Sunday, December 12, 2010

William Wordsworth As a Poet

Wordsworth’s greatness as a poet has universally been recognised. Ransom has called him one of the giants of English poetry. J.C. Smith has called him a mountain, the most massive in that lofty range which is called the Romantic Revival.

Matthew Arnold, the greatest critic of the Victorian age, called Wordsworth “one of, the chief glories of English poetry”. At the same time, it has been pointed out by almost every critic that Wordsworth’s poetic work is singularly un­even and that there is a lot of his work that is dull, prosaic and bathetic. It was for this reason that Arnold felt it necessary to edit Wordsworth and to remove “the common clay that disguised and obscured the durable gems” of Wordsworth’s poetry.
If we go through Wordsworth’s poetry as presented by him in his collected works, we shall find that pieces of high merit are mingled with pieces very inferior to them. Work altogether inferior, work quite uninspired, flat and dull, was produced by him with evident unconsciousness of its defects, and he presented it to the readers with the same faith and seriousness as his best work. In order to enable readers to judge the true quality of Wordsworth, Arnold and others have made selections of Wordsworth’s poetry, trying to exclude work that is altogether inferior.
By publishing the Lyrical Ballads in collaboration with Cole­ridge in 1798, Wordsworth inaugurated the Romantic Movement in English poetry. He, therefore, occupies a very important rank in the history of English poetry. With him began a new era in English, poetry.
Wordsworth rebelled against the poetic principles of the 18th century. He held that the common life of the poor, simple people can serve as fit material for poetry and that the diction (words and phrases) to be employed in poetry should be drawn from the everyday speech of human beings. This was the formula with which he led the revolt against the artificial and bombastic diction of the 18th century neo-classical poetry. Further, he wanted to throw a colouring of imagination over the simple material chosen for treatment in poetry.
Michael, The Solitary Reaper, To a Highland Girl, and several other poems, illustrate this theory. In his Ode on the Intimations of Immortality, Tintern Abbey and various other poems, however, he departed from the formula of the use of every­day, simple words in poetry and actually used a grandiloquent style. A poem like Ode to Duty actually contains several qualities of the 18th century poetry against which Wordsworth led a revolt. But, on the whole, Wordsworth’s poetry marks a complete break with the school of Pope. Wordsworth, indeed, effected a revolution in English poetry both as regards its subject-matter and its language.
A Poet of Nature
As a poet of Nature, Wordsworth stands supreme. He is the worshipper of Nature, Nature’s priest. He gave to Nature an inde­pendent status in poetry. Of all the poets who have written of Nature there is none that compares with him in the truthfulness of his representation. He had a full-fledged philosophy of Nature.
Tintern Abbey is the complete expression of his Nature-creed. Three points in his creed of Nature may be noted:
(a) He believed that the company of Nature gives joy to the human heart and exercises a healing effect on troubled minds.
(b) He conceived of Nature as a living personality. He believed that there is a divine spirit pervading all objects of Nature. In other words, he approached Nature as a mystical Pantheist.
(c) Above-all, he emphasized the moral influence of Nature. Nature, he believed, is a teacher whose wisdom we can learn if we want and without which human life is vain and incomplete. He believed in the education of man by Nature. Besides Tintern Abbey, his other poems like The Highland Girl and Three Years She Grew also express this view of Nature.
A Poet of Childhood
Wordsworth idealized childhood. According to him the child sees in Nature a heavenly glory which a man cannot see. This is so because the child is near Heaven and has distinct memories of his heavenly life. The child is thus a “mighty philosopher”, a “seer blest”. All these views find a superb expression in the Ode on the Intimations of Immortality.
His Lyric Gift
Wordsworth wrote several graceful and melodious lyrics like The Solitary Reaper, To a Skylark, I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud and the Lucy poems. These lyrics convey by simple means the impression of intensity and are very melodious. The following lines from The Solitary Reaper, for example, are unsurpassed in simplicity, melody, intensity and suggestiveness:
Will no one tell me what she sings?
Perhaps the plaintive numbers flow
For old, unhappy, far-off things,
And battles long ago.
Wordsworth breathed new life into the lyric form. He had not the force and versatility of Shelley, but he helped to prepare the way for that superb lyric genius by adopting themes of rural life.
It is note­worthy that Wordsworth, unlike Shelley, is reflective rather than passionate in his lyrics. He is calm and tranquil and not frenzied. On the other hand, his lyrics are closer—to real human life than Shelley’s. Wordsworth brought to his lyrics a freshness and pensive sweetness that give them quite an original place in lyric literature.
A Narrative Poet
As a narrative poet also Wordsworth achieved distinction. His narrative poetry is sometimes cast into heroic metre, sometimes into that of the ballad. His ballad verse has not the fire and flint of Scott, but exhibits often a simple force and tenderness unmatched by his contemporaries. His narrative powers are considerable; and his simple directness helps the narrative.
Yet he is not at his best in the narrative poetry for the simple reason that his deep interest in spiritual crises rather than physical, his tendency to meditate over his subject and delay obscure the story. It makes him effective in snatches, but not effective as a good narrative poet should be.
As a Sonneteer:
The sonnet form suited Wordsworth even better than the lyric. According to a critic, his sonnets contain some of his best work. He is one of the three or four greatest sonneteers in English literature. He wrote approximately five hundred sonnets.
