Wordsworth, Coleridge, and British Romanticism

Wordsworth, Coleridge, and British Romanticism


After a brief introduction of the period that will contrast the Romantics with the century that preceded them, we shall move on to analyze the great poetic, theoretical experiment that most consider the Ur text of British Romanticism: “Lyrical Ballads”. We shall explore both the unique plan of “Lyrical Ballads”, and the implications of that plan for literary theory. In this elaborate introductory summary, we shall consider the contributions of the British Romantic poets. Our texts will be:

Wordsworth’s Preface to the “Lyrical Ballads”,
Coleridge’s “Biographia Literaria”,
Shelly’s “Defense of Poetry”,
Keats’ Letters.

After this initial lecture on “Lyrical Ballads” itself, we’ll then devote one talk to Wordsworth. Coleridge, and Shelly. Rather than devote an entire lecture to Keats, we’ll consider Keats’ theories in relation to those of Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Shelly. So he will be fitted in the additional talks.

Like Pope and Dryden, all four of our theorists were poets before they were critics. Thus their theory is a reflection of their own poetic technique. Because the four Romantics were poets, when they wrote their criticism, they were doing so out of their own experience. So this gives a little more practicality or pragmatic touch to their theory.

Now the difference is that they’re like Pope and Dryden in the sense that they’re poets, however, there’s a big difference. The Romantics treated the poet, rather than the rules of decorum, as a source and touchstone of art. When we look at Pope and Dryden, especially the former, we notice that they were theorists very interested in decorum, following those rules. Yet we’ll see our poets/critics following the idea of the poet. In addition, we’ll find they fashion a new social role for the poet, very different from the 18th century (mainly to delight and teach or more precisely to teach and delight).

Another introductory matter is all four of our Romantics altered the epistemological theories of the Germans. Now the Romantics are epistemologists[1], but there’s a difference. Whereas the German epistemologists were still pragmatic theorists and interested in the relationship between the poem and the audience, the British Romantics were what we might call expressive epistemologists, interested in the relationship between the poem and the poet.

Another different is that whereas the theorists of the last century portray an 18th century or Enlightenment orientation, particularly true in the case of Burke and Kant, as proto- or pre-Romatics, yet still very much interested in reason and analysis. The Romantics often define themselves in opposition to the Age of Reason. They borrow some ideas from it, but basically they are a kind of revolution, a reaction against what was going on in the age before.

Now although they are still interested in mental faculties, like epistemology, they replace the 18th emphasis on analysis, with a new focus on synthesis[2]. In addition, they privilege imagination over reason and judgment. Of course, we talked about this in quite some detail in the last unit.12

Origins of Romanticism

So before moving on to “Lyrical Ballads”, we’ll survey one more thing. There are three competing events for the cause or origin of Romanticism, that we’ll just run-through quickly.

Rousseau’s “Confessions”

The first possible origin is the publication of Rousseau’s “Confessions” in 1781, with its championing of the individual and its radical notion that the personal life and ideas of a single individual, is matter worth of great art.

So the great Jean Jacques Rousseau, although he lived and died in the 18th century, really is one of the great origins of Romanticism. He was one of the first people to dare to write an autobiography.

Rousseau is writing an autobiography because he thinks that he himself is matter worthy of great literature. That is a radically new idea, that you could spend a whole book, writing about yourself. Rousseau actually delight sin his individuality, saying he is unique, no one is like him, when they made him, they broke the mold! This is a radical, Romantic notion, which says that the individual, rather than society or God or anything else, should be at the center. So that’s an origin or cause of Romanticism.

French Revolution

The second one often discussed, is the start of the French Revolution, the storm of the Bastille in 1789. That event offered the hope of not only internal and external freedom, but promised more radically that internal dreams could affect and even alter the external world. In other words, the French Revolution not only showed that we can throw off our chains, that we can change the world, but more radically, that an internal vision that people have, of freedom, can be taken and projected onto the world, changing it in accordance with their dreams. That’s very Romantic, as we’ll see in this unit.

“Lyrical Ballads”

Finally, the third origin, which we are most interested in, is the publication of “Lyrical Ballads” in 1798, and what it was followed within 1800, when a second edition was published, to which Wordsworth added a preface.

Now in this lecture we’ll look at the “Lyrical Ballads” of 1798, while the next lecture looks at the preface itself because the preface in some ways, really caused the revolution, even more than “Lyrical Ballad”, but we’ll split them up.

So why is “Lyrical Ballads” a third source? It championed new subjects for poetry, and a new approach to those subjects that changed literary theory forever. So that’s what we’ll do in this lecture, by showing how “Lyrical Ballads” did just that.

Wordsworth and Coleridge planned together “Lyrical Ballads”, wanting to make it a new kind of poetic volume. Now as some of you may know already, the friendship between Wordsworth and Coleridge is one of the most wonderful in all of literary theory. It was one of the most artistically stimulating friendships, perhaps of all time. It was unique and the two men really played off each other, helping the other in terms of strength and weaknesses, so that together they did some great things. It was fruitful in terms of poetry and theory.

