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(In)Congruence in the Poetry & Prose of Wordsworth & Arnold:
Defining the Romantic/Victorian Divide
I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud
By William Wordsworth
To Marguerite: Continued
By Matthew Arnold
YES! in the sea of life enisl’d,
With echoing straits between us thrown,
Dotting the shoreless watery wild,
We mortal millions live alone.
The islands feel the enclasping flow,
And then their endless bounds they know.
But when the moon their hollows lights,
And they are swept by balms of spring,
And in their glens, on starry nights,
The nightingales divinely sing;
And lovely notes, from shore to shore,
Across the sounds and channels pour —
Oh! then a longing like despair
Is to their farthest caverns sent;
For surely once, they feel, we were
Parts of a single continent!
Now round us spreads the watery plain —
Oh might our marges meet again!
Who order’d, that their longing’s fire
Should be, as soon as kindled, cool’d?
Who renders vain their deep desire?—
A God, a God their severance rul’d!
And bade betwixt their shores to be
The unplumb’d, salt, estranging sea.
Romantic and Victorian poets are notable for the amount of their own prose commentary with which they contextualize their poetry and the poetry of precursory and contemporary poets. These commentaries, each in their own right, are a “statement of poetics,” and, in the Age of Enlightenment and industrialization, an act of apologetics—a justification of poetry’s importance for the human race. They represent poetry and the poet in the ideal. The union of the roles of poet and critic or commentator in writers, such as William Wordsworth and Matthew Arnold, raises questions about the congruence of their poetry and prose; their poetry presumably should be an instantiation or representation of the ideals that are presented in their prose commentaries. To use a theoretical tool provided by Arnold in The Study of Poetry, the criticism and commentaries of poets, such as Wordsworth and Arnold, should be the touchstone for testing the metal of their poetry. Framing their poetry within the context of their idealistic poetics reveals not only the ways in which they, as individual poets, succeed and fail in their enterprises, but also how these relative successes and failures are perpetuated in a broader system of “reader-response” that leads to the divide between Victorians and Romantics. The congruities and incongruities present in the applications of Wordworth’s and Arnold’s poetics, as expressed in Preface to Lyrical Ballads and The Study of Poetry, to their respective poetry reflect the shift from the Romantic conception of the poet as elevated from his fellow men to the Victorian conception of the poet as isolated from his fellow men as a result of his elevation. For the purpose of this short essay, I will focus on the presence and/or absence of the main point(s) of the Preface in “I wandered lonely as a cloud” and presence and/or absence of the main point(s) of the Study in “To Marguerite — Continued.”
A brief look at the critical attention that both the Preface and the Study have received illuminates some of the main points of both, which will later be applied to the above mentioned poems. T. Olivier, in one of the first critical essays strictly focused on the Preface, declares that “Wordsworth the poet was very different from (and much better than) Wordsworth the theorist” (64), suggesting an incongruence between the Preface and the actual ballads it introduces. He ascribes this incongruence to the intellectual influence and pressure upon Wordsworth from Coleridge, arguing that the “gratification” in the Advertisement to the 1798 edition of the ballads and the “pleasure, which [Wordsworth] hope[s] to give by [his] poems,” (Bartleby ) are the only real expressions of Wordsworth’s poetic designs for the ballads. Anuradha Dingwaney and Lawrence Needham, in their essay “(Un)Creating Taste: Wordsworth’s Platonic Defense in the Preface to Lyrical Ballads,” also pick up on the problem of making too strict a connection between the theory or ideals presented in the Preface and the Romantic nature of Wordsworth’s poetry. They observe how Wordsworth’s Preface “has [in fact] provided some of the terms critics use to discuss Romantic discourse” (333). The terms they remark upon are poetry as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” and a poet’s style as “the incarnation of thought.” They further identify two common, critical approaches to the Preface: either 1) as explicating the poetic enterprise of the Lyrical Ballads, or 2) as a manifesto of the Romantics theory of poetry. Dingwaney and Needham, as this essay also attempts to do, argue for the insufficiency of each approach when taken absolutely. Following in the steps of Olivier, Thomas Pfau begins his essay, “‘Elementary Feelings’ and ‘Distorted Language’: The Pragmatics of Culture in Wordsworth’s Preface to Lyrical Ballads,” by addressing the influence of Coleridge in Wordsworth’s Preface, and observes how critics have turned to his influence to explain the text’s apparent “internal tensions, inconsistencies, discontinuous argument, and confused sense of purpose” (125). Finally, William Hatherell, in “‘Words and Things’: Locke, Hartley, and the Associationist Context for the Preface to Lyrical Ballads,” notes “the apparent incongruity between its grandiose claims and many of the poems that it prefaces” (223). Although Wordsworth’s Preface has received relatively little critical attention when one takes into account the body of Wordsworth criticism, the problem of incongruence between it and The Lyrical Ballads has been consistently addressed over the past 40 years.
