The most original genius of his age, William Wordsworth attacked the poetic diction and mannerisms fashionable in the mediocre poetry of the late eighteenth century, but his earliest poetry abounds in the personifications, hackneyed expressions, and apostrophes that he came to dislike most. His earliest poems, contained in AN EVENING WALK and DESCRIPTIVE SKETCHES, reveal the careful observation of nature that he excelled in during his most productive and most creative years between 1797 and 1807. He lacked only the discipline and the vision that came to him after he discarded Godwinism and the revolutionary fervor of his youth.
In 1797 he met Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the strongest influence on his maturing style and philosophy, and entered the period of his greatest work. Through Coleridge he discovered the associational psychology of David Hartley and discarded William Godwin’s rationalism. As a result of his new interest in psychology, he chose peasants, children, and mental defectives as subjects for his poetry. This choice marked a break with the decadent neo-classicism of his minor contemporaries. Many of the poems in LYRICAL BALLADS, written in conjunction with Coleridge, thus dealt with subjects from common life in order to reveal the unsophisticated operations of the human mind. For this publication Colderidge was to have written poems in the manner of “The Ancient Mariner,” in which the supernatural was made believable, while Wordsworth agreed to write on basic human emotions directly and sincerely expressed in ordinary life. The volume was dominated by Wordsworth, however, and when the public encountered such poems as “We Are Seven,” “The Idiot Boy,” and “The Thorn,” it was shocked. The reviewers were simply unable to accept such passages as the opening lines of “The Thorn”:
There is a Thorn—it looks so old,In truth, you’d find it hard to sayHow it could ever have been young,It looks so old and grey.
But much more important in LYRICAL BALLADS was Wordsworth’s famous group of poems on nature, the first truly “Wordsworthian” poems. Everywhere in nature he found harmony and an active force that he identified with God. He felt no separation between Man and nature, all things joining in harmony. In “Tintern Abbey,” for example, he gave full and lasting expression to the Romantic concept of nature as divinity:
. . . I have learnedTo look on nature, not as in the hourOf thoughtless youth; but hearing often-timesThe still, sad music of humanity,Nor harsh nor grating, though of amplepowerTo chasten and subdue. And I have feltA presence that disturbs me with thejoyOf elevated thoughts. . . .
Nature was to him alive, powerful, and healthy; it was the panacea for man’s mechanical urban life. Only the man who turned to nature, who felt the joy of nature, could find health in escape from the stagnation of contemporary life.
During the bitterly cold winter of 1798-1799, Wordsworth and his sister were isolated in Goslar, Germany, without books and friends. There he discovered a new type of poetry. Because of his circumstances, he fell back on his inner resources; he fed his imagination upon recollections of England until he was seized by emotions similar to those he had felt years before when the experience was immediate. These newly created emotions seemed to him to overflow, and from this artificially induced emotional experience he created poetry. He described this discovery in the Preface to the second edition of LYRICAL BALLADS, where he wrote that “poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity: the emotion is contemplated till, by a species of reaction, the tranquillity gradually disappears, and an emotion, kindred to that which was before the subject of contemplation, is gradually produced, and does itself actually exist in the mind. In this mood successful composition generally begins, and in a mood similar to this it is carried on. . . .” In such a mood he composed many of his finest poems; for example, “There Was a Boy,” “Lucy Grey,”...
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