Sunday, August 16, 2009

Week 02, William Wordsworth

Notes on William Wordsworth

The French Revolution.
Wordsworth, like Coleridge, Blake, Southey, and many other democratic-spirited Englishmen, at first enthusiastically welcomed the French Revolution, and believed that it would amount to a “new dawn” for humanity. The Revolution ( flowed in part from the Enlightenment ideal of progress, of the good life here and now: not in some displaced fantasy afterlife, not from the crumbs tossed our way from the king’s table as if we were dogs. If we have made our institutions, the idea goes, we should be able to change them at will and for the better. But in the wake of the extremist period of the Revolution (the Jacobin-inspired “Terror” of 1792-94), it became increasingly difficult to believe that the French upheaval was such a positive affair.

It has often been said that Wordsworth and his fellow poets didn’t really abandon their democratic hopes, but instead turned to their art as a way of expressing them, and even placed a great deal of emphasis on literary art itself as one of the main vehicles for promoting change. I think there is some justification for that understanding of British romanticism—Wordsworth himself, in the Prelude, offers many a verse observation that confirms it, at least with respect to his own development as a poet. If, in fact, the romantics more or less internalize the ideals of the revolution, weave them into literature, and then expect literature to help effect change (to put it baldly), it almost goes without saying that such a formula doesn’t solve the difficult question of how human societies make progress: do we start with the individual, or is that a bourgeois notion since progress can only happen when a mass movement or a revolution gets underway, as with America in 1776, France in 1789, Russia in 1917, or the recent anticommunist turnabouts in Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall? Can any force short of a French Revolution influence the sensibilities of large numbers of individuals, and so help bring about eventual change? Let’s turn to Wordsworth’s Preface to Lyrical Ballads to see what he has to say about the relationship between literature and the prospects for meaningful change.

Literature and the Reformation of Taste.
It has long been noticed that Wordsworth’s poems flow from a new, fundamentally democratic sense of life: his experimental Lyrical Ballads demand that we pay attention to a variety of humble people and outcasts who don’t come at us with a pinch of snuff and fancy aristocratic titles—the stuff of traditional poetry. “Liberty, equality, fraternity” are still Wordsworth’s ideals even in 1798, though no patriotic Englishman would be caught directly supporting France by that date. In the Preface, we can recognize Wordsworth’s intent to address the major eighteenth-century concern over “taste,” usually expressed in terms of “decorum,” a commonly available set of rules according to which polite society perceives, thinks, and lives. This issue of taste is by no means trivial, as we sometimes take it to be when we say, “there’s no accounting for taste.” Underlying notions of taste are notions of how people are to get along with one another even though they may not agree on everything.

Wordsworth as a reformer of the public’s taste in literature shows disdain for old-fashioned aristocrats, but also finds distressing the still relatively small but growing urban population of readers. The aristocrats—aside from their blatant adherence to an unjust and inadequate system that awards people for high birth rather than merit, are too favorable to the decorum-laden “poetic diction” that would abstract even the most particular individual fish into a card-carrying member of the “finny tribe.” This kind of language merely dulls the senses and removes us farther than ever from the material world and from healthy, pure perception of the breathing world. It turns poetry into a concept-making-machine instead of a means by which to connect with nature and other human beings.

But the urban multitude comes in for some sharp criticism, too—Wordsworth has no patience with these seekers of “gross and violent stimulation” and admirers of “sickly and stupid German tragedies.” They are the early romantic period’s equivalent of today’s crime-show and reality-TV addicts, I suppose—people who have become so desensitized to anything healthy (like nature and stories about good folks, for instance) that their minds don’t perk up for anything but lurid tales of wrongdoing and vulgarly competitive scenarios where people eat hapless insects and chase one another around on fake deserted islands. Our emphasis on these “Gilligans gone Wild” and on the misconduct of criminal brutes brings out the worst in us, one can hear him saying. Not to mention the ceaseless round of consumerist one-upmanship and all-around “fetishism of the commodity,” as Karl Marx will one day label capitalist society’s confusion over the relative value of people and inanimate objects. Wordsworth is no proto-Marxist, but his criticism of early industrialist culture has some affinities with later and more radical critiques: a commodity culture tends toward atomistic individualism and against social cohesion.

Poetry—the Universal Orphic Song.
What is needed? Well, in his Preface Wordsworth suggests a move away from a false urban and utilitarian interiority based on shallow pleasure-seeking and acquisitiveness and towards a more genuine, healthy interiority that brings strong individuals together. The latter kind of interiority helps us rediscover our connection to nature and to others; it gives us back our common capacity to feel uplifting emotions. Wordsworth’s poetics is universalist—he takes it as a given that right operation of feeling and imagination is possible for all, and that it will lead to similarly positive results for the individual and for society. But the current urban public’s interiority is vulgar—its immediacy is not that of self-presence and a sense of the deep universal truths of the human spirit; it entails only “instant gratification,” a mere object-relation that turns the object seeker himself into just another object. As Walter Ong might say, urban anonymity is that of mere facelessness in the crowd, and it actually keeps us from experiencing the deep nameless intimacy of the “I,” as opposed to the socially given attributes owing to our proper name—John, Jose, Mary, whatever. The proper name is one compact but powerful instance of the “cultural scripts” that (from our very birth onwards) tell us what kind of beings we are, how we ought to relate to one another, what our relationship to objects and to nature ought to be, and so forth. We conceive of life’s purpose along lines fed to us by others. Shouldn’t we be able to erase the old scripts and replace them with new and better ones—can’t we make our world the way we want it to be: peaceful and purposeful?

