William Wordsworth 101
“What is a poet?” William Wordsworth asks in the Preface to the Lyrical Ballads (1800), and indeed few have answered that question with as decisive and lasting an impact as Wordsworth himself. Dissatisfied with “the gaudiness and inane phraseology” of 18th-century verse and inspired by his travels in revolutionary France, the great Romantic poet saw the role of a poet as “a man speaking to men,” as someone who could capture everyday people and events in everyday language. It was a revolutionary idea in English poetry: that the voice or speech of poetry should sound the way non-aristocrats actually spoke. But he didn’t stop there. In his remarkable Preface, Wordsworth provides his contemporaries with a new idea of a creative genius: an artist “who has a greater knowledge of human nature, and a more comprehensive soul, than are supposed to be common among mankind.” Lastly, his famous definition of poetry in the Preface as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings … recollected in tranquillity” continues to influence our ideas about the source and subject of poetry, as does his belief in the essential relationship between mind and nature.
Those revolutionary ideas were also Wordsworth’s poetic principles, which he applied to his own poetry throughout his long career. This sampling, presented in order of publication, offers a glimpse of how, in both form and content, his work expanded the notion of what was possible in poetry.
“The Tables Turned”
The language of this poem is typical of many in Lyrical Ballads, his landmark first book, which he coauthored with his friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Composed in rhyming quatrains of iambic trimeter or tetrameter, it imitates the songs of bards and the “plainer and more emphatic language” of vernacular speech. But instead of telling a story, as the book often does, “Tables” uses the form to make an argument—an argument to, ironically, “quit your books” and “Let Nature be your teacher.” His directives make historical sense: reacting to the scientistic foment of Enlightenment Europe, he offers a vision in which feelings and sensation, not “meddling intellect,” are held in highest esteem. “Come forth,” he invites us, “and bring with you a heart / That watches and receives.”
“She Dwelt among the Untrodden Ways”
Many of Wordsworth’s poems describe an illuminating encounter with a country person, with a wise (or at least impassioned) rustic who somehow enlarges the poet’s understanding. This powerful ballad, on the other hand, emphasizes its subject’s distance and isolation. One of a series of poems Wordsworth wrote about Lucy, an English girl who died young, its brevity gives it much of its gravity: just three stanzas long, its story is over almost as soon as it starts. Scholars have long speculated about the figure of Lucy, suggesting variously that she’s a stand-in for Wordsworth’s sister, Dorothy; a childhood friend; or a personification of Wordsworth’s muse. But her identity remains as unknown as the character in the poem, and she would have remained obscure if not for Wordsworth’s elevation—or invention—of her.
The final poem in the first edition of Lyrical Ballads, this meditative lyric is a model of the form and of Wordsworth’s belief in nature’s succor. Returning to the picturesque ruins of Tintern Abbey after five years, the poet seeks to reconcile past, present, and future: he laments the loss of the “dizzy raptures” he found in nature as a boy and anticipates how his more mature glimpses “of something far more deeply interfused” in “the mighty world / of eye, and ear” will continue to nourish his soul long after he departs. But the “green pastoral landscape” he describes here was already, notably, a memory, if not a fiction. Romanticism’s worship of the natural developed alongside rapid technological change, and, as scholars such as Marjorie Levinson note, Wordsworth’s famous portrait of the Wye excludes the coal barges traveling the river, Tintern’s ironworks, and the region’s manifest poverty.
“Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood”
For Wordsworth, children hold a privileged position: they are our “best Philosopher” and “Nature’s Priest” because their innocence allows them to “read’st the eternal deep.” But as this famous ode to childhood reminds us, this worldview is essentially tragic. “Heaven lies about us in our infancy,” Wordsworth writes, but “shades of the prison-house begin to close / upon the growing Boy.” This is the poem’s inciting “thought of grief”—that life is essentially a falling away, and “nothing can bring back the hour / of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower.” The poem ultimately returns to praise, resolving to “find / strength in what remains,” but Wordsworth continued to explore this problem of Romantic thought throughout his life, engaging with it in other poems, such as his proto-environmental sonnet “The World Is Too Much With Us.”
“Surprised by Joy”
Preferring forms more given to naturalistic simplicity, Wordsworth initially regarded sonnets as “egregiously absurd.” But after reading Milton with his sister (and important collaborator), Dorothy, in 1802, the poet became quite taken with the form and went on to write more than 500, including “Scorn not the Sonnet,” an ode to the poetic form. “Surprised by Joy” is among his most pained, personal pieces. Addressed to his daughter, who died in infancy, the poem finds the heart in conflict with itself: its irregular rhymes describe how her memory transforms a moment’s happiness to guilt and despair. It notably never identifies the source of that joy, his “transport,” and offers an honest moment in which Nature proves useless—if not indifferent—to the poet, offering only “unborn hours.”
“Extempore Effusion upon the Death of James Hogg”
As he gained literary stature later in his career, Wordsworth turned toward historical subjects, travel writing, and, increasingly, the elegy. Written in 1835, this poem eulogizes James Hogg, a fellow poet and friend. An uneducated folk poet, Hogg was an inspiration for Wordsworth and guided him on tours of the Yarrow, a river in Scotland that Wordsworth wrote about several times of the course of his career—first in “Yarrow Unvisited,” then “Yarrow Visited,” and finally in “Yarrow Revisited.” Wordsworth was given to creative relationships, to collaboration and commiseration, and this “effusion” sees Wordsworth also paying tribute to others who had recently died—his longtime confidant and interlocutor Coleridge and fellow poet Charles Lamb.
from The Prelude: Book 1: Childhood and School-time
Originally intended as a prologue to The Recluse, a long philosophical poem Wordsworth never completed, the 14-book Prelude instead became the poet’s magnum opus in and of itself. It was truly the product of a lifetime: Wordsworth continued to revise and expand his initial 1799 composition for many years, publishing a full version in 1805. A final, extended version of the poem was published in 1850, after his death. With The Prelude, Wordsworth sought to “be taught / to understand [himself]” and “to know / with better knowledge how [his] heart was fram’d.” This first section recounts incidents from his earliest childhood; later sections detail his philosophy of the imagination and his journeys to the Alps and revolutionary France. It is, in essence, an autobiographical epic, elevating his thoughts, feelings, and growth to the level of myth and to the classical subjects of Milton and Homer. This radical turn toward individual consciousness anticipates—and paves the way for—the subjective turn of 20th-century art and the prominence of the lyric mode in contemporary poetry.
Benjamin Voigt grew up on a horse farm in upstate New York. He earned an MFA in poetry from the University of Alabama and is currently a visiting assistant professor of English at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota.