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Essay Supplementary To The Preface Wordsworth Tintern

Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Wordsworth’s Concept of Poetic Creation: An Interplay of Sensory Perception, Emotion, Memory, Reflection, and Imagination
2.1. The Basic Operations Involved in Poetic Composition
2.2. The Role of the Imagination

3. The Poetic Process Mirrored in “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud”
3.1. The Poetic Expression of the Transformative Operations Involved in the Process of Composition
3.2. The Work of the Imaginative Faculty

4. Conclusion

5. Bibliography

1. Introduction

“[P]oetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings,” William Wordsworth declares twice in his “Preface” to Lyrical Ballads[1] (242, 250). When reading this statement, one might have the impression that, from his point of view, poetic composition is solely based on the expression of emotions, excluding any reasoning or reflection about them. Of course, as he is a poet of the Romantic period, sensibility plays a significant role in his theoretical works, as well as in his poetry. However, it has to be taken into account that Wordsworth thoroughly qualifies both occurrences of this declaration: on the one hand, he explains that “poems to which any value can be attached, were never produced on any variety of subjects but by a man who, being possessed of more than usual organic sensibility, had also thought long and deeply” (“Preface” 242). On the other hand, he adds that poetry “takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity: the emotion is contemplated […] [and] is qualified […]” (250). Thus, despite the fact that emotions form the basis and the subject of poetry, the composition of a poem requires the interplay of certain intellectual powers, particularly the memory, contemplation and imaginative shaping of emotions.

In this context, it is worth examining how Wordsworth actually turns his concept of poetic creation into a concrete poetic act. For this purpose, his poem “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” serves as an illustrative example, because here, the poetic process is not only traced on the level of surface content and on the level of discourse, but also in the emotional development of the lyrical I, who speaks as a poet. Although the poem does not actually deal with the writing of poetry, it nevertheless mirrors the interplay of the powers necessary for poetic composition.

2. Wordsworth’s Concept of Poetic Creation: An Interplay of Sensory Perception, Emotion, Memory, Reflection, and Imagination

In general, Wordsworth is far from being a poet who gives purely objective and detailed descriptions of his physical environment. On the contrary, he continually emphasises that “the mind should inform the senses [and] that sensation should not become too exclusive and tyrannical” (Rader 131). This implies that, in his poems, the naturalistic description of an object or of an action only provides the framework for the expression of emotions: “the feeling therein developed gives importance to the action and situation, and not the action and situation to the feeling” (Wordsworth, “Preface” 243). Therefore, Wordsworth’s poetic theory is basically an expressive, not a mimetic one:

The appropriate business of poetry, […] her appropriate employment, her privilege and her duty, is to treat of things not as they are, but as they appear; not as they exist in themselves, but as they seem to exist to the senses, and to the passions. (“Essay, Supplementary to the Preface”[2] 63)

However, the poetic process does not exclusively consist in giving voice to one’s emotions, but is based on a certain emotional and mental development, at the core of which is the transformation from a “primary emotion [to a] secondary emotion” (Owen 42) effected by a combination of the powers of retrospection, reflection, and imagination.

2.1. The Basic Operations Involved in Poetic Composition

In his “Preface” to Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth describes the inner operations constituting the poetic process, as follows:

[P]oetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity: the emotion is contemplated till by a species of reaction the tranquillity gradually disappears, and an emotion, kindred to that which was before the subject of contemplation, is gradually produced, and does itself actually exist in the mind. In this mood successful composition generally begins […]. (250)

At the first stage, the poet’s mind shifts from the sensory perception of an external source, for instance, an object or event in nature, which affects and impresses him deeply, to “a primary emotion” (Owen 42). Although this stage offers the poet a basic inspiration for writing poetry, it precedes the actual production of a poem: being in an excited emotional state, overwhelmed by his feeling, the poet seems to be incapable of thinking further about it and of articulating it. There is obviously a “need for psychic distance […]: emotion [is] to be recollected in tranquillity and calmly transmuted into verse” (Rader 123).

On the one hand, it is indispensable that the poet has a certain personal distance from the experience and the emotion connected with it in order to be able to focus his attention and emotion on writing poetry. When he is in a calm state, his inner eye can look back consciously on the past experience, which is preserved as a “mental image [which] accompanies or is the source of the emotion recollected in tranquillity” (Pottle[3] ). This offers him the opportunity to recreate and relive the previously experienced emotion he intends to convey through poetry. On the other hand, discovering the significance of and evaluating the experience and the emotion requires a conscious reflection upon them, which helps the poet to become aware of “the value of actions, images, thoughts, and feelings; and assists the sensibility in perceiving their connection with each other” (Wordsworth, “Preface of 1815” 26). Consequently, it is only at a later point in time, when the powers of memory and reflection come into play, that poetic composition starts.