Implicit in what has just been said is that false language, false understanding, and false living go together—problems with language are deeply implicated in broader problems of cultural coherency and change. As Gerald Bruns points out in his book Modern Poetry and the Idea of Language (New Haven: Yale UP, 1974), romantic theorists such as Wilhelm von Humboldt, Wordsworth, Coleridge, and others assume that human language is to be understood as deeply processive—words aren’t inanimate, discrete objects or “things” that we arrange into decorous patterns, as they are in ancient and Renaissance rhetorical theory. The romantic word doesn’t either stand in the way of truth or move out of the way so we can simply “get at” the truth. (The same conception of the word as an object can occur whether, like philosophical idealists, we mean by “truth” something in our heads—i.e. prelinguistic images or “ideas”—or whether with empiricists like Bacon we mean something “out there” in a world of objects independent of the human mind. Rather, language and truth are closely bound up together—who “we” are and how we understand the world around us cannot be considered apart from the fact that we are linguistic beings. In Bruns’ terms, the romantics see words less a medium than as a function, a process, and this process connects us vitally to the world “beyond” language. In the most optimistic formulations of romantic poetics, he points out, the poetic word takes on an Orphic, almost magical quality to be part of the reality it speaks—not just a set of symbols describing that reality.

If any such thing is the case, it is vital that we “get it right” in our relationship with language. If our language is false and corrupted, we will live and understand falsely and corruptly. Since we can’t wish language away, what, then, can purify our relationship with it? You guessed, it—poetry. Wordsworth’s and Shelley’s and Coleridge’s kind of poetry, to be precise. At its best, and even if all writing amounts to a “cultural script,” romantic poetry is the bearer of a new gospel, a new and better “script” by which humans can live together. So when Wordsworth, as he says in his Preface, goes back to the rural countryside and listens to the speech of farmers, he’s doing it for philosophical reasons: the rustics are more sound in their ways and speech than city folk, so they have a living “script,” we might say, and not a mass of corrupted words with no relation to anything in the human heart or physical nature. Wordsworth really isn’t returning directly to nature, but rather to human nature in its best state.

I have placed this key romantic concern right after my comments on language to make a point. The point is that the romantics may privilege the human relationship with nature, but they are not (in the main) primitivists who think we can shed “civilization” the way a snake sheds its skin periodically. We can’t just “go back to nature.” Going to the countryside is good, of course, but when Wordsworth does this, there’s usually some human artifact (like, well, a ruined abbey) nearby. We can’t go back to nature in the simple sense because we were never really in it in the first place. Wordsworth doesn’t collapse “human nature” into oneness with the natural world of hills and dales, flora and fauna. He puts it into close affinity with the natural environment, but doesn’t say they’re exactly the same. His attitude is perhaps a kinder, gentler version of Ignatius of Loyola’s idea that nature is at best a vehicle for spiritual realization, at worst a hindrance. And Wordsworth finds that it isn’t a hindrance—it’s a great help.

Further, you can see by Wordsworth’s insistence upon the principle of selection from “nature”—from rural speech patterns and from the details of landscape, that is—just how far he is from any doctrine of primitivism. Nature may be our original “source,” but we can only repair to it for a time, not stay there permanently. The closest thing to it that we can return to in a more or less permanent way would be those “rural speech patterns” and to the profound truths of the human heart, those “essential passions” with which they are so closely bound. To be fair, however, the “essential passions” are indeed closely allied with what Wordsworth calls “the beautiful and permanent forms of nature.”

All in all, I don’t mean to say that nature isn’t a profound concern for most of our romantic poets: Wordsworth and Coleridge, we might say, are in fact the first true “environmentalists,” and would in their own ways agree that the wilderness is what Thoreau later says it is: “the salvation of mankind.” They accept neither the medieval sense of nature as something fearful, hostile and alien, nor the industrialist instrumentalism that sees nature as a “resource” to be tamed and used as we see fit. They are much closer to the enlightened way of looking at nature some environmentalists promote today—as something endangered, something that must be respected and protected rather than conquered and used. How about, “ask not what your countryside can do for you, ask what you can do for your countryside”? The romantics, writing at ground zero of the Industrial Revolution, knew this was a difficult argument to make, and it continues to be difficult today. Most environmental groups gear their rhetoric towards the idea that we should preserve nature “because it’s useful to us” or “for our children’s children’s great grandchildren’s grandchildren.” It comes down to the same thing—for us, not for nature in its own right. What I have described may be a necessary rhetorical strategy, but it cedes a tragic amount of ground to crass Utilitarians who see only “timber” even in the midst of an old-growth redwood forest.

Not all of the romantics are as scathing when it comes to science as William Blake, with his diatribes against the unholy trinity of “Bacon, Newton, & Locke,” but in general they interpret the advent of scientific discourse and practice disturbing. In his Preface, Wordsworth suggests that the poet’s song take us back almost to a new Eden, while the scientists labor in the fields, still with much of the sorrowful Old Adam and Eve in their hearts. Science, in Wordsworth’s view, “murders to dissect”—it takes things apart in an effort to understand and control them. Those dominant powers Reason and Social Utility demand such efforts at mastery over nature. Sir Francis Bacon’s empirical project was by no means as godless as Blake makes it sound—it follows the dual prescription of promoting god’s glory and ameliorating the human condition. But even in the Baconian emphasis on “experimenta lucifera” (pure science, “experiments of light”) rather than on “experimenta fructifera” (science for the sake of near-term improvement in living conditions), we can easily see the roots of romantic criticism against the scientific stirrings of their time: science, based upon building up knowledge from sensory observation and rational system-building derived from that observation, tends to become a pursuit for its own sake—yet another “system,” as Blake might say, that becomes its own justification without regard to the human beings who are supposed to benefit from it.
All of the romantics take issue with science as tending towards this condition—a snare for the naively optimistic rather than a vehicle for perpetual human improvement. They keep insisting that there’s something closer, more proper, to human beings than whatever lies at the far end of some grand march to knowledge and control. Perhaps what we really need “lies about us in our infancy,” and is never very far. The greatest wisdom is not to dissect things but to perceive their unity and not violate it. And how do we define progress anyway? Does it have to with production—i.e. with clever new ways to satisfy old desires and even create new ones, to gain mastery over the natural environment, to amass huge stocks of quantifiable, empirically verifiable knowledge? It isn’t self-evident what “progress” is, and the issue will become a major one from Wordsworth’s time forwards.

