Wordsworth as a poet -- His greatness -- Limitations & M

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Wordsworth as a poet -- His greatness -- Limitations & M

Postby soumya » Fri Jan 21, 2005 6:51 am

Wordsworth is one of the greatest of English poets. Mathew Arnold in his essay on Wordsworth places him next only to Shakespeare and Milton. Nevertheless, his poetry suffers from a number of limitations.

There is often a sense of disappointment when one reads Wordsworth for the first time; and this leads us to speak first of two difficulties which may easily prevent a just appreciation of the poet’s worth. The first difficulty is in the reader, who is often puzzled by Wordsworth’s absolute simplicity. We are used to stage effects in poetry that beauty unadorned is apt to escape our notice, -like in Wordsworth’s “Lucy”:

A violet by a mossy stone,

Half hidden from the eye;

Fair as a star, when only one

Is shinning in the sky.

Wordsworth set himself to the task of freeing poetry from all its “conceits” of speaking the language of simple truth, and of portraying man and nature as they are; and in this good work we are apt to miss the beauty, the passion, the intensity, that hide themselves under his simplest lines.

Critics after critics have emphasized the inequality of his work. A large mass of inferior work, so dull and prosaic that it is practically unreadable, came from his pen, so that as Mathew Arnold observes, “To be recognised far and wide as a great poet, to be passable and receivable as a classic, Wordsworth needs to relieved of a great deal of the poetic baggage which now encumbers him.” He is at his best only in certain passages his longer poems and in his shorter pieces, and therefore, to be truly appreciated he must be read through a judicious selection. However, the large bulk, which is left after the process of elimination and selection, is of such noble quality that it entitles him to the rank of one of the greatest poets, not only of England, but also of the world.

Another defect which mars have poetry is his excessive egotism. He is too pre-occupied with his own self to take an objective view of things. He is always talking to himself and of his experiences, and frequently he indulges in trivial details which might have been important for him, but which have no significance and no interest for his readers. He therefore, often grows dull and boring. His excessive self-esteem often makes him ridiculous and trivial. Keats rightly called him, “The Egotistical Sublime.”

Despite all his self obsession, -“he is curiously deficient in the purely lyrical gift”. (Albert). In whatever lyrics he has written, he is reflective, analytical and philosophical rather that emotional and passionate. He lacks the true lyrical spontaneity: he hints at rather that proclaims, the passions that he feels. A lyric is music incarnate, but Words worth had no ear for music. He is rarely melodious. The music and melody of Shelly are beyond his reach. Love has been a universal subject of the lyric, but passionate love finds no place in Wordsworth’s poetry. We search in vain for the ardour of love and its intensity in his work.

Mathew Arnold is right in saying that he had no marked style of him own. “When he seeks to have a style, he fails into ponderosity and pomposity.” When he is inspired, in rare moments when Nature seems to take his pen from him and write for him, he rises to the heights of poetic grandeur and is sublime. However, when the inspiration is lacking he sinks to the depth of absurdity. Often simplicity is overdone and we miss the beauty, the passion and the intensity of true poetry. Often he is diffuse, commonplace and prolix.

His range is extremely limited. He deals with nature and with man but only with that humanity with which he is familiar. His view of nature is partial and one-sided. He sings of the joy, the peace and the harmony of nature and shows no awareness of nature in tumult or of the brutal struggle for existence that rages within her. Similarly, his view of human nature is extremely simple and elementary, for it is based entirely on a study of the simple rustic of Cumberland. He has no knowledge of the bewildering complexity of humanity that inhabits the wide world; the great human passions are beyond his range.

However, despite these limitations Wordsworth is a great poet, one of the immortals of the world. He owes his distinctive position in literature to his wonderful power as an interpreter of Nature especially on the spiritual side. There is no one more truthful in the representation of Nature that he; he gives us the bird and the flower, the wind and the tree, just as they are, and is content let them speak their own message. Through his imaginative insight, he penetrates to the heart of things, and discovers a new beauty, grandeur even in the most lowly, and commonplace. However, his real greatness lays in his giving Nature a life and a soul of her own. In his hands, Nature becomes a living personality deriving her soul from the supreme; all Nature becomes a reflection of the living God and his poetry thrills us with the sense of a spirit that, “rolls through all things”. He gives us the very life and soul of nature, and creates the impression that she watches benignly and guides, consoles and cherishes those who come to her in the proper mood, a mood of “wise passiveness”. This spiritual interpretation of nature is the chief greatness and glory of Wordsworth. In this, he stands unique among English poets.