During this second phase, the poet’s mind is in a meditative phase of remembering and evaluating his original experience and emotion until the mood of tranquillity is gradually replaced by a secondary emotion or a “simulacrum” (Rzepka par. 39), which is similar to, but not identical with the first emotion, and poetic composition actually starts. As, according to Wordsworth, “poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” (emphasis added, “Preface” 250), it is actually this modified emotion that brims over suddenly, and is communicated through poetry: “the feeling must ‘overflow’ the poet’s mind, the site of its present ‘re-collection’ in the emotional simulacrum, and to ‘flow over’ into a material form, specifically, into the verbal ‘description’ that is the poem itself” (Rzepka par. 40).

In conclusion, during the poetic process, the poet does not only have an intense emotion excited by the observation of a concrete object or event, but also experiences a period of careful reflection on and modification of his feeling before expressing it. This development can be summarised as “the evaluation of past emotional experiences by a process of introspection which works upon the memory of the experiences” (Owen 40). From this mental processes involved in poetic composition, it can be inferred that Wordsworth does not believe in spontaneous composition at the moment of observation or experience, but in composition originating from the recollection and contemplation of a past emotion, which, in its modified form, overflows into poetry spontaneously.

However, there is also another force involved in the production of poetry – the sensory perceptions and feelings stored up in memory are also shaped and refined by means of the imagination before being expressed through poetry: “the emotion […] from various causes is qualified by various pleasures, so that in describing any passions whatsoever […] the mind will upon the whole be in a state of enjoyment” (Wordsworth, “Preface” 250).

2.2. The Role of the Imagination

In general, the imagination is a special inherent ability, particularly of a poet, which does not only work independently of the senses, and allows him to generate feelings internally without an external stimulus, but also influences his impressions of and reactions to the external world:

[H]e has […] a disposition to be affected more than other men by absent things as if they were present; an ability of conjuring up in himself passions, which are indeed far from being the same as those produced by real events, […] whence, and from practice, he has acquired a greater readiness and power in expressing […] especially those thoughts and feelings which […] arise in him without immediate external excitement. (Wordsworth, “Preface” 246)

The imagination contributes to the creative nature of the poetic act because it is involved in the transformation of the original experience and emotion. According to Wordsworth, “[i]magination is a subjective term: it deals with objects not as they are, but as they appear to the mind of the poet” (“Conversations”[4] 464), that is, to his imaginative, inner eye. It is a dynamic and creative force that belongs to a higher consciousness because it does not refer to objective mental representations of external phenomena, but produces a subjective view of real objects or events in the form of emotionally determined images. As a result, Wordsworth’s poetry is characterised by a fusion of sensations and emotions: “[it] is sensory and impassioned. It depicts not only concrete qualities, such as colour and sound, but also feeling-tones, such as urgency and grandeur” (Rader 181-182). This correlates with Wordsworth’s expressive theory of poetry: he does not describe what he actually perceives with his senses, but how the scene appears to his mind, and how it affects him emotionally.

Apart from its value as a creative force involved in the process of poetic composition, the imagination is also “a transcendental force, giving unity to all life and binding man to God” (Rader 146): it unearths the fundamental relationships between all natural phenomena forming their underlying interdependence and oneness. Hence, it is able to reveal the pantheistic idea of “the omnipresence of the divine spirit in all the workings of nature and in the creative activity of the human mind” (Rader 147).

To conclude, the imagination constitutes a core element of Wordsworth’s concept of poetic creation: the secondary emotion, which is finally communicated through poetry, does not only result from the interplay of sensory perception, emotion, memory, and reflection, but also from the power of imagination, which accounts for the creativity and originality of poetry. Furthermore, in most of Wordsworth’s poetry, the imagination as a metaphysical faculty allows him to obtain and provide a spiritual insight into the universal principles underlying nature, especially when he writes about the emotional unity, not only within nature, but also of man and nature. This general truth can only be detected by the inner eye of the human soul, and be felt by a highly sensitive person, in particular, a poet:

The principal object, then, which I proposed to myself in these poems was to choose incidents and situations from common life, […] and […] to throw over them a certain colouring of imagination, whereby ordinary things should be presented to the mind in an unusual way; […] and above all, to make these incidents and situations interesting by tracing in them […] the primary laws of our nature […]. (“Preface” 241)

3. The Poetic Process Mirrored in “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud”

Basically, Wordsworth’s poem “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud”[5] deals with the imaginative recreation of the sight of beautiful daffodils, which is a memorable incident in nature and a source of poetic inspiration for the speaker, who speaks as “[a] poet” (“IWL” 15): “the vision of the interconnecting forms of the natural world is clearly a poet’s vision and can only be communicated through poetic means” (Keith 13).

