WILLIAM WORDSWORTH

William Wordsworth belongs to the First Generation  of English Romantic Poets.   His literary production is mainly influenced by the French Revolution, German idealism and Schelling in particular, his friendship with Coleridge and, above all,   his childhood  spent in a village near the lakes of Windermere and Coniston Water in the Lake District. In his   early years he lives in close contact with nature and the local people and shepherds and develops a   mystical love for nature.

After a walking tour of France in 1791, he is much struck by the ideals of the French revolution. He is very disappointed when it degenerates into the Regime of Terror, but the doctrine of the equality of all men affects his ideas on literature and on the language of poetry: literature has to be simple enough, to be received by humble men, and the language  simple and direct.

In 1795 he meets Coleridge. They become close friends and work  together for many years. They make a trip to Germany and get in touch with German idealism, from which Wordsworth derives his idea of nature and man both driven by the same animating principle. Their friendship brings to a literary cooperation and to the publication of the Lyrical Ballads, which marks the beginning of English Romanticism.

WORKS: We may for convenience divide Wordsworth’s literary production into two groups: longer poems and poems included in the Lyrical Ballads. To the former belong: Poems in two Volumes, containing The Prelude, a long autobiographical poem in blank verse, and The Excursion, a poem in nine books which was only a part of a longer philosophical poem on God, Nature and man, planned by Wordsworth under the title of The Recluse, but never completed.

LYRICAL BALLADS: it is a collection of poems by Wordsworth and Coleridge. It was first published in 1798, which is considered the conventional date of birth of English Romantic Age. There was a second edition two years later which contained a long Preface by Wordsworth. Wordsworth wrote it in order to explain to the public the new theories on poetry as well as to aid the understanding of the poems. The volume contained four poems by Coleridge and several poems by Wordsworth.

The genesis of the Lyrical Ballads is explained by Coleridge in his Biographia Literaria .He wrote that Nature was to be the main theme. It was to deal with poems of simple  nature, describing the beauties of the world through characters and incidents taken from ordinary life, and poems of the supernatural, treated in a way that  had to arise real and natural emotions. The two poets divided their tasks: Wordsworth had to give the subjects taken from “everyday life” the charm of novelty directing the readers’ attention to the loveliness of nature, while Coleridge had to write about the supernatural  combining it with “a semblance of truth” in such a way that the readers had to suspend their judgement and accept even what was rationally unacceptable.

The Preface to the second edition is considered as the Manifesto of English Romanticism. It contains Wordsworth’s ideas on poetry, the Poet, the role of the poet, the language and the contents of poetry. It also explains what happens in the poet’s mind in the act of composition: poetry “ takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity: the emotion is contemplated till by a species of reaction the tranquillity rather disappears, and an emotion kindred to that which was before the subject of contemplation, is gradually produced, and does itself gradually exist in the mind.  In this mood successful composition generally begins….”. This theory is known as Poetry as memory.

POETRY AS MEMORY: As we can see from the above quotation taken from the Preface,  Poetry  has its origin in sensations which are transformed into emotions. Feelings  do not  originate from original emotions but  from past emotions “recollected in tranquillity”, thanks to the capacity of memory; then they are purified and turned into a poetic form.

Let’s summarize the process of making poetry:

there is a sensory experience    —>   it  originates an emotion    —>   the emotion is accompanied by joy     —>  the emotion is stored in our mind    —>   the emotion is                                                 later “recollected in tranquillity” through the memory   —>  a similar emotion accompanied by joy is produced      —>      the emotion  is purified and originates poetry.

The same process happens in the reader of the poem: —>     he is reading a poem  —>    the reading originates an emotion —>    the emotion gives “an overbalance of pleasure”        —>the emotion and pleasure are stored in the reader’s mind—>  when the reader goes back to the poem through the memory, he feels the same emotion and joy.                         (See the poem I wandered Lonely as a Cloud)

In the Preface Wordsworth also explains the role of the poet, the role of poetry, the contents and the language of poetry.

POETRY is “ a spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings”. It must be didactic,   have a moral purpose,direct man to the loveliness of nature and teach him to love and respect Nature.

THE POET is considered a common man, “ a man speaking to men”  who only differs from other human beings because of  his higher degree “ of lively sensibility, more enthusiasm and tenderness, who has a greater knowledge of human nature and a more comprehensive soul   which enables him to get at the very essence of things”.

THE POET’S ROLE is to see what common people can’t see and communicate it to the reader  in order to teach him to find true reality and live happy: “every great poet is a teacher. I wish either to be considered a teacher or a nothing”.His task is also to give joy:   “the poet ought to profit by the lessons (by nature) thus held forth to him and ought especially to take care, that whatever passions he communicates to his reader, those passions……should always be accompanied  with an overbalance of joy ”.

