William Wordsworth: Literary Contribution to Romanticism

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      William Wordsworth born 7 April 1770, at Cockermouth, his boyhood was happy; he could roam among the fields of his beloved countryside, in company with Nature and the books he loved (see The Prelude). Sent to St. John’s College, Cambridge, 1787, but subsequently, attracted by the hopes born of the French Revolution, lived for some while in France returning in 1792: Subsequently settled down (with his sister Dorothy and Coleridge) at Alfoxden; but for the last fifty years of his life lived first at Dove Cottage, Grasmere, and finally at Rydal Mount. He married in 1802. Appointed to a sinecure office, bringing in an income of £ 500 a year, in 1813. Wordsworth received Poet Laureate in 1843 and Died 23rd April 1850.

      William Wordsworth (1770-1850): In the history of English poetry Wordsworth occupies the position of a conscious rebel and reformer. He spearheaded the movement against the artificial drab poetry of the eighteenth century which was townbred and which indicated a total neglect of Nature and the humbler aspects of human life. He threw his weight against the 'poetic diction' - the gaudy, inane phraseology of the eighteenth century. He brought a new note in English poetry - both in its subject-matter and style and thus he is the leader of the Romantic movement in English poetry. He expressed the deepest aspirations of English romanticism. He saw Nature of man with new eyes and his whole work is an attempt to communicate the new vision. In his youth he came under the influence of the ideals of the French Revolution, but towards the age of 28 he was disillusioned by the atrocities perpetrated in the name of the revolution and devoted himself entirely to the worship of Nature which, alone according to him could give man happiness.

Wordsworth Born in 1770 on the edge of the Lake District and educated at the little Grammar school of Hawkshead in the heart of that picturesque country Wordsworth had spent happy years in daily communion with Nature.
William Wordsworth

      Wordsworth Born in 1770 on the edge of the Lake District and educated at the little Grammar school of Hawkshead in the heart of that picturesque country Wordsworth had spent happy years in daily communion with Nature. After some years at Cambridge he travelled in France in 1792 and became a fervent republican. But soon he was disillusioned and was attracted to the intellectual exercises of the rationalist philosopher William Godwin. But the doubts and contradictions which these intellectual exercises gave rise to led to a moral-despair from which he emerged only by returning to the study of Nature and the cultivation of poetry. By 1798 he came into association with Coleridge and jointly published the Lyrical Ballads. This work is an important landmark in the history of English poetry. Here he broke with the eighteenth century tradition and sought his subjects in the humbler aspects of life, in the elemental feelings of men and women bred and brought up in the simple surrounding of nature and country life. For these new subjects he employed a new style. He wrote in the language of common men. His poetry depended for its effect solely on his strength of feeling and imagination:

The moving accident is not my trade;
To freeze the blood I have no ready arts;
Tis my delight, alone in summer shade,
To pipe a simple song for thinking hearts.

      Wordsworth's beautiful literary verses are those which he wrote when he was between 28 and 35 years old. During this period the short poems contained in Lyrical Ballads were increased by fresh collections which contain his purest gems of poetry. He also at this time planned the writing of a long philosophical poem in blank verse in which he would expound his views on life, mankind and society. He wrote only some fragments of it. He then began with The Prelude in which he analysed the growth of his poetic genius during his childhood and youth and explained in detail the development of his attitude to nature. From 1805 until 1815 he found a noble inspiration in moral poetry, in the thought of duty and in the energy with which he attacked the Emperor. He had already written some fine patriotic sonnets : he now wrote many more, and composed his great poem The Excursion. Gradually Wordsworth became a conservative and his poetic inspiration flagged. He wrote sonnets until his death in 1850 which were included in the series called the Ecclesiastical Sonnets. After the publication of the Excursiom Wordsworth's poetical power was clearly on the wane, but his productivity was unimpaired. His late volumes include The White Doe of Rylstone, The Waggoner, Peter Bell (1819), Yarrow Revisited (1835) and the Borderers (1842), a drama.

