Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1132
A New Poetic Theory: Poetry of and for the "Common Man"
The authors had planned to write the work together, with Coleridge designing supernatural content that excited the reader's imagination toward feelings of the sublime, while Wordsworth's intention circled around giving
charm of novelty to things of every day, and to excite a feeling analogous to the supernatural by awakening the reader's attention to the loveliness and the wonders of the world before us.
To achieve these aims, the poems moved away from the convoluted language and overly intellectualized content of Neo-Classical poetry; instead, they used the language of the "common man" and included content more closely related to everyday experiences (although Wordsworth was more successful in this than Coleridge). The theory discussed in the "Preface" is that, if the poets could "excite the sympathy of the reader with the truth of nature" and "give interest by modifying the colors of imagination," readers would be awakened to the highest, purest emotional experience possible.
The emotions the authors sought to invoke were considered the strongest of emotions—wonder, terror, awe, and joy. To achieve this, the subject matter selected included rustic characters and rustic life. Rustic life was chosen because it was considered innocent and pure, free of the intellectual and art-masked distractions that plagued the wealthier, more educated class. In other words, the subject matter was chosen because it was "simple" and "unsophisticated" enough to emphasize the pure matters of the heart that the poets, especially Wordsworth, wanted to emphasize.
This is why many of the characters in the collection are not only rustic and lower-class but also have some sort of disability or mental illness, such as "The Idiot Boy" and "The Mad Mother." Through depictions of their experiences, intellectualism and art of language cannot distract from the pure emotions of the heart, the suffering of the soul, and the breaking of the human spirit.
Nature as a Space of Solitude and Symbol of Loss
In many of the poems, nature functions as a place of peaceful solitude, which fits with the Romantic notion that nature is a sanctuary for the human soul. In "The Thorn," however, the thorn (a piece of nature) symbolizes the pain of losing a child and how such grief cannot subside, even in the sanctuary of the natural world.
The grief is further emphasized in that no one knows the reason for the mother's loss. There is no "reason" to bring feelings of rest and quiet to the circumstance; it is senseless and, some surmise, could even have been her fault:
I cannot tell; I wish I could;
For the true reason no one knows,
But if you'd gladly view the spot,
The spot to which she goes;
The heap that's like an infant's grave,
The pond—and thorn, so old and grey.
Similarly, in "The Complaint of a Forsaken Indian Woman," nature again takes on the symbolism of the unbearable loss of a child. As the Indian woman lies dying, abandoned by her people, she grieves that they took her baby away and gave the child to another woman. She watches the fire (left for her) die and contemplates her own suffering in contrast to the unfeeling resignation of the dead fire:
My fire is dead: it knew no pain;
Yet is it dead, and I remain.
All stiff with ice the ashes lie;
And they are dead, and I will die.
Thus, though nature plays an important role in many of the poems, it is merely used to convey the inner landscape of the characters depicted, which in most cases is suffused with suffering.
Human Suffering Brought on Through Madness and Misfortune
Human suffering is an often overlooked theme of the collection. "The Thorn," "The Complaint of a Forsaken Indian Woman," "The Mad Mother," and "The Idiot Boy" all include different aspects of heartache related to motherhood. In "The Mad Mother," a woman who has been abandoned by the father of her child and who already suffers physically and mentally with hallucinations, finds comfort in the child she breastfeeds:
A fire was once within my brain;
And in my head a dull, dull pain;
. . .
Suck, little babe, oh suck again!
It cools my blood; it cools my brain.
But, even as she feeds the baby, the madwoman begins to hallucinate that her baby is demonic, which represents her fear that she will pass on her madness to her child.
In "The Idiot Boy," the mother tries to give her mentally disabled son a simple responsibility in a life-or-death circumstance and is forced to recognize that her son cannot be depended upon. She sends her son, Jonny, to fetch a doctor for a desperately ill friend and neighbor, and Johnny becomes lost because he cannot execute simple commands, even in dire situations.
Not only is he not dependable, but in the end, when asked about his heroic journey, the mother must accept that he has not experienced anything close to reality. He sees the sun where there was a moon and hears cocks crowing instead of owls. His inability to comprehend reality is a cause of suffering for the mother, even though she loves him more than anyone and even though he himself is innocent and joyous in his experience of life because of his lack of understanding.
"The Vagrant" also includes themes related to the loss of a child; a woman loses her husband and children because of the tumults of war:
The pains and plagues that on our heads came down,
Disease and famine, agony and fear,
In wood or wilderness, in camp or town,
It would thy brain unsettle even to hear.
All perished—all, in one remorseless year,
Husband and children! one by one, by sword
And ravenous plague, all perished
The woman has lost her family and, along with them, her home—as she becomes a wandering vagrant. She says,
Three years a wanderer, often have I view'd,
In tears, the sun towards that country tend
Where my poor heart lost all its fortitude.
The Dichotomy Between the Peace of Nature and the Agony of Human Suffering
Human suffering is one of the major themes of the collection, especially as related to human relationships and somewhat common misfortunes such as illness, loss, death, and poverty. While joy and the peace of nature certainly have a place in many of the poems, for the most part, the strongest emotions captured relate to the pain that so often accompanies love as part of the human experience. This is not surprising, as Wordsworth had experienced some pain and suffering himself, and his suffering (depicted in "Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey") became the self-professed
anchor of [his] purest thoughts, the nurse, the guardian of [his] heart, and soul of all [his] moral being.