Below are some thoughts on the status of the poet and on poetic process.

The Value of Creative Imagination.
I should mention first of all Meyer Abrams’ excellent study The Mirror and the Lamp, which offers an exhaustive intellectual history about the difference between mimetic (i.e. imitative) neoclassical theories of artistic creation and romantic expressive theories that privilege creative imagination. The key difference is that the mimetic theorist believes art mainly copies the external world, while the expressive critic says artists mostly express (that is, externalize) inner feelings, thoughts, and memories. As Abrams’ metaphor implies, the lamp seems to burn from an inner source, while the mirror reflects an image from the world outside. Romantic poets, then make available to us the inner workings of their own being, and in this act of spiritual publication lies the real value of art.

As Wordsworth explains in his Preface to Lyrical Ballads, the value lies here because expression is exactly the power that ordinary, unpoetical city folk have forgotten they possess, thanks to the “multitude of causes” (mainly the bad effects of living in a depersonalized urban environment and the political and military tumult of the late eighteenth century) that Wordsworth specifies in the Preface. There are many sophisticated formulations of what poets can do for us, but one of the most straightforward is Wordsworth’s claim in the Preface that the poet sings a song in which everyone can join. Poets are said to be in touch with nature and, therefore, with certain primal human passions, chief amongst them “love.” Poets are the individuals least “damaged” by modernity and the ones who can, therefore, think and feel in the absence of frenetic stimulation. They can still commune with the natural world and trace the unwritten laws of the human spirit—this power gives the broadest possible scope, thinks Wordsworth, to the vital operations of the imagination, that binding capacity we all have, at least in potential, even if circumstance has kept us from honoring or encouraging the gift.

Wordsworth, like the other British romantics, is firmly in the expressivist camp, but offers an interestingly modified version of expressive theory. He implies that the healthy functioning of the imagination requires the mind (and body) to open up to a “wise passiveness” wherein the perceiver soaks in every sensation round about, without reflecting or intellectualizing it into a grand synthetic whole, a moral emblem, or anything else. There is a trace of good old-fashioned empiricism in the poetic practice and theory of Wordsworth.

By empiricism, I refer to the science-tending doctrine that says what we know comes first from our five senses—not from abstract reasoning power all by itself. Imagination in faculty psychology terms is the image-making power; it’s the capacity that lets you see images even if there isn’t any direct sensory stimulus in your field of vision. If you’ve ever read Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, you might recall the villain Archimago—the “arch image-maker” who keeps fooling Red Crosse Knight with all those false appearances. Well, empiricists like John Locke say that all our knowledge comes from sense experience: we see things that are out there in the world, and our simple perceptions get “associated” and combined into more and more complex, abstract, and general ideas. Memory stores all this idea-stuff, almost like a hard drive in our modern terms, and we can work with it and build on it intellectually, broadening our stock of knowledge. Locke is perhaps an early version of “information technology,” with the mind like a calculating machine with data storage capacity. The movement of information-processing runs from the particular to the general—thus the validity on “inductive method” in empirical writers like Sir Francis Bacon. That’s the way the mind works, and that’s the way we should patiently build up systems of knowledge. It’s good to keep this in mind when we consider the way Wordsworth deals with his immediate perceptions of nature. But Wordsworth isn’t simply an empiricist—what he suggests is that we “half create, and half perceive” (“Tintern Abbey”) the “mighty world of eye and ear.” Or as he writes in The Prelude, Book 11, the poets “build up greatest things / From least suggestions” (lines 98-99). Ultimately, and again in The Prelude, Wordsworth asserts the priority of mind over mere nature, and so in this way he approaches the proposition of Coleridge in “Dejection: an Ode” that “in our life alone does nature live.” What must the poet do for the people? By Book 13 of The Prelude (1805), the task is this: “Instruct them how the mind of man becomes / A thousand times more beautiful than the earth / On which he dwells….” However Wordsworth ultimately ranks mind over nature, his poetry promotes a gentle interplay between them. He is not suggesting that imagination creates new worlds in its own fiery crucible and that it takes us away from nature altogether into the exalted realm of free creativity. On the whole, Wordsworth talks about poetic creation and readerly pleasure in terms of a properly functioning mind, one in which sensory perception, memory, and the capacity to feel all work together. The result of this proper attunement is peace within oneself and harmony with others. Pleasure is the aim of life—it alone signifies internal and external health. As Freud would tell us, if we can’t feel pleasure, there’s something deeply wrong in our emotional state.

