William Wordsworth In an 1818 letter, Keats writes that “A Poet . . . has no Identity—he is continually in for—and filling some other Body.” When Keats criticizes the self-aggrandizing tendencies of the Romantic lyricist, he singles out Wordsworth as the most offensive “Egotist,” although a few months later he expresses his admiration for Wordsworth in another letter, praising him as a compassionate and insightful thinker. In still another letter, he coins the memorable phrase “the wordsworthian or egotistical sublime” to describe a poetic sensibility overly enamored of itself. William Hazlitt satirizes the tendency of mere mortals to worship at the shrine of the egotistical sublime, as much as poets’ willingness to accept such worship, when he writes that “ever after” hearing Wordsworth praise a sunset, “when I saw the sunset stream upon the objects facing it, [I] conceived I had made a discovery, or thanked Mr. Wordsworth for having made one for me!” (“My First Acquaintance with Poets”). Byron skewers Wordsworth and his poetry as impossibly dull in Don Juan: “Wordsworth sometimes wakes, / To show with what complacency he creeps” (Canto 3, lines 874–75). No matter how one feels about Wordsworth the man, his writings occupy the central place in the Romantic period. Preface to Lyrical Ballads and a selection of Lyrical Ballads Quick Notes • Preface: First version published in the second edition of Lyrical Ballads (1800) and expanded for the third edition in 1802. • Major Concepts for the New Poetry: Scenes to be taken from common life with a colouring of imagination thrown over them; language of “men”—no different than language of prose; spontaneous overflow of powerful feeling, recollected in tranquillity; poetry brings pleasure in acknowledgment of the beauty of the universe. • New Definition of a Poet: A poet is a “man speaking to men” but with heightened sensibility; not different in kind but in degree. • Lyrical Ballads: A variety of forms, not necessarily ballads; “an experiment.” The Preface calls for a literary revolution based in democratic principles. Discussion Questions 1. “Simon Lee”: What expectations does the poet assume the reader has? Why? What does the poet mourn in the final lines? 2. “We Are Seven”: How does the poem represent the consciousness or subjectivity of a child? How does this differ from the adult speaker’s perspective? Which predominates in the end? 3. “Expostulation and Reply”: In what sense is Nature a teacher? How does the form of a dialogue affect the point of the poem? 4. The Thorn: Why is the poem called The Thorn? To what extent is this a poem about landscape? What is Martha Ray’s relationship to the natural world she inhabits? To what extent can you say that Martha Ray is insane? Does the speaker convey sympathy for the woman? Why or why not? What effect does the rhyme scheme have on the poem? 5. “Lucy Gray”: What evidence does the poem provide to support Wordsworth’s claim for the imaginative coloring of this scene from common life? 6. “Nutting”: What is the significance of the feminine gender for nature in this poem? What prompts the speaker’s pain or guilt? 7. Michael: In what sense is this a “pastoral” poem? Why does Wordsworth draw attention to that tradition? How does the poet account for Luke’s fall from grace? What does the unfinished sheepfold represent? How does this poem about a father and son compare with Coleridge’s “Frost at Midnight”? Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey As the final poem in the original collection of Lyrical Ballads, “Tintern Abbey” is part of Wordsworth’s experiment. In many ways this poem embodies the principles he explains in the Preface—it is a meditative poem on the power of nature to bring amelioration of the soul through the spontaneous overflow of emotion recollected in tranquillity. It is written in purposefully plain, proselike language, an effect enhanced by the rhymeless lines of blank verse. And yet it is nonetheless sublime poetry. With The Prelude, it exemplifies Keats’s notion of the “egotistical sublime” as the poet recounts his mind’s ability to transform the images of nature into something akin to faith or religion. The pleasure of the poem extends from the poet’s own spiritual satisfaction in contemplating the beauty of the universe and the hope for similar regeneration in the figure of his sister Dorothy. In many ways, “Tintern Abbey” is a paradigmatic Romantic poem. Quick Notes • Form: Blank verse, meditative poem. • Tone: Dignified, somber, and sublime. • Key Passages: Stanza 1, description of the River Wye in the present, laden with emotion; stanza 2, reflection on the five years between his visits to the area, reaching to the sublime, 35–49; stanza 3, brief doubt and the comfort he derived from the memory; stanza 4, difference between nature of his youth and now; “abundant recompense” or recognition of the sublime beauty of the universe; stanza 5, turns to Dorothy and projects her experience to be like his own. • Key Theme: Nature becomes “the anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse, / The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul / Of all