Monday, November 01, 2004

Week 11, Wordsworth

Notes on Wordsworth

General Notes on William Wordsworth’s “Preface to Lyrical Ballads, 1802” (645-68).


According to Wordsworth, our response to nature grounds elemental passions such as love. Language is the medium for the communication of these passions. City life destroys the link, and urban language cannot reestablish it. The poet’s language mediates between nature and the emotions based upon nature. That is why poetry is vital: poets can still feel and express the link to nature and so can help us reestablish it. Through their efforts, we can feel the link to nature anew, and reaffirm the power of our own minds because of the pleasure we take in art. The aim is to regain emotional health for the individual and to regenerate a sense of community.

Romantic poets represent and bring order to their own and others’ passions in a skillful manner, so they are not primitivists or solipsists. As we’ll see, meter is part of the poet’s craft, and it allows for the establishment of a distancing effect from raw emotion that might otherwise not rise above “gross and violent” stimulation. Craft helps the poet attain the proper meditative or reflective effect of poetry. A healthy mind is capable of being stimulated without immediate sensory experience—that’s a point Kant was determined to convey while explaining the basis for aesthetic judgment.

Wordsworth assumes that there is a general human nature, which is an eighteenth-century idea. But nature isn’t just an external standard; we are nature, and of course “reason” isn’t as important as the bedrock of humanity, the passions. To these we can always return, at least if we have the proper mediator and the right language as our guide.

Unlike the scientist, the poet must identify with rural humanity and with everyone else. He is “a man speaking to men.” Poetry is therefore intersubjective, and it reveals unified human nature as the basis for a united human community. Scientific knowledge is analytical, individual, objective; poetic knowledge gives common pleasure and universalizes and synthesizes experience. As Shelley will say later, we must “imagine that which we know.” Poets have the “courage” (Shelley’s term) to help us do this. They have the boldness to set deep culture against the mere public opinion of the day. That will be a critical and artistic task from the Enlightenment and Romantic period onwards.

1. The preface is a manifesto in an age of manifestoes, a revolutionary age. But this is a different kind of manifesto in that Wordsworth says social transformation comes after a renewal of the individual’s imagination and of a purer language tied to the primary, universal human emotions. Wordsworth is offering us a declaration of the poet’s power.

2. What is a poet? A poet is “a man speaking to men.” His imagination and need for self-expression are kindred to those of his fellow beings, but greater. Poets are in full, pleasurable contact with nature, their own thoughts, and their own feelings. Moreover, they can achieve the tranquility necessary to select and reorder those thoughts, feelings, and situations. When they do that, they are able to reveal the universal, orderly quality of readers’ thoughts and feelings. There is a common human nature, and poets are best able to express it because they experience it most fully.

3. What is poetry? Well, it is expression. It is “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings recollected in tranquility.” It is certainly not an imitation of an action, as Aristotle would have us believe, nor is it likely to serve up Samuel Johnson’s tulip without the numbered streaks. Poetry is a concrete expression of the poet’s thoughts and feelings. This idea is genuinely new, at least in its intensity.

4. Wordsworth does not advocate direct self-expression or primitivism. Only by reordering their thoughts and feelings can poets present them to us as universal; only by selecting language and situations carefully can poets accomplish their task: to reveal and express the universal primary passions and tendencies of humankind. They need to make available to us the things in our common nature that bind us into a spiritual and emotional community.

How should poets compose and how should they select their materials? They should avoid neoclassical diction, which makes arbitrary connections between words and things and which tends to prop up an hierarchical class structure. Poets (if they follow Wordsworth’s advice) make a selection of language really used by ordinary people, choosing rustic, yet dignified language that is in touch with the “permanent forms of nature” and with the primary passions that have nature as their source.

5. Here we see the social dimension of Wordsworth’s claims about the poet and poetry. He opposes the destructive, analytic methods and effects of science and technology to the healing and unifying method and effects of poetry. Poets are “the rock of Defense for human nature”—they are prophetic figures and healers who unify fragmented, alienated, isolated individuals into a regenerated community. The Industrial Revolution, which involves urbanization, mechanization, and the accumulation of capital, has a dehumanizing effect upon individuals, reducing them to a state of what Wordsworth calls “savage torpor,” in which only “gross and violent” excitement satisfies.