      Among Wordsworth remarkable poems mention may be made of The Solitaru Reaner Michael, Expostulation and Reply, Yarrow Visited and Yarroro Unvisited, Laodamia, Ode on Intimation of Immortality, Lines Written On Tintern Abbey, Ode to Duty besides the longer work like The Prelude, The Excursion, etc. Wordsworth is essentially a poet of Nature. He spiritualises Nature and feels in her the presence of a spirit, whose dwelling is the light of the setting sun, the green earth and the mind of man. He believes that Nature is the greatest teacher of man. The bane of modern industrial civilisation is man's separation from Nature. He is also a poet of man. He has in his poems dealt with the simple rustics, and their elemental feelings and emotions. He idealises the child as the best prophet because a child is the symbol of innocence and purity and is untouched by the sophistication of culture. He has also revolted against 'poetic diction' and has chosen to write in the language used by man. It is true that his practices did not always fulfil his professions and his poetry was often 'bald and prosaic', but his theory and general practices indicate his rebellion against the tyranny of rules and conventions and his freshness of outlook as regards the subject-matter and style of poetry. His poetry of Nature and man gave a new direction to poetry and started what may be called democratic trend in poetry.

Wordsworth Chief Poetical Works

Lyrical Ballads:

      We have noted the Romantic Reaction in the last two quarters of the Eighteenth Century. From the appearance of Thomson’s Winter in 1728, there was evident a quite decided romantic reaction. With the advance of the century, this reaction became stronger and stronger as Gray and Collins. Ossian and Chatterton, Percy’s Reliques, Cowper, Blake, and Bums opened up fresh fields, new and old. The poetry of Goldsmith and Crabbe, however classical in form, showed clear traces of a changed spirit.

      In 1798, after this period of preparation, appeared a collection of poems, Lyrical Ballads, by two young men Wordsworth and Coleridge, who completely turned their backs upon the neo-classical school, breaking far more definitely from it than any of the poets of the Romantic Reaction, with the exception of Blake, had done.” Thus the year 1798 is epoch-making in the history of English poetry on the publication of Lyrical Ballads, it appears to us that a new era was dawned what we call the Romantic Revival. This poetical collection marked the period of great Romantic Age. Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Scott. Shelley and Keats were the prominent figures who are usually considered as great poets after the year 1789. Similarly, in the history of English literature, the works of Spenser, North, Lyly and the dramatists marked the dawn of great Elizabethan age “But whereas Spencer was at once hailed with acclamation as the new poet, Wordsworth and Coleridge by no means impressed their contemporaries by Lyrical Ballads as they impress us. So slow was the sale of the poems that the publisher, when disposing of his business a few years later, handed over the copyright to the purchaser as worthless. “There were many reasons for the delay of his reputation Firstly, Wordsworth’s attitude to Nature was so new that the public required almost to be educated to an appreciation of it. Secondly, his excessive simplicity in some poems earned a great ridicule. Thirdly, the work of the Romantic Reaction had not really weaned the ordinary critic or reader from his allegiance to classical school Finally, the hostility of the critics was even increased by the appearance in the second edition of a preface in which Wordsworth expounded his poetical principles, and by his additional essay on Poetical Diction.” 

      The first edition of the Lyrical Ballads consisted of twenty-three poems, of which nineteen were contributed by Wordsworth and four by Coleridge. Wordsworth contributed such simple tales as ‘Goody Blake and Harry Gill’ and ‘Simon Lee the Old Huntsman’. His fine meditative poem ‘Lines composed above Tintern Abbey’ was also included.

      To sum up, the Lyrical Ballads smashed the old, artificial superfluous and hackneyed theory of English poetry of the Eighteenth century. He gave birth to a new Poetry which is at once inspiring, creative and constructive. It was a manifesto of a new Romantic poetry which was quite pole asunder from the classical Poetry in its form, subject-matter as well as in style. It paved the way for new subjects in poetry like Nature, and its relation with Man. As Prot. Palgrave remarks: “The Lyrical Ballads was a trumpet that heralded the dawn of a new era by making the prophecy that poetry, an unlimited art, could not and should not be fettered by narrow bonds of artical conventions.”

The Excursion:

      It was the plan of Wordsworth to complete a vast work entitled The Recluse. This huge work was to consist of three parts. The Prelude was to be the Introduction of The Recluse. Of these three parts we have only one part written by the poet and this is The Excursion. We have only a fragment of the second part. But it seems that the poet did not attempt the third part of The Recluse.

