An analysis on a passage from William Wordsworth’s ‘The Preface to the Lyrical Ballads’
- Pages: 8
- Word count: 1919
- Category: Poetry
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…What is a poet? To whom does he address himself? And what language is to be expected of him? He is a man speaking to men: a man, it is true, endued with more lively sensibility, more enthusiasm and tenderness, who has greater knowledge of human nature, and more comprehensive soul, than are supposed to be common among mankind; a man pleased with his own passions and volitions, and who rejoices more than other men in the spirit of life that is in him. (Wordsworth 311)
In examining the passage, it can be seen that the questions Wordsworth poses to the poet and about the poet are essential in understanding where he or she comes from in defining their purpose in writing literature. The author’s first intentions were to have his readers recognize the poet as a person not coming from the elite or the upper class, rather, from the line of ordinary men.
This passage describes the poet as a simple and ordinary person. Yet, in looking at it carefully it is implied that no matter how ordinary or simple a poet may be, he or she may possess extra-ordinary qualities which will empower the poet to write works of literature in a keen perspective way. These qualities include the poet’s capacity to perceive or respond emotionally or aesthetically to the life around him or her; the poet’s eagerness in viewing a man’s existence as a whole but does not so with all of his or her mental and physical being; and lastly, the poet’s ability to analyze deeply and widely how humans are understood. For example, the poet will observe a man and see the wrinkles on his face and be able to discern and explicate the man’s pain, suffering and joys, and eventually explaining these wrinkles in a fashion that most people will not be able to come up with.
Poets write from their minds; however, their hearts speak to their readers. They never leave strong emotions locked inside their soul, they renounce to the world what the ordinary man tries to subside or hide away. They were blessed to have this strong ability of imagination to penetrate into their readers’ fantasy, and therefore awakening them of new thoughts. This ability of a poet makes him responsible not only of entertaining his readers, but most importantly feeding them with high-valued thoughts and insights. Furthermore, poets get all these inspirations in telling more to his or her readers because he or she is rich in life. Rich with all the goodness and pleasures not even money can buy. A poet celebrates life through his words and not just life itself but his existence with it. This is basically a poet’s life and how a poet lives based from Wordsworth’s perception.
However, Aristotle and Plato disagreed with Wordsworth’s perspective about the purpose of a poet’s life. Plato believes that poetry is actually an “inferior mode of mental activity” (27). The intent of any form of art is “inherently corrupting”. Plato was not a man of language and arts, and as such he believes that “hymns to gods and praises of famous men are the only poetry allowed in the State” (37). In Plato’s perspective, poetry is a way to “cheat and deceive people from reality. He addresses poets as imitators and that they are third removed the Godly truth, “… painting or drawing and imitation in general are engaged upon productions which are far removed from the truth, and are also companions and associates of a principle within us which is equally removed from reason, and they have no true or healthy aim” (35).
Consequently, Aristotle had the same views as Plato, particularly on the fact that literature in the forms of poetry, prose or verse was a form of imitation. However, Aristotle had a different view of imitation than that of what Plato believed in. In Plato’s view, imitation is a way of conflicting from the truth. While Aristotle on the other hand, regarded imitation as making something better than what we believe is the truth. He also further dissected the forms of imitation into three different genres, the first one, which is Aristotle’s main focus, is tragedy, the second is comedy and the third is epic.
As Plato and Aristotle believed that poetry is indeed a form of imitation, M.H. Abrams described imitation as a mimetic theory. With this, it means that a poet is mimetic if he or she “focuses on the relationship between the outside world and the work of art; it is but a copy of the outside world” (2). Abrams also proves further Plato’s beliefs that literature is mimetic when he wrote that, “in like manner the poet with his words and phrases may be said to lay on the colors of the several arts, himself understanding their nature only enough to imitate them” (33). In this case, Plato views poetry as purely mimetic where he regards it as a copy or mirror of reality. In his book the Republic, he reiterated that art indeed copies or imitates the material world when he said, “I think that we may fairly designate him (the author) as the imitator of that which other make.” (Richter 22). On the other hand, though Wordsworth views poetry as mimetic as well, he had a different explanation about it. His view of poetry being mimetic is that poetry can both be creative and imitative. With this, he means that the author writes not solely from the imitation of what he perceives but also from what he half creates. He also adds that poetry does not only mirror what is being seen but also digging deeper into the meanings behind them and interpreting them.
