Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Wordsworth's Legacy

I too have found some thoughts originally intended to be a comment grow to a greater length, so let me go ahead and post them here. I think the topic merits the extended discussion; the influence of Romanticism is still very much with us, and we will be well served as writers to recognize which aspects of that influence are beneficial, and which are otherwise.

I think there is considerable agreement here. I share C. Seamus' love of Wordsworth's poetry; in fact, he is one of the few Romantics whose work I appreciate more, rather than less, as I get older. I agree that all young poets working in English should put themselves to school with his craft at some point in their development. Likewise, I agree that his efforts towards a revival of the ballad form were an invaluable enrichment of the formal repertoire of English poetry, an enrichment which had its origins in a reverence for tradition. I am not trying to form an estimate of Wordsworth's accomplishments as a poet, which I think were tremendous; I am trying to discern what elements of his legacy may bear a disadvantageous sway over contemporary poetry. Great artists leaving dangerous precedents are a common phenomenon. Think about Milton; his style has proven to be both sublime and inimitable, and the eighteenth century is littered with unintentional parodies of the Miltonic tone, from Young to Thomson to Akenside. Or, in another art, consider Beethoven; his undeniable masterpieces are in large part a consequence of his expressive innovations, but by the time we get to the narcotizing moodiness of Debussy and Mahler, we wonder if it was not time for Western music to put Beethoven's expressivity aside and search for models elsewhere. I think Wordsworth's legacy may be something like this.

I mentioned parenthetically the discrepancy between Wordsworth's theory and his practice, and of course, I should have considered this fact at greater length. It is the theory I find much more pernicious, and the poetry is most excellent, I think, precisely where it departs from the theory, which is, as Coleridge asserted, in "two-thirds at least of the marked beauties." The unhealthy legacy of Wordsworth's actual compositions, I think, is in his very frequent thematic choice of "incidents and situations from common life." I have no objection to this kind of poem in and of itself, but I find this mode of writing has arisen to monotonous exclusivity in our times, and often with some very ridiculous results; after all, to find the "unusual aspect" in commonplace things takes an unusual mind on the level of Wordsworth. Put simply, I think a distinct lack of variety in contemporary verse can be traced to Wordsworth's compelling precedence, which is, of course, no indictment of Wordsworth himself; in this respect, to imitate Wordsworth is certainly not to imitate Wordsworth.

As I said, it is Wordsworth's theories with which I take the greater issue, and I think the considerable disregard for them displayed in his own compositions tells against these ideas quite a bit. Throughout the Preface, I perceive a continuous opposition of what is "natural" and "spontaneous" and "simple" to what is merely the effect of "false refinement." The passage quoted by C. Seamus from the Appendix seems to imply a kind of literary Rousseauism, according to which ancient poets wrote from a "spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings" which their corrupt descendants could only imitate with insincere tropes. Poetic traditions necessarily decline as they continue. This subtle primitivism, neglectful of the grand dictum of Burke, that "art is man's nature," is what I mean by an "embarrassment at art" and "suspicion of artistry."

In his Preface, Wordsworth states, "if my conclusions are admitted, and carried as far as they must be carried if admitted at all, our judgments concerning the works of the greatest Poets both ancient and modern will be far different from what they are at present, both when we praise and when we censure." This appears to me to be identical to the claim that, recognizing his principles cannot be reconciled to the practice of many acknowledged masters, Wordsworth has chosen to prefer his principles to the precedent of those acknowledged masters. This is what I mean by a "hostility to tradition."

I agree that these words could be interpreted as C. Seamus did. Coleridge himself tried to interpret the seeming hostility to tradition in Wordsworth's claim as a specific challenge to neo-classicism, "the gaudy affectations of a style which passed too current with too many for poetic diction." But I think its fair to say that they could be interpreted far differently as well; the choice here between Coleridge and Wordsworth may be less a choice between who is right and who is wrong, as opposed to a choice between who is clear on these topics and who is ambiguous.

The question is, which reading of Wordsworth, with which influence, has passed into our time, and again, I think it is fair to say that it is the reading of Wordsworth which I put forward in my first post which has prevailed, the Wordsworth who emphasized the commonplace and the commonplace language, in defiance of poetic tradition. The animus to tradition in modern poetry hardly needs to be argued for. The commonplace, as I said, is so frequently recurring in contemporary poetry as to seem (to myself at least) rather tedious. The commonplace language, devoid of tropical and figurative effect, predominates.

Of course, there is not space enough here to produce samples as evidence, and I am speaking from a general impression of contemporary poetry, but let me cite one example of contemporary criticism, from a source familiar to C. Seamus, the Reaper Essays. In the essay "The Death of the Lyric," one of the points of culpability of the contemporary lyric (which, unquestionably, is culpable in many, many respects) in the eyes of the author is the fact that "they do not remotely sound like the words that real people in real situations would ever say." Doesn't this at least sound like the remnant influence of Wordsworth's most dubious tendencies?

Now, I think one response to this statement is the response which Coleridge essentially made - neither Pindar nor Virgil nor Petrarch nor Spenser nor Keats nor Tennyson "sound like the words that real people in real situations would ever say." This is just not a standard which can fairly be derived from even the most cursory reading of the masters. And this was my point in preferring Coleridge’s revolution. If we find contemporary poetry stagnant and unsatisfactory, and if we as writers wish to create really excellent works, a reconsideration of Coleridge and the principles upon which he wrote (and C. Seamus is right that I am focusing here only on one part of his work, but I think it is the better part) will be wonderfully beneficial towards guiding us out of the present morass. Particularly, his compelling critique of those tendencies in Wordsworth's ideas which are still quite prevalent will serve to remind us that present canons of taste may not always have the greater part of truth in them.


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