Now the origin of “Lyrical Ballads” is described a little by Wordsworth in his Preface, but if you want to really learn of the origin, you want to read chapter 14 of Coleridge’s “Biographia Literaria”, his autobiography. It’s a wonderful reading and is excerpted in “Critical Reading Since Plato”.

In 1797, Wordsworth and Coleridge were neighbors in the beautiful Lake District in northern England. They spent many days discussing and talking about poetry and life, doing what British love to do up there, taking long walks along the beautiful grass they have there. They’d walk, talk, and let their mind run free.

So out of these conversations, they conceived the idea of composing a series of poems of two distinct but complementary kinds. Neither remembered who first came up with the idea, but they decided to both write different kinds of poems, yet they would complement each other in a special way.

These two kinds of poems and how they complemented each other is now discussed. The former kind of poem, from Wordsworth, would select its objects from nature, from the common, mundane, everyday world of the countryside and its inhabitants. In short, these poems would focus on things so familiar, that we often overlook them, things whose very commonness renders them invisible.

In other words, he would take everyday things of nature, rustic farmers living in the Lake District as subject matters not rich people, aristocrats, but common everyday things, people and objects on nature. That would be the source or object of the poetry.

However, what made these objects unique is rather than merely copy or record these things in a straight mimetic fashion, rather than simply describing the object, the poet would throw over them an imaginative coloring that would allow his readers to see them afresh.

In other words, the trouble with everyday things is that we see them so often, we take them for granted. We don’t even notice them anymore. They lose their mystery and wonder. We’ve got a sort of tired cliché, to “stop and smell the roses.” Well, here we might say, we need to “stop and SEE the roses.” We miss the mystery of it all.

The best example of this, comes from painting. The great Romantic painter Vincent van Gogh, we’ve all seen some of his pictures of sunflowers. Yet the first time you see any of them, you think to yourself, my God, I’ve never seen a sunflower before, I missed something all along.

Well the same thing van Gogh does in his painting, is what Wordsworth is going to do in his poems. By lending these objects, these common things, a charm of novelty, the poet wants to evoke a sense of child-like wonder in his reader, a feeling more often associated with the supernatural than with the natural. Again, he wants us to see it afresh, as if we’ve never seen it before, the way a child sees the world.

Every time a child sees the moon in the evening, it’s a whole new experience. It’s beautiful, it’s exciting, they grab their parents and say, look up there, isn’t it magical? Well that’s what Wordsworth wants to restore in us, not childish, but child-like.

Now this process by which the veil of familiarity is suddenly, mystically, ripped away from everyday objects, is known as defamiliarization. Now what do we mean by the veil of familiarity? We all can understand the veil of mystery. Certain mysteries like death, we can’t fully pierce through, because they’re a mystery. Yet the veil of familiarity means that when something becomes so familiar because we see it every day, we don’t see it anymore, so it’s as if a veil has covered it, we’re missing it. We’re not seeing it.

Defamiliarization means that suddenly through poetry, our familiarity is ripped away and we’re forced to look at it, as if for the first time. Coleridge says that most men are like what God says of the Jews in Isaiah VI, we have eyes but we do not see. Recall we have eyes but do not see, ears but do not hear. They are like their idols.

Well many times that happens to us as well. We see it, but we don’t really see it. Defamiliarization opens our eyes to the wonders around us. It’s apocalyptic, it rips away the veil or covering, to allow us to see the true mystery that lurks behind.

Now as we’ve said, Wordsworth was responsible for this portion of “Lyrical Ballads”, and he composed a series of poems centered around such humble, rustic characters, as Simon Lee, Goody Blake, and the Idiot Boy. Believe it or not, those are the titles of some of his rustic people, not the kind that an 18th century poet would think worthy of writing any kind of serious poem about. They are very simple, rustic characters, usually illiterate, or barely literate.

Yet despite their commonness, Wordsworth’s poems infuse them with dignity, power, and mystery. Romanticism is much more democratic. It sees the dignity in the common. The 18th century looked towards the aristocratic, to the refined. So that’s what Wordsworth does in his portion of “Lyrical Ballads”. One way to put it is that he takes natural objects and makes them seem almost supernatural.

The latter kind of poem, which Coleridge did, would select its object from the realm of the supernatural, so it goes the other way. Wordsworth takes the natural and makes it supernatural, while Coleridge takes the supernatural and makes it natural. His “Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner”, Coleridge’s main contribution to “Lyrical Ballads”, is richly suffused with supernatural characters and events. It’s a magical, mysterious sea journey that takes place in this world, but is really in another world. It’s a place of mystery, straight out of the Arabian Nights or something!

So just as Wordsworth presents his natural objects in such a way as to stimulate an almost supernatural response, so Coleridge presents his supernatural world in such a way as to render it almost natural. That’s what we mean when we say that they are complementary, as opposed to simply opposites.

Now, Coleridge accomplished this poetic feat, by uncovering behind the supernatural veil of his tale, dramatic and emotional truths. In other words, yes the story of the Mariner is supernatural, not really a part of our world, finally. Yet the dramatic and emotional truths, what’s going on in his psyche as he goes through the journey, are realistic. So we can identify with them, and they do seem very real and natural.

