Wordsworth's Theory of Poetic Diction

Wordsworth’s Theory of Poetic Diction

Wordsworth's Theory of Poetic Diction

Wordsworth was primarily a poet who had to become a critic by necessity. The new experiment which he had made in the Lyrical Ballads (1798) called forth a systematic defence of the theory upon which the poems were written.
Wordsworth protested against the traditions and usages set up by the pseudo-classical school during the 18th century. His views about the language which was to be employed in poetry raised a storm of protest against him even by such a close friend as Coleridge. He said that there could be no essential difference between the language poetry and that of prose. By expounding his theory Wordsworth did nothing wrong. He simply emphasized the use of a simpler language well within the reach of the cottagers and shepherds about whom he was composing his poems. Poetry was now coming out of the narrow groves of town life and was embracing the life of nature and humanity in its simplest and most unsophisticated forms. Wordsworth rightly felt that for the new poetry of the new age, a new language was needed. What he earnestly felt, he expressed in the second Preface to the Lyrical Ballads:
"The principal object proposed in these poems was to choose incidents and situations from common life, and relate or describe them throughout as far as this was possible in a selection of language really used by men…"
When we examine Wordsworth's statement regarding poetic diction, the following facts clearly catch our attention:
1. The language of poetry should be the language "really used by men", but it should be a selection of such language. All the words used by the people cannot be employed in poetry. Only some selected words which are used in common parlance can serve the purpose of poetry.
2. It should be the language of men in a state of vivid sensation. It means that the language used by people in a state of animation can form the language of poetry.
3. It should have a certain colouring of imagination. The poet should give the colour of his imagination to the language employed by him in poetic composition.
4. There is no essential difference between the words used in prose and in metrical composition. Words of prose and poetry are not clearly demarcated, so that words which can be used in prose can find place in poetry and vice versa. "What Wordsworth means is that the words used in conversation, if they are properly selected, would provide the rough frame-work of the language of poetry. When the poet is truly inspired, his imagination will enable him to select from the language really used by men.
These are the four basic principles of Wordsworth's theory of poetic diction. Wordsworth followed the main tenets of his theory in some of his poems, but it became pretty difficult for him to stick strictly to his theory when he came to such splendid poems as 'Tintern Abbey' or 'Ode on the Intimations of Immortality' etc.

