Limitations and Merits of William Wordsworth Poetry

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      Coleridge analysis of the defects and merits of Wordsworth’s poetry has not yet been bettered. We will first consider the defects and then the merits of his poetry. Wordsworth’s poetry is a mixture of sublimity and banality. Critics have unanimously commented on what is generally called the “two voices” of his poetry.


The Inequality of His Production

      Wordsworth’s inspiration came in bursts. There are magnificent passages in his poetry, but at times one comes across such lines as are devoid of all inspiration. The poet who could write with a fine austere reserve:

She is dead,
The light extinguished of her lonely hut,
The hut itself abandoned to decay,

Defect of Prolixity

      “It cannot be denied that in Wordsworth the very highest powers of the poetic mind were associated with a certain tendency to the diffuse and the commonplace.”

Want of Humour

      Other limitations of Wordsworth’s genius are that he had no humor and little passion. He is singularly deficient in dramatic power and in his whole-hearted pre-occupation with his own experiences he is insensible to critical self-consciousness.

Defect of Matter-of-factness

      It lies in a laborious minuteness and fidelity in the representation? of objects and their position and the insertion of accidental circumstances. The first appears superfluous in poetry and the second goes against the very essence of poetry.

Fondness for Particulars

      Wordsworth had a fondness for particulars, and there are parts of his poem which remind us of local histories in the undue relative importance given to trivial matters. He was the historian of Wordsworth-shire.

Thoughts and Images too Great for the Subject

      “This is an approximation to what might be called mental bombast as distinguished from verbal; for, as in the latter there is a disproportion of expression to the thoughts, so in this, there is a disproportion of thought to the circumstance and occasion”.

Absence of Love Poetry

      “There is an element almost altogether wanting in Wordsworth, the absence of which forbids us to class him as a poet who has touched all important sides of human life—the element of passionate love. A few of his poems, such as Barbara, or in another kind Loadamia, solemnly glide into it and retreat, but on the whole, this, the most universal subject of Lyric poetry, was not felt by Wordsworth”—Stopford Brooke.

His one Sided Ideal of Humanity

      “The ideal man with Wordsworth is the hard-hearted, frugal, unambitious dalesman of his own hills, with his strong affections, his simple tastes and his quiet and beautiful home: and this dalesman built up by Communion with Nature and by meditation into the poet-philosopher, with his serious faith and his never spring of enjoyment, is himself failing. But nature has many sides and lies under many lights.”

Avoidance of Nature a Gorgeous Aspects

      Hereford says: “The thunders of the avalanche did not arrest him; but when the winter-day was fading over the frozen lake, he had ‘an ear for the alien sound of melancholy’ sent into the landscape from the distant hills. The glow and color of sunset, again, appealed to Coleridge or to Shelley; Wordsworth feels rather the melting depths of the sky, or its blank loneliness, or its silence.” It is only the tranquil beauty of Nature that appeals to the poet. The awful energies of the storm, the riot of the angry sea, and the blaze of a conflagrant sunrise, or the demon-dance of the thunder, have but little place in his poetry”.

Omission of Nature “Red in Tooth and Claw”

      Wordsworth celebrates the beauty, harmony and sublimity of Nature; he is fortified by its calm and unbroken order, the holy plan of Nature. But Nature is not all a Mayday. She has a harsh and terrifying sight, of which Wordsworth was apparently oblivious. He loses sight of Nature “red in tooth and claw with rapine.” He is silent as to her mysterious discords of pain, cruelty and death. Nature is cruel and careless of the happiness of her millions of subjects. The scenes where the poet found pleasure and solace are a battlefield and slaughterhouse for other creatures. Pain, fear and bloodshed are a part of the law of life. Thus “Wordsworth’s eyes avert their ken from half of human fate it has been said. To this extent, his poetry of Nature has been considered partial and incomplete.

Defect of Discrepancy between Subject and Thought

      Thoughts projected are high while the subject giving rise to these thoughts are often trivial. However, this quality cannot really be termed as a defect, for Wordsworth’s very mental stature was such that the “meanest flower that blows” should give him “thoughts that lie too deep for tears.” At times, there is the use of an inappropriate term; for instance, in She was a Phantom of Delight, he used the term “machine” in connection with his wife who is otherwise eulogized as an “angel light” etc.