my moral being” (109–11). Time and Consciousness. Basil Wiley said that Wordsworth was a poet “living on capital”; that is, his poetry centered on the memories of emotions spurred by an event or image—the spontaneous overflow of powerful emotions recollected in tranquillity. “Tintern Abbey” exemplifies this precisely, and it highlights the poet’s process of recollection by staging the poem in different periods of the poet’s consciousness. It begins in the present but immediately hearkens back five years. The second stanza focuses on the pleasure of memory and the production of “unremembered pleasures.” The poem invokes many different subjectivities: the present poet, the poet of five years past, the solitary, urban dweller of the years in between, the poet in his youthful exuberance, the poet in his sober maturity with “abundant recompense,” the declining powers of the future poet and the hope he locates in seeing himself in Dorothy in the future. Consider what role nature or the beauty of the landscape plays for each of these consciousnesses. What does the poem ultimately suggest about nature and the poet’s growth through time? Examine the way that Wordsworth figures memory as both an important resource and a dwindling power, and finally why he wants Dorothy to become his storehouse of memories. Worshipper of Nature. Wordsworth infuses the language of the poem with sacred terms, even labeling himself in line 152 a “worshipper of Nature.” His poetry becomes a service to nature, a prayer, a hymn of praise. Nature comes to serve as the “soul / of all my moral being.” The passages on the sublime power of recalling the beauty of nature are key. See the second stanza, lines 35–49, in which he describes how the pleasure of recalling the “beauteous forms” of the river Wye leads him to “that blessed mood, / In which the burthen of the mystery, / In which the heavy and weary weight / Of all this unintelligible world / is lightened.” Here and in the passage that follows Wordsworth attributes tremendous spiritual power to the perception of nature’s beauty. He retreats somewhat in the next stanza and reserves only the power of personal solace. In the third stanza, he contrasts his thoughtless engagement in nature as a youth with the sober joys of his present, adult consciousness, and in lines 88–111 he identifies the spiritual core of his current appreciation of nature. In this view, where Wordsworth becomes the high priest of nature, Dorothy in the final stanza is his acolyte. In a way the poem attempts to figure the religious power of nature as a respite from the inevitable pains and ills of human experience. Dorothy has a conspicuous presence in the poem as the poet’s companion in the landscape, as a means of mirroring his emotional satisfaction in the worship of nature, as his hope for future regeneration, as his memory when memory will fail him. She represents both his supplement and his lack, and Wordsworth’s description of her is notably ambivalent. Discussion Questions 1. How does the form of “Tintern Abbey” differ from that of other works in the collection Lyrical Ballads? What is the significance of its poetic form? 2. How does the memory of scenes from the Wye aid the poet when he is “mid the din / Of towns and cities”? 3. What does Wordsworth mean by the gift of nature—an aspect more sublime (36–37 and following)? 4. What does Wordsworth value in his youthful experience of nature? How has it changed through maturity? What is his “abundant recompense”? 5. How do you understand the sense of joy he describes as “something far more deeply interfused”? 6. What does the poet hope for Dorothy in his final stanza? What role does memory play in this projected future? 7. In what ways does this poem exemplify the poetic principles explained in Wordsworth’s Preface? 8. How does Wordsworth’s representation of the Tintern Abbey landscape compare with the landscape portraits of the time? What aspects of the landscape are featured in both? What role do the emotions play in both? Ode: Intimations of Immortality Like “Tintern Abbey,” this poem considers the loss of poetic vision that accompanies growth and maturity, but the theme receives added significance through the form of the ode. The ode became a favorite lyric form for Romantic-era poets because it maintained the short and musical lines of ballads but allowed for greater expansion through elaborately rhymed stanzas; it thus became a more suitable vehicle for profound meditation. The Immortality ode is sometimes a dirge or a farewell to poetic powers and sometimes a celebration of the child-seer that remains within. In this way, Wordsworth captures the dynamic between loss and faith, expressed in high tones that contrast with many of his earlier works. Quick Notes: • Form: Formal ode. • Themes: Growth and maturity are accompanied by a loss of poetic vision; the child remembers the soul’s immortality; loss of vision is compensated by philosophic wisdom. • Key Passages: “The things which I have seen I now can see no more,” 9; “That there hath past away a glory from the earth,” 18; “Wither is fled the visionary gleam? / Where is it now, the glory and the dream?” 