Wednesday, August 8, 2018




The Lyrical Ballads was a volume of poems which was first issued anonymously by Wordsworth and Coleridge in 1798. The two had met in 1795 and there was a mutual recognition of genius. Both poets believed that verse stripped of high literary contrivance and written in the language of the lower and middle classes could express the fundamentals of human nature. The first volume of 1798 was published with a short 'Foreword' in which Wordsworth stated very briefly the main points of his argument. The second edition was published in 1800 with many new poems added, and a much longer and more detailed Preface. It was revised and expanded in 1802 with significant additions about the definition of the poet and the universality and value of poetry.

The Preface is a revolutionary critical statement from a poet deeply imbued with the sense of a mission to free poetry from a hackneyed and artificial style of writing and take it nearer to life as it is actually lived and make it an authentic expression of sincere feeling and mode of experience. Without undoing the past or forsaking the healthy elements of his tradition, Wordsworth is effecting a break and inaugurating a new era in poetry.


To the question: 'What is poetry'? Wordsworth's answer is:
. . .all good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: but though this be true, poems to which any value can be attached, were never produced on any variety of subjects but by a man, who being possessed of more than usual organic sensibility, had also thought long and deeply. For our continued influxes of feeling are modified and directed by our thoughts, which are indeed the representatives of all our past feelings; and, as by contemplating the relation of these general representatives to each other we discover. what is really important to men, so, by the repetition and continuance of this act, our feelings will be connected with important subjects, till at length, if we be originally possessed of much sensibility, such habits of mind will be produced, that, by obeying blindly and mechanically the impulses of those habits, we shall describe objects, and utter sentiments of such a nature and in such connection with each other, that the understanding of the being to whom we address ourselves, if he be in a healthful state of association, must necessarily be in some degree enlightened, and his affections ameliorated.
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As is obvious, the emphasis in this statement is on spontaneous expression but the role of the rational mind, of premeditation, of getting accustomed to a particular mode of thinking and feeling, is duly recognized. Poetry is not the turning loose of emotions and feelings. Feelings are continuously directed by thoughts or, in Eliot's words, the poet thinks his feelings and feels his thoughts. Wordsworth's own practice, as a poet, of letting an emotion or a complex of feelings settle and mature gradually until they are ripe for delivery, and of revising his poetic compositions is an illustration of this idea. He himself modifies his definition of poetry in a later passage of the Preface:
I have said poetry 1s the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility. Hence two things arc to be observed: spontaneity and powerful feeling. The one ensures unhindered experience of the other an energy which conveys feeling 'spontaneously'.
Thus poetry is not lifeless artistry or mere craftsmanship as the imitative-rationalist aesthetic of the eighteenth century generally pre-supposed; it originates from and is sustained by a genuine and sincere personal feeling and, paradoxically, in this lies its universal appeal. As Wordsworth wrote in his 'Essay Supplementary to the Preface' I (of the 18 15 edition of his poems), -poetry is 'the reflection of the wisdom of the heart and the grandeur of the imagination.' Such a poetry touches the deepest chords in man and has a humanizing and sensitizing effect. Wordsworth elaborates:
Aristotle I have been told has said, that poetry is the most philosophic of all writing: it is so: its object is truth, not individual and local but general and operative; not standing upon external testimony, but carried alive into the heart by passion; truth which is its own testimony, which gives competence and confidence to the tribunal to which it appeals, and receives them from the same tribunal. Poetry is the image of man and nature


Wordsworth identifies three main characteristics of a poet. First, he is exceptionally sensitive 'endued with more than lively sensibility, more enthusiasm and tenderness.... And a more comprehensive soul than are supposed to be common among mankind.' This enables him not only to feel that which happens to him personally but also to experience vicariously that which may happen to others. Secondly, he is 'a man speaking to men,' that is to say, poetry is not mere self-indulgence and that the poet is a social being with a responsibility. A great poet ought to rectify men's feelings, to give them new compositions of feeling, to render their feelings more sane, pure and permanent. This was later on developed by Wordsworth into a doctrine:
 'Every great poet is a teacher. I wish either to be considered a teacher or as nothing.'
This is not crude didacticism but a way of describing the humanizing influence of poetry. Thirdly, the poet is endowed with an extraordinarily strong imagination so that he is affected by absent things as if they were present. Wordsworth himself possessed a very strong imagination so that the beauteous forms seen by him once were ever present to his mind's eye and could induce appropriate feelings and states of mind. Wordsworth sees the poet as a man who being possessed of more than usual organic sensibility has also thought long and deeply. The good poet needs to weld the two qualities of thought and feeling. The one will not work without the other. The poet is different from other men not in the kind but in the degree of his qualities.


The 'Preface' to the Lyrical Ballads puts forward Wordsworth's theory of poetic diction which has occasioned a lot of controversy ever since it was first elaborated. The main thesis has never been questioned but Wordsworth's casual remarks around it and his practical application of the theory have been subjected to severe criticism. The crux of the theory is the seminal Romantic view that poetic style is organic and not prescriptive. There should be a correlation between the creative language and the form that is given to it. As Wordsworth wrote in his 'Essay on Epitaphs', language is not the dress of thought but its incarnation. Since every poet's mode of experience is peculiar to him, it will find expression in a style appropriate to it. Consequently no general poetic style can be prescribed for all poets to follow. This principle, Wordsworth found, was violated by those of his predecessors who stuck to a general poetic diction characterised by known stylistic devices and figures of speech. These devices and figures of speech, when used by the first poets, must have Seen quite natural. The earliest poets wrote naturally, feeling powerfully, in a figurative language. Their decadent successors, in the neo-classical age, however, took their style as an infallible model and imitated it artificially. Gray said that 'the language of the age is never the language of poetry' and Dryden asserted that the best language is that of the king and his courtiers. Wordsworth rejected the artificial and stagnant poetic diction both in theory and practice. He asserted that in place of the stereotyped poetic diction he will use the real language of men and that too of the rustics whose language, like their way of living, is most natural and not artificial.

