Literary Criticism of William Wordsworth

It was Wordsworth who wrote the following famous lines about the French Revolution as it first appeared to many of its sympathizers:

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very Heaven! O times,
In which the meagre, stale, forbidding ways
Of custom, law, and statute, took at once
The attraction of a country in romance!
When Reason seemed the most to assert her rights . . .
Prelude, XI, 108–113

These lines, first published in 1809, embodied the initial promise of the Revolution, and the hopes of reform it inspired in many hearts: the old world, resting on the tottering foundations of feudalism, a world based on authority, caprice, hierarchy, and inheritance, was about to give way before a gleaming new era based on reason, equality, and freedom. It is no accident that many Romantic theories of literature were forged in the heat of such revolutionary enthusiasm. But, as Wordsworth’s own modified reactions reveal, Romantic literary theory has an oblique and complex, often contradictory, connection with the ideals behind – and the reality of – the Revolution. The foregoing lines were eventually incorporated into Wordsworth’s long autobiographical poem, the Prelude, completed in 1805 but not published until just after his death. Three books of this poem are concerned with revolutionary events in France; and these books effectively contextualize the somewhat idealistic impulse of his own early revolutionary fervor and republican sympathies. Wordsworth describes in the Prelude how he forsook the “crowded solitude” of London society, resolving to go to France. There, he saw “the Revolutionary Power / Toss like a ship at anchor, rocked by storms,” and witnessed how the “silent zephyrs sported with the dust / Of the Bastille” (IX, 50–51, 66–67). He describes the time as “an hour / Of universal ferment,” and himself as a “patriot” whose heart was given over to the French people (IX, 123–124, 161–162). What is interesting here is that, on account of his upbringing, whereby he learned to disdain the feudal values of “wealth and titles,” in favor of republican ideals such as “talents, worth, and prosperous industry,” Wordsworth hailed the first part of the Revolution as simply an expression of “nature’s certain course” (IX, 215–247). Wordsworth’s devotion to nature was lifelong; from first to last, he viewed himself as a follower of nature. What is striking, at this point of his autobiographical masterpiece, is the equation of nature – a concept fundamental to the work of nearly all Romantic poets – with certain political events, events directed, at least in theory, toward a “government of equal rights” and a republic where, as Wordsworth states, “all stood thus far / Upon equal ground,” and where “we were brothers all / In honour, as in one community” (IX, 226–228). Nature is regarded by Wordsworth as a fundamental unity, and here a human community resting on equality is held to be an integral part of that unity. At this stage, Wordsworth regarded the entire feudal fabric, resting on the power of royal courts and “life,” as removed from “the natural inlets of just sentiment, / From lowly sympathy and chastening truth” (IX, 350–351). He expressed a desire to see:. . . the earth  Unthwarted in her wish to recompense The meek, the lowly, the patient child of toil, . . . And finally, as sum and crown of all, Should see the people having a strong hand In framing their own laws; whence better days To all mankind. (IX, 522–532)

Wordsworth even names the violent outbursts against prevailing power as “Nature’s rebellion against monstrous law” (IX, 571). He states also that “nothing hath a natural right to last / But equity and reason” (IX, 205–206). In book X, however, Wordsworth begins to describe the conflict he felt, as an Englishman who thought of himself as a “patriot of the world,” when England declared war against France on February 11, 1793; he actually rejoiced to hear of English setbacks in the war (X, 285–290). His inner conflicts intensified as he learned of the “domestic carnage” in France, and were palliated briefly when the death of Robespierre seemed to presage the end of the “reign of terror” (September 1793–July 1794) and to renew the promise of future “golden times” (X, 573–578). In book XI, Wordsworth once again equates this seemingly positive turn of events with nature: “To Nature, then, / Power had reverted” (XI, 31–32). It is in this section that he recalls his youthful confidence in the outcome of the Revolution: “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive” (XI, 108).