Also, our recognition of the psychological truth of the Mariner’s journey, compels us to give to the poem, our “willing suspension of disbelief.” Many of you have heard that phrase before. This famous Coleridgean phrase, signifies our ability to temporarily suspend the claims of reason and logic, and to enter, through the power of the sympathetic imagination, into the life and heart of the poem.

In other words, he writes it in such a way, that he gets us as readers to say all right, I know this is not real, I know it’s a fantasy. Yet I’m going to forget about that now, or I’m going to suspend that. I’m going to move into the poem, via sympathetic imagination, move toward the poem, just as when we’re in sympathy with a person, we move towards that person. So we are going to allow ourselves to just accept the poem as true. For in fact, dramatically and psychologically, it is true. So we’re going to suspend all that logical, mathematical-side of ourselves, and just enter into that world which Coleridge creates.

Now another aspects of this, is that Coleridge tells us, to inspire in its readers, this moment of what he calls “poetic faith,” the poem must invite them into a higher realm of illusion, rather than merely delude them with fanciful images and events. So the distinction between illusion and delusion. Illusion is when we are pulled into it and say, ah what a beautiful world, it’s not real and yet it is real. It’s an illusion, like that of the stage. Delusion is when we suddenly feel like we’re being manipulated and fooled.

The best way to get the distinction is to do so in terms of movies. The Star Wars films are the best example of illusion. They take us away to a long time ago in a galaxy far away. Now this is total fantasy, yet we buy-into their illusion because they’re so real, the relationships and whatnot going on, all seem so real to us, that we move into these movies and accept them as such.

The Batman movies are examples of delusion. If any of you have bothered to see them, they are so phony that you feel manipulated and deluded. Maybe some teenagers buy it, but we certainly do not buy those worlds as real. Perhaps even the director does not either, so how can we? You feel deluded, so you sit there and watch, perhaps entertained by special effects, yet we’re not being moved in any emotional level, as in Star Wars or other good movies.

Implications of “Lyrical Ballads”

Now with the idea of this basic plan, let’s tell you about the implications of “Lyrical Ballads”, to the history of literary theory. Why is it so important and central? “Lyrical Ballads”, calls for a new kind of mimesis. That rather than simply imitate or even perfect its object, it transforms it into something rich and strange.

That is to say, nature or supernature, is merely the occasion for the poem. The poetic act itself, the transformation, is the real point. In other words, the point of the poems in “Lyrical Ballads”is not the object itself, not merely to record the object. Although this is interesting and important, it isn’t not the key function in the poem.

So what the poem is really about, is what Wordsworth or Coleridge do with that object, how they transform it through their poetic imagination. They change it into something new. That’s what it’s about, the poetic process, rather than about the object. So it’s about the subject then, if you will, that’s the importance of epistemology.

In other words, it’s not the rules of decorum that control the art, but the imaginative vision of the poet that determines the shape and end of the poem. That’s why expressive theories are interested in the relationship between the poem and poet, because it’s the poet’s perceptive powers that determine what the poem is going to be like.

Even more radically, the plan or “Lyrical Ballads” carries out a supreme form of epistemology in which objects or things take their ultimate nature not from what they are, but from how they are perceived by the poet. This is radical, and since this is epistemological, perception is important. Yet now, really, the object is not even important at all. Now, the way we perceive the object, is what it becomes. The object now is a mix of what it is, and what we make it.

William Blake

This is very interesting and needs further explaining. Wordsworth and Coleridge were certainly influenced – even more than they were by the Germans – by a great poet named William Blake with his masterpiece, “The Songs of Innocence and Experience”. In this work, Blake demonstrates how the same images and events, take on a different coloring, form, and reality, when viewed through the eyes of innocence and experience. The subtitle of his work, “Shewing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul,” captures perfectly the radical Romantic belief that things are as they are perceived, and that we half-create the world around us.

Let’s explain further once again. The “Songs of Innocence and Experience” have two volumes of poetry, meant to be linked together. Often, there will be a poem in the “Songs of Innocence”, which has a parallel in the “Songs of Experience”. For instance, there are two poems called the “Chimney Sweeper”, on in Innocence, one in Experience.
They’re both about the horrible reality of these little boys who were forced to clean chimneys. It was a terrible job involving social manipulation, and many died young from cancer and all kinds of diseases.

Yet in the world of Innocence, even though there is horrible exploitation, the focus of that poem is innocence. It’s on how the child-like faith and innocence can rise above the horrors of social exploitation. The version in experience though, we always see the exploitation and manipulation.

In other words, the world, the reality, the event, is exactly the same, but because the perceptive point of view in each poem is different, it makes everything else different. So things are not as they are, but as they are perceived. We create the world around us.

Example for perceptive point of view

You are somewhere.  It’s around 9 in the evening, and you’re about to walk out to go home, and it’s raining.