Defect of being too Conscious of “Self”

      Keats termed this conscious of self as egoistic sublime, marks of Wordsworth’s poetry. There is an ever-recurrent “I” in his poetry From his personal experiences, he makes general conclusions as in the Immortality Ode. Otherwise too, The Simplon Pass, Elegiac Stanzas, Tintern Abbey, Resolution and Independence, are all marked by the “I”.


      Wordsworth’s concern with eliminating a special diction for poetry thus often led him into absurdities. Contrasted with the prosaic passages is the “trumpet-note” heard in such poems as Tintern Abbey. However, the merits of his poems far outweigh the defects.

      1. Merit of Pure Language is the positive aspect of Wordsworth’s adherence to simple diction. The Lucy poems are beautiful in their simplicity. The last lines of Elegiac Stanzas are strikingly plain, and therefore effective. Even Tintern Abbey, in spite of its sonority, is written in pure and simple language. Indeed, one can name any poem to illustrate his purity of language.

      2. Merit of Powerful Lines studying his poems has been marked by all critics. There is a striking felicity, a sinewy strength and originality in such lines as:

The river glideth at his own sweet will
(Westminster Bridge)
The still sad music of humanity
(Tintern Abbey)
Thy soul was like a star and dwelt apart
(London 1802)
The light that never was, on sea or land
(Elegiac Stanzas)
The stationary blasts of water-falls
(The Simplon Pass)

      3. Merit of Serious and Weighty Thought marks his poems, and these thoughts are noted for their originality. In Resolution and Independence, he asserts:

By our own spirits are we deified:
We poets in our youth begin in gladness;
But thereof come in the end despondency and madness.

      Through the objects of Nature, he glimpsed the spirit of Eternity, as in The Simplon Pass and Tintern Abbey.

      4. Truth of Nature is another Merit of his poetry. Wordsworth’s images and descriptions from nature are absolutely truthful. The image of the hare running through the wet earth raising a mist which follows it, in Resolution and Independence, is beautiful but accurate in observation. So is the comparison of the leech-gatherer to the stone poised on a hill. How well is the picture of Peele Castle and the smooth sea evoked in Elegiac Stanzas.

      5. Quality of Meditative Pathos gives beauty to many of his poems—as he wistfully wonders where his “visionary gleam” has fled (Immortality Ode); as he sees in his sister’s eyes what his own state of mind once was (Tintern Abbey); as he describes the old man, bent double by age, wandering his lonely way across the vast moors (Resolution and Independence); as he laments the passing away of Lucy leaving only memories of what has been (Three Years She Grew); as he reflects upon the truth captured by Beaumont’s picture of the stormy sen (Elegiac Stanzas)! or as he gives the story of the forsaken woman crying “Oh misery” by the thorn-tree.

      6. Last but not Least is his Great Gift of Imagination: Almost all his poems show evidence of a powerful imagination, the leech-gatherer is set against a background of a vast moor to bring out effectively what Wordsworth wanted to say. Similarly, in The Thorn a symbolic atmosphere is built up by using natural objects, the setting moon is Strange fits of Passion have I known seems to forebode the death of Lucy. Indeed, it is the mind’s eye or imagination which plays and important role in Wordsworth’s poems. It is thus that he sees the child as a “sere blest” and “best philosopher”.

      According to Coleridge, the following are the chief excellences and merits of Wordsworth’s poetry:—

(i) An austere purity of language, both grammatical and logical, in short, a perfect appropriateness of the words to the meaning.

(ii) A correspondent weight and sanity of thoughts and sentiments won, not from books, but from the poet’s own meditative observation.

(iii) The sinewy strength and originality of single lines and paragraphs.

(iv) Wordsworth perfect truth of nature in his images and descriptions.

(v) The meditative pathos, a union of deep and subtle thought with sensibility; a sympathy with man as man; the sympathy, indeed, of a contemplator, rather than fellow-sufferer.

(vi) Lastly, he has the gift of imagination in the highest and strictest sense of the word.

      In imaginative power, he stands nearest of all modern writers to Shakespeare and Milton. He brings, indeed, to all thoughts and to all objects—

The gleam,
The light that never was on sea or land,
The consecration, and the poet's dream.

       Conclusion: The defects of Wordsworth fade in comparison to his merits. It is true that a sense of humor might have led him to curtail some of his long-winded poems. It is also true that exaggerated simplicity sometimes led to an avoidable bathos. But on the whole, the plain style gives beauty and grandeur to his poems. The voice of the deep generally outstrips the voice of an “old half-witted sheep.” Above all, his boldness as an experimenter compensates any lapse that might have resulted from his search for a simple diction.

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