Wordsworth described himself at this stage as an “active partisan” (XI, 153). Retrospecting, however, he believes he had lent too careless an ear to “wild theories” that were not borne out by actual events. The French became “oppressors in their turn,” changing “a war of self-defence / For one of conquest, losing sight of all / Which they had struggled for” (XI, 206–209). Wordsworth is referring to the French aggression against Spain, Italy, Holland, and Germany in 1794–1795. This was a time, he recalls, fed on “speculative schemes” based on the worship of abstract reason, or as Wordsworth puts it, “Reason’s naked self ” (XI, 224, 234). Wordsworth’s own disposition was already becoming distanced from these events. He pursued:

. . . what seemed A more exalted nature; wished that Man
Should start out of his earthy, worm-like state,
And spread abroad the wings of Liberty,
Lord of himself . . .
(XI, 250–254)

While Wordsworth insists that he will always retain this aspiration toward human liberty, he notes also that he fell into errors, betrayed by false reasonings that had turned him aside “From Nature’s way by outward accidents” (XI, 288–291). Despairing of moral questions, and losing his faith in the authority of abstract reason alone, he describes himself as turning to the realm of “abstract science” where reason might operate undisturbed by the world of space and time, matter, and “human will and power” (XI, 328–332). Guided by nature, he returns to his “true self,” his fundamental identity as a poet, open “To those sweet counsels between head and heart / Whence grew that genuine knowledge, fraught with peace.” External events, of course, aided this redirection of Wordsworth’s energies, the last straw for him being the coronation of Napoleon as emperor in 1804, attended by Pope Pius VII. In a passage reminiscent of Burke, Wordsworth comes to the conclusion that:

There is
One great society alone on earth:
The noble living and the noble Dead.
(XI, 393–395)

And he addresses his friend Coleridge, commending their common turning toward nature for solace and restoration, after the tumultuous events which have proved to be a “sorrowful reverse for all mankind” (XI, 404). Hence, for Wordsworth, the equation of nature with republican ideals has dissolved: his continued pursuit of nature retains these ideals – liberty, equality, reason – at most in a form abstracted from immediate political applicability. His return to nature is marked by a balancing of reason (the “head”) with the counsels of the heart; by a vision of human life as extending beyond merely present concerns to encompass past and future; by an assertion of certain ideals, such as liberty, as timelessly valid.

The most elemental factor in Wordsworth’s return to nature was imagination. Earlier in the Prelude, he had referred to imagination as an “awful Power” that reveals with a flash the “invisible world” (VI, 594–602). In the conclusion of the poem, he says that imagination is “but another name for absolute power / And clearest insight, amplitude of mind, / And Reason in her most exalted mood” (XIV, 188–193). This faculty has been his “feeding source,” and it is a power which enables one to engage in “spiritual Love,” whereby one can transcend the dictates of custom, the pressures of conventional opinion, and the narrowness of concerns that are confined to the present. It is also a faculty which allows communion with nature and in fact with all things (XIV, 160–188). In book XIII, he called imagination “a Power / That is the visible quality and shape / And image of right reason,” a power which teaches us humility by presenting us with “a temperate show / Of objects that endure,” the permanent forms of goodness in man and nature (XIII, 30–37). Interestingly, Wordsworth does not merely associate imagination with reason as two concurrent powers; rather, he identifies the two powers, imagination being the sensible image of reason. The idea here seems to be that imagination is an intermediary power that stands above both reason and sense even as it connects them. Imagination, in its capacity as “right reason,” orients our sensibility to the things that are truly universal and permanent; by implication, a “wrong” use of reason, abstracted entirely from things of the sense, would either impel us to impose false schemes upon the world of sense, or to be at the mercy of the world of sense, taking this alone as reality, and understanding its own function as ordering this reality which is already given, already presented to our senses.

In contrast, imagination frees us from what Wordsworth calls this “tyranny” of sense, bringing us to the realization that we are creative in our interaction with nature and the world, and that the “mind is lord and master” over outward sense (XII, 127–136, 203–206, 222–223). In this passage Wordsworth makes his celebrated declaration that there are in our existence “spots of time,” or moments of imaginative insight, whereby our minds are “nourished” and renovated above the “deadly weight” of trivial and present occupations. In Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, Wordsworth also recalls his progress from a merely sensual to an imaginative apprehension of nature, which allows him to see the unity of nature in itself as well as the unity of humankind with nature: he perceives in “the round ocean and the living air, / And the blue sky, and in the mind of man: / A motion and a spirit, that impels / All thinking things, all objects of all thought, / And rolls through all things” (Tintern Abbey, 95–102). The human mind here is no longer regarded as a passive receiver of external impressions but as active in the construction of its world.