Now the same exact setting, yet a different background now. Just before one walks out to go home in the rain, her friend of many years is visiting, and they’re excited because they’ve been waiting for this meeting, so it’s a beautiful rain, and you’re just on top of the world.

On the other hand, before the other girl walks out into the rain, her friend of four years has just died. You are just horrified by that.

You both walk into the rain, and now each is to write a poem/fiction/nonfiction about the rainstorm. It’s the same rain, same time of day, same place.


So what are we saying here? It’s the exact same rain, so shouldn’t their poems be the same then? Why instead are their poems so different? Each is working out of a different perceptive mood. The state of their soul is different.

One girl is in a state of innocence, while the other is in a state of experience, a more cynical state. So their world in which they see the storm, is now colored by what’s going on in their soul. Another example is whenever you’re mad, we always say that you’re seeing red! It’s as if everything you see is covered by that color. That is what it means for things to be as they are perceived.

This is what it sometimes called the externalization of the internal, because what happens is you take something inside you, and externalize or project it onto the world. Now this concept lies behind the Romantic faith that:

“if the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear as it is, infinite.”

That’s something Blake says, and he was most radical in this idea. In other words, if we could just see it right, everything would be beautiful.

Now we should say that this Romantic thing has a dark side to it as well. It very easily can fall into what we like to call the abyss of solipsism[3]. What is the latter? It’s the belief that the entire world is a projection of you. It’s kind of like a child that’s autistic, where they live in their own little world, as if the world is the way they see it. When a child plays peek-a-boo they cover their eyes and figure if they can’t see you, then you can’t see them. That egocentrism is very dangerous to fall into, like this solipsism where you think the world is a reflection of yourself.

Many don’t realize that the religion of Christian Science, though most perhaps don’t follow this and are just like regular Christians, their real doctrine is actually a bit more eastern than western. Pure Christian Science, Mary Baker Eddy, believed that disease is not really a physical thing, that it’s bad perception. So if we can just think of ourselves as being well, then we’ll actually be well. For even sin, disease, and evil, all are just bad perceptions. We don’t see the world right, which is almost a kind of Hindu concept.

Again, most Christian Scientists probably don’t strictly follow that, so are more like regular Christians. Yet interestingly, this system is very close to Blake, this idea that you can change the world by the way you perceive it.

Now this new, more radical epistemology, places the poet and his perceptions at the center of literary theory. Poetry is now to be regarded as self-expression, as a journey of the unique perceptions of an individual. Now what poetry really is, is self-expression. It’s what’s inside that’s coming out. So now, when we read a poem, what we want to read about, is his poem and his unique perceptions of the world.

A break in decorum

One more thing that “Lyrical Ballads” changed is that it shifted old 18th century notions of decorum, which declared certain subjects unfit for serious poetry. Recall that for the neo-Classicists, and also for the Classicists as well, poetry should be written about serious people, aristocrats, kings, knights, princes, all of that stuff. Well, the rustics treated by Wordsworth would have been subjects for comedy in the 18th century!

Yet Wordsworth ennobles them to tragic heights! No one in the 18th century would write a serious tragic poem about Goody Blake or the Idiot Boy. They might write a comedy about that, but not anything serious. So this is a big change in the subjects for poetry.

“Lyrical Ballads” also breaks with the neo-Classical world, by mixing the realms of the real and ideal. Indeed, it often sees the ideal in the real, the supernatural, the natural, and vice versa. In other words, a break in decorum, so that we’re mixing things. We shouldn’t be mixing real and ideal, supernatural and natural, but should keep those things separate. Wordsworth and Coleridge have no problem breaking decorum, which is one aspect of Romanticism.

Finally, not only does “Lyrical Ballads” often take children as its subject, but it privileges their naïve sense of wonder, their freshness and innocence, over the refined urbanity and studied wit of the 18th century. Let’s move away from this elitist idea of refinement and urbanity. The whole city court-life of the 18th century is in many ways rejected by the Romantics. They want to move to a new way of seeing the world. So it’s not childish, but child-like. They want to see the world afresh and with wonder like a child does. Again, that’s a big break from the 18th century, which for the Romantics was artificial and unnatural.

William Wordsworth’s Preface

This space will be devoted to a close analysis to Wordsworth’s Preface to “Lyrical Ballads”. We shall explore how he radically redefines both the nature of poetry and the poet, as well as the function of poetry and the poet in society. We shall conclude with a brief look at Keats’ famous distinction negative capability and the egotistical sublime.

“Lyrical Ballads” was published in 1798, and the preface does not come until the second edition of in 1800. The reason was that the first edition did very well, and many people said they’d like to know what these poets were thinking about, if there were a theory behind all this. Now really, Coleridge should have been the one to write the preface, as he was the much more critical and philosophical of the pair.

Yet Coleridge had a way of putting things off and being a little bit slothful, so it fell to Wordsworth. Indeed, this may have changed history because although he was not first and foremost a critic, this sent him in a critical way he probably wouldn’t have gone if Coleridge hadn’t turned the buck over, so to speak, to Wordsworth.