Wordsworth’s Method of Composition:
Meditation. “Meditative” is perhaps the best way to describe Wordsworth’s account of how poems get composed in the poet’s head and then written down. Much of Wordsworth’s poetry seems to be based upon long-standing Christian meditative practices, at least indirectly. Meyer Abrams describes the structure of Wordsworth’s great odes by saying they begin with a meditation on a particular place. This act of contemplation helps the poet to remember and analyze a problem that he or she has been experiencing, and finally an “affective” or emotional resolution is achieved. The pattern goes something like this:

1) Our senses and imagination stir up memories, not all of them good ones;

2) Our power of analysis sets to work on the problem at hand

3) Our rekindled emotions help us resolve the problem, or at least show the way.
You will find this an accurate description of poems such as “Tintern Abbey” and “Intimations of Immortality.”

What I have just described is similar to the structure of the Spiritual Exercises ( advocated by St. Ignatius of Loyola. Ignatius has exercitants begin with “the composition of place,” and through that vivid recollection or imagining of either a real place or one associated with the life of Christ, he expects that meditators will begin to understand the gravity and repetitive quality of their sinful ways, and finally that this awareness will lead to a colloquy with Christ, a dialogue that should leave a person with hope for the future.

The Spiritual Exercises
are supposed to clear away the mental errors and worldly confusions that are getting in the way of salvation, which requires devotion to God above all else. Theologically, we could say that the exercises help realign the will away from “the world, the flesh, and the devil” and allow a person to follow God’s plan more closely. From this meditation should flow a sense of spiritual peace and devotion, as well as a clearer sense of one’s proper vocation. What profession to follow? Should I take holy orders, or go on living as a business person or whatever, only with greater charity towards others and a better sense that my own desires and concerns aren’t as important as I used to think? The choice will depend upon the individual.

Well, meditation’s goal is always something like that, with or without the specific theological trappings: we must withdraw into ourselves for a time, removing ourselves from the corruptions that have set in thanks to the badness of our society and our own inner failings, and through intense contemplation arrive at a state of emotional and spiritual health and equilibrium. Clarity of perception might be another benefit, if we want to speak less of emotion and more of intellection. Buddhist meditation, for instance, is largely about letting “unconfusion” happen, opening oneself up to the discovery of truths that have always been right next to us.

Wordsworth’s “wise passiveness” in the presence of nature, his soaking up the sights and sounds around him, has something of that quality to it. Except that his own background is more Christian-tinged; he probably wouldn’t find Eastern “self-annihilation” congenial but might instead opt for the retooling of the individual self and its purposiveness. At this point in his career, of course, Wordsworth isn’t exactly talking traditional theology—his God is “Nature,” and he isn’t trying to instill in us a sense that we have sinned against the light, either. I just mean that in general what seems to underlie romantic meditation is a long tradition of Christian meditative theory and practice.

The Status of the Poet—Prophet or Merchant? Almost everyone admires the romantic formulation of why literature is (or should be) valuable not only to poets but to everyone else. But we should also keep in mind the unpleasant notion of Marxist critic Raymond Williams that this formulation of the poet-prophet healing the ills of the community is partly the effect of the very causes it tries to overcome. Williams’ idea is that the more threatened and marginalized literary artists became, the more insistent and even grandiose became their claims about the value of their activity. The point is, how does a poet respond to the threat of being either eliminated as silly and anachronistic, or forced to adapt poetry’s message to what the growing and economically powerful middle classes want, or having to play the isolated “voice crying in the wilderness” all the more defiantly for lack of an audience? None of the choices offer much consolation, it seems—elimination, adaptation (i.e. selling out), or marginalization to a street-corner preacher in some dingy corner of London shouting at indifferent passersby, “what doth it profit a man if he gain the world, and lose his soul?” The father of capitalist ideology, Adam Smith (see his book The Wealth of Nations), predicted some such thing when he said that his principle of the “division of labor” logically applies to thinking, not just to physical employments. And if we can pay people to do our thinking for us, it makes sense to say as well that one day we will also pay people to do our feeling for us. In effect, that kind of statement acknowledges that even grand romantic poetry is one commodity amongst many others, and that as always in the marketplace, people will choose as it pleases them, for whatever reason or no reason at all. In a sense, art remains part of life, but by no means a privileged one—there are plenty of other things to do out there in a modern urban community, especially in one that follows the utilitarian line that the goal of society is the pursuit of undifferentiated individual pleasure. Jeremy Bentham puts it eloquently: “all other things being equal, pushpin [a game less sophisticated than checkers] is as good as poetry.” Evidently, we aren’t the first society to say, “do it if it feels good” or “whatever turns you on.” Bottom line: in Williams’ view, the effect of capitalism is to marginalize, specialize, and commodify the act of writing poetry. The poet is a specialized worker, not an exalted demigod. Modern literature continually confronts this problem of “social value,” and the simple fact that people (critics, moralists, the public) come up to literature with their hands in their pockets and make such a demand shows that Williams’ claims about literary “marginalization” have some genuine explanatory power.

“Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey”

This meditative poem traces, in brief, the stages of development in the poet’s relationship with his natural surroundings, with the aim of recovering a sense of purpose and vocation. The speaker’s affinity with the natural world grounds his very being, so in a sense, the poem is also about the recovery of the poet’s capacity for intelligible self-representation. First and foremost, how does he understand himself? Nature plays many roles in romantic poetry—as one of my UC Irvine professors (Al Wlecke) sums up those roles in drawing upon Meyer Abrams, nature serves as the antithesis of traditional institutions and thought; as a substitute religion: as a vehicle for self-consciousness; as a source of healthy sensations; and as a provocation to a state of imagination. It’s not hard to see that Wordsworth makes the environs of Tintern Abbey serve all of these purposes.

