William Wordsworth World Literature Analysis
The styles of Wordsworth’s poetry are many, although his most famous experiment in style was to compose “lyrical ballads” in simple language and simple meter to express the universal experience of common people in rural settings. These poems treat common incidents as if they are extraordinary; in other words, the lyrical quality of feeling gives importance to the traditional ballad tale. Sometimes these lyrical ballads are spoken by the poet, as in “Lines Written in Early Spring.” At other times, they are spoken by characters of Wordsworth’s imagination, as in “The Thorn.” Although the emotions of these people are common and universal, the incidents of their experiences are unusual and abnormal or undesirable. Thus, the poems are often treatments of outcasts from society, as in “The Female Vagrant,” or psychologically abnormal people, as in “The Idiot Boy.”
The first edition of the Lyrical Ballads contains poems of family affection and warm cordiality, as in “We Are Seven” and “The Last of the Flock.” It also contains humorous poems, including “Expostulation and Reply” and its companion, “The Tables Turned.” These poems consistently develop a special theme of Wordsworth’s enduring interest, that a special bonding occurs in the close relationship of a child reared close to nature. While the bond must be broken when the child has matured, it should neither be prematurely broken nor denied or repressed by too much emphasis on reason and social formulas. The therapy of recalling childhood’s passions in association with familiar landscapes is developed in “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey,” which is included in the Lyrical Ballads of 1798. This poem should be recalled as an exception to the rule of those poems, since it is a blank-verse monologue, not a rhyming, narrative “lyrical ballad.”
The same notice should be given to the inclusion of the blank-verse narrative of “Michael: A Pastoral Poem” in the second edition of Lyrical Ballads. This poem exemplifies a favorite stylistic approach that Wordsworth held throughout his life: to tell a story of rural people, sometimes shepherds, in strong, unrhymed iambic pentameter. It is the style of “Nutting,” “The Brothers,” and, later, many of the parts of The Excursion, the only section of The Recluse that Wordsworth finished to his satisfaction. The second edition of Lyrical Ballads also contains some poems that are truly lyrical ballads but differ from the tone and subjects of those in the first edition: These are the poems known as the “Lucy” poems, and a group that could be called the “Matthew” poems. The striking feature common to these two groups is a deepening interest in the experience of death, of grieving the deaths of loved ones who can never be replaced in one’s affections.
A similar feature appears to mark many of Wordsworth’s new poems included in his two volumes published in 1807. The great “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood” is a major achievement of style in the treatment of a profoundly important theme, whether it is seen as one of growing old, maturity of vision, psychological development, or philosophical transition. Wordsworth made a permanently admirable use of the irregular ode, and he continued to have interest in the ode form, though without such success. He also sustained an interest in the sonnet, mainly in the English or Miltonic version; throughout his career, Wordsworth wrote sonnets and sometimes put them into sequences, as in The River Duddon. While his later poems fail to acquire the force of his earlier ones, Wordsworth’s continuing style is to balance simplicity of natural themes with the discipline of sophisticated art.
“Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey”
First published: 1798 (collected in Lyrical Ballads, 1798)
Type of work: Poem
A speaker revisits a scene first observed five years earlier; differences arise from changes in the speaker’s own mind more than from the landscape.
“Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey” is a shortened version of the poem’s full title, “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey, on Revisiting the Banks of the Wye During a Tour, July 13, 1798.” This full title more accurately locates the situation of the poem and anchors the experience of the poem in a particular place and time. In 160 lines of blank verse, the poet describes what he hears and sees again five years after he last visited this scene along the Wye River in Wales, near the ruins of an ancient abbey.
The poet first notices cliffs, trees, hedges, and farmhouses. Then, he imagines that someone might be camping amid the woods. What he cannot see becomes important, and he lets his imagination go. Then, he recalls how he has recently left a city, where he lived during some of the time since visiting the Wye River. He believes that his spirit was sustained by his memories of this natural scenery through a time of difficulty while in the city. The feelings attached to remembered scenes of nature became sources of imaginative power when detached from actual observation of those scenes.
The poet recalls his attention to the immediate scene before him again, and he compares his present feelings with those that he had when first visiting this spot. At that time, he was young and thoughtless, unaware of his differences from other animal life; now, however, he feels more burdened by the responsibilities of being human, of having a heart that sympathizes with the sufferings of other human beings. The feelings of youth have been revived by this revisit, and those feelings have energized his moral imagination to universal proportions.
