Responding to Wordsworth: A Critical History

Undergraduate Rachel Thorpe's essay traces the history of Wordsworth's critics. He has meant very different things to different historical periods, but he has consistently been provocative. Where some poets have long periods of neglect, Wordsworth has been distinctive in persistently causing profound, worthwhile problems to later generations.

'An Eddy of Criticism'

Wordsworth is a poet who never seems far from critics' minds. From the moment of his first publication (in 1793), there has been no shortage of critics ready both to dismiss him and to idolise him. His close friend and fellow poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, recognised early on that the sheer amount of critical attention threatened the poems themselves: '[His work] produced an eddy of criticism, which would of itself have borne up the poems by the violence, with which it whirled them round and round'. (This, and the other references in this article, can be followed up in 'Further Reading' below). It is within this whirlpool of critical voices that Wordsworth's poetry exists for us today.

It seems that new generations of critics never tire of evaluating and re-evaluating the ideas found within Wordsworth's poetry, and reinterpreting their significance for a new generation. Whether they love him or hate him, critics of every age have felt it important to communicate their views on his verse and his critics include Hazlitt, DeQuincey, Matthew Arnold, T.S. Eliot and Harold Bloom. Just what is it about the poetry of Wordsworth which seems to provoke such disparate responses?

Reactions of Wordsworth's Contemporaries

Early readers of Wordsworth were confused by Wordsworth's poetry. They objected to his thoughts about language, metrical arrangement, his poetics and his seemingly low subject matter. Despite his having written a large amount of prose discussing his new style of poetry, readers often found this prose yet more infuriating and perplexing (a mood which perhaps Wordsworth registered by writing more and more prose in the early nineteenth century). Coleridge voiced this frustration with poetry that required an explanation, stating: 'nothing can permanently please, which does not contain in itself the reason why it is so, and not otherwise'. Thus readers largely set the prose aside in order to interrogate the poems themselves.

wrote damning reviews of a number of Wordsworth's poems. Most notoriously, he wrote an especially stinging review of The Excursion in Edinburgh Review, beginning with the infamous line 'This will never do'. He claimed that Wordsworth was arrogant, irresponsible, and 'silly'. Jeffrey found the moral of Wordsworth's poem obscure, and objected to his use of diction, his lowly subject matter and what Jeffrey imputed as an abstruse system in the poem. He concluded that, 'The case of Mr Wordsworth, we perceive, is now manifestly hopeless, and we give him up as altogether incurable, and beyond the power of criticism'.

But other critics had less aggressive reservations. agreed that Wordsworth was not a truly great poet, and even called him the 'spoiled child of disappointment'. However, he suggested that 'his strength lies in his weakness' and that while his poetry was limited, he was still 'the most original poet now living'. This respect for him is evident in Hazlitt's prose which is bestrewn with allusion to and citation from Wordworth's verse.

Hazlitt also noted that the tide seemed to be turning in Wordsworth's favour, something that anticipated. In fact De Quincey felt sure that he had discovered Wordsworth's genius at least thirty years before the reading public, who were sure to recognise it soon. He attributed the growing critical disregard for Wordsworth to the fact that people needed time to see the 'eternal truths' behind them. He predicted that the poems were destined to increase in popularity as people recognised his 'sympathy for what is really permanent in human feelings'. Memorably, he claimed 'whatever is too original will be hated at first. It must slowly mould a public for itself'.

And he seemed to be right. Critics such as Wordsworth's friend Charles Lamb wrote favourable reviews, in which flaws were highlighted within the context of friendly teasing. Coleridge too catalogued at length what he saw to be Wordsworth's faults, not unlike Jeffrey had. However, his aim was to prove that despite all of these, Wordsworth was still a truly great poet. He claimed that his synthesis of meditative solitude and an energetic excitement of the mind meant that he was capable of producing 'the first genuine philosophic poem'. Whether he ever in fact achieved this has been a recurrent critical debate, as we shall see.

Artistic Responses

Coleridge was not only a critic of Wordsworth - he was a fellow poet. His engagement with the poetry was creative as well as intellectual. He and Wordsworth had worked together on the Lyrical Ballads, and Coleridge was keen to point out that their collaboration did not mean that they held identical views about the task of poetry, or indeed on the Lyrical Ballads themselves. Indeed, as the years passed, their friendship became increasingly strained. Perhaps this was partly due to Coleridge's constant awareness that Wordsworth was the greater poet, and the dissipation of his own poetry as Wordsworth's grew into maturity. However, it was also undoubtedly due in some part to Wordsworth's growing contribution and dominance over the Ballads after 1798. Coleridge was highly concerned to articulate his own position, and often when he appears to be discussing Wordsworth, it is because he states Wordsworth's arguments, and then deliberately distances himself from them in order to highlight his own aesthetic theories and practices.

