William Wordsworth Poetry: British Analysis
When the volume of poetry called the Lyrical Ballads of 1798 was published in a second edition (1800), William Wordsworth wrote a prose preface for the book that is the single most important statement of Romantic ideology. It provides a useful introduction to his poetry.
Wordsworth’s preface to Lyrical Ballads displays the idea of primitivism as the basis of the Romantic position. Primitivism is the belief that there is some primary, intrinsically good “state of nature” from which adult, educated, civilized humankind has fallen into a false or wicked state of existence. When Jean-Jacques Rousseau began The Social Contract (1762) with the assertion that “Man was born free, and yet we see him everywhere in chains,” he concisely expressed the primitivist point of view. The American and French revolutions were both predicated on Romantic primitivism, the idea that humanity was once naturally free, but that corrupt kings, churches, and social customs held it enslaved. The Romantic typically sees rebellion and breaking free from false restraint to regain a state of nature as highly desirable; Wordsworth’s preface shows him deeply committed to this revolutionary ideology. He says that he is going to take the subjects of his poems from “humble and rustic life” because in that condition humankind is “less under restraint” and the “elementary feelings” of life exist in a state of simplicity.
Many writers feel that serious literature can be written only about great and powerful men, such as kings and generals. Some writers apparently believe that wounding a king is tragic, while beating a slave is merely funny. Wordsworth’s preface firmly rejects such ideas. He turns to simple, common, poor people as the topic of his poetry because they are nearer a “state of nature” than the powerful, educated, and sophisticated men who have been corrupted by false customs of society. Many writers feel that they must live in the centers of civilization, London or Paris, for example, to be conversant with new ideas and the latest fashions. Wordsworth turns away from the cities to the rural scene. He himself lived in the remote Lake District most of his life, and he wrote about simple shepherds, farmers, and villagers. He explains that he chooses for his topicshumble and rustic life . . . because, in that condition, the essential passions of the heart find a better soil in which they can attain their maturity, are less under restraint, and speak a plainer and more emphatic language; because in that condition of life our elementary feelings coexist in a state of greater simplicity, and consequently may be more accurately contemplated.
He sees a correspondence between the unspoiled nature of humankind and the naturalness of the environment. Romantic ideology of this sort underlies much of the contemporary environmentalist movement: the feeling that humans ought to be in harmony with their environment, that nature is beneficent, that people ought to live simply so that the essential part of their human nature may conform to the grand pattern of nature balanced in the whole universe.
The use of the words “passion” and “restraint” in Wordsworth’s quotation above is significant. English neoclassical writers such as Alexander Pope tended to be suspicious of human passions, arguing that anger and lust lead people into error unless such passions are restrained by right reason. For Pope, it is necessary to exercise the restraint of reason over passion for people to be morally good. “Restraint” is good; “passion” bad. Wordsworth reverses this set of values. Humans’ natural primitive feelings are the source of goodness and morality; the false restraints of custom and education are what lead people astray from their natural goodness. In his preface, Wordsworth seems to be following the line of thought developed by Anthony Ashley-Cooper, the third earl of Shaftesbury (1671-1713) in his An Inquiry Concerning Virtue or Merit (1709). Shaftesbury asks his readers to imagine a “creature who, wanting reason and being unable to reflect, has notwithstanding many good qualities and affections,—as love to his kind, courage, gratitude or pity.” Shaftesbury probably is thinking of creatures such as a faithful dog or a child too young to reason well. In such cases, one would have to say that the creature shows good qualities, even though he or she lacks reasoning power. For Shaftesbury, then, to reason means merely to recognize the already existing good impulses or feelings naturally arising in such a creature. Morality arises from natural feeling, evidently present in creatures with little reasoning power.
Wordsworth’s preface is heavily influenced by Shaftesbury’s argument. He turns to simple characters for his poems because they exhibit the natural, primary, unspoiled states of feeling that are the ultimate basis of morality. Wordsworth’s characters are sentimental heroes, chosen because their feelings are unspoiled by restraints of education and reason: children, simple shepherds and villagers, the old Cumberland Beggar, Alice Fell, and so on. While William Shakespeare often puts a nobleman at the center of his plays and relegates the poor people to the role of rustic clowns, Wordsworth takes the feelings of the poor as the most precious subject of serious literature.
