This actually wasn’t as bad as I was anticipating…and I do love being able to say that. Wordsworth’s language wasn’t half as cryptic as I though it would be, so I had a much easier time understanding him than I did Milton or Donne. I guess it would make sense, though, being as he is a 19th poet as opposed to a 17th century one. Really the only piece I was annoyed with was The Prelude, so let’s do that one first.
The Prelude, Books 1 & XI
Genre: Philosophical and autobiographical poem in blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter). Wordsworth began writing this long poem when he was 28 and worked on it for the rest of his life without publishing it. It contains 14 books, but thankfully, we only have to read books I and XI. And I guess what keeps it from being an epic is that it isn’t really a narrative nor does it contain themes that concern an entire people…I think.
Themes: Constant reflection is what I got, especially concerning Book I which is even titled “Introduction – Childhood and School-Time.” Book XI is entitled “Imagination, How Impaired and Restored,” and goes with most of the other books and another general theme of Wordsworth reflecting on his vocation as a poet and how it has developed over his life. It is a spiritual autobiography that focuses on Wordsworth’s mind and imagination, which is in stark contrast to say, someone like Milton, who wrote Paradise Lost and focused on the relationship between man and God.
History: The Prelude was first published three months after Wordsworth’s death and it is said that he was greatly troubled by the idea that it would never be finished. If he had completed it the way he wanted to, it would have been three times longer that Paradise Lost. But honestly, he worked on it from the ages of 28 to 80…if he hadn’t finished it yet, would he ever? Just saying…
Lines composed a few miles above Tintern Abbey
Genre: Tightly structured blank verse with elements of an ode, dramatic monologue, and the conversation poem. The label of conversation poem is chosen as it is Wordsworth’s sister, Dorothy that he is addressing in the end.
Themes: There is much description of the area surrounding the abandoned Tintern Abbey and these descriptions outline Wordsworth’s general theories on nature. He also often looks back on a time when Tintern Abbey was not in ruins, and switches time between the past, present, and future. The poem manages to blend the spiritual with the natural as Wordsworth kind of worships the nature around Tintern Abbey by use of words and phrases such as “divine creation” and “sublime.” Because of the surrounding nature, Wordsworth feels alleviated from his doubts about God, religion, and the meaning of life.
History: Tintern Abbey was abandoned in 1536, and Wordsworth’s first visit to it was in 1793 and without his sister. Now, in 1798, he is visiting once again with his sister, whom he is addressing in the poem. Wordsworth claims to have composed the entire poem in his mind while walking away from Tintern Abbey, and wrote it down later.
Genre: “Michael” is a pastoral poem that details the life of a simple shepherd and eventually focuses on the loss of his land and eventually his son and life.
Themes: There is definitely a general theme of loss coupled with sacrifice in this poem. Michael’s life initially starts out well as he is a landowning shepherd who eventually gets married and has one son, Luke. Michael then sacrifices half of his land in order to help a nephew who has fallen on hard financial times. In the hope of getting the land back, he sends away his son to the big city to learn a trade a gain the wealth to eventually buy the and back, but instead Luke becomes corrupted by the big city and is forced to leave the country, leaving Michael without his land, son, and eventually his life. For me it is a bigger picture of the loss of the simpler ways of life, as Michael is a simple aging shepherd who loses his son to the big city.
History: This poem was published along in the 1800 edition of Lyrical Ballads.
Resolution and Independence
Genre: Lyrical poem written in rhyme royal (a rhyme royal stanza consists of seven lines all in iambic pentameter…think Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde) that expresses personal and emotional feelings.
Themes: On the surface this is a poem about Wordsworth’s encounter with a leech-gatherer (yep, that is a thing apparently). The poem starts out with the poet’s joy of taking a simple walk outside, then all of a sudden at stanza IV, the nature surrounding the poet isn’t that great anymore and the poet is suddenly overwhelmed by feelings of anxiety over his own future (“And fears, and fancies, thick upon me came”). After rather morbid thoughts about past poets who all died fairly young, the poet comes upon a leech-gatherer whop accepts his own hardships with patience and acceptance, therefore lifting the spirits of the poet. Throughout the poem, the poet goes through a full range of emotions going from blind happiness, to dejection, and then to a sort of peace despite his own fears.
History: Apparently Wordsworth actually did encounter a leech-gatherer two years before he wrote the poem. He coupled his experience with the leech-gatherer with the despondent feelings he felt two years later on one of his many walks.
The Ruined Cottage
Genre: I think with this one I will go with either dramatic monologue or conversation poem, or both, written in blank verse. In the poem, an old man is telling the poet a story about Margaret, a woman who used to live in the now ruined cottage. It could almost be considered an ode as well as it the old man could easily dedicate his story to Margaret.
Themes: This poem reminds of “Michael” in that it tells the story of someone whose life started out well, and then went horribly wrong due to circumstances beyond their control. Margaret grows up, gets married, has a kid, then her household is stricken by famine and disease, leading to her husband leaving her after he has regained his strength, then the death of her child, then the death of Margaret. Yeah, pretty depressing.
History: This poem was published in 1800 in Lyrical Ballads.
Preface to Lyrical Ballads (1802)
Genre: An essay by Wordsworth for the second edition of Lyrical Ballads in which he basically presents his argument for what poetry is and how it should be written.
Themes: Basically, I can sum up the argument with this: Wordsworth believed in writing about situations common to men in language that is actually used by men only with more imagination while using the primary laws of nature. Maybe this is why I can understand him so much more easily than others – he seemed to believe in keeping it simple. No more of this elevated speech nonsense.
History: Wordsworth’s theories greatly influenced the expansion of serious literature so that even the common man could read it and enjoy it, since it was about things the ordinary man actually took part in and understand as it also used his language.
A little more history…
Wordsworth, along with Samuel Taylor Coleridge, helped launch the Romantic Age of English literature, which was a reaction to the Industrial Revolution and a rejection of the aristocratic social and political norms of the Age of Enlightenment (hence the emphasis on the common man as well as language and events they would be familiar with). It was also a reaction against the scientific approach to nature and emphasized the use of imagination and feeling. Along with Wordsworth and Coleridge, the other major Romantic poets were William Blake, George Gordon, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and of course John Keats.
See, now that wasn’t so. Next time I’ll jump ahead about 150 years to Sylvia Plath. While not my favorite poet, at least she uses language and themes I can relate to just a little bit more easily.