LANGUAGE:If the role of the poet is to instruct, the language must be the simple and essential language, “really spoken by man and closer to the Masses.”It can’be the elegant, polished language,the poetic diction, used by poets in the previous Age. The poetic language was far from the real experiences of life and poets, under the influence of social vanity, “.…indulge in arbitrary and capricious habits of expression, in order to furnish food for fickle tastes, and fickle appetites, of their own creation“.

As to the CONTENTS, poetry has to  deal with “situation and incidents from common life; the first subjects to write about were humble  and rustic life and simple people living in the countryside not in town” because they offer the best example of real humanity. In their condition of life “ the essential condition of heart find a better soil …….elementary feelings coexist in a state of greater simplicity, and, consequently, may be more accurately contemplated”.

NATURE: Wordsworth is  considered the great poet of Nature. As said before, he develops his love for nature in his childhood  when he lived in a village in the Lake District. Those years have an enormous influence on the development of his ideas on Nature. Other important  influences come from  philosophy, above all Rousseau, Schelling and Pantheism.

The central theme of Wordsworth philosophy is man’s relationship to nature. He believes that man can be truly happy only if he has got a close contact with nature. Nature can only give joy to man. He feels it as a friend, a comforter, a moral guide as well as a great teacher.  In Lines Composed a few miles above Tintern Abbey Wordsworth says:

…..Therefore am I still
A lover of the meadows and the woods,
And mountains; and of all that we behold
From this green earth; of all the mighty world
Of eye and ear, both what they half-create,
And what perceive; well pleased to recognize
In nature and the language of the sense,
The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse,
The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul
Of all my moral being.
 

According to Wordsworth, man has to live in a simple primitive life in touch with natural beauty instead of being a city-dwelling creature, governed and ruined by industrialization. Man and nature cannot exist separated because they are different parts of the same universe.

Following Schelling and Pantheism, Wordsworth  believed that nature is alive because a living spirit has entered into flowers, rivers and mountains giving each of them a soul of their own. It is not a pure decorative background but a living presence speaking to all those who are able to enter in close relation with it and understand its language.

In every poem by Wordsworth, nature is always personified. It is a dynamic nature perceived through the noble senses, the hearing and the sight, which he calls “the mighty world of eye and ear

CHILDHOOD : It is the other   great theme of Wordsworth’s poetry. According to the Romantics, children had been neglected by the neoclassicists and lived almost outside society, treated only with pity.  Wordsworth in particular considers the poor,the peasants and the children as “bearers of positive values” because they are the only persons who have not  lost their original identity. They have not been corrupted by industrialism and still keep the power of being in touch with nature.

THE PRE-EXISTENCE OF THE SOUL: Wordsworth has worked out a theory of his own on childhood. He believes that our soul pre-exists in Heaven. When the child is born, he  retains some of the divine glow of his divine origin and has an instinctive insight into the mystery of the universe. As he grows older, he gradually loses this faculty.(see the poems below, “Ode, Intimation of Immortality” and “The Rainbow”).

Apart from these two great themes Wordsworth also deals in some poems with “the great and simple affections of life”, such as a mother’s love for a child and similar ones.

The Victorian philosopher J. Stuart Mill writes that Wordsworth’s poetry “was a medicine for my states of feelings and thoughts coloured by feelings, under the excitement of Beauty”.

WORDSWORTH/COLERIDGE: analogies and Differences:

They both:

– were enthusiastic about the French Revolution in its beginning and later   they                    changed their mind after the Regime of Terror;                                                                              – thought that English poetry hat to be reformed;                                                                            – felt the need to express their feelings in poetry in a way that the convention of the time       did not allow;                                                                                                                                          – loved nature and exalted the imagination;                                                                                      – thought of imagination as an important creative force.

DIFFERENCES:- Unlike Wordsworth, Coleridge did not find consolation and happiness in Nature;                                                                                                                                                        – Wordsworth saw nature in a pantheistic way, identifying it with the Divine while Coleridge saw nature and the natural world in a sort of neo-platonic interpretation as a projection of the real World of Ideas ;                                                                                               – Wordsworth considers poetry as “an outburst of powerful emotions”, while Coleridge sees it as the product of unconscious;                                                                                                   – Wordsworth drew inspiration from everyday life of humble and rustic people, while Coleridge wrote about incredible and supernatural events;                                                           -For Wordsworth the imagination “half creates” or recreates or rather modifies the data of experience through recollecting them in tranquillity and lifting them above a sort of “passive recording“, while for Coleridge the imagination transcends the data of experience and creates in the true sense of the word “a new harmonious whole“. He does not go back through his memory as Wordsworth used to; he is more philosophical and uses his poetic vision, the secondary imagination, without order or logic;                                                           – Wordsworth considered the language used by rustic people as purer and more profound because “they hourly communicate with the best objects from which the most part of the language is originally derived“, while Coleridge dissented   and considered it inferior to that of the educated man because “the best part of human language ….is derived from reflections on the acts of mind itself“.