 T.S. Eliot has pointed out in The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism that Wordsworth was motivated by the democratic impulse to reject the language of the king and the aristocrats. That may be partly true but essentially he was asserting his faith in the organic view of style. Metaphors and figures of speech were not, to him, bad in themselves; they were bad if they were not organic to a poem but added to it like ornaments from without: If the poet's subject be judiciously chosen, it will naturally, and upon fit occasion, lead him to passions the language of which, if selected truly and judiciously must necessarily; be dignified and variegated, and alive with metaphors and figures. Wordsworth here is not going the whole hog for rustic language, but qualifies his enthusiasm for it. His own great poems were the product of a process like this but in his enthusiasm to dislodge the hackneyed poetic diction of his day, he made some indiscreet remarks. To say that he proposed 'to adopt the very language of men', that 'there neither is, nor can be any essential difference between the language of prose' and metrical composition' and that metre is a charm 'superadded' to poetry is not quite in conformity with the organic view of style. It amounts to prescribing one style in place of the other. In his creative output, Wordsworth obeyed his creative impulse so that, in Coleridge's words, his poetic triumphs were achieved in spite of the unbalanced remarks quoted above. It must be, however, borne in mind that Wordsworth takes care to use certain qualifiers while advocating the use of the real language of men. The word 'selection' is used again and again in this context. 'A colouring of imagination thrown over it' is what he finally recommends. In the end 'selection' is advanced as a principle for every practising poet to follow. Besides, it should be mentioned that his own practice is somewhat different.


An important subject of Coleridge's Biographia Literaria is an exposition and evaluation of Wordsworth's poetry. To him Wordsworth was the greatest poet of the age. He may not place him, as did Keats, only next to Shakespeare but after Shakespeare and Milton he considered him to be the third great poet of English and declared that their age will be known by Wordsworth. In a letter he wrote that Wordsworth was the only man 'to whom at all time and in all modes of excellence I feel myself inferior.' In yet another letter he wrote: '1-feel myself a little man by his side.' As a poet, he found W6rdsworth's greatness in 'the union of deep feeling with profound thought; the fine balance of truth in observing, with the, imaginative faculty in modifying the objects observed; and above all the original fight of spreading the tone, the atmosphere, and with it the depth and height of the ideal world around forms, incidents and situations.' This glowing admiration did not prevent him from pointing out the essential drawbacks in Wordsworth's theory of poetic diction.
According to Coleridge, words worth was fully justified in his criticism of the artificiality and unnaturalness of a poetic diction which had become stagnant and hindered rather than helped capture the exact curve of a creative writer's experience but he disagrees with Wordsworth's 'view that the language of poetry should be 'the language of natural conversation of men under the influence of natural feelings.'


One of the most significant aspects of Wordsworth's literary criticism in general and the 'Preface' to the Lyrical Ballads in particular is a healthy concern for strengthening and promoting a humane culture. Culture is a term of manifold connotations ranging from the cultivation of mind and spirit to denoting a whole way of life material, intellectual and spiritual. Some of the dictionary meanings of the word 'culture' are improvement or refinement by education and training; the thinkers with a dominant culture concern developed the figurative connotation of culture to mean, as Arnold put it, acquaintance with 'the best that has been thought and known in the world'. In 'On the Constitution of the Church and the State,' Coleridge defines culture as 'the harmonious development of those qualities and faculties that characterise our humanity.' This, Coleridge believed, is achieved by the substitution of life and intelligence for the philosophy of mechanism which strikes death everywhere. Culture critics like Arnold, Carlyle and Ruskin, developed this line of thinking into a definite approach to literature with a peculiar orientation of its own. The emphasis was always laid on the harmonious development of human personality. Taking its origin from inward growth. This is the quintessence of Arnold's argument in Culture and Anarchy. The role of culture, Arnold felt, had become particularly ' important in our modem world, of which the whole civilization is, to a much greater degree than the civilization of Greece and Rome, mechanical and external, and tends constantly to become so. Culture alone could till up this lifeless and dehumanized world with life and vitality, sweetness and light. Arnold also believed that this task of humanization, of infusing sweetness and light into life can be best performed by literature.

All this had been germinally anticipated by Wordsworth's 'Preface' and his subsequent critical writings. In all these writings Wordsworth shows a vital concern for culture which to him a continuing spirit represented by what he is termed 'the people' in contradiction to 'the public'. In the essay 'Supplementary to the Preface (1815)' he draws a clear distinction between the two: Still more lamentable is his error who can believe that there is anything of divine infallibility, in the clamour of that small though loud portion of the community, ever governed by factitious influence, which, under the name of the PUBLIC, passes itself upon the unthinking, for the PEOPLE. Towards the PUBLIC, the writer hopes that he feels as much deference as it is entitled to; but to the PEOPLE, philosophically characterised, and to the embodied spirit of their knowledge, so far as it exists and moves, at the present faithfully supported by its two wings, the past and the future, his devout respect is due.

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