Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Two Romantic Revolutions

I have been covering the Romantic period with my class over the last few weeks, and consequently, have been spending a good deal of time thinking about the work of Wordsworth and Coleridge. And since I know the literature of this period is a matter of special interest and expertise to at least one member of the Review's illustrious staff, I thought a few reflections on these two authors might be of interest here.

The publication of the Lyrical Ballads is recognized, I think, as the most revolutionary event in the history of English poetry. That revolution was almost entirely of Wordsworth's making; that is to say, the principles of taste which have arisen to precedence since the publication of that book were drawn from Wordsworth's work, both from his poetry and his theoretical musings in the Preface to the Lyrical Ballads (I am ignoring for now the very real inconsistencies between the two). Some of the most famous of these principles are the well-known focus on "incidents and situations from common life," a preference for the "language really used by men," and a general suspicion of artistry in all of its forms.

But we should remind ourselves that another, and very different, revolution was undertaken by Coleridge, both in the poems he published in the Lyrical Ballads, and in his own critical reflections later presented in the Biographia Literaria. It is interesting to note one place where he and Wordsworth concurred; they both agreed that the tenets laid down by Wordsworth in his Preface were radically hostile to the ones which had prevailed in the Western tradition from its beginning. For Wordsworth, this was cause enough to reevaluate that whole tradition, including the work of many long acknowledged masters; for Coleridge, this was self-evident proof that these principles were themselves inadequate.

Coleridge's revolution was specifically against the stultified mannerism of late neo-classicism, but it took the form of an appeal to the long tradition of poetry preceding the neo-classical period; in this sense, it was more a reform than a revolution. The masters to whom Coleridge appealed "placed the essence of poetry in the art," who aimed at an "exquisite polish of the diction." The language they used had a greater affinity with the language of the philosophers than the language of the common man. His own great contribution to the Lyrical Ballads, the "Rime of the Ancient Mariner," is unquestionably one of the most artificial - in the true sense of the term - works in the entire history of English poetry.

Over the last two centuries, it is Wordsworth's revolution that has carried the day. True to his boast, he has indeed established the taste by which not only his own works, but, to a great extent, all poetic works, are judged. The contempt for artistic tradition, implicit in Wordsworth's theory, has become overt and prominent in the modern age. The language of ordinary life is the only language employed by contemporary poets; an "exquisite polish of diction" would be regarded now as something merely archaic or pretentious. The embarrassment at art expressed by Wordsworth can still be recognized in the lack of stylistic effect so common in contemporary poetry; the death of rhetoric has been both a cause and an effect of this figurative deprivation. The concern with the quotidian remains central; the latest click on the Eratosphere reveals poems written on the following, very mundane topics: the poet's backyard, the poet's driveway, a pigeon, aftershave, garbage floating in the ocean, a dog burying a bone, and (believe it or not) sheet protectors.

But if we want to restore poetry to a flourishing condition, we might want to consider reviving Coleridge's revolution instead, and seek, as he sought, a poetry of rich artistry, with all the freedom that such artistry bestows; a poetry which does not flatter the reader with a familiar language or thematic content, but which attempts to elevate the mind of the reader through extraordinary language and extraordinary insight; a poetry, above all things, formed and directed by the same principles which have formed and directed the tradition of Western poetry, and the works of the incomparable masters so plentiful in that tradition.

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