I WANDERED LONELY AS A CLOUD

1.I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

7. Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

13. The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed—and gazed—but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:

19. For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

Composed in 1804, it is one of Wordsworth’s most famous  poems on Nature. It was inspired by the sight of a field of golden Daffodils. The poet was walking in the country   when his attention was attracted by the sight of these flowers. Wordsworth says he was “lonely as a cloud”  but he was walking with his sister Dorothy, as Dorothy herself wrote in her Journal. May be Wordsworth says he was alone because he wants to stress  his sense of solitude and melancholy contrasted by the multitude and joy of the flowers.

The poem is divided in four stanzas of six lines each. The poet uses some literary devices: similes, metaphors, personifications, repetitions and the emphatic form.

The similes are taken from the world of nature: “lonely as a cloud(line 1), ….continuous as the stars (line 7)”. The daffodils are personified, as the other natural elements, because the poet wants to stress  that they are alive and endowed with motion. The repetitions , “I  gazed and gazed” (l.17) and the emphatic form, “ten thousand saw I” (l. 11)….”a poet could not but be gay” (l.15) underline the poet’s emotion.

The poem expresses the poet’s love for nature as well as his ideas on nature. Wordsworth thinks that nature can give joy and comfort to man.  Joy is the keynote to the poem, as we can see from the many words which express pleasure and delight: the poet is happy to be” in such a jocund company”  and his heart “ with pleasure fills”. Nature appears happy:   “the clouds float on high over vales and hills” and the stars “shine and twinkle on the milk way”. Surrounded by the jocund company of the daffodils, the poet’s sense of solitude disappears:” a poet could not but be gay /in such a jocund company” (ll. 15-16) and his spirit is enriched by their vision: “What wealth the show to me had brought” (l.18)

The flowers  are set in a natural environment, “beside the lake, beneath the trees  (l.5)….along a margin of a bay” (l.10). The lake is Ullswater Lake ,near the village of Grasmere, in the Lake District.

His pantheistic view of nature brings Wordsworth to think that nature is a living presence ; the daffodils are not static but alive with motion:” fluttering and dancing in the breeze….. tossing their heads in sprightly dance!”, so they seem to be endowed with a soul of their own.

The last stanza explains and proves Wordsworth’s ideas on poetry as memory as described in the Preface to the Lyrical Ballads. The poet is lying “in a vacant and pensive mood”  when  his loneliness  is interrupted by the recollection of the sensory experience  he had stored in his  memory: the sight of golden daffodils in a field. The memory recreates the same emotion he had had on the spot and fills his heart with the same pleasure.Then  his imagination recreates in his mind the emotion felt previously in a purified and poetic form.

The tenses of the verb used in the poems convey the idea of poetry as memory. In the first three stanzas he uses the past tense because he is describing his original vision of the daffodils; in the last stanza he uses the present tense to stress out that he is now feeling the same emotions and the same joy he had when he saw the flowers.

COMPOSED UPON WESTMINSTER BRIDGE

1.Earth has not anything to show more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty:
This City now doth, like a garment, wear

5.The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky;
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.

9.Never did sun more beautifully steep
In his first splendour, valley, rock, or hill;
Ne’er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!

12.The river glideth at his own sweet will:
Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;
And all that. mighty heart is lying still!

The occasion to this poem was given by the sight of London on September 3rd, 1802 while the poet was going to France.

It is an unusual poem on nature since it describes the city of London. As we Know, the Romantics didn’t like city life and tried to escape from it. The London he sees that morning, while crossing Westminster Bridge, was different from the usual image of London: it was early in the morning, there was the sun, there was silence because city life had not started. The city didn’t have the  smokes and smog of an industrial town and, for the first time, it appeared to the poet’s eyes not in opposition with nature but as a part of it. For the first time the produce of man,”ships, towers, domes, theatres and temples”  and the products of nature,”valley, rock, or hill” are seen without a separation in a single natural landscape:” open to the fields and to the sky……silent, bare….glittering in the smokeless air”.

In this poem, too, Nature is personified and animated: “ Never did sun …. steep/ in HIS first splendour….The river glideth at HIS own sweet will…. the very houses seem asleep”. The tense of the verb is the present because he is describing the present emotion not the original one.

It is a Petrarchan sonnet divided into an octave and a sestet.  The octave contains the description of the landscape and the sestet deals with the poet’s emotions.