Suddenly, the poet addresses his sister. She seems to be standing beside him, observing this same scene with him. This visit, however, is her first, and he imagines the future, when her memories of this scene will work for her as his do for him at this time. He utters a prayer that nature will supply his sister with the same restorative power of feeling in the future. In this way, each will be a “worshipper of Nature.”
Preface to Lyrical Ballads
First published: 1800 (published in Lyrical Ballads, with Other Poems, 1800)
Type of work: Essay
Lyrical Ballads experimented in expressing common emotions through the simple language of “humble and rustic” people to please readers of popular ballads.
The preface to Lyrical Ballads was written to explain the theory of poetry guiding Wordsworth’s composition of the poems. Wordsworth defends the unusual style and subjects of the poems (some of which are actually composed by Samuel Taylor Coleridge) as experiments to see how far popular poetry could be used to convey profound feeling.
There are three general reasons guiding the composition of the lyrical ballads. The first is in the choice of subject matter, which is limited to experiences of common life in the country. There, people use a simple language and directly express deep feeling. Their habit of speaking comes from associating feelings with the permanent forms of nature, such as mountains, rivers, and clouds. The challenge for the poet is to make these ordinary experiences interesting to readers; in other words, the poems attempt to take ordinary subjects and treat them in extraordinary ways. Doing so would cause readers to recognize fundamental truths of universal human experience.
The second reason guiding his poems is Wordsworth’s goal of emphasizing the purpose of poetry as art. This purpose is not a moralistic one; indeed, poetry comes from a “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings,” but it is disciplined by remembering those feelings in moods of peaceful meditation. The combination of feeling and meditation produces artful poetry with purpose. Specifically, the lyrical ballads have the purposes of enlightening readers’ understanding of basic human feeling, enhancing readers’ emotions, and helping readers to enjoy the common things of life. That is important, Wordsworth believes, because too many people seem to have a difficult time enjoying life. They need to search for the unusual, the strange, and the fantastic; they are missing the beauty of the world around them. People need to have more faith in their own imagination to provide the beauty and emotion that they are overlooking in the environment.
Moreover, Wordsworth believes that the style of the poems is important to capture and keep readers’ attention, or the other two reasons will fail. Wordsworth thought tricks of personification and artistic diction had dulled people’s feelings, and so he wanted to refresh poetry by eliminating ornamentation to return to basics. The strengths of good prose should also be the strengths of good poetry, he writes, and so poetry should be written as the language of a person who speaks directly to other people with the same basic feelings and experiences of all human beings. To this, meter can be added in order to control emotional excitement, as reflection can restrain spontaneous emotion.
Readers are urged to be thoughtful in judging the poems. They should judge with genuine feelings that have been educated by thought and long habits of reading from many good pieces of literature. Wordsworth ends by expressing his faith that such readers will recognize the success of his experiments in the poems that he calls lyrical ballads: poems that express a domination of feeling (lyrical) over form (ballads).
“Ode: Intimations of Immortality”
First published: 1807 (collected in Poems in Two Volumes, 1807)
Type of work: Poem
Something is missing from adulthood that once was present in childhood’s vision of life and nature, but there are compensations of wisdom and moral sensitivity.
“Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood” is a personal poem in a traditionally impersonal, formal verse form of eleven stanzas that vary in length and metrical design. Wordsworth uses the ancient Greek Pindaric ode, which had celebrated the virtues of athletic heroes, to examine the strangely compelling process of growing up from childhood to adult maturity. The hero is a child, but the victory is won by the adult who reflects upon childhood’s losses.
The epigraph of the poem states the paradox that childhood experiences provide the background and source of the adult’s identity, as if a child could be the parent of the adult who develops from childhood. The poet, recognizing that this is so, wishes therefore to be naturally faithful to his past, to build his maturity upon a continuous line of connections with his youth.
