Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1911
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...
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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,” “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,” and “My Heart Leaps Up.”
The famous Preface in which he described his newly derived theory of poetry was meant to be an answer to the critical opposition to the first edition of LYRICAL BALLADS, but it was much more. Here Wordsworth stated the doctrines upon which he built his greatest (and his worst) poetry. Negatively, he wanted to end “the deluge of idle and extravagant stories in verse.” Positively, he attempted to choose incidents and situations from common life, to relate them in simple language, to give poetry a worthy purpose, and to emphasize genuine feeling. Although Coleridge (a little piqued because Wordsworth attributed these doctrines to him) unmercifully attacked these doctrines in BIOGRAPHIA LITERARIA in 1817, they were essentially sound and readily acceptable to the English public. Much of Wordsworth’s poetry, like “Michael” and “Lines Written in Early Spring,” is grounded in these doctrines and gave them additional popularity. But these doctrines, when followed too mechanically, led to dullness and flatness, the two faults most often found in Wordsworth’s poetry.
The year 1802 was a landmark in Wordsworth’s career. Momentous events both in his personal life (a trip to France to see his illegitimate daughter) and in European politics (Napoleon’s absolute rule in France and the beginning of the Napoleonic War) widened his creative horizons. Also, his discovery of Milton’s sonnets inspired him, and he began to compose in a more majestic and musical style. His visit to Calais to visit Annette Vallon and his daughter made him intimately aware of the dangers of Napoleon’s tyranny, and with renewed faith in the causes of liberty he began a series of sonnets. He now believed that Nature worked through man in an unending struggle for freedom. Several of these sonnets—“London, 1802,” “The World Is Too Much With Us,” “To Toussaint L’Ouverture,” “It Is a Beauteous Evening Calm and Free”—are among his most famous poems. His plea to return to moral virtue and to establish ordered liberty is nowhere better expressed than in these lines from “London, 1802”:
We are selfish men;Oh! raise us up, return to us again;And give us manners, virtue, freedom,power.
These sonnets established Wordsworth as the pre-eminent poet of English patriotism.
In the spring of 1802, Wordsworth began to fear that his imaginative vision might be failing. Because to him the imagination was the supreme guide to freedom and to morality, his fear led him to re-examine his concept of the role of the human imagination. This he does in the famous, “Ode: Intimations of Immortality as Recollected from Early Childhood.” From Plato and the Neo-Platonists he received the notion that the child’s dreamlike moments were actually carry-overs from a pre-natal spiritual existence and that maturation gradually caused the ecstatic vision to fade completely away. But the doctrine of pre-existence led him to the pessimistic conclusion that maturity was a time of inevitable grief. He left the poem unfinished until 1804, when he added the last three stanzas. In the addition he reaffirmed the child’s loss of vision, but he added that the adult has wisdom, “the philosophic mind,” which gives to man “thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.” This resolution, though not the most optimistic, promised some hope to the poet who felt his own powers dwindling. Still, it marked a profound change in his view of nature, as is apparent from his revisions made in THE PRELUDE during 1839, for now he placed the joyful contemplation of nature in the past, forever lost to him.
The “Ode to Duty,” also written in 1804, clarified his new position. Duty replaced the rapturous visions and freedom of youth to the extent that he thought of the supreme power as moral law, not nature. In this poem Wordsworth accepted the stoic creed of Seneca and Kant according to which peace of mind is self-imposed inner control. The tragic death of his brother in 1805 brought Wordsworth’s earlier and later moods into sharp antagonism. In “Elegiac Stanzas” he renounced the visions of his youth and faced the harsh reality of experience, and in “The Happy Warrior” he confirmed his newly adopted stoicism. With these two poems Wordsworth passed into the final phase of his career.
The major work of his decline was THE EXCURSION. With the gradual loss of his inspiration, he became more and more conservative, accepted Christian orthodoxy, and developed the tendency to be dogmatic and sententious. He became a sage rather than a poet. These changes were marked by a change in his poetic technique, to the extent that his later poetry not only lacked inspiration but was often dull and unnecessarily heavy. These characteristics are reflected in THE EXCURSION. This long poem, second in length only to THE PRELUDE, was intended to be the second and middle part of a long work to be called THE RECLUSE: OR VIEWS ON MAN, ON NATURE, AND ON HUMAN LIFE, a great philosophical poem which he never finished. Despite the inferiority of the majority of THE EXCURSION, there are some admirable flashes such as the moving story of Margaret in Book I, but the poem as a whole is a marked decline from the great poetry of 1797-1807. After this poem Wordsworth wrote little that was truly great, although he reached a peak of artistic and metrical virtuosity in the Ecclesiastical Sonnets. But the radical young men who had defended him in his youth had become more conservative adults or, like Coleridge, Shelley, Keats, and Byron, had died years before, and the new generation of young poets thought of him as a “lost leader.” He remained popular and was buried in Westminster Abbey when he died, but even when he received the laureateship in 1843, his popularity was primarily based on the poems of his earlier greatness.
The problem that Wordsworth’s poetry presents to a modern reader is relatively simple: he wrote too much when he was not inspired and threw too little in the fire. Too often his verse is pedestrian and prosy, even dull. A sense of humor might have saved some of his poetry, but he showed little humor, especially in the poetry after THE EXCURSION. Still he presents us with a formidable canon, and few people would deny the greatness of his early poems. His best work has a calm dignity that best expresses itself in the unadorned beauty of a cleanly chiseled line, in such lines as the following stanza from the “Lucy Poems”:
A violet by a mossy stoneHalf hidden from the eye!—Fair as a star, when only oneIs shining in the sky.
His worst work is marred by bathos. His view of nature was stimulating enough to save the young John Stuart Mill from committing suicide and continues to speak to the problems of a mechanical age; his observations on the human mind—though outdated by the development of depth psychology—remain vital and revealing. Matthew Arnold’s praise of Wordsworth in his famous reply to Leslie Stephen’s criticism is still the most judicious:
“To exhibit this body of Wordsworth’s best work, to clear away obstructions from around it, and to let it speak for itself, is what every lover of Wordsworth should desire. Until this has been done, Wordsworth . . . has not had a fair chance before the world. When once it has been done, he will make his way best, not by our advocacy of him, but by his own worth and power.”