56–57; “Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting,” 58; “Thou, over whom thy Immortality / Broods like the Day, a Master o’er the Slave,” 118–19; “Moving about in worlds not realized,” 145; “In soothing thoughts that spring / Out of human suffering; / In the faith that looks through death, / In years that bring the philosophic mind,” 183–86; “To me the meanest flower that blows can give / Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears,” 202–03. Considerthe paradoxical relationship proposed in the line “The Child is father of the Man” and use this to frame the ode’s meditation on maturity and the losses and gains that accompany growth. The poet states the problem in the opening stanza: he has lost the ability to see “every common sight” “apparelled in celestial light,” 2, 4. The poet continues to recognize the beauty of nature around him in the second stanza, but he is saddened by the knowledge “that there hath past away a glory from the earth,” 18. Note the solipsism of the poet’s vision; the earth’s glory is directly related to what he can and cannot see. In the third stanza, the poet recollects a prior sense of grief from which he is released by a “timely utterance.” Note that lines 19–21 will be echoed directly in the tenth stanza in an affirmation of the poet’s vision of the earth’s beauty, even though he is removed from its power. The stanza closes with an embrace of the rejuvenating spirit of the natural world figured most sympathetically in the “happy Shepherd-boy,” 36. The fourth stanza begins with a continued celebration of the shepherd children in a May Day festival but ends with the poet’s haunting return to melancholy: “Wither is fled the visionary gleam? Where is it now, the glory and the dream?” 56–57. Stanza 5 introduces the idea of the preexistent soul—“But trailing in clouds of glory do we come / From God, who is our home,” 64–65. After birth, the heaven about us begins to fade, and lines 67–76 describe the decline in terms of light. The short sixth stanza presents Earth as the stepmother of man who does all in her power to make him forget his preexistent glory; this image raises the idea that nature is somewhat duplicitous toward man and envious of heaven. Stanza 7 recounts the active imagination of youth in images that appear increasingly frivolous. In stanza 8, the poet addresses the soulful child who is unaware of his gift and loads him with the praises of poetic greatness: best philosopher, mighty prophet, seer blest. Wordsworth invokes a common theme of childhood poems when he asks, “Why with such earnest pains dost thou provoke / the years to bring the inevitable yoke?” 123–24. In the ninth stanza, the poet reflects with gratitude on the adult perceptions of immortality that remain and the joy that comes as a result of remembering the childhood visions. The poet returns to the imagery of joyous nature from stanza 3 in the tenth stanza and embraces the memory of his former closeness to immortality as a harbinger of future immortality. The final stanza describes the poet’s newly defined relationship to nature; he still loves nature but no longer feels under its “habitual sway.” The line hearkens back to the image of the master and slave from the eighth stanza. Like the mature poet of “Tintern Abbey,” Wordsworth proclaims a devotion that is not frivolous, but instead sees nature with an awareness of his own mortality. The poem focuses on children as blessed with a heavenly vision and Wordsworth associates the play of childhood with poetic power and vision. The Romantic preoccupation with the loss of poetic powers appears as the dominant theme in a number of other odes, including Coleridge’s “Dejection: An Ode,” Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind,” and Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale” and “Ode to Melancholy.” For an earlier treatment of the theme of childhood innocence, see also Gray’s “Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College.” Discussion Questions 1. How do the language, tone, and style of this poem differ from those of the Lyrical Ballads? (For example, note the use of abstractions.) 2. In what ways are the language, tone, and style appropriate for the theme? 3. In what ways might the “timely utterance” of line 23 give relief, especially if it is another poem? 4. What is the significance of the Shepherd-boy in this poem? How does this compare with other poems about shepherd children, such as Michael? 5. What are the implications of the stepmother Earth helping man to forget his divine origins? 6. What is the relationship between the immortal soul and vision? What is the significance of the light imagery, particularly in stanza 5? 7. How is a child a “best Philosopher,” a mighty prophet, a seer blest? 8. Compare the image of adulthood as “the inevitable yoke” (124) with the poet’s freedom from the “habitual sway” of nature (191). 9. What does the poet gain by reflecting on “human suffering”? What is “the faith that looks through death”? How does this ending compare with the ambivalence in “Tintern Abbey”?
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