E491 WILLIAM WORDSWORTH QUESTIONS
Assigned: "Preface" to Lyrical Ballads, 1802 (645-68).
"Preface" to Lyrical Ballads, 1802
"The Subject and Language of Poetry"
1. On 650, Wordsworth says that the "incidents and situations" in his experimental work Lyrical Ballads come from "humble and rustic life" rather than from life in England's rapidly growing urban centers ("the gaudiness and inane phraseology of many modern writers"). 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 651, 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 process, and how are his remarks on this point related to what he says about the "purpose" of his poems in "Lyrical Ballads" (651-52)?
3. On 652, 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" (652)? What exactly is this state of being that Wordsworth captures with his oxymoron "savage torpor"?
4. On 653-55, 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?"
5. On 655-56, what main characteristics does Wordsworth ascribe to poets? What is their relationship to their "own passions and volitions"? And what is the relationship between those "passions and volitions," or personal feelings and desires, and the "goings-on of the Universe" (655)? In your own words, what point is Wordsworth making here about poets as ideally expressive human beings?
6. On 657-58, 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 its dominance as paradigm and practice grows constantly in modern times?
"Emotion Recollected in Tranquillity"
7. On 661-64, Wordsworth returns to the issue of poetic process. As in his previous reference (651), how does he modify a doctrine of pure expression with the language of meditation? How does he describe the process whereby a poet gets into the right state of mind to "compose" a poem mentally? 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" (662) rather than simply being overwhelmed by an all-too-genuine burst of feeling? (See also 660 bottom-661 on this issue of metrical mediation.)
8. On 665-68 ("Appendix"), what accusation does Wordsworth level against "poetic diction" and its admirers? How does such flowery 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?
9. General question: scholars in the Meyer Abrams tradition have long argued that Wordsworth's "Preface," written after early radical support for the French Revolution had to confront the ascendancy of the Jacobin guillotine, 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?
10. General question: it's clear that Wordsworth would have no patience with popular entertainment in C21 America -- "Reality TV," high-stakes game shows, endless crime-series broadcasts and spin-offs, shock-jock radio, the almost "mainstream" presence of pornography on the Internet, 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?
11. 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? Discuss.
12. General question: Wordsworth and other romantics (even Shelley, who actually admired science) often write rather 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 pure pursuit of truth, 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. 1st ed. New York: Norton, 2001. ISBN 0-393-97429-4.