carlos Baker, William Wordsworth, The Prelude: Selected Poems and Sonnets. Holt, Rinehard and Winston, Inc. 1954. p. xi.
15 Preface to the Lyrical Ballads, Op. cit. p. 9
16 Helen Derbyshire, The Poet Wordsworth (Oxford, 1950), p. 56,
17 Basel Willey, Op. cit. p. 309.