Use of Language in the Poem The Prelude

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      Introduction: Wordsworth was a pioneer of what came to be known as the Romantic Movement in English poetry. His Preface to the Lyrical Ballads has been called the manifesto of the English Romantic Movement. Written in 1800 and elaborated in 1802, the Preface puts forward Wordsworth’s theory of poetry. In 1802 an Appendix, added to the Preface, dealt with Wordsworth’s ideas on poetic diction, or the language of poetry. Poetry, according to Wordsworth, should deal with common incidents which were rendered significant because of the color of imagination thrown over them. The language, accordingly, would have to be simple but effective in communicating the emotion and feeling to the reader.

      Wordsworth’s views on poetic diction may be briefly stated as follows:

(i) The language of poetry should be the real language of men. It should not have any artificiality about it. (By men, Wordsworth meant the rustic folk and humble people).

(ii) A selection of such language should be used; the language should be purified of coarseness and oddities.

(iii) It should be the language of men in a state of vivid sensation.

(iv) The language of poetry is not essentially different from that of prose.

      The Prelude: Not Primarily meant to Illustrate Theory: Examining The Prelude, we have to take note of the fact that the poem was not written, like some of the Lyrical Ballads, to illustrate that “a selection from the real language of men in a state of vivid sensation is adapted to the purposes of poetic pleasure. The language is selected from the whole of his experience, and the style to which he molds it rises with the character and the intensity of the emotion it has to express. Wordsworth’s style is apparently simple, and expressive of genuine and sincere feeling. However, Wordsworth was wrong in equating sincerity with artlessness. Wordsworth himself altered The Prelude repeatedly, obviously to make it artistically effective. Behind the simplicity lies intense study and careful artistry.

      Lofty in its Simplicity of Language: The Prelude is typically Wordsworthian, for many of its loftiest passages are nobly bare, of almost scriptural plainness, “consummately right, in a large austere way.” It is Wordsworth’s peculiar genius to distill from an incident a particular emotion and then to find words which will convey the quality of that emotion as accurately as possible—

Made one long bathing of a summer’s day.

      Suitable Words for Emotions Expressed: In many passages. Wordsworth’s choice of words, though simple, is suitable for the incident or feeling expressed. In the skating episode, for instance, the alliteration of ‘s’ imitates the sound of skating. The hard cold feeling of steel is suggested by words echoing with clear metallic sounds—“chiming”, “smitten”, etc. The movement of the verse suits the 'incident described.

      Language Contributes to Sincerity of Feeling: The Prelude, like Wordsworth’s poetry in general, does not have far-fetched conceits or elaborate rhetorical devices. The poem is in blank verse—a meter which Wordsworth chose though fully conscious of its pitfalls. He is sometimes unable to avoid the rhythmical heaviness of Milton’s imitators—“This labor will be welcome, honored Friend”. However, on the whole, the lines have a sure, concerted and varied music of his own. In the typically Wordsworthian passages, (such as Lines 401-424 in Book I) there is little obvious metaphor. The “run-on” nature of the lines, with the sense flowing without pause, assists the feeling that the words are not deliberately placed but fall naturally into their right position unobtrusively. This in turn contributes to an impression of sincerity and conviction.

      An occasional “distortion” from the language of prose objected to by Wordsworth does, indeed, occur—such as in the inversion of subject and verb or the positioning of an adverbial phrase: “not in vain.....didst thou intertwine”. But generally, these “distortions” follow idiomatic usage. The Prelude is not free of some of the “devices” denounced by Wordsworth as artificial. There is antithesis, though not too emphatic; there are complex patterns of cross-reference: “high objects/enduring things; life/nature; feeling/ thought; pain/ fear”. There is accumulation of nouns. But these characteristics do not call special attention to themselves.

      Language not differing from Prose: On the whole, The Prelude has a lofty simplicity of language in keeping with Wordsworth’s theory of poetic diction. To be sure, the language cannot be associated with “rustic” folk. But then Wordsworth had made a “selection” of words commonly used. Many passages in The Prelude pass Wordsworth’s poetical test of the language not differing essentially from that of prose—

I heard among the solitary hills
Low breathings coming after me, and sound
Of undistinguishable motion

      Wordsworth’s metaphors are drawn from sources of nature and are unobtrusively brought in; they do not distract attention—some examples being “like a tempest” (Book. I, L. 584) for joy and creative activity; “a long-continued frost” (Book. I, L. 40) for the inhibition of that activity.

      Conclusion. The poet, Wordsworth knew well, was a craftsman, who must toil with unremitting patience at every detail of his work, till it has gained a clear outline, a fuller substance; otherwise, it could not acquire that organic power which is the sure touchstone of art, as Selincourt remarks. But the language of The Prelude is adequate to its theme. Wordsworth’s first aim, as it was also his great achievement, was sincerity, and the language of The Prelude, on the whole, communicates that sincerity.

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