The same problem has been observed and addressed by critics in Matthew Arnold’s The Study of Poetry. Darrel Mansell with his essay, “Matthew Arnold’s The Study of Poetry in Its Original Context,” attempts to resolve the problem by exposing the often overlooked historical context of the text: “The Study of Poetry, like one of its own touchstones…almost always appears out of its original context.” For John P. Farrell, the author of “Introduction: Matthew Arnold: The Writer as Touchstone,” this very problem of incongruence is a natural result of Arnold “situat[ing] himself at the crossroads,” of the intersection of “the poet’s life, the critic’s life, and the culture’s life with his life” (9). Although the word “touchstone” only appears once in the essay, other than in its title, Farrell argues that Arnold, in the way he existed in that point of intersection, is a touchstone for poets and critics alike. Donald Stone locates for us an interesting main point of Arnold’s Study in his essay, “Matthew Arnold and the Pragmatics of Hebraism and Hellenism,” namely that “mankind will discover that we have to turn to poetry to interpret life for us, to console us, to sustain us” (emphasis added, 184). Stone’s argument is that Arnold’s English contemporaries “lacked, in short, an objective awareness of their Hebraic background (its negative and positive qualities), and they desperately needed a Hellenic perspective”; for Stone, this Hellenic perspective is one of the reason for the touchstones in Arnold’s Study. Examining the criticism of the past half century that engages Wordsworth’s Preface and Arnold’s Study individually manifests a few of the main important points in each essay, and also illustrates how frequently critics have returned to the problem of incongruence between the poets’ poetry and prose.
Dingwaney and Needham’s bring to our attention “style” as a main point in Wordsworth’s Preface. Wordsworth’s commentary on style and his commentary on the nature of the poet are the two main points of the Preface that this essay will concern itself with. Not only are these two points important and discussed at length in the Preface, but, relative to each other, they also manifest an incongruence internal to the text that is indicative of both the incongruence that occurs between Wordsworth’s theory and his poetry and the larger problem that causes this incongruence.
Wordsworth begins his Preface by expressing the “subjects and aims” of his poems, but after a few paragraphs shifts to an explanation of “their style,” so that the reader “may not censure [him] for not having performed what [he] never attempted” (emphasis added). Note the double-negative construction his phrase and how he does not say “so that the reader may not censure him for not having performed that which he attempted.” He proceeds by way of negation to describe his style, principally defining it by the absence of “personifications of abstract ideas” in his poetry, which he declaims as a popular, “mechanical device” poets subscribe to in order to “elevate the style, and raise it above prose.” He decries the supposed “necessity of accompanying metre” with “certain appropriate colours” and “other artificial distinctions of style.” He further states that “it cannot be necessary here, either for elevation of style, or any of its supposed ornaments…where the Poet speaks through the mouths of his characters.” Wordsworth defines his style negatively against the objective practices of contemporary and precursory poets, yet when he attempts to describe his own style positively he masks it with subjectivity. He goes so far as to say:
…I do not know how to give my Reader a more exact notion of the style in which it was my wish and intention to write, than by informing him that I have at all times endeavoured to look steadily at my subject; consequently, there is I hope in these Poems little falsehood of description, and my ideas are expressed in language fitted to their respective importance.