In the Prelude Wordsworth opposes such insight as furnished by the imagination to conventional education, the conventional misleading “wisdom” of books, and the stunting of the passions by overcrowded life in the cities where “the human heart is sick.” Such wisdom, he states, is fostered by the wealthy few in the service of their own interests (XIII, 169–212). The poet above all, having the gift of imagination, apprehends a “mighty scheme of truth,” and, exercising his mind upon “the vulgar form of present things” and the appearances of the everyday world, discerns “a new world” that is founded on permanent and universal principles (XIII, 300–312, 355–370). Hence, imagination is a power that does not simply, like abstract reason, leave behind the world of sense altogether and impose its abstract ideals; rather, it has its foundation in the world of sense but transcends that world in its ability to discern what is truly enduring and universal in it; imagination is a comprehensive and unifying power, allowing the poet to connect sympathetically with all of nature and human nature; it lifts us beyond the world we see through our eyes to an invisible world that acts as an ideal. Imagination has not only an important perceptual function, showing that human perception is creative, but also a vital moral function, guiding us to the realization of truths that are beyond mere sensation and that are not located in the world as it is given. Wordsworth has effectively relocated the idealism of political revolutionary movements to a transcendent realm.

Some of Wordsworth’s early republican sentiments, however, appear to inform his most important contribution to literary criticism, the celebrated and controversial Preface to Lyrical Ballads. This collection of poems was published jointly by Wordsworth and Coleridge in 1798; Wordsworth added his preface to the 1800 edition, and revised it for subsequent editions. In the “Advertisement” which accompanied the first publication of the Lyrical Ballads in 1798, Wordsworth’s primary concern is with the language of poetry. He states that the poems in this volume are “experiments,” written chiefly to discover “how far the language of conversation in the middle and lower classes of society is adapted to the purposes of poetic pleasure” (PLB, 116). This apparently democratic sentiment underlies his central argument in this text, that the poet is a “man speaking to men”; such sentiment, however, is associated, as in Wordsworth’s modified political reaction, not with reason but with a balance between emotion and thought.

Wordsworth’s Preface is intended to justify the style, subject matter, and language of the poems included in Lyrical Ballads. But the underlying intention is to make some more general statements which effectively redefine what properly constitutes poetic language, as well as the nature and scope of the poet. Some of these comments have become classic statements of Romantic aesthetic doctrine, sometimes through isolation from their contexts. Wordsworth’s initial claim is that his poems attempt to present “the real language of men in a state of vivid sensation” (PLB, 119). What Wordsworth is reacting against here, as he explains in an Appendix to the Preface, is the stylized and artificial modes of expression that poetry has accumulated over the centuries. The earliest poets, writes Wordsworth in this Appendix, used a language that was “daring, and figurative,” inspired by powerful feelings and passions. Later poets, however, desiring to reproduce the effects of such language, adopted these figures of speech in a mechanical and automatic manner, applying them to feelings and thoughts with which they had no natural connection. Over time, the language of poetry was largely separated from that of “common life,” the use of meter in poetry further deepening this chasm (PLB, 160–162). What Wordsworth is calling for, then, is a return to a kind of realism, a descent of poetic language from its stylized status, from its self-created world of metaphorical expression and artificial diction, to the language actually used by human beings in “common life.” These expressions – “real language,” “common life” – are of course highly problematic, as Coleridge will later point out. In what is perhaps the most striking and important passage of the Preface, Wordsworth states that the central aim of the poems in Lyrical Ballads was:

to choose incidents and situations from common life, and to relate or describe them, throughout, as far as was possible in a selection of language really used by men, and, at the same time, to throw over them a certain colouring of imagination, whereby ordinary things should be presented to the mind in an unusual aspect . . . to make these incidents and situations interesting by tracing in them . . . the primary laws of our nature: chiefly, as far as regards the manner in which we associate ideas in a state of excitement. Humble and rustic life was generally chosen, because, in that condition, the essential passions of the heart . . . are under less restraint, and speak a plainer and more emphatic language; because in that condition of life our elementary feelings co-exist in a state of greater simplicity, and, . . . in that condition the passions of men are incorporated with the beautiful and permanent forms of nature . . . Accordingly, such a language, arising out of repeated experience and regular feelings, is a more permanent, and a far more philosophical language, than that which is frequently substituted for it by Poets, who think that they are conferring honour upon themselves and their art, in proportion as they separate themselves from the sympathies of men . . . in order to furnish food for fickle tastes, and fickle appetites, of their own creation. (PLB, 123–125)