Aristotle also believes that poetry and poets are imitative and he reiterates this information as such, “Now epic poetry, tragedy, comedy, dithyrambic poetry, and most forms of flute and lyre playing all happen to be, in general, imitations; for all these accomplish imitation through rhythm and speech and harmony, making use of these elements separately or in combination” (59). But on another note, Aristotle also feels that imitation is not a bad part of the innate, “For the process of imitation is natural to mankind from childhood on; men, having been naturally endowed with these gifts from the beginning and then developing them gradually for the most part finally created art of poetry from their earlier improvisations” (61).
Aristotle’s tragedian studies further explore the use of plot and of character. One of Aristotle’s main points, in comparison with that of Wordsworth, is that poets should “imitate the noble sort of men” (70).Whereas, Wordsworth believes that the poet should write about “situations from common life and to relate or describe them, throughout, as far as was possible, in a language really used by men” (307). In this argument it can be observed that Aristotle has that impression that imitation is indeed the highest form of flattery, and since imitation is the art made through poetry, in his view, he regards poetry as a noble from of literature as well, unlike the impression Plato has of it. While Wordsworth’s works clearly shows that his heart in writing is really directed to the common life, not much of the nobility; directed to the layman’s language and not much about the one used by the elite; directed to the free flow of strong emotions and not much about the truth with scientific evidence.
Wordsworth’s motivating factor as a poet is life and people, thus further giving to his readers all the language he can without “gross and violent stimulants”. In addition he writes, “I have wished to keep my readers in the company of flesh and blood, persuaded that by so doing I shall interest him” (309). Furthermore, “the poet binds together by passion and knowledge the vast empire of human society, as it spread over the whole earth and over all time” (313). Wordsworth also believes that the poet needs to be one with his/her art. The poet must respond emotionally and be able to follow through with these feelings in his/her literature, “For all good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: …namely to illustrate the manner in which our feelings and ideas are associated in a state of excitement.” (308).
Knowing that these three minds were exposed to three different genres and schools of thought, it is understandable that they differ in viewing a lot of ideas. But not only do Wordsworth, Aristotle and Plato differ in their opinions as to the role of the poet and poetry as a whole, but they also differ in their critical theories. First and foremost, Wordsworth’s theory, according to Abrams fits into the expressive category. The Expressive Theory as proposed by Abrams states that it “represents the mind and soul, the work of art and the artist and the motivating factor that enables the poet to create” (2). In this theory, critics also find literary meaning from the author. The theory says that anything that the author writes is a mere product of his experiences, thoughts or imagination. And as such, it should be judged according to the author’s state of mind and vision during that time that he wrote it. Abrams views Wordsworth’s works to be directed from the poet’s capability to extract his thoughts and feelings from his mind, heart and soul and directly put it into written works.
As such, these three authors have different perspectives on what poetry is and what the poet should and should not do. No matter how dissimilar Wordsworth, Plato and Aristotle are, there is one thing they all agree upon; that the poet and his/her readers or audience “all find pleasure in imitation” (61). Wordsworth writes, “…modifying only the language which is thus suggested to him, by a consideration that he describes for a particular purpose, that of giving pleasure” (312). Wordsworth’s persistence in pleasing his readers is incredible, and again he writes, “…the poet ought to profit by lesson thus held forth to him, and ought especially to take care, that whatever passions he communicates to his reader, those passions, if his reader’s mind be sound and vigorous, should always be accompanied with an overbalance of pleasure” (316).
For many years, perhaps centuries, scholars have tried to give poetry the place of their own. Scholars needed to categorize the rhythmic and metered words into a format in which it can be studied. And indeed, Wordsworth decided to take a different road in this field. He challenges the whole literature’s contemporary society. He wants literature to be accessible to all people regardless of their social or political classes. In doing so, he defines the poet as an ordinary person with special talent or skills to describe the life of human beings. He believes a poet uses these talents and skills to further explore and understand what the world has to offer. The poet is indeed not a carpenter, sculptor or a painter, rather, a poet is a wordsmith and their catalysts are the simplicities of life that are brought to us on a canvas of pages.
Richter, David. The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends. Boston: Bedford Books, 1998.
Keane, Melba. “Wordsworth Poetic Theory.” (n.d). University of Toronto at Scarborough. 17 October 2008 < http://www.utsc.utoronto.ca/~mcuddy/ENGB02Y/Preface.html>