Discuss in detail about Wordsworth’s views on the choice of the language and the subject of poetry.

Introduction: William Wordsworth, pioneer of the Romantic Movement, exposes his own doctrine about the language and subject matter of poetry in the Preface to Lyrical Ballads. The Preface, regarded as an unofficial manifesto of the Romantic Movement. It is a result against the artificiality of the neo-classical poetry. He has revolted against the artificial diction of the eighteenth century poets. He has wanted to enlarge the scope of poetic language and to find a suitable language for the expression of the new territory of human life. 

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Two Traditions of Languages: Before discussing the theory in detail, firstly we can mention that there are two traditions of poetic diction or language. One is that which advocates for a particular and distinctive language for poetry. And another one advocates only for the language, which is really spoken by man. According to Wordsworth, poetry does not need any special language or special devices. He breaks the classical tradition and innovates a simple, unaffected and natural style, which reaches the heart of man. So Wordsworth is rightly called that, 

He was the first poet to bring the language of poetry closer to the vocabulary of everyday speech.”

Real language of man: Language for poetry, according to Wordsworth, should be the real language of man. It must not be separated from the language of man in real life. He affirms in his Preface to Lyrical Ballads that the language of poetry is,

“a selection of language really used by men, and, at the same time, to throw over them a certain colouring of imagination.”

Of course, the language also must be selected or purified from its possible coarseness,” painfulness or any disgusting aspect. The selection of language is very necessary. because the aim of a poet is to give pleasure. So without selection, a language must be detracted” from the pleasure.

Same language for both prose and poetry: The neo-classical poets advocated that the language of poetry is different from the language of prose. According to them, the language of poetry must be highly ornamental and figurative. But, Wordsworth clearly opposes this guidance and proclaims,

There neither is, nor can be, any essential difference between the language of prose and metrical composition.”

The language of prose and poetry are clearly related in their nature, function and appeal. The same materials are used in both. They originated from the same sources and appeal to the same faculties. In this point Wordsworth’s own words are remarkable,

Poetry sheds no tears, such as angels weep, but natural and human tears.

Poetry does not have any heavenly quality to distinguish it from prose. The same human blood runs through the veins of both prose and poetry. Here it is noted that, in the twentieth century, the difference between prose and poetry is decreasing gradually. 

Language of the rustics: Wordsworth had adopted the language of the humble and the rustic people after purifying its faulty syntax and other drawbacks(4) or defects. He used the language of the rural farmers in his poetry. He has chosen this language because the humble people live in close proximity with nature. He argues,

Such men hourly communicate with the best objects from which the best part of human language is originally derived.

Simple language but highly emotional: Wordsworth believes that the language of the rustics is simple, but at the same time highly emotional and passionate. Their language is more vivid, more forceful, more emphatic and more precise. He also advocates to support his views that-

  • It comes from the heart and thus goes directly to the heart. It is also more philosophical and permanent language.
  • It is capable of giving the highest poetic pleasure.
  • It is capable of giving the highest poetic pleasure.

Avoidance of artificial diction: He has avoided the use of artificial devices of poetic diction, used by contemporary poets. Wordsworth has tried to look properly at his subject. The language should fit the situation or feeling to be expressed. To Wordsworth, a poet who uses artificial devices of poetic diction must deserve a poor opinion of his own calling. The language of poetry should not differ from the ordinary language spoken by men.

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Personification of abstract ideas, rejected: Wordsworth has completely rejected personification” of abstract ideas in his poems. Personifications were the salient features of Eighteenth century poetry. His purpose has been to imitate, as far as possible, the very language of men. To him, 

Assuredly such personifications do not make any natural or regular of that language.”

Avoidance of frequent figures of speech: The language of poetry, according to Wordsworth, must be free from unnecessary use of figures, metaphors, and other such decorations. Metaphorical language is used only when the speaker is emotionally excited to express himself forcefully. But the eighteenth century poetic diction supported a figurative language in the poem, which was not the result of genuine passion. Wordsworth has also selected the proper place for figurative language. To him, when men feel emotional excitement, when they are animated, when they enjoy the ecstasy of creative faculty, then they use ornamental and figurative language as a result of powerful feelings. It is certainly suited for poetic purposes.

Unnecessary use of phrase and terms: Wordsworth has taken pains to keep clear of a large number of phrases and terms, which were used constantly and unnecessarily by previous poets. These terms had become disgusting and meaningless because of having been used foolishly by some poets.

Meter, an additional charm in poetry:: If, as Wordsworth has said, there is no essential difference between the language of metrical composition and the language of prose composition, he may be asked why he has chosen to write in verse instead of in prose. Then his answer to this question is that, he has used the meter for a number of reasons,

1. It adds to the pleasure of poetry.

2. It serves to control and check the emotions, and keep them within limits.

3. It subscribes to a sense of illusion and hence mitigates the effect of too painful subjects and descriptions.

No clear meaning of language: Actually, Wordsworth does not clarify what he exactly means by language. Language is a logical arrangement of some words. It is a matter of vocabulary as well as syntax. It is also a matter of the use of imagery. From our minute observation, we can say though Wordsworth delineates some distinctive opinions on the language of poetry, he does not narrate clearly what he means by language.

Read More: why is “Prefece to Lyrical Ballads” considered as the manifesto to the Romantic Movement?

Conclusion: Thus, we may conclude that Wordsworth’s theory language has a far-reaching importance. His rejection of special or high-flown poetic diction marks him as a farsighted poet, but his acceptance of meter shows his weakness. Wordsworth rejects poetic diction because it is artificial, capricious and arbitrary. He advocates the return to the ordinary language of humble men. Here it is wise to mention that no part of the Preface has invited so much adverse criticism as his concept of the language of poetry. Indeed, much of the criticism is due to misunderstanding, which is the outcome of Wordsworth’s absurd argumentation and faulty expression of new ideas.

Mottaleb Hossain
Mottaleb Hossain

This is Motaleb Hossain, working on studying, a researcher on English literature and Theology.

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