He defines his style by reassuring the reader not that he has “looked steadily” at the subjects of his poems, but that he has always “endeavored” to do so. This reassurance is the most “exact” description of his style he can produce, and it is, by his account, proof enough of the veracity and appropriateness of his poetic descriptions. The subjectivity that dominates this description of Wordsworth’s style aligns itself well with his descriptions of poetry as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.” Furthermore, it is interestingly understandable given the cultural objectivity (the Age of Enlightenment and the industrial revolution) to which he was responding. Wordsworth is not oblivious to the dominating role of subjectivity in his poetics. In fact, he concludes his preface with a request directed at the reader—a request in which he insists on the need for the reader’s subjectivity to dominate his interpretation of the poems:
“One request I must make of my reader, which is, that in judging these Poems he would decide by his own feelings genuinely, and not by reflection upon what will probably be the judgement of others… This mode of criticism, so destructive of all sound unadulterated judgement, is almost universal: let the Reader then abide, independently, by his own feelings, and, if he finds himself affected, let him not suffer such conjectures to interfere with his pleasure.”
Beginning and ending his preface with “pleasure” as the end or “aim” of his poetry is itself an indication of how subjectivity is the dominating feature of Wordsworth’s poetics. This subjectivity reappears in the large section of the Preface, in which Wordsworth discusses the nature of the poet, what a poet is.
Wordsworth asks “What is meant by the word ‘poet?’” and “What is a poet?” The first answer he supplies is “a man speaking to men.” This reply reveals another type of incongruence internal to the preface. In the first section of the Preface, Wordsworth identifies the general type of subject that his poems are about: “incidents and situations from common life,” from the “humble and rustic life.” Yet, later, he comments on the “increasing accumulation of men in cities,” a fact which suggests that the “rustic” (rustic, from the Latin adjective rusticus, -a, -um, originally meaning “from or pertaining to the country”) and rural subjects of most of Wordsworth’s ballads are increasingly uncommon “incidents and situations” for the common man. This slight incongruence itself indicates a type of subjectivity underlying Wordsworth’s statement that a poet is “a man speaking to men.” Wordsworth goes on to qualify what he means in that statement by “a man”:
“…a man, it is true, endowed with more lively sensibility, more enthusiasm and tenderness, who has a greater knowledge of human nature, and a more comprehensive soul, than are supposed to be common among mankind.”
This qualification introduces yet another internal incongruence in the Preface concerning one of the few positive descriptions Wordsworth gives of his style, namely the type of language he uses in the ballads. In the second sentence of the Preface, Wordsworth states that his poems are the “metrical arrangement [of] the real language of men in a state of vivid sensation.” He also later, as has been quoted above, claims that a reciprocal relationship exists between the ideas, subjects, and sensations of his poems and the language in which they have been expressed. Yet, given this correspondence between sensation and language in his poetry, how can his language be the unelevated, “real language of men,” since he as a poet is “endowed with a more lively sensibility” than common men? This example of incongruence points to a problem between the subjectivity of the Romantic poet and his claim that his poems are not elevated in style or language.
