Saturday, 5 April 2014

Was Wordsworth Successful?

The preface to Coleridge and Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads has become one of the most renowned ever written. The collection, first published in 1798, was an attempt by the two poets to write poems in “the real language of men” so as to make poetry more accessible to the common reader. They disliked the fact that some poets had become “advocates for that admiration which subsists upon ignorance” and indeed Wordsworth complains about overuse of poetic diction, the “personification of abstract ideas” and “falsehood of description”, all of which he describes as “gross and violent stimulants”. He therefore proposes a new kind of poetry that relates “incidents and situations from common life” while giving them “a certain colouring of imagination” and a purpose through the medium of common language and unelaborated expressions. At the end of his preface, Wordsworth poses two queries: how far his goal has been achieved, and whether it was worth achieving. Both of these questions are certainly debatable.

Wordsworth’s poems, with long-winded and very specific names like “Lines Written at a Small Distance from My House, and Sent by My Little Boy to the Person to Whom They Are Addressed” certainly appeal to the common man. Considering the fact that most poems written in the late 18th Century would be entitled with single abstract words, the title of his poems were, in themselves, unusual. Although they may present themselves as more accessible to the average man or woman of the time, these titles also detract from the authority and emotion of the poems, presenting them as somewhat dull affairs with little meaning. In fact, some of Wordsworth’s titles (particularly the above) seem rather silly. Wordsworth described poetry as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings”; the above title certainly does not sound particularly passionate or sensitive. This oversimplification occurs in a number of his poems, and on a number of occasions it worsens his poetry. For instance, in “The Thorn” Wordsworth writes:

            You see a little muddy pond

Of water, never dry, 

I've measured it from side to side:
           'Tis three feet long, and two feet wide.”

Can this really be called poetry? Apart from the rhyme and metre, there is nothing in these lines that differentiate them from the notes in a gardener’s diary! Although one may argue that Wordsworth is writing for the common man, it is hard to claim that the above is “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings”. Rather, it seems he is simply trying to fill up space with useless and unimaginative description. In his preface, Wordsworth criticizes this sort of meaningless poetry, citing Dr Johnson:

            “I put my hat upon my head
            And walked into the Strand,
            And there I met another man
            Whose hat was in his hand.”

Wordsworth labels Johnson’s stanza as “superlatively contemptible” and he claims that it is not poetry, since it cannot “lead to anything interesting” and “wants sense”. Surely he is being hypocritical? What about his poem makes it more of a poem than Dr Johnson’s? In fact, Wordsworth’s lines seem much more superfluous than Johnson’s.

Although Wordsworth’s poetry is very often presented in straightforward and simple language, this is not always the case. On a number of occasions, both Wordsworth and Coleridge are forced to write in unusual syntax in order for their words to fit the metre. For instance, Wordsworth writes: “And he on her would vengeance take” whereas the common man would say: “And he would take vengeance on her.” Has Wordsworth therefore failed in achieving his objective, or can this strange syntax be allowed for the sake of the metre. Moreover, Wordsworth on occasion uses somewhat peculiar language and archaic diction. Both Coleridge and Wordsworth employ the word “hath”, and in “Lines Written a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey” Wordsworth uses the words “sylvan”, “oft” and “thou”. These words were not a part of “the real language of men”, and so surely Wordsworth is failing in his objective?

Another poem in Lyrical Ballads, entitled “Goody Blake, and Harry Gill, a True Story” was described by Wordsworth as the “rudest” poem of the collection. The poem describes a very old and poor woman who steals wood from Harry Gill’s bush. Harry Gill catches her and punishes her, and is therefore cursed with chattering teeth (is this the subject of poetry?). The majority of the poem is spent describing the two characters, and it is not until the very end that any sense of emotion is evident. However, the poem, since it requires no prior knowledge and is written in very straightforward language, does achieve his goal. Nonetheless, it does pose the question: is this really poetry? The poem could have been told just as well in prosaic form, losing very little of its worth. Wordsworth argues that metre greatly contributes “to impart passion to the words, and to effect the complex end which the poet which the Poet proposes to himself”; however, he does not explain how this is done, and the power of metre is certainly questionable.

It is undeniable that Wordsworth’s goal was admirable. Poetry should not be a wholly esoteric word form that requires an archaic dictionary and a reference page to read (like T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” or Plath’s “Ariel”), and nor should it be too complicated for the common man to enjoy. It ought to be accessible and enjoyable for all, rather than only the highly educated. Moreover, poets should not “trick out” or “elevate nature” by using the “inane phraseology of many modern writers”. Therefore, Wordsworth’s aim of making poetry more accessible was certainly worth attempting. However, when the value of poetry is detracted from by the use of simple and dull language and silly description, Wordsworth lets himself down. On occasion, Wordsworth’s poetry becomes less like poetry and more like mundane diary entries, completely lacking “powerful feelings”, and so it is questionable as to whether he has truly achieved his goal. A balance has to be made between the importance of poetic diction and simplicity, and Wordsworth seems to have overstepped this balance.

1 comment:

  1. A very interesting essay Tom. Some comments: -

    I understand exactly what you mean to say about Wordsworth’s titles, but I’m not sure whether something can be simultaneously “long-winded and very straightforward” - surely long-windedness is the very antithesis of straightforwardness? Wouldn’t something like “long-winded and particular/specific” be better?

    I agree completely with you re: Wordsworth’s hypocrisy and silly poems. From my admittedly limited experience relatively few of Wordsworth’s poems are really worth reading. That said, I’d be careful about branding ‘thou’ and ‘hath’ as archaisms in the 19th century – they were in general use more recently than you might think.

    I tend to think that presuming to do things for “the common man” is very patronising of Wordsworth, and various others over the centuries who’ve done the same. Usually they’re either underestimating people’s intelligence, or actually trying to direct the so-called “common man’s” interest (although there are some exceptions).

    - I’m less sure I agree with you re: what is or isn’t fitting subject matter for poetry. Most such questions are largely subjective anyway but I’ve tended to find that there are good exceptions to any attempts to delinate what poetry should or should not do.