In many ways, this statement embodies the aesthetic impulse of Wordsworth’s entire text. If it is a pivotal statement of Romantic doctrine, it is nonetheless a complex statement, fraught with difficulty and irony. Even in the central thrust of its import, the passage appears to harbor conflicting dispositions: the passage reacts fundamentally against urban, industrialized society. By implication, city life promotes vanity, artifice and confusion, and even vulgarity in our feelings. But this is the very society produced by ostensibly democratic ideals. The ideal held up in opposition to such “urbanity” is the artless simplicity of rural life: people living close to nature experience emotions in their fundamental, unadulterated state, emotions that are capable of clear expression. Such an ideal is of course not original to Wordsworth; the primitivistic theories of such eighteenth-century writers as Rousseau, William Duff, and James Beattie had already extolled the simple manners and passions of earlier peoples living in a state of nature. Hence, the “common life” that Wordsworth claims to portray is hardly the common life of modern industrial society; rather, it is the life of those on the periphery of such a social order, those whose lifestyles are the vestiges of a preindustrial, agricultural era. So, what first appears to be a democratic sentiment on Wordsworth’s part is effectively a desire to return to nature, which is now equated not with republican political ideals but with an externality to the very world in which those ideals might operate, the squalid world of political and economic conflict, the world of reason and calculation, the world of industrialism, factories, and crowded cities, the world bequeathed by Enlightenment thought and bourgeois revolution. Instead of seeking nature within that world, Wordsworth now sees the two realms not as standing outside of each other but as sharply opposed. Nature is viewed as eternal, the repository and projection of what is permanent in human nature; the city is an ephemeral product of ephemeral philosophies and ephemeral political movements.

As for the democratic impulse of Wordsworth’s comments on poetic language, these are somewhat tempered by his view of imagination as well as his conception of a poet. Wordsworth’s suggestion that rural people speak a more “philosophical” language may have been influenced by the theories of Hartley and Joseph Priestley, who anticipated the formation of a philosophical language among humankind, a language that would be universal and accurate in its expression of human conceptions and emotions. Wordsworth’s underlying aim is that the poet return to the expression of permanent and fundamental human emotions, which are fostered by perpetual communion with nature. He regards both the human mind and nature as possessed of “inherent and indestructible qualities” which have been clouded over and corrupted by recent historical transformations:

a multitude of causes, unknown to former times, are now acting with a combined force to blunt the discriminating powers of the mind, and, unfitting it for all voluntary exertion, to reduce it to a state of almost savage torpor. The most effective of these causes are the great national events which are daily taking place, and the increasing accumulation of men in cities, where the uniformity of their occupations produces a craving for extraordinary incident, which the rapid communication of intelligence hourly gratifies. To this tendency of life and manners the literature and theatrical exhibitions of the country have conformed themselves. (PLB, 129, 131)

Such a statement has perhaps even more pertinence in our world where the tendencies Wordsworth bemoans have reached an intensity beyond what he might have imagined: the mail coach and the telegraph, recent inventions in Wordsworth’s memory, have been ousted by almost instantaneous means of communication and by far more powerful channels of blunting the human senses and imagination. Wordsworth is indeed lamenting the woes caused by an earlier phase of industrial capitalism, a phase brought into being by “national events” such as the French Revolution and the ensuing wars between France and other nations, as well as the struggles of the bourgeoisie to gain political hegemony. While Wordsworth has acknowledged in the past that the ideals behind these historical tendencies may have been noble, he is now addressing their actual effects: the chief of these is the artificial stimulation of people’s passions, the blunting of their imaginations, and the degradation of their moral sensibilities. Wordsworth sees “nature” as harboring the remedy for all of these effects, and he sees part of the poet’s task as using nature to enlarge people’s original, undistorted sensibilities. Hence he calls on the poet to return to an uncorrupted idiom, an idiom that does not pander to the vulgarity of modern taste.

Yet this imperative for the poet to return to a purer language, a language that can express not only purer human emotions but also the often forgotten and blurred connection between humanity and nature, is fraught with complexity and contradiction. While Wordsworth insists that the poet is “a man speaking to men,” that he should weep “natural and human tears,” and that there is no essential difference between the language of poetry and that of prose (PLB, 135, 138), he acknowledges that the poet’s composition must be informed by “true taste and feeling” such as will separate it entirely “from the vulgarity and meanness of ordinary life” (PLB, 137). Even in the passage cited above where he claims to take incidents from “common life,” he is careful to state that the poet must “throw over them a certain colouring of imagination, whereby ordinary things should be presented to the mind in an unusual aspect.” So the poet does not, after all, present ordinary things in an ordinary way: he selects ordinary things but makes them appear extraordinary, through the transforming power of imagination.