1-22. This part of the poem might be called “the composition of place,” which is what Saint Ignatius of Loyola, Jesuit founder and author of the Spiritual Exercises, might call it. The meditator or “exercitant” thinks about some personally or theologically significant place, with the goal of achieving the calm necessary to focus the mind on some spiritual problem that needs resolution. That is what “Tintern’s” speaker is doing—he has been here before as a younger and more carefree man, and, as we later hear, the mere recollection of this spot above the crumbling, picturesque abbey has sustained him in difficult, city-bound times. What sustaining power will it have for him now that he has actually returned? Will it revive his flagging spirits and dimished sense of imaginative capacity?

The landscape and the cliffs, earthly things, point to the heavenly realm of spirit; these natural images represent the poet’s state of mind and his aspirations: the scene is mimetic in that it describes the natural scene, but also expressive in that it is charged with emotional and moral significance. The speaker is rather like the contemplative hermit he mentions in these first lines—isolated, but intently focused on the right thing, which is his spiritual condition or, more broadly, his present psychic health and prospects for the future.

23- 102. The natural scenes that the speaker recollects have helped him in past times to purge himself of civilization’s corrupting, diminishing effects. It is not only the scenes in nature, the so-called “beauteous forms,” that the speaker remembers; these archetypal, eternal forms cause him to recollect past sensations and feelings that made him feel fully alive and creative. Meditation in nature’s presence helps him attain tranquility, and as we may recall from Wordsworth’s “Preface to Lyrical Ballads,” such tranquility is the precondition for successful poetic composition. In a state of calm, the poet recalls prior sensations and feelings, this recollection gives rise to new, equally significant feelings in the present, and then the right words begin to course through the poet’s mind. While the romantics are of course attracted to theories of inspiration, the process Wordsworth favors seems more a matter of disciplined cultivation of a temperament conducive to the making of poetry—deep feeling and a healthy excess of imagination are important, but these are fed by affective memory and sustained by habit, it seems.

Around line 40, speaker describes an experience similar to a religious epiphany, a moment of deep spiritual insight in which we are purified and renewed. He is in a state of “wise passiveness,” to borrow a phrase from another of his poems (“Expostulation and Reply”). And what does religion provide if not moral intelligibility? It’s clear that there much sad experience has come the speaker’s way in the five years between the present and his last visit to the environs of Tintern Abbey: “the heavy and the weary weight of all this unintelligible world” lies upon him.

Around line 50, the speaker voices his anxiety that his trust in recollections of his relationship with nature is only “a vain belief.” What if the link between mind and nature is irrevocably broken? What if such claims about deep affinities between humanity and nature are abstractions, mere products of rhetoric? It may be that the speaker cannot reexperience the feelings he once had. If so, he will be cut off from the vital source of his own being. Still, as his prayer to the river shows, nature is is shepherd, so to speak—he will not give in to fear but will instead take comfort in what remains to him. In the rest of the poem, the speaker will assert the capacity to be sustained by the memory of nature’s forms and to respond to the natural surroundings present to him.

The Miltonic diction of line 66 helps provide some contemplative distance for readers. The precisely describe moments or stages in the poet’s relationship with nature over time now become the recollected past. The present is linked to this sustainable past, providing hope for future.

Around line 75, the speaker admits “I cannot paint what then I was.” He has no words to represent how he felt accurately when his love for nature, long after the “glad animal sensations” of childhood, haunted him and had all the intensity of an erotic passion. This inability to describe a former stage in his relationship with nature is painful to him—what he cannot describe, he cannot recover in actual experience, either.

Around line 85, the speaker refers to the “abundant recompence” he has been given for the loss sustained. As in Jeremy Taylor’s book Holy Living and Holy Dying, a Christian must not indulge in despair, and hope comes partly from the “reckoning up” of one’s blessings. In our poet’s case, there is compensation for the loss that comes with maturity. What is this compensation? The speaker describes it as a pantheistic “sense sublime of something far more deeply interfused, whose dwelling is the light of setting suns….” The word “therefore” soon signals that the poem’s mimetic language has given way to sublime abstractions that assert the speaker’s higher, more philosophical understanding of the continuity between mind and nature. This is the beginning of the “affective resolution” to which Meyer Abrams refers in writing about the Greater Romantic Lyric, which begins with meditative description, proceeds to the articulation and analysis of a spiritual problem, and concludes with a solution linked to the poet’s capacity for healthy emotion and passionate connection to others.

Around line 105, the speaker describes nature as a source of healthy feelings and as the “anchor” of his moral being. The anchor, of course, is a Christian symbol of hope.

111-end. Dorothy is nature’s equivalent in this final section of the poem. The poem turns trans-subjective at this point, so it’s hardly an example of what Keats calls Wordsworth’s “egotistical sublime.” The speaker’s retrieval of his connection to nature leads him back to the human world, and he takes pleasure in the hope that his sister will remain after he is gone, still to experience some of the phases of her relationship with nature that the speaker has described.

“Three years she grew.”

This poem shows another side of nature, one that is not quite as comforting as we sometimes find in Wordsworth. Lucy will be granted an intimate relationship with nature, but the word “while” hangs heavily over the poem. Lucy dies and leaves to the speaker the calm and quiet of nature. Nature, by implication does not leave this gift. And there is a certain irony in the fourth line, wherein nature says “This Child I to myself will take.” Apparently, the embrace is not forever. In spite of the tenderness towards Lucy, we may sense something of the impersonal quality of nature, the one that gives Tennyson so much trouble in his poem In Memoriam. Nature does not really bind together the speaker and Lucy; this great force seems almost selfish and, in the end, uncaring.

General Notes on William Wordsworth’s “Preface to Lyrical Ballads, 1802” (645-68).