Turning to Matthew Arnold, an early Victorian poet, we see an interesting representation of the problem of subjectivity in his “essay” (also, as Olivier makes clear, an introduction to a collection of poems), The Study of Poetry. Though I focused on two of the main points in Wordsworth’s Preface, style and the nature of the poet, in examining the Study I will focus on only one, Arnold’s creation of the “touchstone” as a theoretical tool for critics, for which his essay is most famous. Unlike Wordsworth, who exhibits a sort of anxiety about congruity between his poetics and poems and writes an apologetics of them in the Preface, Arnold, more famous as a critic and facing “oncoming multitudes of a common sort of readers, and masses of a common sort of literature” (327) calls for an objective method of evaluating the merit of poets and their poems. The method he “sought to point out” in the Study is his concept of the touchstone:
“Indeed there can be no more useful help for discovering what poetry belongs to the class of the truly excellent, and can therefore do us most good, than to have always in one’s mind lines and expressions of the great masters, and to apply them as a touchstone to other poetry.” (311)
Arnold the critic, unlike Wordsworth the poet, fears the influence of subjectivity on poets and poetry, and as a preventative measure suggests a supposedly objective system which allows us to ascertain the presence and degree or absence of “high poetic quality”:
“If we have any tact we shall find them, when we have lodged them well in our minds, infallible touchstone for detecting the presence or absence of high poetic quality, and also the degree of this quality, in all other poetry which we may place beside them.” (312)
Arnold’s system is a system of comparison and application of the “great masters” (311) or the “great classics” (327) to less “objectively” great or classic poets. It is a system based on congruence. Arnold introduces the touchstone as a theoretical and evaluative tool in the first third of the Study, and spends the final two thirds applying it to Chaucer and Burns; in the case of Chaucer, he uses it to overturn the public estimation of Chaucer, whereas in the case of Burns, he uses it to establish Burns as a “poet with thorough truth of substance and an answering truth of style, giving us a poetry sound to the core.” Oddly enough, despite his efforts, the respective reputations of both poets haven’t changed much in the course of history. It is quite possible that Arnold’s argument for the devaluation of Chaucer and the better estimation of Burns fails because of the failure of his touchstone method in dealing with the problem of subjectivity. Arnold fails to address the question of subjectivity in his selection of the objective “lines and expressions” that compose the touchstone. He fails to see that he, in his Study, is the subjective arbiter of objectivity. The furthest he goes in explaining the touchstone occurs after his list of a handful of “lines and expressions” from Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, and Milton:
“These few lines, if we have tact and can use them, are enough even of themselves to keep clear and sound our judgments about poetry, to save us from fallacious estimates of it, to conduct us to a real estimate… The specimens I have quoted differ widely from one another, but they have in common this: the possession of the very highest poetical quality.” (313)
The very quality which these lines, as the touchstone, are to ascertain is ascribed to them subjectively on the basis of Arnold’s authority as a critic. Before doing a brief reading of “I wandered lonely as a cloud” and “To Marguerite — Continued” in light of the incongruence in Wordsworth’s and Arnold’s prose, the similarity between the two poets’ perception of the ends or aims of poetry should be reviewed. As has already been noted, pleasure and gratification are the aims of Wordsworth’s poems in Lyrical Ballads. Arnold begins the Study by stating that “more and more mankind will discover that we have to turn to poetry to interpret life for us, to console us, to sustain us” (306). Quoting Wordsworth’s Preface, Arnold contextualizes this statement about the aims of poetry with the disturbing consequences arising from the industrial revolution and the scientific discoveries propelling it. Later, Arnold comments further upon the sustaining, consoling nature of poetry:
“The best poetry is what we want; the best poetry will be found to have a power of forming, sustaining, and delighting us, as nothing else can.” (307)
The idea that poetry ought to give pleasure and gratification and delight, ought to console and sustain is congruent in both Wordsworth and Arnold.