Great as an interpreter of nature, he is equally great “as an interpreter of human life and his position in this respect is equally distinctive” (Hudson). He penetrates through the artificialities and sophistries of civilisation to that which is common to men as men, and concentrates his attention on those primary affection and instincts, which lie at the very root of life. According to Wordsworth, society and the crowded, unnatural life of cities tend to weaken and prevent humanity; and a return to a natural and simple living is the only remedy for human wretchedness. He is great and original in enlarging the sphere of English poetry, and in bringing in the humble humanity within its domain. He sings not of princes and Heroes, but of the joys and sorrows of the humble Cambrian rustics and reveals the inherent grandeur and glory of their souls. While his mystic and spiritual interpretation of Nature is reflected in every line of The Tintern Abbey; his mystic conception of man is seen most clearly in The Immortality Ode, which Emerson calls, “the high water-make of poetry in the 19th century.”

From his very boyhood, the external world was the most important formative influence on him. Wordsworth penetrated beneath the outward manifestation of nature and gave to her separate life and soul of her own. This distinction, says Herbert Read, “drawn between the life of Nature and the life of man, is perhaps the most important point to remember in considering Wordsworth’s poetry”. He spiritualised nature and made her a moral teacher: this is his originality and this is his most important contribution. As Compton Rickett puts it, “He is ever spiritualising the moods of Nature and winning from them moral consolation.”

Wordsworth is also great as a teacher, for when inspired, moral truth is transformed by him into the purest poetry. His view of life is an optimistic one, the purpose of many of his poems being to show that “the key tone of all life is happiness”- not an occasional thing, the result of chance or circumstances, but a heroic thing, to be won, as one would win any other success, by work and patience. He does not make man the slave of his circumstances but boldly proclaims that he can rise above them by following the path of virtue, truth and fortitude. Moral struggle may be a strenuous one, but it ultimately issues in unbounded joy. His greatest achievement as a teacher is that he can remain a great artist uttering great moral or philosophical ideas.

Critic after critic has witnessed to the healing power of Wordsworth’s poetry. “John Stuart Mill, finding Benthamism and Byronism equally barren, wandered successfully to Wordsworth’s poetry for relief” (O. Elton). Sir Leslie Stephen writes that he is the only poet who will bear reading in times of distress, because his favourite lesson is the possibility of running grief and disappointment to account. This is so because the poetry of Wordsworth, more than that of endless agitation. He brings the soothing balm, the joy that he finds at the heels of the monster of materialism.

Wordsworth is great as a teacher, and great as a poet; he is great for he opens the eyes of his readers to the loveliness of Nature and their souls to her divine message. “Wordsworth’s poetry is great”, writes Arnold, “because of the extraordinary power with which Wordsworth feels the joy offered to us in Nature, the joy offered to us is simple, primary affections and duties; and because of the extra-ordinary power with which, is case after case, he shows us this joy, and renders it so as to make us share it. His genius is at its fullest when he has the high things to say, and in such really inspired moments, Nature herself seems to take the pen out of his hand, and to write for him, with her own bare, sheer, penetrating power.” He is one of the chief glories of English Poetry. He had hoped that his poetry would cooperate with the benign tendencies in human nature and society, and will be efficacious in making men wiser, better and happier. Time has shown that his hopes were justified.

In his later years, however, he perhaps wrote too much; his poetry, like his prose, becomes dull and unimaginative; and we miss the flashes of insight, the tender memories of childhood, and the recurrence of noble lines-each one poem a poem-that constitutes the surprise and delight of reading Words worth.

The outward shows of sky and earth,

Of hill and valley, he has viewed;

And impulses of deeper birth

Have come to him in solitude.

In common things that round us lie

Some random truths he can impart-

The harvest of a quiet eye

That brood and sleeps on his own heart.

Soumya Bhattacharya
Soumya Bhattacharya
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Postby Despondence » Fri Feb 04, 2005 4:50 pm

Wonderful essay, excellent analysis - I applaud you. Thanks for posting it!

