WILLIAM WORDSWORTH QUESTIONS FOR E212

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Assigned: William Wordsworth. "Preface" to Lyrical Ballads (262-74); "We Are Seven" (248-49); "Expostulation and Reply" (250-51); "The Tables Turned" (251-52); "Tintern Abbey" (258-62); "Three years she grew" (275-76); "I wandered lonely as a cloud" (305-06); "The Solitary Reaper" (314-15).

Of Interest: Author Image | Dorothy W. Image | Literary History | Romantic Circles | Photos of Tintern Abbey | David Miall's "Locating Wordsworth...." | M. H. Abrams on Greater Romantic Lyric

"Preface" to Lyrical Ballads

"The Subject and Language of Poetry"

1. On 264-65, Wordsworth says that the "incidents and situations" (264) 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 these pages?

2. On 265-66, Wordsworth offers a noteworthy definition: "all good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings" (265). 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 (265 bottom - 266)?

3. On 266-67, 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" (266). 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" (266)? What exactly is this state of being that Wordsworth captures with his oxymoron "savage torpor"?

4. On 267-69, 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 269-71, 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" (269)? In your own words, what point is Wordsworth making here about poets as ideally expressive human beings?

6. On 270-72, 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 273-74, Wordsworth returns to the issue of poetic process. As in his previous reference (265-66), 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" (273) rather than simply being overwhelmed by an all-too-genuine burst of feeling?

8. 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?

9. 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?

10. 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.

11. 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?

"We Are Seven"

12. What accounts for the strong effect this poem tends to have on readers? How might the child's perspective on death prove unsettling from an adult's point of view? In what manner does the narrator convey the child's words?

"Expostulation and Reply" and "The Tables Turned"

13. What is "wise passiveness"? Why is that quality important to William's argument in favor of communing with nature and against Matthew's emphasis on the benefits of book-learning? How would you summarize the two characters' arguments?

"Three years she grew"

14. 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?

15. What will be the relationship between the child and nature? Is it a different one than is posited for the speaker? If so, how?

16. 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"

17. How does the sensation of something natural lead the speaker to an imaginative vision? How does Wordsworth's "poetry of nature" in this lyric transform itself into the "poetry of self-consciousness"? Why is the poet's choice of the word "host" significant in this transformation?

18. Describe the poet's epiphany and its aftereffects. What effect did the vision have "real-time," so to speak, and then what happens when the poet recalls his vision in the absence of the natural scene itself?

"The Solitary Reaper"

19. As with "Lucy Gray," why is it important to Wordsworth's speaker that the Reaper is alone, singing by herself? What is the significance of her solitariness -- is she an exemplary figure? If so, -explain how she and her song might be understood that way.

20. What seems to be the difference in degree of self-consciousness between the solitary singer and the poem's observer-speaker? Moreover, how does the poem exhibit "democratic sensibilities" -- what sort of person are we being asked to pay attention to here?

21. How is this poem both mimetic (i.e. an imitation of something) and expressive at the same time? Consider the phrase "the vale profound" (line 7) -- why is it significant that the vale is "overflowing with the sound" (line 8) of the woman's voice?

22. What imaginative, exotic interpretations does the speaker offer in his attempt to describe the reaper's singing? Does it matter that he cannot understand her words? What does he understand, or what spirit does he catch from her?

"Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey"

Photos of Tintern Abbey | David Miall's "Locating Wordsworth. . . ."

23. M. H. Abrams has described "Greater Romantic Lyrics" as divided into three stages: a) description of a particular scene; b) analysis of the scene's relation to a creative or spiritual problem; and c) affective or emotional resolution of that problem. In "Tintern Abbey," the first verse paragraph (lines 1-22) comprises stage one. What is the scene -- what does the speaker see around him? What qualities do his natural surroundings possess? What effect do they presently have upon his consciousness?

24. In the first verse paragraph (1-22), how does the speaker signal the presence of other human beings in the midst of nature? What inference might be drawn from the speaker's fanciful conjecture that perhaps the distant smoke may be coming from a fire set by some "Hermit" alone in the woods? What is a "hermit," and what comparison might be made between such a person and the speaker himself?

25. In the second verse paragraph (lines 23-49), what sustenance has the speaker drawn from the "beauteous forms" of the locale not far from Tintern Abbey -- what two "gifts" does he attribute to their influence? Regarding the second gift, what "blessed mood" does the speaker describe as flowing to him from the shaping influence of nature? In your own words, discuss the deliverance and insight the speaker says this mood makes possible.

26. In the third verse paragraph (lines 50-57), what anxiety does the speaker reveal? What sense of loss or fear of self-delusion besets him? How does he begin to hem in or limit this anxiety -- in what sense does the second half of the verse paragraph resemble a prayer?

27. In the fourth verse paragraph (lines 58-111), the speaker analyses the stages of his relationship with nature, from his early youth to post-adolescence (five years prior) to the present when he must be around 26. The editor's note on lines 66ff characterizes those stages well, but there's more to say about the psychology of loss and compensation in this paragraph: what has been lost, and what two "gifts" (85) does the speaker go on to explore as constituting his "abundant recompense" (88) for any loss he has suffered? (Quote the text, but use your own words to explain what you quote.)

28. In the fourth verse paragraph (lines 58-111), how do lines from "Therefore" (102) onwards not only refer to but also demonstrate the beneficial effects of the gifts the speaker believes he has received?

29. In the fifth verse paragraph (lines 112-59), the speaker first specifies that another dimension of his anxiety over the loss that comes with maturity has to do with his creative powers, his "genial spirits" (113). How do the presence and voice of the speaker's sister (William's sister Dorothy, that is) protect him from sadness and offer hope for the future? How is Dorothy an integral part of what Meyer Abrams would call the poem's "affective resolution"?

Edition: Greenblatt, Stephen et al, eds. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 8th ed. Vol. E. New York: Norton, 2006. ISBN Package 2 (Vols. DEF) 0-393-92834-9.