Here, too, to stress his emotion, the poet uses the emphatic  form, “ Never did  sun (l.9)”;   “Ne’er  saw I (l.11)”  and three exclamation marks in the last four lines.

ODE: INTIMATION OF IMMORTALITY FROM RECOLLECTIONS OF EARLY CHILDHOOD

Stanzas 1 – 2 – 5

Stanza 1: There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream, 
The earth, and every common sight
                 To me did seem
            Apparelled in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
It is not now as it hath been of yore;--
             Turn wheresoe'er I may,
              By night or day,
9.The things which I have seen I now can see no more.

 Stanza 2:The rainbow comes and goes, 
            And lovely is the rose; 
            The moon doth with delight
     Look round her when the heavens are bare;
            Waters on a starry night
            Are beautiful and fair;
     The sunshine is a glorious birth;
     But yet I know, where'er I go,
18.That there hath past away a glory from the earth.

.............................................................................. 

Stanza 5: Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting; 
The Soul that rises with us, our life's Star,
          Hath had elsewhere its setting
               And cometh from afar;
    5.      Not in entire forgetfulness,
          And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come 
               From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy! 
10.Shades of the prison-house begin to close
               Upon the growing Boy,
But he beholds the light, and whence it flows, 
               He sees it in his joy;
The Youth, who daily farther from the east 
 15.    Must travel, still is Nature's priest,
          And by the vision splendid
          Is on his way attended;
At length the Man perceives it die away, 
19.And fade into the light of common day.

In this long  poem we can find the two great themes of Wordsworth’s poetry: Nature and Childhood. Wordsworth reflects on the relationship between man and nature and the child and nature.  He regrets that the natural elements no longer have for the poet the glory they had when he was a child.

During his childhood, nature seemed to him “Apparell’d in celestial light” (l.4). Now he is an adult, he regrets the loss of contact with nature and he realizes that “ The things I have seen/ now I can see no more (l.9)”   Nature has remained quite the same,” The rainbow comes and goes (l.10) and Lovely is the rose (l.11)….the sunshine is a glorious birth(l.16)” but his attitude towards nature has changed because he has lost some of the qualities he had as I child: “there hath pass’d away a glory from the earth”. (see also The Wild Swans at Coole by Yeats)

Stanza 5 is very important because it underlines the strong relationship between the child and nature and explains Wordsworth’s idea of the pre-existence of the soul.

Wordsworth thinks that the state of childhood is the nearest to God: “ Trailing clouds of glory do we come (l.8) from God, who is our home (l.9)”. The child’s soul pre-exists in heaven in a divine celestial state: “ The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star (l.2), Hath had elsewhere its setting (l.3)”. When the child comes into the world, he is still closer to his divine origin and still enjoys the visionary faculty(imagination) he had in heaven. He is “Not in entire forgetfulness,(l.5)  And not in utter nakedness (l.6 )”  since “Heaven lies about us in our infancy!(l.9)”. As he grows up “Shades of the prison-house begin to close (l.10)”, but he can still understand the divine aspect of nature. As a youth, he “still is nature’s priest (l.15)”. Like a priest, who understands the mysteries of religion and teaches them to the unlearned people, the child  can understand the mysteries of nature and communicate them to those who are not able to see them.

When the boy becomes an adult, the vision of the divine disappears. He perceives “it die away  (l.18) and fade into the light of common day (l. 19)”. Maturity with its cares and habits carries away the memory of his pre-existence.

In working out this theory, Wordsworth was influenced by the Greek philosopher Plato. In conclusion Wordsworth wants to show that it is only in childhood that man can grasp the meaning of things and establish a perfect communion with nature because the child is not yet corrupt.

MY HEART LEAPS UP

A short poem by Wordsworth, referred to as The Rainbow, may be seen as the natural conclusion of the Ode:intimation of immortality.

My heart leaps up when I behold

A rainbow in the sky:

So was it when my life began;

So is it now I am a man;

So be it when I shall grow old,

Or let me die!

The Child is father of the Man;

I could wish my days to be

Bound each to each by natural piety.

The poet is now an adult. He is happy when he beholds  a rainbow. He goes back trough his memory to  the sensation that the same vision gave him when he was a child.

The child in this poem becomes “Father of the Man”. He can bring back to the adult, who is his heir, the happy moments of childhood. He is a father because, like a father, he can teach the adult to rediscover through nature, both God and the substance of his inner life. It is an apparent paradox because Wordsworth  thinks that our past is not cut off from the present and that our childhood experiences have made us what we are. Coming back to nature, we can find ourselves again.

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About rosariomario

retired teacher docente in pensione
This entry was posted in appunti di letteratura inglese per studenti italiani e non, tratti da testi vari. Notes of English Literature for Italian/non-Italian students taken from various school textbooks. Bookmark the permalink.

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