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About William Wordsworth
The poet William Wordsworth was born in 1770 in the famous Lake District in England. He inaugurated the Romantic movement in English Literature with the publication of his Lyrical Ballads in 1798. The Preface that he added to the subsequent 1800 edition of this work became the manifesto of a new era called the Romantic Age. With this landmark publication, the turn of the century witnessed a radical change in the way poetry was read and perceived.
Lyrical Ballads and The Preface
Wordsworth’s collaborative work with his friend and fellow-poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge proved to be a landmark in the history of English Literature. The majority of this work comprised Wordsworth’s poems. These poems departed in style and subject from the poetry of the Neoclassical poets. Since the poems contained in Lyrical Ballads were not in accordance with the conventions of poetry, they were received with skepticism initially. To make his poetry better understood, Wordsworth added a preface in order to explain his choice of language and subjects.
Wordsworth’s Romantic Ideas
Wordsworth believed that the subject of poetry should be the ‘humble and rustic life’. This seemed like a radical view to the readers who had been accustomed to reading poetry about larger than life heroes or other such archaic subjects. According to Wordsworth, poetry that dealt with the higher subjects was superficial and lacked depth. The subject of poetry, for Wordsworth, had to be something common, familiar, ordinary, mundane and rustic.
What is important to understand is that by saying that poetry should deal with ordinary subjects, Wordsworth did not intend to make poetry dull. Rather, he emphasized that such common subjects should be treated in poetry with a ‘colouring of imagination’. This romantic obsession with the faculty of imagination was also reiterated by the fellow Romantic poet ST Coleridge in his Biographia Literaria published in 1817.
Wordsworth had attempted an experiment in the Lyrical Ballads. He had abandoned the conventional rule-governed poetic style that was considered best-suited for poetry. Instead, he chose to write in what he called ‘the real language of men’. Unlike the earlier poets for whom form had remained the primary concern, Wordsworth chose to write in the common language. This was very close to the kind of language real men used to converse with each other.
By declaring that poetry is ‘the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings’ , Wordsworth became the first significant voice of literary romanticism in England. His definition of poetry stressed on the idea that poetry was born out of human emotions. This focus on emotional or the affective aspects became central to Romanticism. Unlike the preceding age of Neoclassical poets whose poetry sought to communicate with the intellect, Wordsworth’s poetry was intended to communicate to the human emotions.
Wordsworth’s poetic theory is also significant in the fact that it believed that poetry flowed spontaneously from the poet. Unlike the Neoclassical poets who had been obsessively concerned about the rules and diction of poetry, Wordsworth favoured poetry that flowed naturally. This is similar to the idea of another Romantic poet, John Keats, who wrote that “If poetry comes not as naturally as leaves to a tree, it had better not come at all.”
Pleasure was central to the Romantic movement and Wordsworth, like a true romantic, believed that the primary aim of poetry was to please the reader. In this regard, Wordsworth noted that a poet was bound by ‘the necessity of giving immediate pleasure to a human’.
The revolutionary zeal that was characteristic of most writers of this movement did not leave Wordsworth unaffected. As the ideals of liberty and human rights were the topics of hot debate and discussion during the French Revolution, Wordsworth declared in The Prelude (1799-1805) that,
Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,Wordsworth
But to be young was very heaven!
Wordsworth was that one Romantic poet who epitomised the concept of individuality more than any other poet of his age. Wordsworth’s romantic poet-speaker was a self-indulgent observer. Like Wordsworth’s speaker who ‘wandered lonely as a cloud’, this figure dwelt in solitude and his aloofness allowed his creative tendencies to produce poetry of the most romantic kind.
This figure would not only observe the phenomenon around him but also withdraw to a secluded place for reflecting back on what he had witnessed. Only then would he be able to utilise the emotion recollected in tranquillity to shape it into poetry.
Emotions were at the heart of Romanticism. The very basis of this artistic movement was the need to feel and express emotions. According to Wordsworth, it was this ability of the poet to feel strongly that enabled poetic creation. This is why Wordsworth noted in the Preface that the poet is
endowed with more lively sensibility, more enthusiasm and tenderness, who has a greater knowledge of human nature, and a more comprehensive soul, than are supposed to be common among mankind.Wordsworth
Wordsworth’s Conception of Nature and Beauty
To Wordsworth, it was not the first-hand impression of the beauty of Nature that inspired poetry. Rather, it was the memory or the recollection of nature that became a source of poetic creation. This is why Wordsworth’s poet-speakers were mostly figures who observed the Tintern Abbey, or the daffodils and then recollected in tranquility the emotions that the sight had evoked.
While the speaker of “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” came home and then thought back of the capturing sight of daffodils that he had witnessed, the speaker in “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey” was inspired to write about the last time he had visited the place five years ago. Thus, it is not the immediate experiences but their memory that has the creative potential.
Wordsworth’s Romanticism Summed Up
Wordsworth was thus a true Romantic poet. Though he was primarily a poet and not a critic, his Preface to Lyrical Ballads laid down his literary theory effectively. He made poetry accessible to the common man by making ‘incidents and situations from common life’ the subjects of his poetry. He believed that the poet’s imagination had the power to make even the most ordinary subjects seem extraordinary.