According to Wordsworth, our response to nature grounds elemental passions such as love. Language is the medium for the communication of these passions. City life destroys the link, and urban language cannot reestablish it. The poet’s language mediates between nature and the emotions based upon nature. That is why poetry is vital: poets can still feel and express the link to nature and so can help us reestablish it. Through their efforts, we can feel the link to nature anew, and reaffirm the power of our own minds because of the pleasure we take in art. The aim is to regain emotional health for the individual and to regenerate a sense of community.

Romantic poets represent and bring order to their own and others’ passions in a skillful manner, so they are not primitivists or solipsists. As we’ll see, meter is part of the poet’s craft, and it allows for the establishment of a distancing effect from raw emotion that might otherwise not rise above “gross and violent” stimulation. Craft helps the poet attain the proper meditative or reflective effect of poetry. A healthy mind is capable of being stimulated without immediate sensory experience—that’s a point Kant was determined to convey while explaining the basis for aesthetic judgment.

Wordsworth assumes that there is a general human nature, which is an eighteenth-century idea. But nature isn’t just an external standard; we are nature, and of course “reason” isn’t as important as the bedrock of humanity, the passions. To these we can always return, at least if we have the proper mediator and the right language as our guide.

Unlike the scientist, the poet must identify with rural humanity and with everyone else. He is “a man speaking to men.” Poetry is therefore intersubjective, and it reveals unified human nature as the basis for a united human community. Scientific knowledge is analytical, individual, objective; poetic knowledge gives common pleasure and universalizes and synthesizes experience. As Shelley will say later, we must “imagine that which we know.” Poets have the “courage” (Shelley’s term) to help us do this. They have the boldness to set deep culture against the mere public opinion of the day. That will be a critical and artistic task from the Enlightenment and Romantic period onwards.

1. The preface is a manifesto in an age of manifestoes, a revolutionary age. But this is a different kind of manifesto in that Wordsworth says social transformation comes after a renewal of the individual’s imagination and of a purer language tied to the primary, universal human emotions. Wordsworth is offering us a declaration of the poet’s power.

2. What is a poet? A poet is “a man speaking to men.” His imagination and need for self-expression are kindred to those of his fellow beings, but greater. Poets are in full, pleasurable contact with nature, their own thoughts, and their own feelings. Moreover, they can achieve the tranquility necessary to select and reorder those thoughts, feelings, and situations. When they do that, they are able to reveal the universal, orderly quality of readers’ thoughts and feelings. There is a common human nature, and poets are best able to express it because they experience it most fully.

3. What is poetry? Well, it is expression. It is “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings recollected in tranquility.” It is certainly not an imitation of an action, as Aristotle would have us believe, nor is it likely to serve up Samuel Johnson’s tulip without the numbered streaks. Poetry is a concrete expression of the poet’s thoughts and feelings. This idea is genuinely new, at least in its intensity.

4. Wordsworth does not advocate direct self-expression or primitivism. Only by reordering their thoughts and feelings can poets present them to us as universal; only by selecting language and situations carefully can poets accomplish their task: to reveal and express the universal primary passions and tendencies of humankind. They need to make available to us the things in our common nature that bind us into a spiritual and emotional community.

How should poets compose and how should they select their materials? They should avoid neoclassical diction, which makes arbitrary connections between words and things and which tends to prop up an hierarchical class structure. Poets (if they follow Wordsworth’s advice) make a selection of language really used by ordinary people, choosing rustic, yet dignified language that is in touch with the “permanent forms of nature” and with the primary passions that have nature as their source.

5. Here we see the social dimension of Wordsworth’s claims about the poet and poetry. He opposes the destructive, analytic methods and effects of science and technology to the healing and unifying method and effects of poetry. Poets are “the rock of Defense for human nature”—they are prophetic figures and healers who unify fragmented, alienated, isolated individuals into a regenerated community. The Industrial Revolution, which involves urbanization, mechanization, and the accumulation of capital, has a dehumanizing effect upon individuals, reducing them to a state of what Wordsworth calls “savage torpor,” in which only “gross and violent” excitement satisfies.

Only the poet can attain the tranquility necessary to the composition of poetry. So this fuller human being is the catalyst of individual and communal regeneration. The poet is the key to social transformation. On this point, Raymond Williams claims that the effect of capitalism and technology was to marginalize, specialize, and commodify the act of writing poetry. Adam Smith, the main proponent of early capitalism, said that one day we would pay people to do our thinking for us; it makes sense to say as well that one day we would pay people to do our feeling for us.

Poets offer a religion of nature as an answer to the crisis of authority. They will serve as high priests in this religion of nature. Wordsworth plays something like this role in “Tintern Abbey” for his sister Dorothy. That poem is about two individuals—social and political transformation presuppose transformation in the sensibility and consciousness of individuals.

It has sometimes been said (notably by M. H. Abrams) that Wordsworth’s “Preface” to Lyrical Ballads displaces the revolutionary ideals of the French and recontextualizes them in a theory of poetics. Thus, “Liberty” becomes the freedom to express oneself freely and to reject the system of mimetic conventions prevailing in 18th-century poetry. Some would say that this amounts to middle-class individualism. “Equality” means that the poet may choose a common language from rustic incidents and thereby convey universal emotional states. “Fraternity” might be evoked when the poet writes in a vivid state of sensation and expresses a common human nature grounded in emotions that supposedly transcend politics, culture, and history. There is, in this view, a permanent human nature.

Page-by-Page Notes on William Wordsworth’s “Preface to Lyrical Ballads, 1802” (645-68). *Page numbers refer to the Norton Anthology of Criticism and Theory.

