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The literary criticism of Wordsworth is confined to a small’ quantity’ of essays, prefaces and letters. But in them he has propounded ideas of great significance and far-reaching impact. For the first time, one might say, an English critic attempted to elucidate on the nature of poetry and the poetic process.
His Lyrical Ballads which was published in collaboration with Coleridge, proved to be a landmark in the history of English literature, though it was not recognized as such at the time of publication. Wordsworth enunciates is theory of poetry in the Preface to Lyrical Ballads, 1800. He amplified the ideas in his Preface of 1802. The theory of poetry involves a discussion of the subject matter or theme of poetry, the language suitable for poetry. the function of a poet, and poetic pleasure, His theory of poetry is all the more interesting because it comes from a practising poet, Further, his theory (and practice) served to change the direction of English literature in the nineteenth century.
He heralded what is now called in English literature as the Romantic Revival.The nature of poetryWordsworth’s definition of the nature or poetry as propounded in the 1802 Preface is important, and has to be quoted at length before we go on to discuss the various facets of the theory. He states:I have said that poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feeling: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility; the emotion is contemplated till, by a species of reaction, the tranquility 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 composition generally begins, and in a mood similar to that it is carried on…(Preface, 1800)He says in another context;”The clear springs of poetry must flow freely and spontaneously-it can not be made to flow through artificially laid pipes…Poetry is born, not in the mind, but in the heart overflowing with feeling.” (Preface, 1800)Spontaneous overflow of feelings:When Wordsworth says that poetry is the “spontaneous over flow of powerful feeling”(Preface, 1800), it is clear that poetry is a matter of mood and inspiration. Poetry evolves from the feelings of the poet. There is spontaneity in the expression of the feelings. Poetry’s source is the feelings in the heart, not the ideas of the intellect. A poet cannot write under duress. It is when the mood is upon the poet that poetry flows out of his heart in a natural and fluent manner. Deep emotion is the basic condition of poetry. Powerful feeling and emotion are fundamental. Without them great poetry cannot be written. We see that the emphasis on feeling and emotion is a definite departure from the neo-classical stress on ‘wit’ and intellectual effort. Again, the stress on spontaneity is a clear disavowal of neo-classical tenets.As such, his enunciation of the nature of poetry becomes relevant to his purpose qf writing tl1e preface. He was writing a different kind of poetry. The process behind this poetry had to be explained.”Emotion recollected in tranquility”: the poetic process:The insistence on spontaneity, however, should not blind us to the fact that Wordsworth does not advocate a chaotic or uncontrolled orgy of emotional out-pouring. Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings. But Wordsworth adds a corollary that the origin of poetry is from “emotion recollected in tranquility”. (Preface, 1800)At first glance the two contentions seem contradictory. But Wordsworth’s theory of poetry involved the reconciliation of the two statements. Powerful feelings and profound thought coalesce in poetry. We have been told that the poet cannot rely on sensibility alone. He has to be a person who has also thought long and deeply. Our continued influences of feeling are modified and directed by our past feelings. A calm mind is equally necessary. We see that Wordsworth unlike later romanticists, does not minimize the role of thought in poetry.The poetic process has four stages for successful composition to take place. It is not an easy process. The four stages of the process are recollection, contemplation, recrudescence or renewal of the original emotion, and composition. The poet observes or perceives some object, character or situation. It sets up powerful emotions in his mind. The poet does not react to an impression immediately. He allows it to sink into his mind along with the feelings which it has excited. Then comes the recollection of the emotion at a later moment in time. The emotion is recollected in tranquility, and contemplated upon. There might be a time lapse of several years between the original feeling of emotion and the recollection of it. In the mind of the poet the emotions remains till its accidentals or casual ingredients have been precipitated. The original impression has now been purged of superfluous material. Memory, naturally, plays an important role at this stage. The process is slow. But it is only through such a process of ‘filtering’ that the personal emotion is transformed into the universal.After contemplation, comes the gradual revival of the emotion which is felt by the poet originally. It is important to remember here that Wordsworth’s phrasing is careful. He says: “An emotion, kindred to that which was before the subject of contemplation, is gradually produced, and does itself actually exist in the mind.” (Preface, 1800)The word to note is ‘.kindred’. The fresh emotional state of the poet is related to, and not identical with the state of excitement produced originally. The emotion has, apparently enough, been purged of accidentals. It now constitutes a ‘state of enjoyment’.The poet does not, however, remember the original experience ‘in ‘cold blood’ as it were. In the poet’s mind, the emotion which accompanied the original impression revives when the impression is recalled. Thus at the moment of creation, the ‘tranquility’ is no longer there. It has been replaced by emotional excitement. The creative activity carries with it pleasure, indeed, “an over- balance of pleasure”, as Wordsworth calls it. In the process of poetic composition, the mind is, upon the whole, in a state of enjoyment. There will be a reflection of this