Now, in his Preface to “Lyrical Ballads”, Wordsworth redefines the nature and status of poetry, along expressive lines. Once again, these theories are interested in the relationship between the poem and the poet. Rather than treat poetry as an imitation of an action (mimetic theories), or as an object fashioned to teach and please a specific audience (pragmatic theories), Wordsworth, who was expressive, sees poetry as a personal reflection of the poet’s interactions with himself and his world. Again, this is the idea of poetry as self-expression, which is basically taken for granted today. So this concept is essentially invented by the Romantics,

Of course, this is not to say that Wordsworth is unconcerned with imitating or teaching and pleasing. He is very much, as we’ll see later in this lecture. Yet these theoretical concerns, imitation, teaching, and pleasing, now are going to flow directly out of his view of the poet. So he’s interested in imitation, teaching, and pleasing, yet he now looks at those things from a new perspective or point of view, that of the poet.

What is poetry[S1] ?

As we saw in our previously, it’s not the rules of decorum anymore, but the visionary imagination of the poet that is now to become the source and end of poetry. In a famous phrase, Wordsworth defines poetry as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings“. That is to say, as an externalization of the internal emotions, moods, and perceptions, of the poet where the poet takes what is inside of him and projects it, or externalizes it, onto the world. This spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings is where the feelings inside are overflowing and spilling onto the page, onto the world. Again, this is a radically different concept of what poetry is.

Indeed, Wordsworth’s nature poetry is less a reflection on nature, than on the feelings and ideas excited in the poet as he contemplates nature. There’s a very bad stereotype that Romantics are all nature lovers, running around like “nature boy” and hugging trees. Now they care about nature, yet that’s not so much what their poems are about, as their experience of nature, their reflection on nature. So that’s a light misnomer, as they do care about nature, but the way we think of it, is really a misnomer.

Wordsworth asserts that it’s really the feeling that gives importance to the action and not vice versa. In other words, the feeling is what we’re looking for, the action can be anything. So the action doesn’t determine the feeling, but the feeling determines the action.

Notice that this turns Aristotle on his head. Recall he said plot was more important that character? Well if Wordsworth wrote about drama, which he did not, he probably would have said that character is more important than plot. It’s not the action, but the feeling that is at the heart of poetry.
Rustic Versus urban
Nevertheless, as I suggested before, there is a strong mimetic element to Wordsworth’s theory. Although he’s interested in the expressive, there is a mimetic element. He often wrote on rustic subjects, not so much because the country made him feel good, but because in such a setting, he felt that men were more in touch with elementary feelings and durable truths.

It was these essential passions, this emphatic unmediated kind of life that Wordsworth wanted to capture and embody in his poetry. There is something that he wants to imitate, that he wants to incarnate, to embody in his poetry. It’s a kind of life or experience. He felt that rustic life, because it was in touch with nature, was in touch with something that was more eternal.

We all know that in the countryside, things change very slowly, whereas in the city, it’s the new fad, the new fashion, it’s whatever is fashionable today.

Romantics don’t like that! They want things that stay the same. It’s not to say that they’re more conservative, because they’re actually more liberal than the way we define it. Those words have changed in their meaning, but it’s saying they want to get at the essence of things, to what is emphatic, unmediated, direct and true. Wordsworth found that in the countryside, more than in the city.

Indeed, for Wordsworth and all Romantics, the city court life of the 18th century poets, was something to them as artificial, insincere, and out of touch with the wellsprings of our humanity. Again, they don’t’ like the city, and Jean Jacques Rousseau agreed with that. We want to get away from the city, towards what is authentic. If you want to see a great Romantic movie, see the French flick Jean de Florette. It’s about a man who leaves the city to seek what he calls the authentic. So he is a true Romantic, seeking the authentic.

To sum up, Wordsworth looks to both the freer life of the country, and within his own heart, for real passions and truths. So the way he can be both expressive and have a mimetic element, is that when he looked inside of his soul, he saw that same eternal nature that he saw in the countryside. Both of those things come together in Wordsworth’s poetry.

Wordsworth agreed with Aristotle and with Sydney, that poetry is more philosophical than history, because it deals with both specific facts and general truths. So maybe we say he finds these specific facts in the countryside, but he wants to link them to general truths, to eternal things, those he finds that are even deeper than he sees in the country, and deep inside of himself.

Again, another thing on what we’re trying to say here is that for Wordsworth, self-expression is not an end in itself, but a means to reach that which is most permanent and universal. You see, that we’ve gone too far. People believe that self-expression is an end in itself. They think that all they have to do is express themselves, and that’s worthy of art. The Romantics didn’t go quite that far. Again, they opened the door for it, but for Wordsworth, again, self-expression is not an end in itself. He’s using it to get at eternal truths.

Again, that makes Romantics different than the post-Romantics of the modern era. That is, Wordsworth’s poetic verse, this is what we’ll call Wordsworth poetic version of Kant’s subjective universality. For Wordsworth believes that in describing his own feelings, the poet describes the feelings of all men. In other words, Wordsworth felt that by exploring his subjective experience, by getting his ideas onto the page, he felt he was also expressing what all men believe.