      The Excursion consists of nine books which was published in 1814. It is a remarkable poem of Nature. “All through the poem, we see both the landscape artist, and the poet’ of in-sight. It is full of delightful and superb pictures of the face of Nature. It also reveals the mystical intuitionalist (Books I and IX). The spirit of Nature ministers to human need (Book IV). Wordsworth’s spiritual conception Of Nature is rooted in his early mystical experience. The mental history of the Wanderer (Book I) proves this. The poet protests against science, her ‘brutish slavery’ to the subject, her subjection to sense, her contempt for imagination, her indifference to beauty, her arrogance and irreverence, her heartless methods, her blindness to the soul of things, her general materialism and lark of spiritual insight (Book IV and VI). Wordsworth, however, acknowledges her beneficent work in the practical application of her results.

      The Excursion has no poetic unity at all, which has been noted in a large measure in, The Prelude. Commenting on the lack of poetic unity in this poem, Herbert Read observes: “It ‘is a collection of moral anecdotes strung together by a liberty device of almost childish naivety’. What dramatic structure there is in the poem is quite unconvincing. The author is supposed to encounter on various occasions, but always in the open, an old Scotch Pedlar, and the rest of the poet’s aim is embodied in a series of dialogues between the and the Pedlar. But to active that purpose Wordsworth had to endow the Pedlar with impossible attributes.” 


      Laodamia poem was composed in and must rank as one of Wordsworth’s later works. “Laodamia,” says Professor Harper, “is quite distinct from anything he had previously composed. It is his first poem founded solely on solely on and elaborated strictly in the classic manner. He was at that tune preparing his eldest son for college, and renewing in that way, his own acquaintance with Virgil and Ovid”. Wordsworth said of the poem: “It cost me more trouble than almost anything of equal length I have new written.” Laodamia is a successor of the Ode to Duly, for both poems raise the problem of the right relation between Impulse and Law. Laodamia has besought the gods to restore Protesilaus, her dead husband to her sight The boon is granted, but Protesilaus, is to remain only for three hours. He adjures Laodamia to mourn meekly when he depart, and ‘to control rebel lions passions.’

      The poem Laodamia, reflects the pathetic tone of Wordsworth. It advocates sublime serenity and makes us painfully feel the contrast between the enviable position of the gods in heaven and the pathetic condition of mankind on earth. “It has been written in classical style. Its diction is remarkably chaste, its manner stately, its font antique. Poem moves slowly and with dignity. It is surprising how Wordsworth chose to adopt a form that was not usual with him and he succeeded in giving to it all the satisfying the perfection, of shape and all the marmorean stretchiness which belongs to antiquity. An intensive study of Virgil was partly responsible for this and partly the fact that of late another strain in Wordsworth’s genius had begun to assert it-self. This poem not only imitates and appropriates the classical, it also recreates and elevates it. The antique form has been successfully coalesced with the modem spirit and subordinated, without doing any violence to it, to a universal Moral Truth and an universal Spiritual Beauty.” According to Hazlitt, it “breathes the pure spirit of the finest fragments of antiquity, the sweetness, the gravity, the strength, the beauty and the languor of death — calm contemplation and majestic pains. Its glossy brilliancy arises from the perfection of the finishing, like that of a care fill sculpture, not from gaudy coloring. The texture of the thoughts has the smoothness and solidity of marble. It is a poem that might be read aloud in Elysium, and the spirits of departed heroes and sages would gather around to listen to it.

The Prelude:

      It is an autobiographical poem of Wordsworth which consists of fourteen books. It commenced in 1799 and complete in 1805. But it was not published until 1850, after the author’s death. In his preface to the Excursion, Wordsworth explains that, having retired to his native mountains with the hope of writing a literary work that might live, he thought it reasonable to take a review of his mind, and record inverse the origin and progress of his own powers. This record we have in The Prelude. It is addressed to his friend Coleridge. Wordsworth successively recalls his childhood, schooldays, his years at Cambridge, his first impression of
London, his first visit to France and the Alps, his residence in France during the Revolution (but not his connection with Annette), and his
his reaction to those verious experiences, showing the development of his love for human kind.

      The sub-title of The Prelude is Growth of a Poet's Mind: An Autobiographical Poem. In it Wordsworth traces the development of his own mind as a poet. It is invaluable, therefore in throwing light on his evolution both as a poet of Nature and as a poet of Man. Some critics find difficulty in accepting The Prelude as simple evidence for the events of Wordsworth’s life. They think that he has given certain events of his life in order to hang some poetical or philosophical conclusions. But other critics like Raleigh and Herford have noted the autobiographical touches which are quite true and genuine. As Releigh observes: “No such of their authentic and minute poetic biography exists, it may safely be said, in any tongue. The genius of Wordsworth was a genius that naturally turned inward upon itself; and in this psychological account of the growth of his own mind, and of the most significant of the influence that shaped it, he has done the biographer’s work once and for all. It would be foolish to challenge the truth of his account, and, so far as the critic’s task is concerned, it would be vain to try to supplement it.” Regarding the autobiographical note of this book, Herford remarks: “For the poet of 1804 looked back on those experiences of his adolescence from the vantage-ground of a memory which distorts but sifted and purified, and of a natured power of expression which did not embellish, but made explicit and individual.”

