The University of Toronto at Scarborough

ENGB02Y: English Literature: Historical Survey (SpringTerm)

Instructor: Melba Cuddy-Keane

Wordsworth's Poetic Theory

The Norton Anthology provides an excellent commentary on Wordsworth's"Preface to Lyrical Ballads," on pages 140-41. You willalso find good information in the Introduction to the Romantic Period under"Poetic Theory and Poetic Practice" (pages 5-10).

In this course, we focus on the reasons why Wordsworth's "Preface"has been considered a "revolutionary manifesto," a "turningpoint in English criticism," and a "central document in modernculture" (Norton 140-41).

The Central Ideas in Wordsworth's Poetic Theory

the subject matter of poetry: "incidents and situationsfrom common life" (142)

the language in which poetry is written: "language reallyused by men" (143)

the kind of general truth that poetry discovers for us: "themanner in which we associate ideas in a state of excitement" (143)

the nature of the poet as compared to other people: "nothingdiffering in kind from other men, but only in degree" (150); "morelively sensibility"; "more enthusiasm and tenderness"; greaterknowledge of human nature"; "more comprehensive soul" (147)

the training required to be a poet: "habits of meditation"(143) particularly, it seems. a development of the associative powers ofthe mind (144)

the role of poetry: "the poet binds together by passionand knowledge the vast empire of human society" as opposed to thescientist who is after a particular truth in isolation; poetry, however,will eventually incorporate scientific knowledge when it has become familiarenough to us to be part of the life of sensation (150)

what poetry is: "spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings"(143); but also "emotion recollected in tranquillity" leadingto the creation of a new emotion in the mind (151)

the creative nature of the poetic act: the ability to be affectedby "absent things as if they were present" and to express "thoughtsand feelings" that arise "without immediate external excitement"(147)

"A Central Document in Modern Culture"

We can then identify certain general characteristics in Wordsworth'stheory that, when they come together, make his "Preface" a revolutionarydeclaration on behalf of "modern" culture. The tendencies inhis theory are:

democratic: ordinary life and ordinary language are significantenough for poetic treatment; the poet is not an elevated being but an ordinaryperson who lives more intensely and who cultivates his imagination andexpressive powers

psychological: the focus is on the associative powers of themind, working through the imagination and what we would call the unconscious;memory is of particular interest as a (re)creative faculty

subjective: the origin of poetry is located in the poet's mindor feelings, rather than in the outer world

secular: poetry rather than religion, is given the mission ofbringing human beings together into a community, and of revealing the hiddenunity or oneness in the universe

Some Complexities

Of course, the "Preface" is a statement of intention. It doesnot mean that these characteristics actually describe Wordsworth'spoetry or the poetry of his time.

And many of his ideas were not wholly new, since we can certainlynote a shift to more democratic, secular writing in eighteenth-centuryprose. The difference, perhaps is that Wordsworth is claiming these valuesfor poetry and claiming poetry for the common people. And we should notoverlook the passion and excitement in Wordsworth's declaration of hisideas--the way his style expresses in itself his intention not to takehis beliefs from authorities but to assert his own views in his own voice. Finally, we need to consider the impact of Wordsworth's views onlater Victorian writers.

These notes are intended for the use of students in a lecture course; for any other use, please acknowledge this site.

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