That’s why Wordsworth believes that his self-expression is not cut-off from everything, but is linked into the eternal “unchangingness” of his beloved Lake District. We want to make this distinction between modern self-expression, and original Romantic self-expression.
Language of poetry[S2]
Just as Wordsworth sought to imitate the life and passions of his native Lake District, so he sought to imitate the simple, direct language of the country. He not only wants to capture their manners, view of life, and traditions, but he also wanted to imitate their way of speaking.

Wordsworth rejected what to him was the phony poetic diction of the 18th century, with its purposely contorted syntax and artificial poeticisms. When a Romantic reads Pope and others, he sees their poetic diction as phony. Now again, perhaps that isn’t very genial, because to an 18th century person, that’s what a poet is supposed to do. In other words, he’s supposed to write poetry that’s a totally different language. We would say with “thees and thous,” the sort of way the language and syntax are all turned and mixed around.

In other words, to an 18th century person, he wants you to know that it’s poetry! Let’s put it that way. Yet again, the Romantics reject everything that to them seems artificial about the 18th century, and he believed their manners, their way of life, even their poetic diction, the way they wrote poetry, was to the Romantics, especially to Wordsworth, artificial.

So Wordsworth adopted a more natural, less-mannered style, that mimicked the syntax of good prose. He called it the “real language of men,” a famous Wordsworthian phrase. He actually said that good poetry is not that different from good prose. It’s interesting because what he’s saying is that he doesn’t want a poetry with contorted syntax all over the place. He wants it pure, unmannered, and natural, the real language of men.

Now, when 17 years later, Coleridge wrote his own version of the Preface, in his “Biographia Literaria”, he tried to go back and fix up the mistake that he made in not writing the Preface himself. By then, Wordsworth and Coleridge had gone through a falling out, unfortunately. So Coleridge would quibble with the phrase, the real language of men, saying that Wordsworth went too far in his rustic manners of speech, saying that’s not true.

it seems that Coleridge is being a little unfair to Wordsworth, as Coleridge is taking it too literally. For just as Wordsworth tempered his expressivism with a mimetic focus on truth, in the same way he tempered his celebration of the so-called real language of men.

The poet, Wordsworth asserts, should not slavishly imitate the rustic, as Coleridge seemed to think he meant. Yet through a process of selection, he should purge his natural speech of its grossness. In other words, poor people sometimes use a lot of profanity and whatnot. Wordsworth is not going to put that in, but will purge it and purify it. So again, Coleridge took it a bit too literally. When Wordsworth said real language of men, he meant a simple, unsophisticated kind of speech, but again, purified.

Who is the poet[S3] ?
Just as Wordsworth redefined poetry, both subject-wise and language-wise, in the same way, Wordsworth offers us a new vision of the poet himself. For Wordsworth and all the Romantics, the questions of what is a poem, and what is a poet, are considered synonymous. If you understand what the poem is, you understand what the poet is, and vice versa.

So, just as poetry is to be written in the real language of men, the poet is to be a man speaking to men. That is to say, the poet is not to be viewed as a different creature, he is of the same kind as all other men, though he does differ in degree.

In other words, the Romantics want to break from this 18th century idea of the coterie of poets. That is, poets as an elite little group who meet together and read to each other. They want to break from that idea. The poet is like every other man, like a man speaking to men, but he differs in degree. He’s like all men, but has a little bit more, again, breaking from the 18th century.

So what is this degree that the poet has? What is this thing he has more of, than other people?

  1. Well. The poet possesses a more organic, comprehensive soul, than do other men. The phrase “organic, comprehensive” is interesting. In other words, he’s got a bigger soul, we might say, that can just take everything into it. Wordsworth says he has a more lively sensibility, and is more in-touch with his feelings. This modern idea that the poet should be all sensitive is very much a Romantic idea. That’s not to say that 18th century poets are insensitive, but the idea is that the Romantic ones have lively sensibilities, and they are in-touch with everything.
  2. Another way to put this is that the Romantic poets need little stimulation to experience deep emotion. They’re so sensitive to things, that the tiniest touch, a sunflower, opens his heart. Indeed, they are able to feel absent pleasures as though they were present. They don’t even need it there, but the memory of[S4] beauty will inspire the sensitive, comprehensive soul of the Romantic.

    Wordsworth says that he rejoices, in his own spirit of life, and seeks to discover that joy in the world around him. You know what? If he can’t find the joy there, he’ll create it. He’ll take the joy inside of him, and put it in the world. He wants joy around him[S5] .

  3. The Romantic poet also has a rich store of memories that he can tap for poetic inspiration. Romanticism is very much based on personal memory and bringing that up, being able to tap it. Also, they are not only able to call-up the memory, but they are actually able to relive their memory and the emotions attached to them. Much of Wordsworth’s greatest poetry is a memory of his childhood. Wordsworth was able to actually re-experience his childhood with all those emotions that were attached to it. That’s how sensitive he was, how in-touch with his feelings he was.

    Today, we would call it being in-touch with his feminine side. Actually Romantic poetry is much more feminine than masculine, and tends to be very popular with women, who always love Romantic poets, because they are more feminine, in-touch with that side.

