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
• 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.
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
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
• 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
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
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.
• 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.”
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
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
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”?