One novelist who gravitated towards Wordsworth was George Eliot. Her novels show the extent to which she admired Wordsworth as a simple poet of nature and rural beneficence. They shared an identification with the English rural landscape. His influence is perhaps most felt in her novel Silas Marner, where the epigraph is a snippet of one of his poems. She herself commented that she had doubted anyone at all would appreciate the novel seeing as 'Wordsworth is dead'. But it was not only Wordsworth's poetic style, but his philosophy which was inspiring people. John Stuart Mill, the famous economist and philosopher, was profoundly moved by the sentiments he found in Wordsworth. He became inspired by Wordsworth's visions of individuality and the dignity of the human. Wordsworth's concerns with aspects of existence that touch us on the profoundly personal level added nuances to Mill's thoughts about social justice and reform.

The Victorians

A recent critic, Stephen Gill, noted that Wordsworth is often approached by critics in the Victorian period not because of his poetry, but because their own 'visibility [their prominence as critics] is enhanced by a full-dress re-appraisal of Wordsworth's contemporary significance'. Wordsworth was becoming central to literary culture, not only because of his poetry but because of his reputation. The name 'Wordsworth' sold books, and so people began to write about him to gain fame for themselves. Everyone had an opinion on Wordsworth and wanted to share it. People even began to travel to Wordsworth's home in Grasmere on a poetic pilgrimage of sorts. 'The Sage of Rydal Mount', as Wordsworth became known, was now the living relic of a shrine. People journeyed there to take clippings from the garden, or even to converse with the master himself. And indeed they still do today, to partake of the 'famous Grasmere gingerbread'.

Matthew Arnold, an important Victorian social and literary critic, wrote of Wordsworth 'I, for one, must always listen to him with the profoundest respect'. However, he thought that ultimately, Wordsworth could never be a truly great and permanent poet of the stature that Coleridge had suggested he might be. He felt the poetry of Wordsworth and the other Romantic poets to be 'premature', produced 'without sufficient materials to work with'. Arnold summarises: 'In other words, the English poetry of the first quarter of this century, with plenty of energy, plenty of creative force, did not know enough'. This was a shortcoming not of the poets themselves, but of the society in which they were writing; this response is ironic in that both Coleridge and Wordsworth read copiously in numerous fields. But for Arnold, both the strength and the weakness of Wordsworth's poetry would always be that it had its 'source in a great movement of feeling, not in a great movement of mind'.

Modernist Discussions

The modernists framed Wordsworth as their point of departure from the poetry of emotions. rebutted the idea that good poetry was 'the spontaneous overflow of powerful feeling', instead suggesting that it was in fact an escape from emotion and personality. He felt that critics should be turning their attention away from the feelings and opinions of the poet to re-focus on the poetry. A modernist preference for concrete imagery and language meant that Wordsworth was often considered suggestive and vague.

A few critics tried to reclaim purpose within this haze. M.H. Abrams characterised Wordsworth's poetry as having an outward-looking intention not entirely dissimilar from that at the centre of the Modernist project. He claimed that everything in Wordsworth's poems calls us to look beyond, always to something higher, deeper, better, something beyond the self. In contrast, Geoffrey Hartman claimed that Wordsworth's poetry calls us not out into nature, by deep into the mind of the poet himself. He was interested in Wordsworth as a poet of a of thought, or what he labelled Wordsworth's 'consciousness of consciousness', his thinking about his own thinking. The focus was clearly on Wordsworth's ideas, as he became the 'poet-philosopher'.

Specificity vs. Transcendence

critics such as Marjorie Levinson and Jerome McGann began to treat Wordsworth's expansiveness and introspection with suspicion. They considered a poem not only to be an aesthetic construction of language, but also a cultural product. Their approach was not only linguistic, but also conceptual and ideological. Their focus was on the historical aspect of the poems, which they felt had been much ignored since divorced poetry from its context. In reclaiming what had become known as 'cultural contamination' they looked through what they considered to be Wordsworth's elusive and generalising poems to find the specific historical moments which they thought lay behind them They claimed that any sense that his poetry transcends material history was an illusion, created by displacement and evasion. Thus theirs was the approach of analysing the unmentioned things behind the poem. Unfortunately, for many this implied that Wordsworth had focused on nature and beauty at the expense of recognising the harsh reality of the world around him. However, Levinson has been keen to suggest that in fact far from being divorced from his surroundings, he was so deeply affected by them that he could only bear to mention them in passing and so feigned aloofness.

Recently, however, a critical challenge to this approach has returned to a serious consideration of Wordsworth as a philosophical poet. David Bromwich and Simon Jarvis have both argued against criticism that attacks what is supposedly absent from Wordsworth's work. Instead they argue that Wordsworth's arguments in verse might still have ramifications for our own philosophising today. Bromwich was keen to suggest that Wordsworth did write this 'philosophical song' and Jarvis more generally suggests that, 'His [Wordsworth's] writing is always breaking through to some experience for which the available fails'. They believe his poetry to be a living moment of human truth, which exists beyond any one historical event, cultural cause, or life circumstance. This is not because they think that Wordsworth was not interested in 'the '. Jarvis is deeply interested in Wordsworth's response to its own cultural movement, but is keen to point out that his poetry might also take in a broader historical sweep of thought. Using theorists like , Jarvis argues that we must consider how Wordsworth treats a continuum of ideas and forms in his poetry - ideas and forms that have their own histories.