  4. Another, a Romantic poet can sustain an inner-mood of tranquility and pleasure. Once he gets into that mood, he can hold onto it, at least for a little while, as he writes.
  5. A final aspect of the Romantic poet, is that he is a lover of his fellow man, who honors what Wordsworth calls the native, naked, dignity of man. He does this by humanizing all things in accordance with the human heart. Louis wrote his dissertation on Wordsworth, who is one of the people that drew him into English. The reason he loves him, is that he treats humanity with such respect, whether in the court or in the countryside, he loves humanity and believed we were all linked together.

The 18th century people loved satire, such as Jonathan Swift, an 18th century character. Yet there is very little satire in Romanticism. They don’t want to cut down and criticize, but they want to bring together, so there’s a love of man. The Romantic poet is a friend of man, says Wordsworth, who binds all things together with passion and love. Whereas the scientist seeks truth as an abstract idea, the poet rejoices in the presence of truth, as our visible friend and hourly companion.

For scientists, truth is abstract. For a Romantic poet, he is what a true philosopher should be. What does philosophy mean? It’s the love of wisdom. Well that’s what the Romantics are. They love this truth and seek it as if it were a real flesh and blood person. That’s why their poetry is so human.

Indeed, it’s interesting Wordsworth prophesied that if science were ever to become so familiar an object that it would take on flesh and blood. Then it would be the poet and not the scientist who would help transform and humanize science into a kindred spirit. Now Wordsworth was living at the very beginning of the industrial revolution, and science was just taking over.

Yet if Wordsworth lived today, where science and technology have become a part of our world, of who we are, he would probably write odes to science and technology. For he would believe that it would be his role as a poet, to take science and humanize it, and make it a part of who we are. So Wordsworth is not just rejecting science or those things, only because they weren’t really a part of people at that point, but once they do become a part of it, the Romantic poet will humanize it, and make it part of the human experience.

Functions of poetry

Status of Cities

Finally, Wordsworth ascribes to the poet and poetry, a new social function, very different from the social function of the 18th century. Wordsworth warns against the ill effects of urbanization and industrialization[S6] . We remind you that this is just starting right now, and Wordsworth is credibly prophetic about it. He says that the massing of men into cities, and the repetitive drudgery of their jobs, produces in them an ignoble craving after extraordinary incident, and a degrading thirst after outrageous stimulation.

Wordsworth felt this was terribly unnatural, pushing people into cities. Do you know that London was the biggest city since the Roman Empire. In other words, no city was as large as Rome, until London 1800 years later. So this is something new, the real massing of men into cities. This assembly-line work, over and over again, Wordsworth felt this to be terribly unnatural, and it killed the soul. What happens to these people is that their senses grow dull, and they need grosser, more violent, and more scandalous stimulants to satisfy their blunted psyches. So they need more and more, in order to rise them up.

Now Wordsworth calls this state of emotional and spiritual deadness, this loss of the ability to be moved by simple beauty and truth, he calls it savage torpor. He sees people in the city, walking around sort of insensitive, cut-off, callous to the world, no longer picking-up on things, a degrading thirst after outrageous stimulation. The city destroys the souls of its inhabitants. They’re just banged over the head, again and again. So what happens is that they lose their subtlety, their ability to appreciate small or subtle things.

For Wordsworth, this is a terrible thing. This is a killing of the soul, in a way like what Longinus[4] said about materialism and hedonism, which kills our soul. This again, is something that blunts our powers. Well as you might guess, Wordsworth then, saw it as the role of poetry to restore this lost ability to be sensitive, to really bring us back to ourselves.

Wordsworth felt that poetry, by enlarging and refining our sensibilities, has the power to re-humanize us, to bring us back into the human community. Wordsworth is serious about this, and Romantic poetry has helped to bring them back in-touch with themselves, to make them stop and see the roses, the way Vincent van Gogh does in his painting.

He says Romantic poetry restores our child-like wonder, and revives our ability to take joy and delight in the natural world, and in the quiet beatings of our heart. Again, there’s so much noise in the world out there, and the Romantics help us to be quiet and listen again, to hear again, because we’ve grown deaf. For we have ears and do not hear, eyes and do not see.

Now considering this new social function, poetry is more, not less, necessary in an industrial age, than in a rural pastoral age! Sometimes people will say that this is a technological industrial age, so we don’t need poetry! Wordsworth would say no, we need it more because people are more and more out of touch with themselves, so they need poetry even more. The rustics don’t need it as much, because they’ve got it all around them, so to speak. It’s in an industrial and technological age, when we really need it.

Now we might note here, that although Wordsworth rejects the refinement and wit of the 18th century, he does promote a new aristocracy of sensitivity. You could say that he’s elitist in a way; he’s also heading towards being a bit elitist. So there is a kind of aristocracy, but it’s one of refinement and sensitively, rather than of courtly manners and whatnot. Wordsworth was educated at Cambridge, but you see him as a kind of man of the people. He doesn’t come across as an academic in any way.