Wordsworth was first attracted towards sonnet-writing by hearing his sister Dorothy read some of Milton’s in 1801; and from this time to the end of his life he was profuse in sonnet-writing. The best of these were written during the early years of the nineteenth century, mostly in 1802 and include: Milton; Westminster Bridge; It is a beauteous evening, and The World is too much with us (1806).
After 1808, there is a decline, not in workmanship but in imaginative beauty; but again and again he flashes out with something of the old passion and splendour. Of the later sonnets, some of the River Duddon group and one on Mutability are among his best. The technical requirements of the sonnet medium, the necessity for clear and orderly development suited to Wordsworth’s mind and his cool clarity of diction.
The particular form Wordsworth chose was not the Shakespearean kind, but the Miltonic form based on the traditional Italian structure. Wordsworth did valuable service to English poetry by reinstating the sonnet.
The re-appearance of this form had been one of the signs of the romantic revival, and most of the poets of the time practised it more or less. His sonnets contain almost his best work, outside the two unapproach­able poems Tintern Abbey and Ode on Intimations of Immortality, with perhaps a very few others.
Sense of Structure or Poetic Shape
The structure of a Wordsworth poem is an organic form growing naturally out of the thought of the poet, related at each stage to the poetic emotion, and fusing together the metrical pattern and the whole complex of sounds and meanings.
In his shorter poems, Wordsworth is peculiar in his faculty of creating an impression of almost architectural outline and solidity. This is the case, too, with the numerous poems in which the subject is a complex union of memory and present feelings.
Wordsworth employs in his shorter poems an organizational device which may be called the double-exposure technique. He makes us dramatically conscious of the degree of growth that has taken place between two stages widely separated from each other point of time. Between two stages, subtle changes have always place. These may involve a simple transition of a character from conditions of the country to those of the city as in the early lyric “The Reverie of Poor Susan”‘, in which the drab present and the green past are juxtaposed.
In Tintern Abbey, the light in the eyes of his sister seems to reflect for Wordsworth the very state of mind in which, five years before, he had rejoiced over the beauties of this natural scene. As he looks at the scene once more, he is made doubly aware of a sense of loss (the past will not return) and a sense of compensation greater than the loss (the new maturity and insight which the advancing years have brought). By this device the interior drama of the time—a parable, essentially, of experience and innocence—is made to transpire.
The same principle is at work in The Two April Mornings, She was a Phentom of Delight, and The Ode to Duty. It gives special dramatic impact to a number of the best sonnets including Composed Upon Westminster Bridge.
As a Metrist
Wordsworth is a great metrist. His gifts of language are matched by great skill and variety in the use of metre, though he does not possess the exquisite sense of rhythm of Spenser or Milton.
Wordsworth’s blank verse owes much to the Miltonic tradition, but he endows it with a wholly individual character. The ballads, however rustic, have life and speed, and often a haunting use of the refrain.
His Healing Power
Matthew Arnold says that Wordsworth’s poetry is great because of the extraordinary power with which Wordsworth feels the joy offered to us in Nature, the joy offered to us in the simple primary affections and duties, and because of the extraordinary power with which, in case after case, he shows us this joy, and renders it so as to make us share it.
In a poem called Memorial Verses, Arnold pays a glorious tribute to Wordsworth when he says that in course of time we may have another Goethe and another Byron but that it is not possible for us to have another Wordsworth with his healing power:
But where will Europe’s latter hour
Again find Wordsworth’s healing power?
The phrase ‘healing power’ aptly describes the effect that Wordsworth’s poetry makes upon our minds. Words­worth’s poetry relieves our minds of worries, and soothes and comforts us. It relieves us by virtue of its melody and music.
Several stanzas of the Immortality Ode exemplify the musical and singing quality of Wordsworth’s poetry; and music, as everyone knows, cures human beings of many ills. Another feature of Words­worth’s poetry that contributes to his healing power is the beautiful and refreshing descriptions of Nature.
Wordsworth makes us feel that we are roaming about in the open fields with the wind and rain touching our foreheads, and this is indeed a pleasant experience. Wordsworth’s views of Nature may have little appeal to the twentieth century.
But at no time in history has his revolt from a mechanistic explanation of the universe, and his belief in the worth of the indivi­dual and “man’s conquerable mind” been more relevant and more necessary for our survival. His creed is a lofty Pantheism—the belief that behind all the objects of Nature there is a Divine Spirit and that human beings can attain peace of mind and contentment by a habitual contact with Nature.
Thus Wordsworth has an anchor to rest upon, a prop to support him and although, as Arnold says, he had fallen upon “a wintry clime.”, upon “this iron time of doubts, disputes, distractions, fears,” yet he remained untouched by these depressing doubts and fears and preached the healthy gospel of communion with Nature, communion with the Divine Spirit behind Nature.
The poetry of Wordsworth is the poetry of happiness”. A cheerful temper pervades the whole of it. There is no note of inter­rogation, no cry of despair, no anguish and no morbid melancholy.
There is perfect contentment in Wordsworth’s poetry. There may be just the hint of a passing regret here and there but on the whole it is good cheer that greets us. Even the sad narratives of Words­worth do not depress us and serve to teach us the lesson of courage and endurance.

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