Only the poet can attain the tranquility necessary to the composition of poetry. So this fuller human being is the catalyst of individual and communal regeneration. The poet is the key to social transformation. On this point, Raymond Williams claims that the effect of capitalism and technology was to marginalize, specialize, and commodify the act of writing poetry. Adam Smith, the main proponent of early capitalism, said that one day we would pay people to do our thinking for us; it makes sense to say as well that one day we would pay people to do our feeling for us.

Poets offer a religion of nature as an answer to the crisis of authority. They will serve as high priests in this religion of nature. Wordsworth plays something like this role in “Tintern Abbey” for his sister Dorothy. That poem is about two individuals—social and political transformation presuppose transformation in the sensibility and consciousness of individuals.

It has sometimes been said (notably by M. H. Abrams) that Wordsworth’s “Preface” to Lyrical Ballads displaces the revolutionary ideals of the French and recontextualizes them in a theory of poetics. Thus, “Liberty” becomes the freedom to express oneself freely and to reject the system of mimetic conventions prevailing in 18th-century poetry. Some would say that this amounts to middle-class individualism. “Equality” means that the poet may choose a common language from rustic incidents and thereby convey universal emotional states. “Fraternity” might be evoked when the poet writes in a vivid state of sensation and expresses a common human nature grounded in emotions that supposedly transcend politics, culture, and history. There is, in this view, a permanent human nature.

Page-by-Page Notes on William Wordsworth’s “Preface to Lyrical Ballads, 1802” (645-68).

648. At the outset, Wordsworth takes a scientific stance, claiming that his poems are experimental. Wordsworth aims to clear away perceptual deadwood and get to the most elementary passions and to the essential relationship between humanity and nature, between one human being and another. Just as Sir Francis Bacon aimed to brush off the cobwebs of scholastic theology to allow for concentration on the actual processes of nature, Wordsworth aims to clear away the false language and thought of the Eighteenth Century so that his audience can reconnect to the passionate element of their existence.

649-50. The poet aims to convey pleasure. Wordsworth implies that arguments about language amount to arguments about social regeneration. He says that he has selected rural life and speech because it is a safer repository for the essential passions of the heart. In rural speech, the link between the natural world and human manners is most purely expressed. We might say that language mediates between the passions and nature, which is partly a sign system for human emotions. As Wordsworth says, the goal is to reestablish the link between the primary laws of human nature and the beautiful and permanent forms of nature. He is by no means solipsistic in his poetics, but rather identifies the poet with rustic people and through them with all people.

651. At this point, Wordsworth says that poetry is “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.” But he modifies this statement when he says that “our continued influxes of feeling are modified and directed by our thoughts.” Repetition and habit play a large part here, and so we find common ground between David Hume and Wordsworth. Moreover, Wordsworth follows John Locke’s ideas of association; that usage is important because it allows the poet to suppose he is methodizing the passions and linking his own with others’ feelings. Representing feelings is more valuable than simply experiencing them.

652. “The feeling therein developed gives importance to the action and situation....” We find in Wordsworth an expressive theory of poetics as opposed to a mimetic one. “A multitude of causes....” The phrase “savage torpor” refers to the degrading effects of urbanization and the beginning of the industrial revolution. Technology and urbanization make us passive, killing the synthesizing power of the imagination and deadening our capacity to feel without “gross and violent stimulants.” Raymond Williams the cultural critic would suggest that the anti-industrial solution the romantics offer is an effect of the problem—poets stood to become merely specialized workers, so they hit back with the notion that their “specialty” really has universal and general significance; it should not, therefore, be marginalized or dismissed. On 652, Wordsworth offers a prophecy about the inherent powers of mind and the permanent therapeutic power of nature. He plays John the Baptist here, and is a romantic optimist in emphasizing the universality of our feelings.

654. “There neither is, nor can be, any essential difference between the language of prose and metrical composition.” Elsewhere in the Preface this remark finds its fullest significance, but it’s worth suggesting here that Wordsworth’s statement must hold for him because he has been saying all along that poetic language is itself at the root of all that is worthwhile in ordinary, rustic speech. There can’t be an infinite or unbridgeable gap between the two, or a difference in kind as opposed to a difference in degree or intensity. Language mediates between the passions and nature; nature is a sign system of passions.