Arnold on Wordsworth and Me

Postby RonPrice » Wed May 10, 2006 3:14 pm

This evening I came across a comment on Wordsworth's poetry. The comment interested me because it was a comment that could very well be applied to my work. So..I wrote the following prose-poem and it seemed pertinent to place it here in this thread. I hope someone finds it interesting and, if not interesting, at least generally relevant to the thread's theme. :arrow:

William Wordsworth produces poetic work altogether inferior, work quite uninspired and dull.1 He appears to have been quite unconscious of this inferior quality, of the defects of his poetry. He presents his worst poetry to us with the same faith and seriousness as his best. Sometimes his work is dramatic; sometimes it is epic, as in his Prelude. But it is all of a piece, all a product of a serious and sincere mind. In a collection of short pieces, as in my collection of his Selected Poems2 which I was given by the college I taught English at in 1989, the impression made by one piece is continued, is sustained, by the piece following, indeed, through the entire text. In reading Wordsworth the impression made by one of his finer poems, indeed even his finest poems, is too often dulled and spoiled by a very inferior piece coming after it. The reason I have given emphasis to this point raised by Matthew Arnold nearly 130 years ago is that I think it is true of my own verse.

Wordsworth’s finest poetry was written in a ten year period, 1798-1808 in the second decade of his writing of poetry. He wrote poetry for sixty years, 1790 to 1850. After a hiatus period of 30 years, from 1960 to 1990, during which I wrote some 160 poems, 130 of which are still in my files, I wrote 40 poems in 1991 and 120 in 1992. The years 1991/2 I now see as my initial poetic burst after a long poetic novitiate. The quality of my poetry I leave to others to assess as Wordsworth did. -Ron Price with appreciation to 1Matthew Arnold, “Introduction to a Book of Wordsworth’s Poems,” Internet Site, 2006(1879); and 2William Wordsworth, Selected Poems, editor, Walford Davies, L. M. Dent & Sons, 1986(1975).

It took off like a star-burst
in that year, mirabile dictu,
part of my soul’s rendezvous
with its Source in that holy year
with its sacred remembrances,
anticipating a deep encounter
with the forces operating
with bewildering ferocity
in my world at that auspicious
juncture in history, unbeknownst,
in obscurity from most of the world.

Indeed, I paused and reflected
and thus began the early years
of my poetic maturity, if I can
call it that, my reconsecration
and preparation for tasks
yet to be done, heights yet
to be attained, splendours yet
to be unveiled in the wondrous
leaps and thrusts of epochs ahead,
with new victories, fresh initiatives
and remarkably dynamic years with
their onrushing, quickening, winds.

Ron Price
May 10th 2006
That's all folks! :arrow:

Ron Price is a retired teacher, aged 65. He taught for 35 years in primary, secondary and post-secondary schools. He has been a Baha'i for 50 years.
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Location: George Town Tasmania Australia

Re: Wordsworth as a poet -- His greatness -- Limitations & M

Postby Cathat906 » Sun Aug 15, 2021 4:18 pm

Keats and Wordsworth had an interesting relationship, though overall Coleridge had more influence on Keats in my view.
Haydon famously reported in a letter to Edward Moxon from November 29, 1845 on Wordsworth's response to Keats reading the Hymn to Pan in Endymion in December 1817.

When Wordsworth came to Town, I brought Keats to him, by his Wordsworths desire—Keats expressed to me as we walked to Queen Anne St East where Mr Monkhouse Lodged, the greatest, the purest, the most unalloyed pleasure at the prospect. Wordsworth received him kindly, & after a few minutes, Wordsworth asked him what he had been lately doing, I said he has just finished an exquisite ode to Pan—and as he had not a copy I begged Keats to repeat it—which he did in his usual half chant, (most touching) walking up & down the room—when he had done I felt really, as if I had heard a young Apollo—Wordsworth drily said 'a Very pretty piece of Paganism'—This was unfeeling, & unworthy of his high Genius to a young Worshipper like Keats—& Keats felt it deeply—so that if Keats has said anything severe about our Friend; it was because he was wounded—and though he dined with Wordsworth after at my table—he never forgave him.

I have always thought this was a strange interpretation that this was a 'put down' considering Wordworth himself wrote a well known poem titled The World Is Too Much With Us published in 1807 that has the lines...

...Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.

The fact that Keats subsequently dined with Wordsworth also indicates he did not take the serious offence that Haydon implies. If anything Keats was more concerned about Wordsworth's political affiliations which had become increasingly conservative over time.
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