      The Prelude has something of epic structure. It has episodes and vicissitudes and a climax. Regarding the structure of this epic, Selincourt remarks: “Wordsworth was in evident agreement with Milton on the true nature of the epic subject. Both of them repudiated militaiy exploits, ‘hitherto the only argument heroic deemed,’ in the desire to bring within its confines anymore spiritual conflict. Only the pedant will dissent from their conception; and those who regard the mind of Wordsworth as both great in itself and essentially representative of the highest, the imaginative type of mind, will recognize its adventures as a fit theme of epic treatment.” Wordsworth admitted that the subject matter of his poem was bumble. Ashe observed: “It is not self-conceit that has induced me to do this, but real humility. I began the work because I was unprepared to treat any more arduous subject, and diffident of my own powers. Here, at least, I hoped that to a certain degree I should be sure of succeeding, as I had nothing to do but describe what I had felt and thought; therefore could not easily be bewildered. This might certainly have been done in narrower compass by a man of more address; but I have done my best.” In other words, he considered that a ‘poet’s personal spiritual conflict can be a fit then for epic treatment. He also admitted that “it was a thing unprecedented in literary history that a man should talk so much about himself.”

      The theme of the poem is the growth of a poet’s mind. The Prelude gives us that central, habit of experience out of which all his poetry comes. Its inspiration is Wordsworth’s intention to reveal the formation and nature of that in most habit of experience which made him the poet he was — that unique relationship between his mind and his world in which he most deeply and vividly lived.

      The Prelude portrays grandly and delicately this habit of experience, this perfection of relationship between the poet and his world. This, then, is Wordsworth’s subject Lascelles Abercrombie comments beautifully on the significance of this poem. He writes: “We might say that Milton’s subject is man’s temptation and redemption, that Dante’s is the justice of divine love disposing all things. If we speak so of Wordsworth we must say that his subject is poetic experience itself with such a subject the accusation of egoism is to be expected. But Wordsworth’s egoism is never egoism asserted as such; it is but the necessary locus of poetic experience. His poetry does not give us his personality simply because it was his own, but because of that harmony of mind and Nature which his personality had become ‘‘It can be seen, therefore, that The Prelude is much more than an autobiography; it is a story—to quote Abercrombie again—”of universal significance, of which Wordsworth’s own unique experience is offered as the type. It is the story of the mind, greatly conscious of its own enigma, gradually establishing its secure relationship with a world equally enigmatic. This is the modern epic; this is the heroic strain today, the grand theme of man’s latter experience; and grandly The Prelude, its first enunciation, declares it.”

      As it has been indicated, the poem runs into fourteen solid Looks of blank verse, chiefly dealing with abstract topics. In Book I of The Prelude, Wordsworth elaborates his unique experience of his boyhood. He also turns to his infancy and childhood. He describes what Nature “had done for him in those early surroundings. In Book II Wordsworth speaks of Nature and her overflowing soul and reviews the development of his mind during the Hawkshead days. His communication with Nature becomes more active at this place. His Book III is entitled Residence at Cambridge which indicates the aimless days he spent there. But he found that books were his cheering companionship. He laughed with Chaucer in the hawthorn shade, beside the pleasant mill of Tropington, and ‘heard him, while birds were warbling, tell his tales of amorous passion.’ He called “Sweet Spenser, moving through his clouded heaven With the moon’s beauty and the moon’s soft pace.” The Book IV, Summer Vacation describes a renewal of the spell of his native landscapes. He revisits his old haunts. These lonely wanderings were interspersed with gaities, dance and young love-likings. His next Book V refers to Shakespeare, Milton and other great poets by whom he was influenced. He was inspired by these mighty souls. Book VI is entitled Cambridge and the Alps. He spent his third summer vacation in a visit to the Alps, accompanied by a young friend, Robert Jones. Though he was the student, yet ‘Nature then was sovereign in his mind’ and ‘mighty forms, seizing a youthful fancy had given a charter to irregular hopes.’ The Book VII deals with months between February and November he had spent at London. Regarding this Book Sneath says: “The uniqueness and real merit of his poetic treatment of the great city does not he in his description of its everyday appearance and life, nor of the intensity of its life, nor of its solitudes. It lies rather in his mystical poetic intuition, by which he discovers in its brick and mortar, its dirty streets and lanes, its deafening din, its busy life, and its motley crowds “impregnations like the wilds” in which his early feelings had been nursed, as in the feelings suggested by ‘that huge fermenting mass of human-kind’ that serve ‘as a solemn background, or relief, to single forms and object’s—in the vision of the dignity, grandeur, and unity of man, and in the sublime faith (inspired by the checkered human throng) in what he may become under divine guidance.”