Moreover, this poem serves as an illustration of poetry as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings [which] takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity […]” (Wordsworth, “Preface” 250). Here, the speaker’s point of view and emotional attitude are presented both at the moment of the experience and at the time of composition, when the primary emotion is recalled through memory and has already been transformed into the secondary one by contemplation and imagination. “What we are offered is not only a result of the poetic process, but also an account of it” (Durrant 20).


[1] In parenthetical references cited as “Preface”.

[2] This essay does not belong to the “Preface” to Lyrical Ballads, but to the “Preface of 1815”.

[3] This quotation is taken from an online source where the page numbers are not indicated (cf. bibliography).

[4] Abbreviation for quotations from “Conversations and Reminiscences Recorded by the (Now) Bishop of Lincoln, &c.” in parenthetical references.

[5] In parenthetical references cited as “IWL”.

Brian Bates is a force to be reckoned with in the current war on literature--the conflict between, on the one hand, scholars and critics who believe in a class of privileged writing that for sheer magnificence deserves to be singled out as literature, and, on the other hand, scholars and critics who feel duty-bound and even appointed to deprivilege the "great," to level texts of every kind, and thus to treat a Chaucer manuscript (say) as no more awesome than a fourteenth-century laundry list. Though Bates's book includes no laundry lists, its attention to the advertisements at the back of Wordsworth's The River Duddon volume (1820) makes just such a challenge to the idea of literature, which is likewise challenged by the notions that Wordsworth's comments on his poems stand on a par with the poems themselves, and that parodies of Wordsworth deserve to be read just as closely as his poems have been. If nothing else, what makes Bates a force to be reckoned with is that he attacks the idea of privileged literature with the heavy, diverse artillery of these various para-literary forms. Others, such as Nicola Trott, have studied the contemporaneous parodies of Wordsworth, and "cultural critics" of Wordsworth and his age are legion; but Bates's work is unique in treating poetry, parody, footnotes, headnotes, incidental remarks, nasty reviews and the like as grist for the same mill. When he studies verbal repetitions or the language of the ordinary man in the parodies, for example, he carries over these curiosities into remarks about Wordsworth's poems as though all verbal repetitions or instances of ordinary language were of a kind. He does not separate bran from chaff.

Wordsworth himself believed that "every great and original writer in proportion as he is great and original, must himself create the taste by which he is to be relished" (Letter of May 21, 1807, paraphrased in "Essay Supplementary to the Preface" [1815]). Though this study deeply challenges the idea of a separate category of "great and original writing," even dissolving the distinction between "original" and parody, Bates earns the right to have his own work judged by the taste he would create. To read this book is to suspend one's annoyance at the triviality, unfairness, or anti-intellectualism of the parodies and to treat them (as Harold Bloom, in The Anxiety of Influence (1973) and subsequent studies of poetic tradition refused to do) as a seventh, serious, worthy "revisionary ratio." To read Bates's analysis of Richard Mant's Simpliciad (1808) with the same generosity, the same "taste," that Bates accords Mant is to discover something fascinating about Mant, about Wordsworth's "Resolution and Independence," or about the literariness of repetition-- whether it occurs in the Wordsworth poem, the Mant parody, or wherever. " 'Resolution and Independence,'" Bates declares, "shows how vacillating degrees of attention to repetition--even deformations like Mant's--can lead to self-discovery, sympathy, strength and independent reading" (76). Note that Wordsworth's poem is the subject of this sentence, and is being used to illustrate a feature of literariness (repetition) as characteristic of Mant as it is of Wordsworth. Later on the same page the agent changes: "Mant," writes Bates, "reveals that poetry and parody, verse and prose, writers and reviewers, redefine one another through continual acts of transformative reading." I should think, or I used to think, that Mant is no more the proper subject of the second sentence, and of all that is attributed to him, than is Wordsworth of the first. But Bates pushes me, or Wordsworth pushes me, or Mant pushes me, or some amalgam of poet, parodist, critic, and "the reader" pushes me towards the belief that the creative, critical, hypercritical, and impressionistically critical are all one.

