E212: British Literature since 1760
William Wordsworth Study Questions
Study Questions on "Preface to Lyrical Ballads"
1. How does Wordsworth describe the language he claims to have selected for his poems? How does he describe the language used by "many modern writers"?
2. What sorts of "incidents and situations" does Wordsworth claim to have chosen for his poems? How does he believe such incidents can be made interesting? Why does he choose situations from "humble and rustic life"? What is the presumed state of the "essential passions of the heart" in that condition? What is the relationship of these passions to language? To the "forms of nature"?
3. What, according to Wordsworth, is the relationship in his poems between feeling and action?
4. According to Wordsworth, "one being is elevated above another in proportion as he possesses" what capability?
5. What are some of the causes, "unknown to former times," combining to reduce men's minds "to a state of almost savage torpor"?
6. What does Wordsworth think of the distinction between the language of prose and metrical composition? Why?
7. What are some of the characteristics of the poet? What is his relationship to his "own passions and volitions"? What is the relationship between his feelings and the "goings-on of the Universe"?
8. What sort of truth does poetry give? How is this truth communicated? To what tribunal does it appeal?
9. Of what is poetry the image? Under what one restriction does a poet write? What sort of information may he expect his reader to possess?
10. What sort of song does the poet sing? What is his metaphorical relationship to human nature? What does he do for the "vast empire of human society"? Why, according to Wordsworth, can't the scientist do the same?
11. How is the poet "chiefly distinguished from other men"? What characterizes his "passions and thoughts and feelings"? With what are they connected?
12. What, according to Wordsworth, is the "great spring of the activity of our minds"?
13. Poetry is defined by Wordsworth as a spontaneous what? From what does poetry take its origin? Then what happens? In what mood is "successful composition" carried on?
14. Wordsworth's "Preface to the Lyrical Ballads" may be read as a treatise that displaces the French Revolution's three main ideals (liberty, equality, fraternity) into a theory about the way in which poetry is composed and the effects it ought to have. What, then, are the "Preface's" theoretical equivalents to liberty, equality, and fraternity (i.e. brotherhood)?
"Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey"
1. The three stages of what M.H. Abrams has called "The Greater Romantic Lyric" are a) description of the scene; b) analysis of the scene's significance with regard to the problem that troubles the poet; and c) affective resolution of the problem that has been articulated. How would you apply this three-stage pattern to "Tintern Abbey"?
2. In what sense does "Tintern Abbey" offer readers a "religion of nature"? What are some of the specific ways in which nature works as a substitute for traditional religion?
3. What is the role of "affective memory" in "Tintern Abbey"? How, in other words, does this kind of memory help Wordsworth's lyric speaker first to recognize his problem and then to resolve it?
4. What is the importance of "surmises" to Wordsworth? Why, that is, does he offer conjectures about "hermits" dwelling in the wilds, and so forth?
5. See line 40 - why has the world become "unintelligible" to the speaker? What has happened to him over time?
6. Compare lines 45-49 to Blake's idea of "looking through the eye" rather than with it. What does Wordsworth appear to mean by "an eye made quiet" and by referring to our ability to "see into the life of things"?
7. How is this poem pantheistic?
8. What is the difference between the pleasure the speaker took in nature as a child and the pleasure he draws from it now? What does the poet gain from his reflections on the past?
9. What role does the speaker's "dear friend" (his sister Dorothy) play in the poem? Why is it important that she is present as an addressee? What does her presence imply about the model of the self that Wordsworth offers in "Tintern Abbey"?
"She dwelt among the untrodden ways"
1. How does the poem express a democratic sense of subject matter?
2. What do the "star" and "violet" metaphors for Lucy have in common? How do they differ? What do they imply about Lucy's qualities and the necessary way to discern them? (Note that this is not the only Wordsworth poem in which flowers and stars are paired - see, for instance, "My heart leaps up.")
1. Why is it important to Wordsworth's speaker that Lucy (along with some characters in his other poems) is solitary? What is the value of solitariness?
2. What is the meter of this poem? What effect does it have upon the subject matter?
3. This poem turns into a "ghost story" of sorts. What point may be drawn from this turn of subject concerning Lucy's value or qualities when she was alive?
"Three years she grew"
31. How does Wordsworth's view of nature in this poem (and others) differ from that of Christian theology? How does his view of nature differ from that of William Blake?
32. What will be the relationship between the child and nature? Is it a different one than is posited for the speaker? If so, how?
33. On what note does this poem end? Compare it to the great odes by Wordsworth - "Tintern Abbey" and "Intimations of Immortality."
"I wandered lonely as a cloud"
1. How does the sensation of something "natural" lead the speaker to imaginative vision? How does Wordsworth's "poetry of nature" in this poem transform itself into the "poetry of self-consciousness"?
2. In what sense is this poem an epiphany for the speaker? How permanent is the feeling he describes - to what extent can it be sustained or revived? What role does memory play in this poem?
3. Why is it unusual to use a word like "host" in connection with daffodils? What is the word's biblical connotation?
4. Why does the speaker connect daffodils with the stars?
"The Solitary Reaper"
1. As with "Lucy Gray," why is it important to Wordsworth's speaker that the Reaper is alone, singing by herself? What is the value of solitariness?
2. What seems to be the difference in degree of self-consciousness between the solitary singer and the poem's observer-speaker? How, also, does the poem exhibit "democratic sensibilities"?
3. How is this poem both mimetic (i.e. an imitation of something) and expressive at the same time? Consider the phrase "the vale profound." Why is it significant that the vale is "overflowing with the sound" of the woman's voice?
4. Why does the speaker offer us imaginative, exotic interpretations in his attempt to describe the solitary reaper's singing? Does it matter that he cannot understand her words? What does he understand?
Edition: Abrams, M.H. et al. The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Volume 2. Seventh edition. New York: Norton, 2000.