655. “What is a poet? To whom does he address himself? And what language is to be expected from him?” The poet is “a man speaking to men.” The poet has a more lively sensibility, greater tenderness and enthusiasm, knows his own passions and volitions, feels more connected to an external nature, and has a more comprehensive soul. Wordsworth defines imagination as a power to be affected by absent things. In sum, the poet is able to express thoughts and feelings more powerfully than most people. So poets are 1) fuller and purer human beings; 2) connected to their own and to others’ passions and to nature; 3) gifted with a powerful imagination and expressive capacity to convey universal passions; 4) craftsmen who can and reorder their own feelings and thoughts into a pleasurable and intelligible whole or story.

656. “Aristotle, I have been told, hath said, that poetry is the most philosophic of all writing....” Poetry conveys the best kind of knowledge in the best way. The object of poetry is “truth general and operative.” In other words, its object is truth most closely tied to deep human nature. The poet conveys universal truth born of pleasure and carried into the hearts of others by passion. Poetry is “the image of man and nature,” and it links man and nature meaningfully. Poetry gives pleasure to the entire person, not to specialized elements of a person. Later, Wordsworth asserts this idea again when he discusses poetic truth in comparison to utilitarian, scientific truth, which actually turns out to be more remote than we had thought. The poet conveys a universal truth of the human heart, of feelings derived from unspoiled human nature in contact with an equally unspoiled natural realm. In sum, Wordsworth makes transhistorical claims about human nature.

657. “The poet writes under one restriction only....” Here science is contrasted with poetry. On the link between knowledge and sympathy, Wordsworth says that pleasure helps achieve this link. Pleasure comes from perceiving and feeling the harmony between humanity and nature, their mutual adaptation. Science, by contrast, dissects things and seeks remote truth as its object. The poet binds us into an expressive community by means of passion that conveys intuitive and pleasurable knowledge, while the scientist keeps us divided and subject to perpetual delay in achieving social harmony. Poetry delights us with its kind of knowledge because that knowledge flows from the depths of human nature.

658. “The knowledge both of the poet and the man of science is pleasure....” Again, science versus poetry is Wordsworth’s theme. We might contrast Sir Francis Bacon’s idea of science as future amelioration with Wordsworth’s more immediate promise of prophetic insight. The poet is almost a priest, erasing the consequences of original sin. Is this unfair to science? Well, Wordsworth probably refers more to a tendency than to specific practices, or to so-called pure science. What he offers amounts to a religion of nature. The artist is the high priest of that religion. At times, Wordsworth writes like a pantheist, praising “a sense sublime of something far more deeply interfused, whose dwelling is the light of setting suns.”

659. “Among the qualities which I have enumerated....” The poet more promptly feels in absence of external excitement and is able to express feelings more promptly. This is only a difference in degree, not in kind. The poet conveys passions arising from moral sentiments and animal sensations; the poet derives these things from contact with nature and from his or her own emotions.

660. Wordsworth refers to “the tendency of meter to divest language in a certain degree of its reality....” Meter meets the need for restraint and distance. Wordsworth does not seek to convey extreme emotion or raw events. For both the poet and the reader, poetry is a meditative act. Meditation requires the bracketing out of noise, focusing intensely on some specific place or thing, and calling to mind what is associated with that place or thing or person. The point is to reorder thoughts and feelings and attain clarity, which moral and emotional clarity, Meyer Abrams suggests, constitutes “the affective resolution” of the greater romantic lyric.

661-62. “I have said that poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility: the emotion is contemplated till by a species of reaction the tranquility 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.” On this page, Wordsworth discusses the mental process leading to composition. The poet contemplates an emotion such as love, gratitude, hope, loss, etc. (as on 659) in tranquility. Then, a new and kindred emotional state arises, at which point mental composition begins. Later, when the poem is committed to writing, readers may go through a similar process, one that takes them from tranquility to a state of deep, genuine emotion. But in keeping with Wordsworth’s meditative scheme, neither the poet nor the reader experiences only raw and chaotic passion. Instead, while composing the poet is in a “general state of pleasure,” and the goal is to provide the reader with an “overbalance of pleasure.” How to do that? Well, meter generates a degree of distance from unprocessed reality and raw feeling, and its regularity gives us a sense of “similarity in dissimilarity.” This sense, says Wordsworth on 661, is the spring of all mental activity. His view of meter may recall Aristotle’s comments about mimesis: we can enjoy a representation of things that would cause us emotional pain in real life. Again, poetic composition is a species of meditation: the poet may experience vivid emotions, but restraint, ordering, reflection, and selection are vital if the poem is to produce in readers an “overbalance of pleasure” instead of simply stirring up chaotic feelings.

