William Wordsworth Contribution to Romantic Poetry

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      Introduction: It is, of course, dangerous to draw a sharp line of mutual difference between the term “romantic” and “classic”. But, on a broad and general basis, the two attitudes can be differentiated. Wordsworth can be termed a Romantic poet on a number of counts. His poetry exhibits “romantic” characteristics as the following analysis will show. The Romantic Movement of the early nineteenth century was a revolt against the “classical” tradition of the eighteenth century; but it was also marked by certain positive trends. Wordsworth was of course, a pioneer of the Romantic Movement of the nineteenth century. With the publication of Lyrical Ballads, the new trends became more or less established. Emphasis on Spontaneity and Intensity of Feeling: The eighteenth century had been the advocate of reason and intellect. Romanticism emphasized on the feelings—the heart was considered as a wiser guide. Wordsworth in his Ode on the Intimations of Immorality expresses his “Thanks to the human heart by which we live” for enabling him to sympathize with human suffering and realize fundamental truths of the universe.

      Feeling gives importance to Situation in Worsworth’s poems. The situation in The Thorn is not important by itself, but the pathos which shines out in the poem is what Wordsworth aimed at. Not the scene alone but the emotion concerned with the scene is evoked in Wordsworth s poetry. Thus the beauty of Nature alone is not the subject of his poetry, but rather the feelings evoked by those scenes. Thus when the scene is remembered, the feelings connected with the scene are also re-awakened in the poet’s mind. Poetry, he said, is emotion recollected in tranquility. Tintern Abbey records such an experience. Many a time in periods of stress, he has remembered that scene which has re-evoked in him the feelings of peace and calm.

      Emphasis on Imagination: Romantic poetry stresses on the role of imagination against the eighteenth-century emphasis on “wit”. Wordsworth took upon himself to show in his poetry that common things could be made to look strange and beautiful through the play of imagination. Thus the commonplace figure of the leech-gatherer is given an imaginative coloring by comparison with the single stone balanced on a hill-top and to a sea-beast crawling out to bask in the sun. Thus the old man in Resolution and Independence gains an aura of strangeness, wonder and surprise. In The thorn, the investment of natural objects with a symbolic significance gives to an ordinary story a supernatural and mysterious effect, while accentuating the pathos. In The Simplon Pass, the damp dark crags seem possessed with a voice of their own, and the winds seem to thwart one another in bewilderment. In Lines Composed on Westminster Bridge, we are given a picture of quiet beauty at dawn, so unusual when associated with a busy commercial city. Sense impressions are transmitted and glorified by the poet’s imagination— his “visionary gleam”. Thus to him, as to the innocent child, “the earth, and every common sight” seemed “apparelled in celestial light, the glory and freshness of a dream,” as he says in his famous Ode on the Intimations of Immortality. The setting moon in Strange fits of passion have I known is invested with a supernatural significance by the poet’s imagination.

      Back To Nature was the motto of the Romantic poets whereas the eighteenth-century poets had been poets of city culture. Wordsworth is especially regarded as a poet of Nature. Tintern Abbey vividly records the development of the poet’s attitude towards Nature. Wordsworth has his eye on the object and observes his own dictum of “truth to nature”. His capacity for visual observation is shown in his description of the hare running in Resolution and Independence. We have a nature description in The Simplon Pass where the different senses are subtly fused:

The immeasurable height
Of woods decaying, never to be decayed,
The stationary blasts of waterfalls....

      Wordsworth, however, is not satisfied with the appearance of nature alone.

      Nature is Seen as a Guide: To the Romantic poets, Nature was a source of wisdom. Wordsworth is a special—advocate of this theory. The child living in the lap of Nature, according to him, will grow in moral stature. Three years she grew in sun and shower tells us of how Lucy grew to perfection, nurtured by Nature. In the Ode on the Intimations of Immortality, Wordsworth speaks of the joy that a child finds in being close to Nature.