The preface displays two kinds of primitivism. Social primitivism is the belief that humankind’s state of nature is good and that it is possible to imagine a social setting in which humans’ naturally good impulses will flourish. Social primitivism leads to the celebration of the “noble savage,” perhaps an American Indian or a Black African tribesman, who is supposed to be morally superior to the sophisticated European who has been corrupted by the false restraints of his own society. Social primitivism was, of course, one of the driving forces behind the French Revolution. The lower classes rose up against the repression of politically powerful kings and destroyed laws and restraints so that their natural goodness could flourish. Unfortunately, the French Revolution did not produce a morally perfect new human being once the corrupt restraints had been destroyed. Instead, the French Revolution produced the Reign of Terror, the rise of Napoleon to military dictatorship, and the French wars of aggression against relatively democratic states such as the Swiss Republic. With unspeakable shock, Wordsworth and the other Romantics saw the theory of social primitivism fail in France. The decline of Wordsworth’s poetic power as he grew older is often explained in part as the result of his disillusionment with revolutionary France.
A second kind of primitivism in the preface is psychological. Psychological primitivism is the belief that there is some level in the mind that is primary, more certain than everyday consciousness. In the preface, Wordsworth says that humble life displays “the primary laws of our nature; chiefly, as far as the manner in which we associate ideas.” Here Wordsworth refers to a very important Romantic idea, associational psychology, which developed from the tradition of British empirical philosophy—from John Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), David Hume’s Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748), and especially David Hartley’s Observations on Man (1749).
When Wordsworth speaks in the preface to the Lyrical Ballads about tracing in his poems the “manner in which we associate ideas,” he is endorsing the line of thought of the associational psychologists. Poems trace the process by which the mind works. They help people to understand the origins of their own feelings about what is good and bad by demonstrating the way impressions from nature strike the mind and by showing how the mind associates these simple experiences, forming complex attitudes about what proper conduct is, what fidelity and love are, what the good and the true are. In The Prelude, one of Wordsworth’s main motives is to trace the history of the development of his own mind from its most elementary feelings through the process of association of ideas until his imagination constructs his complex, adult consciousness.
Wordsworth’s preface to the second edition of Lyrical Ballads set out a series of ideas that are central to the revolutionary Romantic movement, including both social and psychological primitivism, the state of nature, the “noble savage,” the sentimental hero, the power of the imagination, and the association of ideas. These concepts are basic to understanding his poetry.
“Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey”
Wordsworth’s “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey” (hereafter called simply “Tintern Abbey”) was composed on July 13, 1798, and published that same year. It is one of the best-known works of the English Romantic movement. Its poetic form is blank verse, unrhymed iambic pentameter, in the tradition of John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667, 1674). In reading any poem, it is important to define its dramatic situation and to consider the text as if it were a scene from a play or drama and determine who is speaking, to whom, and under what circumstances. Wordsworth is very precise in telling the reader when and where these lines are spoken. Tintern Abbey exists, and the poet Wordsworth really visited it during a tour on July 13, 1798. Because the poem is set at a real point in history rather than once upon a time, and in a real place rather than in a kingdom far away, it is said to exhibit “topographic realism.” The speaker of the poem reveals that this is his second visit to this spot; he had been there five years earlier. At line 23, he reveals that he has been away from this pleasant place for a long time and, at lines 50-56, that while he was away in the “fretful stir” of the world he was unhappy. When he was depressed, his thoughts turned to his memory of this natural scene, and he felt comforted. Now, as the poem begins, he has come again to this beautiful site with his beloved younger sister, whom he names directly at line 121. The dramatic situation involves a speaker, or persona, who tells the reader his thoughts and feelings as if he were addressing his younger sister, who is “on stage” as his dramatic audience. Although the poem is autobiographical, so that the speaker resembles Wordsworth himself and the sister resembles Dorothy Wordsworth, it is better to think of the speaker and his listener as two invented characters in a little play. When William Shakespeare’s Hamlet speaks to Ophelia in his play, the audience knows that Hamlet is not the same as Shakespeare although he surely must express some of Shakespeare’s feelings and ideas. So, too, the reader imagines that the speaker in “Tintern Abbey” speaks for Wordsworth, but is not exactly the same as the poet himself.