In general terms, meditation requires a combination of freedom and discipline. A person must bracket out “noise” while focusing intently upon some specific place, thing, or event and calling to mind the thoughts and feelings associated with it from past experience. The aim is to deal constructively with these thoughts and emotions; it is to achieve moral clarity and enlightenment. In some species of meditation, aside from attaining clarity, working through problems, and so forth, there may occur a passage to or intuition of a state not conveyable in words: perhaps a kind of ekstasis or sublimity. There are elements of this latter kind of meditative experience in Wordsworth, moments when, as in “Tintern Abbey,” one may feel “a sense sublime of something far more deeply interfused, / whose dwelling is the light of setting suns.” That poem is what Meyer Abrams calls a “Greater Romantic Lyric,” and as such it follows a three-part structure that resembles the stages of Ignatius of Loyola’s meditative technique in his Spiritual Exercises. The first is “composition of place,” in which t he meditator or “exercitant” thinks about some personally or theologically significant location, with the goal of achieving the calm necessary to focus the mind on some spiritual problem that needs resolution. The second consists in the examination of the spiritual predicament that has been recalled to mind thanks to reflection on the place; and the third is what Abrams calls the “affective resolution,” which in Loyola and Wordsworth, in their respective ways, amounts to an affirmation of spiritual faith and hope for the future.

His ideas resemble St. Ignatius of Loyola’s theory of meditation in The Spiritual Exercises. ( ) We begin with the composition of place. The origin of poetry is emotion recollected in tranquility. We contemplate past emotions until a new emotion is produced and composition begins, says Wordsworth. Then, the reader will contemplate the poet’s new emotion in tranquility, and the cycle continues. So poetry involves meditative states and the ordering or reordering of emotions. Again, that is why meter is important: it alleviates pain and chaos in the contemplation of real emotions and events.

663. “I put my hat upon my head, / And walk’d into the Strand, / And there I met another man / Whose hat was in his hand.” Indeed! Snorts the inestimable Dr. Johnson at his own delightful parody of Thomas Percy’s “The Hermit of Warkworth.” But Wordsworth wants us to take note of the real problem here: it isn’t so much that we are dealing with a poem that’s bad because its language is too ordinary; it is that the parody isn’t a poem at all because, in spite of its being of regular meter, its subject matter is too trivial to deserve expression in verse. It leads nowhere—well, nowhere except the Strand, anyhow.

664. “I have one request to make of my Reader, which is, that in judging these Poems he would decide by his own feelings genuinely, and not by reflection upon what will probably be the judgment of others.” This is an appeal to avoid being co-opted into accepting the prevailing aesthetic tastes, be they aristocratic and effete or melodramatic and vulgar. It’s common nowadays to lament that criticism has become an industry that does little good for poetry and the arts, but the truth is that such arguments have been leveled against criticism in some form or another since ancient times. And certainly in the English context, Alexander Pope was already well attuned to the problem of ignorant, arrogant, bloviating critics who nonetheless threatened to rob the public of any chance at achieving good taste, while Sir Philip Sidney and Dr. Johnson justly excoriate the absurd “illusionist” premises of some neoclassical critics.

666. “[T]he first Poets . . . spake a language which, though unusual, was still the language of men…. [T]heir successors . . . became proud of a language which they themselves had invented, and which was uttered only by themselves; and, with the spirit of a fraternity, they arrogated it to themselves as their own.” Wordsworth goes on to suggest that such clannishness is then extended to the gullible readership, which is thereby flattered into believing it has been offered membership in an exclusive club, a religion of poetic puffery. He condemns this sort of “personality cult” tendency as prideful and disunifying, as opposed to the kind of poetry he advocates. The concern that language will assert its autonomy from the world of men and things is an ancient one, of course, and it runs all the way forwards to the British empirical philosophers Wordsworth himself must have studied. Sir Francis Bacon, in particular, writes cogently in his scientific treatises about the way language sets “Idols” of various kinds in our path whenever we try to understand the workings of nature.


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