What, then, is the difference between the poet and other men? According to Wordsworth, the poet is endowed with a “more lively sensibility, . . . greater knowledge of human nature, and a more comprehensive soul.” In addition to these qualities, he has a “disposition to be affected more than other men by absent things as if they were present; an ability of conjuring up in himself passions,” passions that are closer to those produced by real events than those that most men can otherwise reproduce (PLB, 138). The power to which Wordsworth alludes here, without naming it, is the power of imagination, or the “image-making” power. It is this which allows the poet both to recreate in his mind the images of absent things and also to respond to these images with appropriate emotions, thereby acquiring a “greater readiness and power in expressing what he thinks and feels” than that possessed by other men (PLB, 138). In a sense, then, the very faculty which characterizes the poet – imagination – is not a faculty oriented toward realism; rather, in its very nature, it is a transformative faculty which uses the “real” world as its raw material. And yet, the imaginary world created by the poet must “resemble” that real world: Wordsworth encourages the poet to slip into “entire delusion,” so as to identify completely with the person whose feelings he is describing. Indeed, he suggests that no words which the poet’s own “fancy or imagination can suggest” can be “compared with those which are the emanations of reality and truth” (PLB, 139). Hence even the poetic imagination here is enlisted in the service of a broad realism, rather than the ideal world associated with many Romantic aesthetic theories.

In support of such realism, Wordsworth cites a classical authority: “Aristotle, I have been told, has said, that Poetry is the most philosophic of all writing: it is so: its object is truth, not individual and local, but general, and operative; not standing upon external testimony, but carried alive into the heart by passion; truth which is its own testimony” (PLB, 139). The reaffirmation of Aristotle’s definition has a quite different valency in Wordsworth’s era than in its original context: Wordsworth is not espousing the realism of the Enlightenment, or the realism that will dominate much nineteenth century literature, a realism based on close and “scientific” observation of particulars. Rather, he is reaffirming a realism of the universal: poetry expresses timeless and universal truths. Once again, Wordsworth sees in poetry a means of transcending what he considers to be ephemeral political and literary fashions.

Notwithstanding the fact that Wordsworth’s Preface is often held up as one of the seminal manifestos of Romanticism, it is clear that the poetic ideal he is espousing here is a classical one: poetry does not so much express private emotions and the particulars of a given situation as the universal truths underlying these. Wordsworth insists that the poet “converses with general nature,” and directs his attention to the knowledge and sympathies shared by all human beings (PLB, 140). The passions and feelings that are produced in the poet “are the general passions and thoughts and feelings of men” (PLB, 142). All of the qualities possessed by the poet, according to Wordsworth, imply that he does not differ “in kind from other men, but only in degree” (PLB, 142). In a long and famous statement which anticipates Shelley, Wordsworth urges the claims of poetry: in contrast with the other arts and sciences which work within the constraints of a particular field, the poet writes “as a Man”; he sings “a song in which all human beings join with him . . . ‘. . . he looks before and after.’ He is the rock of defence of human nature; . . . carrying everywhere with him relationship and love . . . the Poet binds together by passion and knowledge the vast empire of human society, as it is spread over the whole earth, and over all time” (PLB, 139, 141). If the poet is the same in kind as other men, his language, infers Wordsworth, cannot “differ in any material degree from that of all other men who feel vividly and see clearly . . . Poets do not write for Poets alone, but for men . . . the Poet must descend from this supposed height; and, in order to excite rational sympathy, he must express himself as other men express themselves” (PLB, 142–143). And the object of his writing will be “the great and universal passions of men, the most general and interesting of their occupations, and the entire world of nature” (PLB, 145). Wordsworth insists that such poetry will “interest mankind permanently” (PLB, 159). Again, the impulse behind these sentiments is classical: Wordsworth sees poetry as concerned with what is central and universal in human experience, rather than with accidental attributes produced by particular times, customs, or circumstances. In transcending his time, the poet re-establishes the unity of humankind, reaffirming the relationship and unity of all things.

