Saturday, April 05, 2008

How Wordsworth Helps

We were originally going to post this as a comment to Signor L.E.’s recent post about Romantic poetry, until it grew into a post of its own. Long story short, we disagree with much of what our fellow Mahwahvian says about the value of Wordsworth’s poetry.

It is true that a lot of contemporary poetry is too much like Wordsworth at his most solipsistic. While “Tintern Abbey” is one of our absolute favorite poems, and we love The Prelude, it would be nice if contemporary poets moved outside of their own minds to explore other lives and other minds. But many of Wordsworth’s poems were narratives about extraordinary events of ordinary people (that is to say, common and rural rather than aristocratic and urban), such as “The Idiot Boy,” “The Thorn,” “Goody Blake” (just to name a few from Lyrical Ballads), and modern readers tend to overlook major, un-personal efforts like Ecclesiastical Sketches (a sonnet series about the history of Christianity in Britain) and The White Doe of Rylestone. (And it’s also worth noting that his most insular work, The Prelude, was never published in his lifetime.)

Most importantly, it’s not fair to say that Wordsworth expressed “embarrassment at art,” that he was “hostile to the [tenets] which had prevailed in the Western tradition from its beginning,” or that he was suspicious of “artistry in all its forms.” Wordsworth displays strict artistic discipline, and there’s nobody better to look to as a model for formal craftsmanship and artistry in blank verse, the sonnet, and the ballad. In fact, one of the central purposes of the Lyrical Ballads (as the title suggests) was to revive the ballad, which was of course an ancient medieval form, by incorporating lyrical elements to varying degrees. So, in at least that case, he was trying to bring new life to a Western tradition.

The sort of artistry Wordsworth was attacking was narrow and well-defined. He was not challenging all artifice but what he called “poetic diction,” or “the gaudiness and inane phraseology of many modern writers.” He explains this in an appendix to the Preface of Lyrical Ballads:

The earliest poets of all nations generally wrote from passion excited by real events; they wrote naturally, and as men: feeling powerfully as they did, their language was daring, and figurative. In succeeding times, Poets, and Men ambitious of the fame of Poets, perceiving the influence of such language, and desirous of producing the same effect without being animated by the same passion, set themselves to a mechanical adoption of these figures of speech, and made use of them, sometimes with propriety, but much more frequently applied them to feelings and thoughts with which they had no natural connexion whatsoever. A language was thus insensibly produced, differing materially from the real language of men in any situation.

He concedes “that the language of the earliest Poets was felt to differ materially from ordinary language, because it was the language of extraordinary occasions; but it was really spoken by men, language which the Poet himself had uttered when he had been affected by the events which he described, or which he had heard uttered by those around him.” He also acknowledges that the earliest poets added “metre of some sort or other” (which he of course does himself) which “separated the genuine language of Poetry still further from common life, so that whoever read or heard the poems of these earliest Poets felt himself moved in a way in which he had not been accustomed to be moved in real life, and by causes manifestly different from those which acted upon him in real life.”

He also approves of that distance between the poetic and the common, but also calls it the “great temptation to all the corruptions which have followed: under the protection of this feeling succeeding Poets constructed a phraseology which had one thing, it is true, in common with the genuine language of poetry, namely, that it was not heard in ordinary conversation; that it was unusual. But the first Poets, as I have said, spake a language which, though unusual, was still the language of men. This circumstance, however, was disregarded by their successors; they found that they could please by easier means: they became proud of modes of expression which they themselves had invented, and which were uttered only by themselves.”

Put more simply, Wordsworth was annoyed with the clichéd phrases and abstractions that populated eighteenth-century poetry especially. One can prefer the more abstract and artificial (in the negative sense) style Wordsworth was resisting, but he certainly was not throwing out centuries of English poetry with the bathwater.

One last thing. While Coleridge’s most famous poems (Rime of the Ancient Mariner, “Kubla Khan,” and Cristabel) are supernatural or dream-like, much of his poetry was very much like what Wordsworth was writing at the same time, both in subject matter and form. His conversation poems (“The Aeolian Harp” and “Frost at Midnight” are my favorites) and “Dejection: An Ode” are very personal and, while metaphysical in some regards, are certainly not supernatural tales.

We say all that to say all this: Mahwahvian poets should look to Wordsworth as a model, because his technique was superb, he understood the power of poetic tradition—and wasn’t afraid to reject what was false and phony in fashionable poetry. His arguments about poetic language are still important, especially for younger poets, who tend to resort to abstractions and stock phrases. Nor would it hurt us to emulate the variety of his subject matter and style, as he explored not only his own consciousness in exciting ways through his lyric poems, but also presented the lives of other people, and evokes powerful emotions, through his narratives.

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