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William Wordsworth and the Romantic Imagination

14 Jun 2017Other Essays

William Wordsworth is one of the most influential Romantic poets who created a unique style of writing based on ideals of nature and imagination. His poetry was based on Romantic ideas opposed to Realism. Snatches of realism remain very welcome to Romantic sensationalists, especially as an escape from the starched dignities of Classicism. The Romantic reaction was healthy; but, like most reactions, it became extravagant and so unhealthy in its turn. As a Romantic writer, Wordsworth’s style grows more eloquent, more magical in the music of phrase and imagery, more impressive in the frank intensity of his feeling an imagination, in the atmosphere that passion can create. Thesis Wordsworth applies romantic imagination to theme and stylistic devices which help him to unveil unique feelings and settings of his poems.

In Hart-Leap Well nature herself is explicitly present in the poem; there are numerous comments on what she can, cannot, will, will not do. And there is the assurance, in the last stanza of the poem, that she is the primary teacher here, not the poem nor the poet nor the storyteller. Characters in the poem, like its readers, are taught by Nature--"Taught both by what she shows, and what conceals" (Wordsworth 178). Wordsworth uses Romantic imagination when uses a telling phrase and a crucial idea, that Nature's teaching is done both by revealing and concealing. A poem that teaches in Nature's way must be a mixture of revealing and concealing also. What is actually revealed in the poem is, as usual with Wordsworth, quite straightforward, as long as we stick with only the overt revelations. The poem is actually two short stories. One is the almost casual tale of a traveler who narrates his own adventure and who, like every poetic persona, both is and is not the poet himself (Abrams Meyer 54). The traveler on horseback tells of coming alone and by chance upon a sight which arrests his attention and his movement. The sight is not particularly impressive and could easily be passed without notice:

It chanced that I saw standing in a dell
Three aspens as three corners of a square;
And one, not four yards distant, near a well.
(Wordsworth 102)

Wordsworth as poet achieved exactly what he wanted to do: he conveyed not so much his own thoughts or judgments but, he conveyed the inspiration to the process of thought. In The Prelude where he denounces miseducation and specifically denounces "how books mislead us," he expresses his hopes for his own writings, his own books, his determination to make "verse / Deal boldly with substantial things" (Wordsworth 35). In these stirring words, which remain substantially the same from their composition in 1804 to their publication in 1850, he writes:

haply shall I teach,

Inspire; through unadulterated ears

Pour rapture, tenderness, and hope,--my theme (Wordsworth 132).

This approach, based on Romantic imagination, is one that requires that most of virtues, an utter and unshakable faith in the trustworthiness of the human mind and its destiny, a surety that the mind which remains in genuine motion will not for long go astray.

In The Idiot Boy, Wordsworth uses Romantic imagination to unveil surface and settings of the poem. There is the poet's desire to agitate the reader's mind and provoke the reader's imagination by a depiction of "the great and simple affections." There is also his intention to rip out of the hands of "the wealthy Few" their longtime monopoly of books and poetry. There is, further, his desire to lead his readers into enlarged sympathies and purer moral feelings. And there is his aim to do all this in the context of the tradition of the affirmative comedy of feeling (Abrams Meyer 59). But these multiple aims are not only complex but in some ways actually divergent. What can unify them, what the poet in this poem depends on to cement these incongruous elements, is his attention to the theory of language, an attention which is at once profoundly revolutionary in its concern for common speech but also very much a part of the long tradition of poetic concern over the sanctity of the word. in The Idiot Boy, a poem seemingly so different from those great works of English neoclassicism, Wordsworth once again focuses, in his own distinctive way, on both the divine and the human qualities of language, its basis and origin in our nature, and the effects of language on the "gentle agitations of the mind" both within the poem and within the receptive reader (Baugh 71). But this boy of the published poem is not really a different person from Wordsworth, any more than Lucy Gray is. He is Wordsworth's childhood, dead and gone, but not forgotten; contemplated and renewed in contemplation in a way that might otherwise seem quite morbid in a child mooning in a graveyard (Bateson 44). For, says the poet,

through that churchyard when my way has led
On summer evenings, I believe, that there
A long half hour together I have stood
Mute--looking at the grave in which he lies!(Wordsworth 31)

So it is too in the reluctance to decide that Lucy Gray is finally dead, completely and forever lost. They became far more sensitive, more enthusiastic, less hide-bound by rules--in practical criticism the advance is plain; but they tended also to become gushing, bardolatrous, muddle-headed, and mysterious, with a fondness for windy and cloudy theories that we are still plagued with to this day (Baugh 3). Neo-classic criticism doubtless had too much "reality principle"; but their Romantic successors stagger terribly at times from lack of it. There may be no more demanding poet than Wordsworth. The demands he makes, though, are not those of other poets. He does not perplex by an unfamiliar vocabulary nor a complexly involved syntax nor by learned allusions and literary citations in a variety of often very exotic tongues requiring explanatory footnotes exceeding in the space they occupy the poetry they are designed to elucidate (Baugh 31). For regardless of what readers, or Wordsworth himself, may believe about the immortality of the soul and the eternal nature of Man, there is not, except in this sense, any real permanence in childhood. We all may live forever; indeed, many believe we will. But, except in this very limited sense, the child that every adult once was is gone forever

In sum, Romantic imagination is based on a balance between unique settings and theme s of nature and personal imagination of the author, his unique style and stylistic devices. Poetry, it is urged, remains completely free of fact. Different poems are the means of assuming different "emotional attitudes"; and the more the merrier. Each is a different drug, giving a different dream; a new enchanted cigarette in a foggy world where all is smoke. The literary connoisseur can become all things to all gods; literature serves as a sort of combined camel and mirage to carry him across modern life. It is very curious, this latest revival of Romanticism in a mystical setting. Wordsworth uses the balance, the proportion, the control, the power to coordinate, of the great masters; the intelligence and grace of the man of the world; the quiet sympathy a writer needs in order to observe and delineate characters other than his own or shadows of his own--that exaggerated ego which in the Romantics often grows as bloated as an ant-queen among her crawling subjects.

Works Cited

  • Abrams Meyer H., ed. English Romantic Poets: Modern Essays in Criticism. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1975.
  • Bateson F. W. Wordsworth: A Re-interpretation. London: Longmans, 1956.
  • Baugh Albert C., ed. A Literary History of England. 2nd ed. New York: Appleton, 1967.
  • Wordsworth William. The Poetical Works of William Wordsworth. 1940-49. Ed. Ernest de Selincourt and Helen Darbishire. 5 vols. Oxford: Clarendon,

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