648. At the outset, Wordsworth takes a scientific stance, claiming that his poems are experimental. Wordsworth aims to clear away perceptual deadwood and get to the most elementary passions and to the essential relationship between humanity and nature, between one human being and another. Just as Sir Francis Bacon aimed to brush off the cobwebs of scholastic theology to allow for concentration on the actual processes of nature, Wordsworth aims to clear away the false language and thought of the Eighteenth Century so that his audience can reconnect to the passionate element of their existence.

649-50. The poet aims to convey pleasure. Wordsworth implies that arguments about language amount to arguments about social regeneration. He says that he has selected rural life and speech because it is a safer repository for the essential passions of the heart. In rural speech, the link between the natural world and human manners is most purely expressed. We might say that language mediates between the passions and nature, which is partly a sign system for human emotions. As Wordsworth says, the goal is to reestablish the link between the primary laws of human nature and the beautiful and permanent forms of nature. He is by no means solipsistic in his poetics, but rather identifies the poet with rustic people and through them with all people.

651. At this point, Wordsworth says that poetry is “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.” But he modifies this statement when he says that “our continued influxes of feeling are modified and directed by our thoughts.” Repetition and habit play a large part here, and so we find common ground between David Hume and Wordsworth. Moreover, Wordsworth follows John Locke’s ideas of association; that usage is important because it allows the poet to suppose he is methodizing the passions and linking his own with others’ feelings. Representing feelings is more valuable than simply experiencing them.

652. “The feeling therein developed gives importance to the action and situation....” We find in Wordsworth an expressive theory of poetics as opposed to a mimetic one. “A multitude of causes....” The phrase “savage torpor” refers to the degrading effects of urbanization and the beginning of the industrial revolution. Technology and urbanization make us passive, killing the synthesizing power of the imagination and deadening our capacity to feel without “gross and violent stimulants.” Raymond Williams the cultural critic would suggest that the anti-industrial solution the romantics offer is an effect of the problem—poets stood to become merely specialized workers, so they hit back with the notion that their “specialty” really has universal and general significance; it should not, therefore, be marginalized or dismissed. On 652, Wordsworth offers a prophecy about the inherent powers of mind and the permanent therapeutic power of nature. He plays John the Baptist here, and is a romantic optimist in emphasizing the universality of our feelings.

654. “There neither is, nor can be, any essential difference between the language of prose and metrical composition.” Elsewhere in the Preface this remark finds its fullest significance, but it’s worth suggesting here that Wordsworth’s statement must hold for him because he has been saying all along that poetic language is itself at the root of all that is worthwhile in ordinary, rustic speech. There can’t be an infinite or unbridgeable gap between the two, or a difference in kind as opposed to a difference in degree or intensity. Language mediates between the passions and nature; nature is a sign system of passions.

655. “What is a poet? To whom does he address himself? And what language is to be expected from him?” The poet is “a man speaking to men.” The poet has a more lively sensibility, greater tenderness and enthusiasm, knows his own passions and volitions, feels more connected to an external nature, and has a more comprehensive soul. Wordsworth defines imagination as a power to be affected by absent things. In sum, the poet is able to express thoughts and feelings more powerfully than most people. So poets are 1) fuller and purer human beings; 2) connected to their own and to others’ passions and to nature; 3) gifted with a powerful imagination and expressive capacity to convey universal passions; 4) craftsmen who can and reorder their own feelings and thoughts into a pleasurable and intelligible whole or story.

656. “Aristotle, I have been told, hath said, that poetry is the most philosophic of all writing....” Poetry conveys the best kind of knowledge in the best way. The object of poetry is “truth general and operative.” In other words, its object is truth most closely tied to deep human nature. The poet conveys universal truth born of pleasure and carried into the hearts of others by passion. Poetry is “the image of man and nature,” and it links man and nature meaningfully. Poetry gives pleasure to the entire person, not to specialized elements of a person. Later, Wordsworth asserts this idea again when he discusses poetic truth in comparison to utilitarian, scientific truth, which actually turns out to be more remote than we had thought. The poet conveys a universal truth of the human heart, of feelings derived from unspoiled human nature in contact with an equally unspoiled natural realm. In sum, Wordsworth makes transhistorical claims about human nature.

657. “The poet writes under one restriction only....” Here science is contrasted with poetry. On the link between knowledge and sympathy, Wordsworth says that pleasure helps achieve this link. Pleasure comes from perceiving and feeling the harmony between humanity and nature, their mutual adaptation. Science, by contrast, dissects things and seeks remote truth as its object. The poet binds us into an expressive community by means of passion that conveys intuitive and pleasurable knowledge, while the scientist keeps us divided and subject to perpetual delay in achieving social harmony. Poetry delights us with its kind of knowledge because that knowledge flows from the depths of human nature.

658. “The knowledge both of the poet and the man of science is pleasure....” Again, science versus poetry is Wordsworth’s theme. We might contrast Sir Francis Bacon’s idea of science as future amelioration with Wordsworth’s more immediate promise of prophetic insight. The poet is almost a priest, erasing the consequences of original sin. Is this unfair to science? Well, Wordsworth probably refers more to a tendency than to specific practices, or to so-called pure science. What he offers amounts to a religion of nature. The artist is the high priest of that religion. At times, Wordsworth writes like a pantheist, praising “a sense sublime of something far more deeply interfused, whose dwelling is the light of setting suns.”

659. “Among the qualities which I have enumerated....” The poet more promptly feels in absence of external excitement and is able to express feelings more promptly. This is only a difference in degree, not in kind. The poet conveys passions arising from moral sentiments and animal sensations; the poet derives these things from contact with nature and from his or her own emotions.

