WILLIAM WORDSWORTH QUESTIONS FOR E256 INTRO TO THEORY AND CRITICISM
Assigned: "Preface to Lyrical Ballads" (559-79).
"Preface to Lyrical Ballads"
"The Subject and Language of Poetry"
1. On 561, Wordsworth says that the "incidents and situations" in his experimental work Lyrical Ballads come from "low and rustic life" rather than from life in England's rapidly growing urban centers. What ideal relationship between the natural environment, language, and the deepest, most abiding qualities of human beings does he articulate on this page?
2. On 562, Wordsworth offers a noteworthy definition: "all good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings...." How does he modify this purely expressive definition with a characterization of his meditative or reflective process, and how are his remarks on this point related to what he says about the "purpose" of his poems in Lyrical Ballads?
3. On 563, Wordsworth expresses faith that his poems, which (contra Aristotelian orthodoxy) emphasize feeling over action, will prove satisfying because "the human mind is capable of being excited without the application of gross and violent stimulants." What is the source of this faith, and what "multitude of causes, unknown to former times" does he identify as responsible for reducing urban dwellers to "a state of savage torpor"? What exactly is this state of being that Wordsworth captures with his oxymoron "savage torpor"?
4. On 564-66, how does Wordsworth address the often-argued distinction between poetic language and prose? What criticism of Thomas Gray does he make to advance his argument against maintaining a broad gap between "poetic diction" and ordinary language, or "prose composition"?
"What is a Poet? What is Poetry?"
5. On 567-68, what main characteristics does Wordsworth ascribe to poets? What is their relationship to their "own passions and volitions"? What is the relationship between such personal feelings and desires and the "goings-on of the Universe" (567)? In your own words, what point is Wordsworth making here about poets as ideally expressive human beings? Moreover, what role does "the principle Ã¢â‚¬Â¦ of selection" play in the creation of a poem Ã¢â‚¬â€œ why must the poet select carefully what is said and represented instead of expressing raw emotions?
6. On 568-69, what sort of "truth" does poetry give, according to Wordsworth? How is this truth communicated, and why, in Wordsworth's view, does the poet's "song" appeal to individuals and to societies in a way that scientific discovery can't hope to rival, even though science is already in his day becoming the dominant paradigm and practice?
7. On 570, how does Wordsworth sum up what he has been saying about the qualities of genuine poets and about why such poets' handling of language and subject appeals to common humanity? What examples does he give to illustrate the enduring ideas, feelings, and experiences he has been invoking all along? How might Wordsworth be trying to protect his argument from being taken as ascribing an almost prophetic, divine power to the creator of this new "romantic" poetry, as it came to be called Ã¢â‚¬â€œ one that would greatly separate poets from the common person?
"Style and Method: Emotion Recollected in Tranquillity and the Importance of Metrical Language"
8. On 571-73, Wordsworth returns to the issue of poetic style and process. As in his previous reference (562), how, on 573 (beginning with "I have said that Poetry is Ã¢â‚¬Â¦") does he modify a doctrine of pure, immediate expression with the language of reflection or meditation? How, that is, does he describe the process whereby a poet gets into the right state of mind to compose a poem mentally? What is the relationship between the original emotion Wordsworth references and the one that is "recollected in tranquility"?
9. On 572-73, following his "spontaneous overflow Ã¢â‚¬Â¦ recollected in tranquility" (573) account of how a poet gets into the right frame of mind or spirit to compose poetry, why does Wordsworth reintroduce the subject of "metrical language" (i.e. the fact that he writes in ballad meter, or at times in iambic pentameter blank verse, etc. rather than in prose)? What must the poet keep in mind so that readers or listeners will receive a given poem -- one that may well have its partial source in strong emotion -- with "an overbalance of pleasure"?
10. On 574-76, Wordsworth has a bit of fun at the expense of those who ridicule poetry that keeps its language close to "life and nature" (574). How does he employ Samuel Johnson's joke-poem that begins "I put my hat upon my head Ã¢â‚¬Â¦" (574) to demolish the credibility of those who would dismiss the poetry of everyday language and feeling? What's really wrong with Johnson's poem, and what's right about the one beginning "These pretty Babes" from Percy's Reliques? Furthermore, what "one request" (575) does Wordsworth make of his readership by way of rounding off his counterargument -- why is it important to him to make that request?
11. On 576-79 (the Appendix), how does Wordsworth refine his definition of "poetic diction" and his argument against it along with its admirers? How does such flowery, artificial language pervert what Wordsworth considers the true value of poetry for the ordinary person? How does he explain the gradual acceptance of poetic diction over time, and in what sense might his remarks on these pages be taken as an indictment of specialized literary criticism?
12. General question: scholars in the Meyer Abrams tradition have long argued that Wordsworth's "Preface," written after early radical support for the French Revolution of 1789 had to confront the ascendancy of the Jacobin extremism (the guillotine-happy Reign of Terror spanned 1793-94), displaces the Revolution's three main ideals (liberty, equality, fraternity) into a theory about how poetry is composed and the effects it ought to have. If that's the case, what are the "Preface's" theoretical equivalents to liberty, equality, and brotherhood?
13. General question: Wordsworth would have little patience with popular entertainment in C21 America -- so-called reality programs, endless game shows, crime-series broadcasts and spin-offs, shock-jock radio, ubiquitous pornography, political hate-speech needling by Internet "trolls" and so forth would probably drive him to despair. How might some of this popular culture be defended against assertions that it's simply "gross and violent" stimulation for a dehumanized urban population?
14. General question: Wordsworth's "Preface" amounts to a passionate assertion that the popular taste needs to be shaped, even re-humanized, by poets and thinkers who are wise but not elitist in their sensibilities. How tenable do you find such assertions in our own time? As you see things, what agents and factors actually shape the public's taste in modern America? How do they exercise this shaping influence? Is that influence for better, for worse, or both, depending on the particularities of each case? Do we have a principle of excellence towards which to strive, or do we just drift, culturally speaking? Discuss.
15. General question: Wordsworth and other romantics (even Shelley, who actually admired science) often write negatively about what they see as the destructive effects of scientific thinking and practices -- do you find their assertions about the superiority of poetry and poetic truth convincing? Why or why not? Do you think what they say is fair to science? If so, why? If not, what do you mean by "science": the pursuit of truth for its own sake, or applied science? How well does such a distinction hold up in the twenty-first century?
Edition: Leitch, Vincent B., ed. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 2nd ed. New York: Norton, 2010. ISBN 978-0-393-93292-8.