I first read Wordsworth several years ago while attending a poetry class at Mount Royal. His poetry was presented with very little context, history, or elaboration. The class focused on three sonnets: “Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802,” “London, 1802,” and “Steamboats, Viaducts, and Railways.” The poems were read, technical details discussed, and along with a small selection of Romantic poetry from other poets, the professor summed up this style as “presenting man’s emotions through nature, or finding a connection to the sublime through nature.” While this seems like an alright glossing of most romantic poetry, it failed to connect with me at all, and we moved onward to much more interesting (sorry Wordsworth fans) poetry – Eliot, Williams, Ginsberg, Cohen, Kroetsch…
While I doubt I’ll ever find myself re-re-reading Wordsworth for pleasure, (and as Wordsworth agrees, poetry is about pleasure) the preface to Lyrical Ballads, certainly allowed for a greater appreciation of his work.
The most interesting, and paradigm challenging idea in his preface, regards the language of poetry. He states the goal of his poetry is to see “how far, by fitting to metrical arrangement a selection of the real language of men in a state of vivid sensation, that sort of pleasure and that quantity of pleasure may be imparted, which a poet may rationally endeavor to impart” (Wordsworth 293). Wordsworth calls for a change in diction, but seems content with form. The preface may be for a different book, but this ‘goal’ is certainly presented in his sonnets. In “London, 1802,” he strictly adheres to the form of a sonnet – fitting to its ‘metrical arrangement’ – but presents the disagreeable and selfish industrial England with a simple and unmistakable metaphor: “she [England] is a fen / Of stagnant waters: altar, sword, and pen,” (Wordsworth 346).
Within “Lines,” there is the same setup: Wordsworth presents a simplistic diction, within a rigid, customary structure. Simply reading the first 5 lines of the poem presents this clearly:
Five years have past; five summers, with the length
Of five long winters! and again I hear
These waters, rolling from their mountain-springs
With a soft inland murmur. – Once again
Do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs,
The diction in these section is so simple, it requires no explanation or close reading. Wordsworth is stating exactly what he is trying to say. In these 5 lines, as occurs in the rest of the stanza, Wordsworth constantly repeats himself (5 years, ‘again’) and matter-of-factly describes the landscape in front of him. There are no metaphors, no need for the reader to try and analyze what is being said by untangling dense diction. In contrast to this subversive style of language within poetry, Wordsworth uses immaculate iambic pentameter. Each of these first 5 lines, as does nearly every line in “Lines,” contains 10 syllables, 5 stressed and 5 unstressed. Within “Lines,” Wordsworth has certainly achieved his goal for poetry that he outlined in his preface, using the ‘real language of men,’ and ‘fitting to metrical arrangement.’
There are certainly moments within “Lines,” when the poem can become vague and unclear. I admit by choosing the first 5 lines of the poem in my example above I chose an oversimplified moment – the lines are simply an observance of nature and nothing more. It’s when nature and human emotion are connected that the poem can seem more intricate. Yet, Wordsworth’s design to abandon dense poetic language is not compromised because of this intricacy. Consider the final stanza of “Lines.” It is not within the diction, which remains fairly simple, but within the relationship between Wordsworth and his sister, and the intangible ideas of ‘thoughts,’ ‘memory,’ and ‘heart,’ in which the complexity arises. In other words, it is because of human emotion, and the enigmatic and indefinite concepts of the ‘heart’ and ‘mind’ that “Lines” has any sort of depth, and not because of Wordsworth’s choice of language. Wordsworth definitely maintains the simplistic use of language he defined within the preface to Lyrical Ballads. In reading this preface, I have gained a new appreciation for his work – it seems to be from this push for a new poetic language, that the modern poetry I find pleasure in has emerged.
Wordsworth, William. Preface to Lyrical Ballads. Greenblatt, Stephen, gen. ed. The Norton Anthology of English Literature: Volume D The Romantic Period 9th ed. 6 vols. New York: NY, 2012. Print.
Wordsworth, William. Lines. Greenblatt, Stephen, gen. ed. The Norton Anthology of English Literature: Volume D The Romantic Period 9th ed. 6 vols. New York: NY, 2012. Print.
Wordsworth, William. London, 1802. Greenblatt, Stephen, gen. ed. The Norton Anthology of English Literature: Volume D The Romantic Period 9th ed. 6 vols. New York: NY, 2012. Print.