So finally, Wordsworth says that though poetry does instruct, it does teach as we saw, it exists first and foremost to give pleasure. Wordsworth says it is through pleasure that poetry draws us back into touch with our world, our fellow man, and ourselves. So entertainment and pleasure are very important to the Romantics[S7] . In fact, in a weird way, it’s even more important than the neo-Classicists, because the Romantics believed that pleasure is actually something that unites them.

Think of the joy, the happiness of a wedding, and the way we’re united by that joy. Well that’s what Wordsworth wanted, a joy and pleasure in the poetry. The pleasure that poetry gives, is no mere entertainment. In other words, it’s the very spirit through which we know and live. So in the same way that Schiller says we should not look down on playing in the play drive, Wordsworth says don’t look down on pleasure. That’s good, for poets should give pleasure.

The final note now includes a bit about John Keats and something he says in one of his letters. He wrote no essays of literary theory by the way, but in letters he’s sent to people, there is literary theory embedded in it. In one of them, John Keats makes a distinction between what he called negative capability, and the egotistical sublime. This distinction offers an interesting critique on Wordsworth, and that’s why it is included here.

Let’s define these terms. Whereas poets who posses negative capability are able to enter into the lives of other beings, and see the world from their perspective, those possessing the quality of the egotistical sublime, always mediate their visions of the world, through their own strong, dominant personalities.

Let’s give an example. Shakespeare is the ultimate example of negative capability, where one can move out of themselves, towards other people, even losing themselves in other people. Think about how Shakespeare loses himself in his characters. You cannot say, although people try to, but you can’t say that Hamlet, MacBeth, or Othello is Shakespeare. None of them are Shakespeare! He loses himself in his creations, in his characters. That’s negative capability.

Milton and Wordsworth would be the other. Egotistical sublime means rather than moving out, you draw everything to yourself. Milton, even when he’s writing about God and paradise, is still writing about himself, in one way or another. In a way, Wordsworth is always writing about himself and his perceptions as well. Yet that doesn’t mean he’s callous, as it’s just about his perceptions.

Now to link Wordsworth to the egotistical sublime, is not to say that he is arrogant or selfish. That’s not what he means. His personality is such that it both draws all things to itself, and colors all things by its perceptions. So egotistical does not mean like we think of it, as someone being all stuck-up, or something pompous. What it means is that his ego, his personality, is so strong, that he draws everything to it. One of the reasons we read Wordsworth, is because we’re interested in him, and his perspective on the world.

Coleridge also noted in his Biographia Literaria – so that he would agree with Keats in this respect – that even in his poetic studies of others, Wordsworth is finally a spectator “ab extra” (Latin for a spectator from the outside). What he was saying was that although Wordsworth had sympathy, he never really had empathy. Wordsworth was able to feel for people, yet in a way, Wordsworth could never really enter into the rustic, and see the world through their eyes. That’s just a different kind of person than he was.

A little bit more about negative capability now. Keats’ desire to move out of himself, this negative capability – because he wanted to be a negative capability person, not an egotistical sublime – is not so much a rejection of, as an antidote to, the Romantic belief that things are as they are perceived. That idea is more egotistical sublime, where everything is the way you perceive it. Keats is not so much rejecting that, as he wants to find an antidote to it.

Let’s explain. Keats noticed that this strong focus on the poet and his perception that we’ve been talking about, often leads to the Romantic disease of over self-consciousness. In other words, what happens is that the poet thinks so much, that he loses his ability to feel and experience the world directly. Sometimes because of this subjective epistemological perspective, what happens is the Romantics think too much. You all know, we’ll all been through this, when we think too much, it sort of ruins things. This is a terrible irony, because what happens is that the Romantic is forced to choose between that direct unmediated vision of the world that he wants and desires, and his own poetic practice, that says everything is a perception of reality.

Do you understand that angst here? In one way, they want to be unconscious, unmediated, direct, and emphatic. While their process of poetry keeps making them self-conscious, overly so. So they can’t just enjoy anything, because they’re thinking too much! Keats wants to break away from that.

Finally, let’s mention that in unit five, we’ll look at an anti-Romantic turn, a turn away from the Romanticists. Those people in the next unit, are going to reject the struggle between the unconscious and super self-conscious, in favor of a more impersonal, objective view of poetry. They’re going to use Keats’ negative capability as a springboard for this more impersonal view of poetry.

[1]Epistemology is the part of philosophy that deals with knowledge

[2] the act of combining separate ideas, beliefs, styles, etc; a mixture or combination of ideas, beliefs, styles, etc

© Oxford University Press, 2010

[3] the theory that only the self exists or can be known

[4] Longinus, full name Cassius Longinus (about ad213-273), Greek rhetorician and Neo-Platonic philosopher. After teaching in Athens for 30 years, he went (circa 262) to Rome. He wrote many books on philosophy, literature, and rhetoric, most of which have been lost; parts of The Art of Rhetoric and On the Chief End, however, are extant. The famous treatise on literary criticism, On the Sublime, once attributed to Longinus, is believed to be the work of an unknown writer of the 1st century ad.

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