660. Wordsworth refers to “the tendency of meter to divest language in a certain degree of its reality....” Meter meets the need for restraint and distance. Wordsworth does not seek to convey extreme emotion or raw events. For both the poet and the reader, poetry is a meditative act. Meditation requires the bracketing out of noise, focusing intensely on some specific place or thing, and calling to mind what is associated with that place or thing or person. The point is to reorder thoughts and feelings and attain clarity, which moral and emotional clarity, Meyer Abrams suggests, constitutes “the affective resolution” of the greater romantic lyric.

661-62. “I have said that poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: 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.” On this page, Wordsworth discusses the mental process leading to composition. The poet contemplates an emotion such as love, gratitude, hope, loss, etc. (as on 659) in tranquility. Then, a new and kindred emotional state arises, at which point mental composition begins. Later, when the poem is committed to writing, readers may go through a similar process, one that takes them from tranquility to a state of deep, genuine emotion. But in keeping with Wordsworth’s meditative scheme, neither the poet nor the reader experiences only raw and chaotic passion. Instead, while composing the poet is in a “general state of pleasure,” and the goal is to provide the reader with an “overbalance of pleasure.” How to do that? Well, meter generates a degree of distance from unprocessed reality and raw feeling, and its regularity gives us a sense of “similarity in dissimilarity.” This sense, says Wordsworth on 661, is the spring of all mental activity. His view of meter may recall Aristotle’s comments about mimesis: we can enjoy a representation of things that would cause us emotional pain in real life. Again, poetic composition is a species of meditation: the poet may experience vivid emotions, but restraint, ordering, reflection, and selection are vital if the poem is to produce in readers an “overbalance of pleasure” instead of simply stirring up chaotic feelings.

In general terms, meditation requires a combination of freedom and discipline. A person must bracket out “noise” while focusing intently upon some specific place, thing, or event and calling to mind the thoughts and feelings associated with it from past experience. The aim is to deal constructively with these thoughts and emotions; it is to achieve moral clarity and enlightenment. In some species of meditation, aside from attaining clarity, working through problems, and so forth, there may occur a passage to or intuition of a state not conveyable in words: perhaps a kind of ekstasis or sublimity. There are elements of this latter kind of meditative experience in Wordsworth, moments when, as in “Tintern Abbey,” one may feel “a sense sublime of something far more deeply interfused, / whose dwelling is the light of setting suns.” That poem is what Meyer Abrams calls a “Greater Romantic Lyric,” and as such it follows a three-part structure that resembles the stages of Ignatius of Loyola’s meditative technique in his Spiritual Exercises. The first is “composition of place,” in which t he meditator or “exercitant” thinks about some personally or theologically significant location, with the goal of achieving the calm necessary to focus the mind on some spiritual problem that needs resolution. The second consists in the examination of the spiritual predicament that has been recalled to mind thanks to reflection on the place; and the third is what Abrams calls the “affective resolution,” which in Loyola and Wordsworth, in their respective ways, amounts to an affirmation of spiritual faith and hope for the future.

His ideas resemble St. Ignatius of Loyola’s theory of meditation in The Spiritual Exercises. ( ) We begin with the composition of place. The origin of poetry is emotion recollected in tranquility. We contemplate past emotions until a new emotion is produced and composition begins, says Wordsworth. Then, the reader will contemplate the poet’s new emotion in tranquility, and the cycle continues. So poetry involves meditative states and the ordering or reordering of emotions. Again, that is why meter is important: it alleviates pain and chaos in the contemplation of real emotions and events.

663. “I put my hat upon my head, / And walk’d into the Strand, / And there I met another man / Whose hat was in his hand.” Indeed! Snorts the inestimable Dr. Johnson at his own delightful parody of Thomas Percy’s “The Hermit of Warkworth.” But Wordsworth wants us to take note of the real problem here: it isn’t so much that we are dealing with a poem that’s bad because its language is too ordinary; it is that the parody isn’t a poem at all because, in spite of its being of regular meter, its subject matter is too trivial to deserve expression in verse. It leads nowhere—well, nowhere except the Strand, anyhow.

664. “I have one request to make of my Reader, which is, that in judging these Poems he would decide by his own feelings genuinely, and not by reflection upon what will probably be the judgment of others.” This is an appeal to avoid being co-opted into accepting the prevailing aesthetic tastes, be they aristocratic and effete or melodramatic and vulgar. It’s common nowadays to lament that criticism has become an industry that does little good for poetry and the arts, but the truth is that such arguments have been leveled against criticism in some form or another since ancient times. And certainly in the English context, Alexander Pope was already well attuned to the problem of ignorant, arrogant, bloviating critics who nonetheless threatened to rob the public of any chance at achieving good taste, while Sir Philip Sidney and Dr. Johnson justly excoriate the absurd “illusionist” premises of some neoclassical critics.

666. “[T]he first Poets . . . spake a language which, though unusual, was still the language of men…. [T]heir successors . . . became proud of a language which they themselves had invented, and which was uttered only by themselves; and, with the spirit of a fraternity, they arrogated it to themselves as their own.” Wordsworth goes on to suggest that such clannishness is then extended to the gullible readership, which is thereby flattered into believing it has been offered membership in an exclusive club, a religion of poetic puffery. He condemns this sort of “personality cult” tendency as prideful and disunifying, as opposed to the kind of poetry he advocates. The concern that language will assert its autonomy from the world of men and things is an ancient one, of course, and it runs all the way forwards to the British empirical philosophers Wordsworth himself must have studied. Sir Francis Bacon, in particular, writes cogently in his scientific treatises about the way language sets “Idols” of various kinds in our path whenever we try to understand the workings of nature.