This congruence is striking when we examine the poems “I wandered lonely as a cloud” and “To Marguerite — Continued.” Both poems deal with the sensation of loneliness, yet the dominating figures and spatial metaphors in each are drastically different. Wordsworth’s poem the loneliness, “I wandered lonely as a cloud” (Norton 334, line 1) with which it begins is not static; there is a movement in the first three stanzas from the lonely wandering of the first stanza to the gayness, “A poet could not but be gay” (335, 15), of the third stanza. The fourth stanza is a microcosm of this emotional movement of the first three stanzas. It begins with the speaker lying on his “couch / In vacant or in pensive mood” (19-20), and ends with his “heart” filling “with pleasure / And danc[ing] with the daffodils”(23-24). What causes or characterizes this movement from a vacant, pensive mood of loneliness to a gay, dancing heart that is filled with pleasure? The microcosmic movement of the fourth stanza is caused by the speaker of the poem reflecting on the significance of the poetic movement described in the first three stanzas. This poetic movement is characterized spatially by vertical elevation. The feeling of loneliness is a feeling of “float[ing] on high o’er vales and hills” (2) and seeing a “crowd, / A host, of golden daffodils…fluttering and dancing in the breeze” (3-6). This vertical representation of loneliness, as giving one a subjective perspective on that which one is elevated or separated from is symbolized in the final stanza by the memory this experience “flash[ing] upon that inward eye / Which is the bliss of solitude” (21-22). The verticality of the spatial metaphor in Wordsworth’s poem is especially significant in light of the non-elevated, common, and rustic character that, in the Preface, Wordsworth represents his poetry to have.
Arnold’s poem, “To Marguerite — Continued,” represents solitude with a horizontal spatial metaphor. The first stanza introduces the metaphor: “Yes! in the sea of life enisled…We mortal millions live alone” (Poetry and Criticism of Matthew Arnold 81, lines 1, 4). Although there is movement too in Arnold’s poem, it is the movement of insubstantial and delusional sound: the “lovely notes” of nightingales “pour[ing]” from “shore to shore” (11-12). In Arnold’s poem, the speaker is not elevated; he is on the same plane as the “mortal millions,” who like himself are isolated each from the other. In Arnold’s poem, the subjective description of the feeling of isolation and loneliness does not create a cathartic movement toward “the bliss of solitude.” Solitude is still solitude, despite the delusion of the nightingales’ song that touches upon the shores of every island. The horizontal spatial metaphor of Arnold’s poem is especially significant, in the same way as the verticality of Wordsworth’s poem, in light of Arnold’s theory of the touchstone.
The shift in spatial metaphors in Wordsworth’s and Arnold’s poems about solitude and isolation reflects the Romantic/Victorian shift in the perception of the poet’s nature relative to the common man. Furthermore, the internal incongruences found in both Wordsworth’s Preface and Arnold’s Study also reflect the same Romantic/Victorian shift. The incongruences present in the Preface refer for the most part to the relationship between the nature of the poet and style. Wordsworth presents the poet as elevated from the common man in his sensibility, yet despite this elevation, the Wordsworthian poet deludes himself into thinking he has maintained a common grounding with the rest of mankind by means of his style and language. The incongruences in Arnold’s Study revolve around the attempt to create a common objectivity of “high poetic quality” that can be used to isolate and incorporate poets on the common horizontal plane of quality. The respective congruences and incongruences between the two poets’ poetry and prose display the manner in which the Romantic elevation of the poet is read and rewritten as isolation; the role of subjectivity in creating the Romantic elevation is also read and rewritten as the cause of universal isolation. Yet, the problem of subjectivity is not completely eluded, as is witnessed both by the common perceived ends of poetry that both Wordsworth and Arnold hold and by the failure of touchstone theory.
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Pfau, Thomas. “‘Elementary Feelings’ and ‘Distorted Language’: The Pragmatics of Culture in Wordsworth’s Preface to Lyrical Ballads.” New Literary History. 24.1 (Winter, 1993):125-146. Print.
Stone, Donald D. “Matthew Arnold and the Pragmatics of Hebraism and Hellenism.” Poetics Today. 19. 2 (Summer, 1998): 179-198. Print.
Wordsworth, William. “Preface to Lyrical Ballads.” Preface to Lyrical Ballads. William Wordsworth (1800). 1909-14. Famous Prefaces. The Harvard Classics. Bartleby, Web. 30 Oct. 2013. <http://www.bartleby.com/39/36.html>.