Also classical is Wordsworth’s insistence on poetry as a “rational” art: in the lines above, he talks of the poet as exciting “rational sympathy.” And at the very beginning of the Preface he speaks of the pleasure that “a Poet may rationally endeavour to impart” (PLB, 119). Wordsworth’s comments on the nature of poetic composition reinforce this view of poetry as a conscious and controlled activity. His statement that “all good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” has often been torn from its context to illustrate an allegedly Romantic view of poetic creation as an expression of immediate feelings. Yet Wordsworth’s statement continues:

and though this be true, Poems to which any value can be attached were never produced on any variety of subjects but by a man who . . . had also thought long and deeply. For our continued influxes of feeling are modified and directed by our thoughts, which are indeed the representatives of all our past feelings. (PLB, 127)

Wordsworth adds that when we contemplate the connections between these thoughts or “general representatives,” we discover “what is really important to men” and, by continued experience we can make this process automatic: we shall describe objects, sentiments, and their connection in a way that the “understanding of the Reader must necessarily be in some degree enlightened, and his affections strengthened and purified” (PLB, 127). This view is far removed from any notion of poetry as an outpouring of emotion. Wordsworth sees such a close connection between thought and feeling that these can actually pass into each other: not only is feeling directed and governed by thought, but the content of past feelings becomes thought. The process merely appears automatic when it is subjected to continued practice. Moreover, it is not merely the emotions of the reader, but also his understanding, to which poetry appeals. What the poet expresses, then, is neither thought nor feeling alone but a complex of both; and what appears as spontaneity is the result of long reflection and practice.

This view of poetry as a meditated craft is elaborated in Wordsworth’s other renowned comment in the Preface concerning poetic composition. After repeating his original statement that “poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings,” he adds that poetry

takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity: the emotion is contemplated till, by a species of re-action, 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. (PLB, 149)

So the poetic process begins with emotion that is remembered and subjected to thought; in this initial state, the emotion is thought. The word “tranquillity” implies a certain distance from, and perhaps a certain contextualization of, the original emotion: the disappearing of this tranquillity is the process whereby the thought reverts to emotion; the original emotion which is represented by the current thought is once again felt, is brought to life again as a feeling, extricated from its current context, a context which allowed it to be contemplated dispassionately. To put it another way, we leave behind the current emotion as mediated by thought and retrospection, returning to it in its immediate state. In this sense, poetic composition begins in feeling, but this feeling will be subsequently modified again by thought.

While Wordsworth accepts Aristotle’s definition of poetry, then, as expressing universal truths, and while he sees poetry as an activity controlled by thought, he enlists these classical views in the service of a more Romantic aesthetic purpose. The poet’s essential focus is not on the external world, or supposedly “objective” events and actions, but on the connection between the inner world of human nature and the world of external nature. Archetypally Romantic is his view that these two worlds are created by mutual interaction. He also diverges from Aristotle and other classical thinkers in his views of the purpose of poetry. This purpose, he says, is to give “immediate pleasure” (PLB, 139). He does not consider such an aim to be a degradation of the poet’s art because this “grand elementary principle of pleasure” is “an acknowledgment of the beauty of the universe.” We have no sympathy or knowledge, Wordsworth says, except that which is founded on pleasure. The poet “considers man and the objects that surround him as acting and re-acting upon each other, so as to produce an infinite complexity of pain and pleasure” (PLB, 140). In a later passage, Wordsworth reaffirms that the “end of Poetry is to produce excitement in co-existence with an overbalance of pleasure; but by the supposition, excitement is an unusual and irregular state of the mind; ideas and feelings do not, in that state, succeed each other in accustomed order” (PLB, 147).

While Wordsworth does not believe that the use of meter is an integral component of poetry, he concedes that we receive pleasure from metrical language; the source of this is “the pleasure which the mind derives from the perception of similitude in dissimilitude. This principle is the great spring of the activity of our minds . . . From this principle the direction of the sexual appetite, and all the passions connected with it, take their origin: it is the life of our ordinary conversation; and upon the accuracy with which similitude in dissimilitude, and dissimilitude in similitude are perceived, depend our taste and our moral feelings” (PLB, 149). Hence the principle of pleasure is more profound than at first appears: it is founded on our ability to perceive similarity in difference and vice versa. This ability, in turn, is a capacity for viewing objects, for seeing the world, in a new light: we discern patterns in nature, as well as in thought, emotion, and experience, that were hitherto overlooked. The order of ideas and emotions in ordinary perception is changed. We also effectively return to a more authentic view of things that penetrates through their character as accumulated by convention. Wordsworth sees the whole of life as governed by this principle, from our sexuality to our moral sensibility. So the poet’s task, in giving “pleasure,” is a difficult one, that of searching for the universal “truths” which have been clouded by convention, authority, and prejudice. But where classical thinkers regarded such truths as objective and accessible to reason, Wordsworth sees such truths as discernible only by poetic insight.


Categories: Literary Criticism, Literary Theory, Literature, Poetry, Romanticism

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