The first four stanzas express the poet’s strange experience of feeling wonderful on a lovely spring morning in May, when all nature celebrates a rebirth of vegetable and animal life. The poet sees and hears the signs of this rebirth, and he can even feel a stirring of sympathetic identification with the vitality all around him. Yet he also feels a disturbing emotion that shadows the bright landscape. He feels that there is something missing in his own being, that the natural scene does not have the same glorious promise that it had when he looked at it as a child. The rest of the poem is an attempt to identify what is missing and to recover it if possible.
Stanzas 5 through 8 recall childhood as if it were like the dawn of a new day, when the sun peers upon the earth through glowing clouds. The meaning behind the comparison is that a child comes from darkness and awakens to life with a vision still colored by its origins in eternity. Like the sun, a child moves from an exciting, hopeful dawn of life, rises toward the common light of midday’s adulthood, and casts shadows that, like a prison, seem to surround a person and block the vision of glorious origins. Human life is also compared to a foster child who is under the care of Mother Nature until it is time for the child to leave home and be independent of the fostering environment. Real parents teach their children games of role-playing, which prepare them for adult responsibilities, but those same games (which later concern marrying, working, and dying) drive children further away from their infant experience of immortality and omnipotence. Finally, the process of growing up is compared to putting layer after layer of ice over a glowing, energetic fire.
The last section of the poem, stanzas 9 through 11, turns from the desolation that ends stanza 8, where the poet sinks beneath the frigid thought of a buried vitality. Suddenly, he realizes that there is something still burning beneath the ice of experience and mortality; he feels an ember of energy remaining from childhood’s vitality. Ironically, the feeling of something missing from his joy at the opening of the poem has become a feeling of something present beneath his dejection in the middle of the poem. The question that he poses for himself is to wonder what this is that still lives deep inside him, what this is that refuses to die. There is the reason for the title of the poem: a hint of immortality remaining in the adult from his memory of childhood’s experiences.
Stanza 9 recalls the things of childhood that cannot be the source of this feeling of immortality. It is not the animal delight or the irresponsibility of childhood; it is not the unreflecting optimism, either. Instead, it is something more alien to ordinary adult experience: The reason to celebrate what remains from childhood is that childhood was a time when the mind refused to accept natural limitations, when the human creature did not yet feel that it was only a natural being. Babies and children have enormous egos, not yet shaped by an environment that makes them retreat from questioning all sensation and asserting subjective idealism as more real than objective nature. Such a defiant subjectivity and faith in oneself is more real than the world into which the child is born. That buried feeling is what rescues the adult from the dejection of maturity into a posture of power over nature. Maturity is a position from which the adult can look back and recover childhood faith, like a traveler who can look back from an inland mountain to see children playing by the sea and recall that as the place from where he also came.
Thus, the poet celebrates in the last two stanzas his recovery of imaginative power because he pays tribute to the ember of childhood idealism still glowing beneath his mortality. The loveliness of natural life is paradoxically more lovely now because the poet’s experience of mortality has taught him the lesson of loss, and that makes nature more precious to the mind of a person who knows that spiritual immortality will survive the natural beauty that fosters human growth.
First published: 1850
Type of work: Poem
The hero of a modern epic explores his memory of events, propelling him to undertake the great mission that nature has assigned to him.
The Prelude is a long, blank-verse poem with a complicated history. It was begun as early as 1798-1799. Then it may have been conceived as a short autobiographical poem, before it was expanded to thirteen books by 1805. The poem was never published during Wordsworth’s life, but when it was, soon after his death in 1850, The Prelude: Or, The Growth of a Poet’s Mind had been revised extensively and expanded to fourteen books. There are significant differences among the three versions of the poem. For convenience, the poem published in 1850 may be assumed for discussion.
The subject of the poem is a review by the poet of his life to explain the growth of his mind as a poet; it examines his past for evidence to account for the growth of his imagination and to justify his calling as a poet. Because Samuel Taylor Coleridge strongly urged Wordsworth to believe in himself as a poet and to use his talent to compose a modern epic poem, Coleridge is given credit for causing Wordsworth to write The Prelude. What Coleridge wanted from Wordsworth was not a poem about his own life, however, but rather a poem about the modern state of philosophy and science, as in the Aeneid (c. 29-19 b.c.e.; English translation, 1553), La divina commedia (c. 1320; The Divine Comedy, 1802), and Paradise Lost (1667, 1674). Wordsworth planned to write such an epic, but he could not make progress on it until after he wrote a poem in which he justified his decision to be a poet of any kind. This self-justification would be a prefatory explanation, appearing as the “prelude” for the main movement that would be called The Recluse.