      The Book VIII is entitled Retrospect. It indicates how his love of Nature had fostered his love of man by investing man with a dignity drawn from the noble landscapes against which the poet had first noted him; and how his dignity, first recognized in the shepherds of the Lake District clung to Wordsworth’s conception of man even when he saw his petty and ugly side in London crowds. The books IX, X and XI deal with revolutionary France. He had a great attraction for republican ideals and his enthusiasm for the Revolution under the influence of Beauty. He describes the September Massacres in Paris and his narrow escape from involvement with the fate of the Girondins, by a timely return to England. But not a word is said about Annette Vallen, though recent critics find a vague allusion to her here and there. The last portion of Book XI recounts the moral crisis through which Wordsworth passed on his return, a republican, from a country which was attacking them by warring against the Revolution. The next two Books XII and XIII describe how his despair was redeemed by the influence of his sister Dorothy and by his renewed love of Nature. His concluding Book XIV enumerates a general survey of the poet’s ripened powers and a picture of his happy life at Alfoxden in company with Dorothy and the neighborhood of Coleridge, then about to put forth his wings for his owe poetical flight.

      The first point that The Prelude makes clear is his habit of experience arising out of the relationship between the poet’s mind and Nature. Secondly, it is only this poem that throws light one the influence of the French Revolution on Wordsworth. The French Revolution was the most important event that happened in his life. His early enthusiasm, his republican sympathies and his revulsion from France are all portrayed with remarkable vividness and precision. Swept away by the revolutionary zeal, he began to think more of Man than of Nature. His passion for Nature gave way to his concern for humanity. But when the French Revolution ushered in the reign of Terror, he was disgusted after disillusioned. He turned away from France and found Aconsolation, for some time, in the dry intellectualism of Godwin. This was a moral crisis. Gradually under the benevolent influence of Dorothy, his sister, he began to recover his earlier passion for Nature. Coleridge, at this stage, was of great help to him. The combined influence of Dorothy and Coleridge brought him back to the bosom of Nature. Thus the harmony between his mind and Nature that had been broken by the revolution in France, was re-established. This growth of his mind is traced in The Prelude. It is the capital document in Wordsworthian criticism. Abercrombie rightly remarks: “His singular position consists in this that we have, directly given in his art, the very in formation about his art which in most poets we can only obtain by influence, and seldom quite reliably.”

      Wordsworth’s Best Poems. The question of the order in which Wordsworth’s poems are to be arranged and studied has been much debated. He himself rejected the chronological arrangement in favor of what he called the psychological classification: Poems of the Affections, the Fancy, the Imagination, Sentiment and Reflection. Others have proposed classification by form and by theme. For the average student, we venture to think the question of order, supremely important in the case of Shakespeare, to be in this instance subsidiary. Wordsworth is hardly a poet of “masterpieces”. His best things are scattered up and down in his poetry in whatever order it is arranged, and the student will not fare ill if he does not miss them. They include the following poems: Lines composed above Tintern Abbey (1798), The Sparrow’s Nest (1801), My heart leaps up (1802). Stanzas written in my Pocket-copy of Thomson’s ‘Castle’ of Indolence (1802), The Solitary Reaper (1803), To the Cuckoo (1804), I wandered lonely as a cloud (1804). The Affliction of Margaret (1804), Ode to Duty (1805) Stanzas suggested by a Picture of Peel Castle (1805), Character of the Happy Warrior (1806), Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood (1803-6), Song at the Feast of Brougham Castle (1807), Extempore Effusion upon the death of James Hogg (1835), and the pick of the Sonnets.

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