pleasure in the poetic composition. The poet’s function is to share this joy with his readers to communicate this ‘over-balance of pleasure’ to his audience. The poet is able to do this precisely because he possesses the power of communication in a higher degree than other men. He is able to communicate his emotions in such a way that the reader feels pleasure. We see that the ‘spontaneous overflow’ described by Wordsworth is of a highly sophisticated order.The end or the function of poetryThe end of poetry is to impart pleasure. It, says Wordsworth firmly, is not to be considered as a degradation of the poet’s art. Pleasure is the grand elementary principle, which makes man feel, live, move and gain knowledge. We feel sympathy, because through sympathy we get pleasure. Even the painful an pathetic elements of life must be so communicated that it would be productive of pleasure. The poet himself is in a state of enjoyment at the moment of creation. He seeks to communicate the pleasure to the reader.The pleasure communicated by poetry, however, is not idle pleasure, mere trivial entertainment or diversion like rope-dancing. Poetic pleasure is of a deeper and more beautiful kind, for poetry’ “is the breath and finer spirit of all knowledge, the impassioned expression that is in the countenance of all science.” (Preface, 1800) Poetry aims at winning “the vacant and the vain to noble Raptures”.(Preface, 1800) It aims at evoking a feeling of love for human nature. Wordsworth hoped that, with his poetry, he would be able to “console the afflicted, to add sunshine to daylight by making the happy happier; to lead the young and gracious of every age to see, to! think, and to feel, and therefore, to become more actively and securely virtuous.” (Preface, 1800) Poetry’s pleasure is of the kind that ennobles and edifies readers. It is the pleasure through which one gains increased knowledge.With Wordsworth, we see the rehabilitation of pleasure to a primary position. It is a major item in the romantic creed which he was out to establish. However, he insists that the pleasure is of a deep and noble kind.Subject matter or themes of poetryThe Lyrical Ballads was written with the purpose of showing how the common objects or characters could be made to appear in an unusual light, by throwing over them a coloring of the imagination. Wordsworth states his object of choosing “incidents and situations from common life.” His purpose was to trace “the primary laws of our nature”. To illustrate these primary laws,”humble and rustic life was generally chosen, because in that condition, the essential passions of the heart find a better soil in which they can attain their maturity, are less under restraint and speak a plainer and more emphatic language; because in that condition of life our elementary feelings coexist in a state of greater simplicity because the manners of rural life germinate from those elementary feelings … and are more durable; and lastly, because in that condition the passions of men are incorporated with the beautiful forms of nature ….” (Preface, 1800)Wordsworth felt that the subject of poetry had been too long restricted to the upper strata of society. He wanted to extend the range of poetic subject. He felt that the universal elements of human nature, which a poet sought to express in his poetry, were found in a purer and simpler state in the rustic and common people. These people, living as they did in close proximity with nature; absorbed the beautiful and permanent grandeur of nature. He believed in the innate, goodness of the simple and homespun country folk.Wordsworth considered feeling and emotion to be of a greater importance than situation and incident-“feeling developed in a poem gives importance to the action and situation, and net the action and situation to the feeling.” He discards Aristotelian doctrine. For him, it is the feeling that matters.Language of poetryThe advocacy of going to the common and rustic folk for the subject matter of poetry, naturally gave rise to the preference for a language used by these people. Thus arose Wordsworth’s theory of the language of poetry. The themes being simple, the language would also be simple. It must be a selection of the language really spoken by men and it must be “language of conversation in the middle and lower classes of society is adapted to the purposes of poetic pleasure.” (Advertisement, 1798) Strongly critical of the artificial poetic diction of the eighteenth century, he proposed to use simple and natural language as used by the rustic and common folk. But, he adds, it would be a selection, which would rid this language of its provincialities, vulgarities, coarseness and disgusting aspects. In his advocacy of the rear language of men, he declares that there is no essential difference between the language of prose and metrical composition. The poet is a man speaking to men. His language, therefore, should not be different from theirs. The poet thinks and feels in the spirit of human passions. His language, accordingly, should be the language of men.ConclusionWordsworth’s theory of poetry and the poetic process gave a fresh direction to the practice of poetry in the nineteenth century. Like any other theory, it, too, has its limitations. The conception of poetry as spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings originating in emotion recollected in tranquility could not be an all-inclusive theory of poetry. All poets could not compose in such a manner. But the theory did serve to put emphasis on the importance of feeling and powerful emotions, which are basic to human nature. It served to highlight the end of poetry as being that of communicating pleasure. At the same time, however, Wordsworth gives importance to thought in the composition of poetry-something which’ later romantics refused to acknowledge. The charge of many modern critics that poetry is not a spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings, fails to take into account Wordsworth’s later statement that it originated in emotion recollected in tranquility. Poetry, modern critics say scornfully, is not a dumping ground for emotions. Nor did Wordsworth say it was.