The prefatory poem, however, became so important that it became the main poem itself, and Wordsworth worked at it for most of his long life. The Prelude is more important, and nearer to completion, than The Recluse (1888), for which it was intended as an introduction. There are many epic features, nevertheless, in the style and structure of The Prelude itself. Epic similes appear in various places, allusions to epic stories recur, and the structure of the poem is loosely modeled upon the classical epic design that begins in medias res (in the middle of things).
The first book of The Prelude opens with a celebration of freedom, as the poet decides to visit his childhood and leave behind a city and a life of frustration and uncertainty. He composes aloud some verses of happiness as he strides confidently into the countryside, but suddenly he is unable to compose and begins to doubt his ability to continue. He believes that he is intended by nature to be a poet, but he is beginning to doubt himself and his judgment because he is experiencing “writer’s block.”
In this state of mind, he begins to review his life to see if he has correctly interpreted his vocation. The poem is a search of the poet’s past for evidence that the man is intended by nature to be a poet at all. The remainder of the first book is a short summary of the poet’s earliest years of boyhood, when he grew up in the Lake District of northern England. In four seasonal episodes, Wordsworth’s poem recalls experiences of seedlike origins for his growth of imagination.
The first is an autumn scene of taking woodcocks from other people’s traps and then feeling that the hills pursued him to punish him. The second is a springtime experience of robbing birds’ nests and then feeling that the wind accused him of being a violator. The third episode is a summer one of borrowing a boat without permission, rowing out onto a lake alone, and then feeling that the mountains rose in condemnation. The final scene is one of winter ice-skating at night on frozen lakes; he had stayed out later than he ought, and in a guilty state of mind he would skate alone, feeling nature alive with motion.
Such memories are exercises that raise the poet’s imaginative energies to feel regeneration and renewed confidence in himself. Book 2 contains memories of his mother’s death and his way of dealing with the threat of alienation it caused in his life; he substituted nature for his lost mother, and he nourished his imagination with lonely wanderings through the hills and among the lakes. That continued until he was old enough to be sent to the university in Cambridge, far from home and as threatening as had been the death of his mother.
Book 3 describes how Cambridge was a vast confusion at first, with its swirl of events and temptations. Gradually, it also nourished Wordsworth’s active imagination, both with learning and with urban scenery. Book 4 describes the joyful summer vacations when he revisited youthful scenes and revived his depressed spirits. He renewed social contacts and danced until dawn, when nature summoned him home with morning glory of bright sunrise. The next two books describe how the young undergraduate left England for a walking tour of France and the Alps, where he realized again that his imagination is more important than the natural scenery that nourishes it. Book 7 is a return to England, where the poet finished his education at Cambridge and moved to London.
The books on Wordsworth’s residence in France describe his introduction to the French patriot Michel Beaupuy in book 9 and the influence that Beaupuy had on the poet’s increasing sympathy for the revolutionaries. Book 10, however, narrates the intensifying pressure on Wordsworth to leave France for safety back in London, where the poet despaired at prospects for a peaceful recovery of freedom in France. Book 11 analyzes the spiritual depression that Wordsworth experienced over his loss of faith that the French Revolution could be conducted in a civilized way, combined with his disgust that Britain should have united to oppose Frenchmen fighting for freedom.
By the end of book 12, Wordsworth is back where the poem began, when he decided to leave London and return to his home in the Lake District. There, he revisited scenes of his childhood and youth, recovered his emotional energies, and realized that his imagination needed to be revived by recovering forgotten experiences. These are the “spots of time” that Wordsworth uses to illustrate his recovery of imaginative power. Book 12 ends with descriptions of two of these spots of time.
The final books are celebrations of restored imagination. Book 13 praises the gifts of nature and childhood for emotion and calm. Book 14 is dominated by a long description of the poet’s ascent of Mount Snowdon. On that occasion, the poet realized that his imagination is like the moonlight penetrating the mist that surrounded the mountaintop. The last book then ends with expressions of gratitude to Wordsworth’s sister, Dorothy, and to Coleridge’s friendship. They have inspired the poem by supporting the poet’s faith in himself.