      Pantheism and Mysticism are almost interrelated factors in the Nature poetry of the Romantic period. Wordsworth conceives of a spiritual power running through all natural objects—the “presence that disturbs me with the joy of elevated thoughts” whose dwelling is the light of setting suns, the rolling ocean, the living air, the blue sky, and the mind of man (Tintern Abbey). The rocks, brooks, mountains, winds, sky and clouds are symbols and signs of Eternity, and “characters of the Apocalypse” (The Simplon Pass). When the sudden awareness of this spirit behind all living things comes on the poet, his flesh seems to melt and he becomes a “living soul”, able to understand the truth of things.

      Interest in Common Rustic Folk: Along with the interest in nature and the belief in a spiritual power in Nature came the deepening interest in the common folk, the rustics and the peasants. Wordsworth’s poetry is full of such character—Michael, the Cumberland beggar, or the leech gatherer. This interest is partly prompted by the democratic ideals of the Romantic Age. In Wordsworth’s case, it was also prompted by his conviction that in these simple folk the elemental passions and human feelings are at their purest and most intense, because they live close to Nature and are uncorrupted by the influences of city life. Thus the child can enjoy the joys of Nature, but as he grows up, material concerns dim the “visionary gleam” which could instinctively divine truths. The Leech-gatherer, living close to Nature, has gained a strength of mind and courage. Lucy, growing up in the lap of Nature, is beautiful in appearance as well as character.

      Glorification of Childhood is a part of Romantic tradition. The child is innocent and hence able to instinctively find joy, peace and comfort in nature. Evidence of this belief is most obvious in the Ode on the Intimations of Immortality.

      A Passion for the Melancholy and Solitude marks much of Romantic poetry. Wordsworth’s “lyrical ballads” are about sadness in human life as well as an endurance born out of an instinctive oneness with Nature. The sorrow of Martha Ray in The Thorn is reflected in and comforted by Nature. There is a brooding melancholy about the ode on immortality. The old leech-gatherer reflects the sadness of the human condition. Furthermore, Martha Ray as well as the leech-gatherer arc solitary figures. The “still sad music of humanity” is never far behind all the “joy in widest commonality spread.”

      Subjectivity is a Key-note of Romantic poetry. Wordsworth is often called a supreme egoist in his poetry—the “egoistical sublime”. It is personal experience that his poems embody. It is his reactions to certain scenes that the poems convey. He once saw a thorn-tree which left a deep impression on him in a storm—it led to the composition of The Thorn. Tintern Abbey, Elegiac Stanzas, The Simplon Pass and the famous Ode, are all results of personal feelings. Thus his poetry is the poetry of expression, the product of genius and inspiration.

      Emphasis on Individual Freedom was another “romantic” characteristic. The leech-gatherer has learned resolution as well as independence, the power to live on his own in close harmony with Nature. Wordsworth laments the loss of power, freedom and virtue of the human soul in his contemporaries in his sonnet, On Milton. This emphasis on freedom is reflected in the variety of poetic forms experimented by the Romantic poets. Wordsworth himself has attempted several verse forms, successfully breaking the tyranny of the eighteenth-century heroic couplet.

      Stress on Simplicity of Diction and Lyricism: Wordsworth is famous for having insisted on a simple diction bereft of artificialities and falsity of emotion. Whatever the defects of his theory of language may be, one cannot deny its effectiveness in some of his poems. It is the very simplicity of the language of The Thorn that brings out all the more vividly the quality of pathos. It is the simplicity of diction that makes the “Lucy poems” so beautiful. As for lyricism, it is significant that he called his first edition of poems “lyrical” ballads. It signifies his contention that poetry is the “history or science of feelings.”

      Conclusion: Wordsworth was a protagonist in the Romantic Movement which was at once a revolt and a revival. He shows the positive aspects of Romanticism with its emphasis on imagination, feeling, emotion, human dignity and significance of Nature.

University Questions

Discuss the statement that Wordsworth was revolutionary in his poetry with reference to the poems prescribed for your study.
Discuss the Romantic note in Wordsworth’s poetry with reference to the poems prescribed for your study.
In what sense is Wordsworth a Romantic poet?

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