One should note in particular the amalgam of cultural criticism and reader response theory. Bates often writes that Wordsworth and his parodists invite "the reader" to share in the creative process democratically. The chapter on Mant concludes: "Through his revisionary reading of Wordsworth's poetry, Mant's parody reveals how Wordworth's repetitious language and lined poems open up spaces throughout his 1807 volumes for readers to exercise and evaluate their roles as active and creative agents, who --by engaging with his poetic collection--are also asserting their capacity to uphold Wordsworth's ideals of British liberty." A reader hostile to Bates's efforts might wonder if doodling in the blank creative spaces between poems is participating in the grand tradition of British liberty. But to take seriously the injunction to let Bates, no less than Wordsworth, create the taste by which he is to be judged, one may begin to wonder if the parody cannot, despite itself, teach us something about what Wordsworth achieves in his (pardon me, Mr. Bates!) great poem.

If read generously, Bates's book can teach us something about fundamental qualities of Wordsworth 's style--simplicity, repetition, confusion of poet and speaker--which can indeed illuminate the poems that the parodists and Bates himself would "level" with those of Wordsworth. But a second great thematic thread running throughout the chapters on Wordsworth's prose and parodists of Wordsworth teaches us, I believe, less about Wordsworth than about a particularly dreary school of twentieth-century literary criticism: reader response. According to Bates, Wordsworth's supplementary prose democratizes composition by inviting "the reader" to reflect on (and as it were, compose) the order of poems. I would perhaps be unfairly parodying Bates if I called this concern a variety of "choose your own adventure," but Bates really does wish us to see Wordsworth's constant tinkering with the groupings of his poems as creative activity in itself and "open" to the reader as the composition of the individual poem is not. Here is the "reader thing" in its simplest form: "Through his prospectus Wordsworth attempts to include readers in the process of producing and collecting together his poetry"(81). To my mind, this would be sheer nonsense but for the fact that in the poems themselves Wordsworth sometimes implicitly and (in "Simon Lee" explicitly) turns to the reader:

My gentle Reader, I perceive
How patiently you've waited,
And now I fear that you expect
Some tale will be related.

Though these lines are not themselves an object of Bates's scrutiny, he aims to relate (he might write re-lating) how readers' expectations and choices enter the prose. But how does the Prospectus "include readers"? Is there something that readers "do," other than read? Are we invited to star poems that we like, to pencil in "see p. xx," to connect poems that the poet has not explicitly connected? To celebrate connections he has made? Here is Bates in one of his most fanciful formulations of this reader response theme: "Wordsworth's 'Preface' and 'Essay Supplementary to the Preface' announce the 1815 volumes as a living collection that can be activated only through his readers' participation in his textual design and anecdotal history of British culture" (92). Are the poems, then, like a touch screen computer that can be "activated" only by the reader's touch? Or is my parodic version of his true belief, like the belief itself, really about a touching compulsion in the affective sense of touching?

Since poetry and prose are said here to be no different in the kinds of engagement they invite, Bates's conception of Wordsworth's prose essays might be illuminated by what he writes of "Tintern Abbey." This poem, he says, "provides an experimental explanation of Wordsworth's poetic system, which enables readers to participate in constructing and exercising the poetic networks and historical contexts that compose his works" (998). Unlike Marjorie Levinson, who in her extraordinary essay on "Tintern Abbey" in Wordsworth's Great Period Poems (1986) tells us something about the historical context we might not have known from the poem, Bates invites us to "construct" historical contexts--as we see fit! Readers compose, recompose, exercise (play with? build up, like muscles?) contexts and connections that the poet may or may not suggest. In his most daring extension of readers' rights and privileges, Bates finds Wordsworth in "Essay Supplementary to the Preface" (1815) marveling at the variety of readers' responses to his work, marveling at "the love, the admiration, the indifference, the slight, the aversion, and even the contempt, with which these Poems have been received, knowing, as I do, the source within my own mind, from which they have proceeded." Though I do not see how the antecedent of they could be anything but Poems, Bates finds the antecedent ambiguous, so that they might refer to readers' responses. And so, he infers, the "'labour and pains . . . bestowed on them' could be both the poet's and readers'"(129). But if there is no privileged category of great poetry, then Wordsworth's prose and readers' notes are all "writings" of equal labor and potentially equal interest. It is no accident that Bates' most ambitious and far-reaching discussion should concern John Hamilton Reynolds' "Peter Bell," published two weeks before Wordsworth's poem appeared. Which is the "original"? What is "originality"? I think I hear Falstaff revising his speech on honor to transfer his contempt to originality, perhaps the Romantic equivalent, in terms of value, to honor in Shakespeare's Henry plays. Reading Bates, one may say of originality what Falstaff concludes about honor: "Detraction will not suffer it. Therefore I'll none of it. [Originality] is a mere scutcheon" (1 Henry IV 5.1. 138-39).