Coleridge's critique of Wordsworth's theory of poetic diction

Though Wordsworth and Coleridge had been joint authors of the Lyrical Ballads, Coleridge differed from Wordsworth on some fundamental points. He wanted to clarify his own position. Seventeen years after the publication of the Preface, he took up Wordsworth's theory and analysed it part by part in his Biographia Literaria.
Coleridge wanted to correct Wordsworth's views about the language of poetry being "the real language of men in a state of vivid sensation" and also about the suitability of "the incidents of common life".
As to the falseness and artificiality of much of the neoclassical verse, Coleridge was in complete agreement with Wordsworth. But he would not accept Wordsworth's theory that the ideal language of poetry is 'the natural conversation of men under the influence of natural feeling'. He is of the opinion that only on the ground of differing from the language of real life a poem cannot be condemned. Nor could he accept Wordsworth's contention that 'there neither is, nor can be, any essential difference between the language of prose and metrical composition'. He says that this rule may be applicable only to certain classes of poetry and it need not be practiced as a rule.
Wordsworth said he chose rustic life, 'because in that condition the essential passions of the heart find a better soil, in which they can attain their maturity, are less under restraint, and speak a plain and more emphatic language'. To disprove this belief of Wordsworth, Coleridge remarks that there is nothing extraordinarily fascinating in the characters introduced by Wordsworth in his own poems. These characters appeal to us not because they are rustics, but because they are what Aristotle called, idealized beings. They are persons of a known class, and their manners and sentiments are the natural product of circumstances common to that class.
Turning more closely to Wordsworth's statement that 'the language too of these men is adopted because such men hourly communicate with the best objects from which the best part of language is originally derived; and because, from their rank in society and the sameness and narrow circle of their intercourse, being less under the action of social vanity, they convey their feelings and notions in simple and unelaborated expressions'. Coleridge remarks that 'a rustic language, purified from all provincialism and grossness, and reconstructed to be made consistent with the rules of grammar will not differ from the language of any other man of common sense.' Thus he denied Wordsworth's main assertion that a special virtue lies in the language of those who are in close touch with nature.
He also shows his disagreement with Wordsworth's assertion 'that from the objects with which the rustic hourly communicates the best part of language is formed.' His first objection to this statement is that the uneducated rustic "would furnish a very scanty vocabulary". Secondly, he denies that the words and their combinations, derived from the objects with which the rustic is familiar, can be justly said to form the best part of language. "The best part of human language", Coleridge emphatically says, "is derived from reflection on the acts of the mind itself. It is formed by a voluntary appropriation of fixed symbols to internal acts, to processes and results of imagination, the greater part of which have no place in the consciousness of uneducated man; though in civilized society by imitation and passive remembrance of what they hear from their religious instructors and superiors, the most uneducated share in the harvest which they never sowed or reaped." Moreover, even in rural language the best elements have filtered down to it from the Universities and the church. In fact, plain rustic language is so deficient that the missionaries who preach to the rural folk find it difficult to convey moral and spiritual ideas entirely in their vocabulary.
Coleridge further says that the language praised so much by Wordsworth varies from locality to locality owing to various influences. He then attacks Wordsworth's conception that words would come out of these simple rustics in their moments of natural passion spontaneously. Actually the expression depends on the general truths, conceptions and images and words already stored in mind. Giving illustrations from Wordsworth's own poems, he disproves Wordsworth's assertion that he was using the language of the rustics.
He goes to challenge the last important assertion of Wordsworth, "there neither is nor can be any essential difference between the language of prose and metrical composition". He argues that prose itself differs and ought to differ from the language of conversation just like reading ought to differ from talking. There exist a still greater difference between the order of words used in a poetic composition and that used in prose, unless Wordsworth had only meant words, and not the style of using them.
Coleridge's demolition of Wordsworth's theory of poetic diction remains even now as one of the finest examples of literary polemics.

Coleridge's views on imagination and fancy

Coleridge gave imagination an exaggerated significance. To him imagination is not merely spontaneous, unconscious and passive, but is active in the highest degree. This creative act calls the whole soul of man into activity. The essence of it is certainly not some form of automatic writing or dream-like activity unguided by the conscious intellect or will. The creative act, on the contrary, is a godlike act of power; it is the divine potency in man. The creative act by which the poet writes the poem is similar to the creative act by which god ordered the world out of chaos.
To fancy, Coleridge assigned a subordinate place. He distinguished it from 'imagination' with which it had often been used as a synonym. The associationistic thinkers of the 18th century, Locke, Hume and Hartley had made association or combination of sense impressions into images the entire business of imagination. Coleridge revolted against this mechanical concept of imagination. Though Coleridge owed much to Kant, Schelling, Herder and Schlegel for his theory of imagination, the deepest source was only Wordsworth. It was while reading some of his poems in the Lyrical Ballads that he learned to distinguish between imagination and fancy. He says that repeated meditations led him first to suspect that fancy and imagination were two distinct and widely differing faculties, instead of the general belief that they are either two names with one meaning, or the lower and higher degree of one and the same power. He says Milton had a highly imaginative mind while Cowley had a very fanciful mind.
The essential difference between fancy and imagination as brought out by Coleridge is that imagination modifies the things it combines and that it is a process of living growth. Fancy, on the other hand, can combine and recombine things, but it cannot transform them. The entire concept of fancy is mechanical in character. It is the 'aggregative and associative power' whereas imagination is the 'shaping and the modifying power.'

Reference: Wordsworth’s Theory of Poetic Diction


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