Bromwich has in fact called for a complete reappraisal of Wordsworth, suggesting that we cast aside idealised visions of him as the prophet of nature, and remembering that he was a man - at times a disagreeable one - who wrote poetry. By remembering this, we can perhaps gain a more realistic picture both of the poet and the poetry. And the debate is not over. While Wordsworth maintains his honoured position in the English canon, he will continue to be a centre of critical activity. For, whatever the reason, we can surely agree with Coleridge when he wrote that the sheer volume of critical writings 'leave no doubt in my mind, that Mr. Wordsworth is fully justified in believing his efforts to have been by no means ineffectual'.

Further Reading

Here you will find a list of the sources for quotations above. Other opinions (e.g. Lord Jeffrey quoted above) can be found in The Cambridge Companion to Wordsworth, ed. Stephen Gill (Cambridge, 2003), or indeed in William Wordsworth: The Critical Heritage, ed. Robert Woof, vol. I: 1793-1820 (London, 2001).

  • Abrams, M.H., Natural Supernaturalism: Tradition and Revolution in Romantic Literature (Oxford, 1971).
  • Blake, William. Complete Writing, ed. Geoffrey Keynes (Oxford, 1957).
  • Bromwich, David, Disowned By Memory: Wordsworth's Poetry of the 1970s (London, 2000).
  • Coleridge, S.T, Biographia Literaria ed. J. Shawcross (Oxford, 1907).
  • De Quincey, Thomas, Recollections of the Lake Poets, ed. Edward Sackville-West (London, 1984).
  • Gill, Stephen, Wordsworth and the Victorians (Oxford, 1998).
  • Hartman, Geoffrey H., Wordsworth's Poetry 1787 - 1814 (Yale, 1964).
  • Hazlitt, William, The Spirit of the Age: Contemporary Portraits (London, 1825).
  • Jarvis, Simon, Wordsworth's Philosophic Song (Cambridge, 2006)
  • Lamb, Charles,Lamb's Criticism (ed.) E.M.W. Tillyard (Cambridge, 1923).
  • ---- Selected Writings (ed.) J.E. Morpurgo (Manchester, 1993).
  • Levinson, Marjorie, Wordsworth's Great Period Poems (Cambridge, 1986).
  • McGann, Jerome J, The Romantic Ideology: A Critical Investigation (London, 1983).

The George Eliot quotation comes from a letter she wrote to her publisher, John Blackwood, on 24th Feb 1861 and can be found in the introduction by Terence Cave to the Penguin edition of Silas Marner.

Further Thinking

Rachel Thorpe quotes Simon Jarvis saying that Wordsworth is always 'breaking through' to something that words struggle to express. Can you find moments in the poems where this seems to be happening? Or would you put it another way?

It seems as if people have, for a variety of reasons, reacted against Wordsworth. Are there things that you react against - even if overall you are persuaded of his merits?

If you have a comment on any of the issues raised here, or if you have read something really good about Wordsworth, you can leave a reply here.

Lord Francis Jeffrey was a Scottish judge and critic.
Relating to metaphysics, which is the study of existence and the world at a level more fundamental than sciences attempt. Topics like ontology (the nature of being) and cosmology (the nature of the universe and our place in it) are part of metaphysics.
One of the greatest English critics and essayists of the early 19th century. He knew Wordsworth and Coleridge well.
Thomas De Quincey was an essayist and critic, and also the author of Confessions of an English Opium Eater (1821), an account of his drug experiences. He was an acquaintance of Wordsworth who moved to the Lake District and even lived in Dove Cottage, formerly Wordsworth's house.
As well as being one of the foremost Modernist poets, author of The Waste Land and Four Quartets, Eliot was an influential literary critic with strong views.
The study of experiences and consciousness. A 'phenomenology of thought' aims to understand thought by considering its first-person effects, what it feels like, how it is experienced, etc.
Also known as Cultural Materialism, a critical movement in which Stephen Greenblatt's work on Shakespeare (especially Shakespearean Negotiations) played a key role. The essential project of New Historicism is to read literature in relation to its historical context, but very much as part of that context - as a form in which the tensions, contradictions, and power-dynamics of a culture are all at work, not as something which observes all that from on high.
An important literary critical movement of the mid-20th century, which emphasised close reading, undermined the important of contexts, authorial intentions, etc., and often prized ambiguity as a crucial literary feature. A good example of the New Criticism is Cleanth Brooks's book The Well-Wrought Urn (1947).
Another word for Dictionary; the point is that some Wordsworthian poetic experiences appear to be beyond words, or at least beyond words as they were/are currently used.
A phrase used by William Blake in Jerusalem.
One of the greatest cultural philosophers of the 20th century, Theodor Adorno's ideas straddle many fields. Perhaps his most important contribution to literary criticism is his complex analysis of how thoughts and ideas work in society (things they can and cannot do), and how literature and culture can work as critiques of the prevailing power structures.

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