And so ends my catechism.

Leslie Brisman is Karl Young Professor of English, Yale Univeristy.

Brian Bates responds (26 September 2012):

While I am flattered to be reviewed by Leslie Brisman, whose work I have long admired, I must disagree with his account of my book, and especially with his insistence that it seeks to deprivilege the "great" while reducing Wordsworth's poetry to the same level as his comments on it. In choosing to feature my discussion of Wordsworth's 1807 Poems and Richard Mant's parody The Simpliciad, Brisman overlooks important claims set out earlier in the book. In chapter one, "Reframing Lyrical Ballads (1800/1798)," and chapter two, "Textual Travelling in the 1800 Lyrical Ballads," I argue that by a combination of new poetry and paratextual features, Wordsworth revised the 1798 volume to forestall the threat of negative criticisms and parodic responses. Through these textual creations and maneuverings, Wordsworth also attempted to "provide a connective framework for his poetic collection, separate his edition from similar publications (like Southey's), and alert readers to the particular reading experience that [he] had created through revision and careful arrangement of his poems" (30). Because Brisman pays less attention to these early chapters, he neglects the book's primary focus on Wordsworth's use of supplementary prose and the repetition of specific words from poem to poem to interweave "the place and placement of his poems with how readers build up their emotional responses to those poems" (56).

Tempting as it might be to engage in a point-by-point rebuttal of Brisman's claims, I will instead keep this response brief. What I want to emphasize for potential readers, and what I think Brisman does not acknowledge about the book, is my argument that the parodic reception of Wordsworth's poetry and prose in the first two decades of the nineteenth century ironically led to his canonical status. By the publication of his River Duddon volume in 1820, Wordsworth largely managed to "frame, reframe, combat and absorb the myriad responses of reviewing critics and parodists into his poetic collections" (1). I provide close readings of these parodies because, in the first two decades of the nineteenth century, Wordsworth's reputation and readership were largely shaped by the parodic framings and re-framings of his multi-voiced poems, shifting registers and supplementary prose. Moreover, these parodies demonstrate how intertwined Wordsworth's writings were with reader responses. Several chapters in the book reveal how many parodists and periodical reviewers of Wordworth's time sought to mock and undermine his uneven poetic power and to level his developing poetic system--poetry and supplementary prose--in the collections of his poetry published from 1800 to 1820.

Although many parodists and reviewers singled out Wordsworth's prose as a primary problem, I treat it as an instrument of self-canonization: "Wordsworth's poetic collections foreground a poet intent on developing the prefatory, concluding and marginal spaces in his books to foster paths of connective reading through his volumes, relate individual poems to the whole of his poetic project and life, publicize and defend his poetry and establish an enduring place in an emerging contemporary canon of British poets" (12).

Brisman's conception of my argument as a leveling one also prevents him from recognizing how the parodies I analyze often function as double-edged swords that, while attempting to denigrate and level Wordsworth's poetry, often unwittingly highlight the affective power of his poetic language. As chapter three makes clear, Mant's Simpliciad is an especially important example of this parodic tendency.

I value Wordsworth's poetry as great literature, and I take seriously statements such as his often quoted epistolary remark that "every great and original writer in proportion as he is great and original, must himself create the taste by which he is to be relished." However, I also consider remarks such as the piece of advice he once gave Samuel Rogers: "Why don't you hire somebody out to abuse you? And the higher the place selected for the purpose the better. For myself, I begin to fear that I should soon be forgotten if it were not for my enemies" (Letter of 13 May 1817). My book investigates the uncertain, and at times messy, reception of Wordsworth in the early 19th century and examines the significance of the supplementary texts and cultural forces that shaped his reputation, influenced his composition of poetry, and enhanced his posthumous renown. Despite Brisman's critique, I continue to insist that tracking the history of his reception means recovering the cacophony of voices surrounding and infusing themselves into the composition, publication, and reception of Wordsworth's poems.

Leslie Brisman replies (27 September 2012):

Literary history is certainly on Brian Bates' side: If, in my review, I could not help brooding on the implications of treating the prose and the parodies as worthy of teaching us how to read the poetry (so that repetitions in the parodies, for example, show us something about how to read repetitions of phrase in Wordsworth's lyrics), the fact remains that Wordsworth himself elevated the critical response to his poems, and among them the parodies, to an importance and a generative influence that perhaps no other writer before or since has accorded his reviews. For showing us how that worked, we must be very grateful to Brian Bates.

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