The poem displays many of the ideas stated in the preface to the Lyrical Ballads. It begins with a description of a remote rural scene, rather than speaking about the latest news from London. In this rustic setting, the speaker discovers some essential truths about himself. The first twenty-two lines describe the natural scene: the cliffs, orchards, and farms. This is a romantic return to nature, the search for the beautiful and permanent forms that incorporate primitive human goodness. The speaker not only describes the scene, but also tells the reader how it generates feelings and sensations in him. In lines 23-56, the speaker says that his memory of this pure, natural place had been of comfort to him when he was far away. Lines 66-90 trace the speaker’s memory of his process of growing up: When he first came among these hills as a boy, he was like a wild animal. He was filled with feelings of joy or fear by wild nature. As a boy, nature was to him “a feeling and a love” that required no thought on his part. That childish harmony with nature is now lost. His childish “aching joys” and “dizzy raptures” are “gone by.” As he fell away from his unthinking harmony with nature, his power of thought developed. This power is “abundant recompense” for the childish joys of “thoughtless youth.” Now he understands nature in a new way. He hears in nature “The still sad music of humanity.” At line 95, he explains that his intellect grasps the purpose and direction of nature, whereas his childish experience was more intense and joyous but incomplete. Now, as an adult, he returns to this natural scene and understands what he had only felt as a child, that nature is the source of moral goodness, “the nurse, the guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul of all my moral being.”
At line 110, he turns to his younger sister and sees in her wild eyes his own natural state of mind in childhood. He foresees that she will go through the same loss that he experienced. She too will grow up and lose her unthinking harmony with the natural and the wild. He takes comfort in the hope that nature will protect her, as it has helped him, and in the knowledge that the memory of this visit will be with her when she is far away in future years. Their experience of this pastoral landscape is therefore dear to the speaker for its own sake, and also because he has shared it with his sister. He has come back from the adult world and glimpsed primitive natural goodness both in the scene and in his sister.
The poem employs social and psychological primitivism. The rural scene is an imagined state of primitive nature where human goodness can exist in the child, like Adam in the garden of Eden before the Fall of Man. The poem shows how the primitive feelings of the boy are generated by the forms of nature and then form more and more complex ideas until his whole adult sense of good and bad, right and wrong, can be traced back to his elementary childish experiences of nature. Reason is not what makes beauty or goodness possible; natural feelings are the origin of the good and the beautiful. Reason merely recognizes what the child knows directly from his feelings.
Critics of Wordsworth point out that the “natural” scene described in the opening lines is, in fact, not at all “natural.” Nature in this scene has been tamed by man into orchards, hedged fields, and cottage farms. What, critics ask, would Wordsworth have written if he had imagined nature as the struggling jungle in the Congo where individual plants and animals fight for survival in their environmental niche and whole species are brought to extinction by the force of nature “red in tooth and claw”? If Wordsworth’s idea of nature is not true, then his idea of human nature will likewise be false. While he expects the French Revolution to lead to a state of nature in joy and harmony, in fact it led to the Reign of Terror and the bloodshed of the Napoleonic wars. Critics of Romantic ideology argue that when the Romantics imagine nature as a “kindly nurse,” they unthinkingly accept a false anthropomorphism. Nature is not like a kindly human being; it is an indifferent or neutral force. They charge that Wordsworth projects his own feelings into the natural scene, and thus his view of the human condition becomes dangerously confused.
“Michael: A Pastoral Poem” was composed between October 11 and December 9, 1800, and published that same year. It is typical of Wordsworth’s poetry about humble and rustic characters in which the sentiments or feelings of human beings in a state of nature are of central importance. The poem is written in blank verse, unrhymed iambic pentameter, again the meter employed in Milton’s Paradise Lost. Milton’s poem explores the biblical story of the fall of Adam from the Garden of Eden. Michael’s destruction in Wordsworth’s poem shows a general similarity to the tragedy of Adam in Paradise Lost. Both Michael and Adam begin in a natural paradise where they are happy and good. Evil creeps into each garden, and through the weakness of a beloved family member, both Adam and Michael fall from happiness to misery.
The poem “Michael” has two parts: the narrative frame and the tale of Michael. The frame occupies lines 1-39 and lines 475 to the end, the beginning and ending of the text. It relates the circumstances under which the story of Michael is told. The tale occupies lines 40-475, the central part of...
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