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It was Wordsworth’s belief that Nature has the power to subdue the human heart and to mould the moral life of man, thereby emphasizing the influence of natural objects upon a superstitious soul and the susceptibilities to good latent in every one. Some deft touches and beautiful stanzas. Coleridge Ancient Mariner combines the aesthetics of terror and sentimental morality and a composition undoubtedly influenced by personal remorse.
Critics argue that Coleridge treats a tale involving supernatural agency with naturalness of details in order to achieve an effect of reality, Wordsworth, reversing the principle, endeavors to produce the effect of supernatural awe entirely by natural means. In this essay, we will analyze that Wordsworth and Coleridge merely have a variety of interests, even of passionate interests; it is all one passion expressed through them all: poetry was for them the expression of a totality of unified interests. Examples from following poems both poets will be taken.
- Intimations of Immortality
- Lines Written a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey
- The world is too much with us
- The Rime of the Ancient Marine
- Kubla Khan
Wordsworth and Coleridge
The mood of enthusiastic emotional surrender was never quite natural to a temper so austere and self-contained as Wordsworth’s. His more characteristic mood is one of quiet reflection in which the mind lies open to impressions from without. He does not, like some nature lovers-Thoreau for example retire of set purpose into the solitudes to see what he can find there. There is always likely to be something of pose in such a love of nature as that.
Thoreau himself, in fact, never really much loved Nature with a big N: he only liked natural things, as most of us do, and was rather proud of living in the woods a year or two where he could see more of them than most of us can. But Wordsworth’s most delightful nature poems are concerned with “common things that round us lie.” He is not on the watch for impressions, striving to catch some universal fact or some new grace or hidden meaning. But in an hour of quiet reflection, some common object, something “that of itself will come,” will flash upon his imagination with a kind of glad surprise. Many of his shorter poems derive their charm from this power to give to the reader a fresh imaginative delight in simplest things.
This is Wordsworth’s claim to his high and lasting place. He has written not a line that is idle or insincere. Everywhere it is the quality of truth that gives highest value to his work. For example, in his nature poetry. It will now be generally admitted that Wordsworth is preeminently the poet of Nature. This not merely because so much of his poetry was inspired by the phenomena of the external world, certainly not because he had any unusual gift of description for he had not; but because of his peculiar view of the meaning and influence of what we call nature.
As that influence must be chiefly in the realm of feeling, it is not possible to express it adequately in words; but nobody will any longer deride the attempt to do so as merely subjective mysticism or empty raptures over stocks and stones. We have come to recognize that our deepest feeling in the presence of the outer world is something more than the mere sensuous delight in form and color, What we call beauty and sublimity in nature make their truest appeal to our moral sensibilities; and they imperatively suggest behind all the changing phenomena of the world some Universal Moral Life. In this conviction philosophy and religion are agreed, and science will not dissent.
Here, as elsewhere, Wordsworth has seen and spoken the deepest truth; and he was the first English poet to speak it. Different men may put different names upon this view of Nature; but every man who has well read his Wordsworth knows that the world has come to have for him a new and deeper meaning. Not merely because the vales of Grasmere and Rydal lie so fair in the embrace of their encircling hills do lovers of the poet resort thither as to a shrine; but rather because it was just this valley floor, these mist-wreathed hills, this slow moving river, that first spoke to the soul of William Wordsworth deeper truth than any other scene has ever spoken to any other poet.
Ode to Intimations of Immortality and Lines Above Tintern Abbey
It was probably the great disappointment of his career that he could never realize the plan of his youth in a Philosophical poem that should have largeness and unity. But he need not have been much dissatisfied, for in his best period, when his powers were in their early maturity, he did write three shorter poems which are the noblest utterances in modern poetry upon the warrant and the nature of duty — the Ode on the Intimations of Immortality, the Ode to Duty, and The Happy Warrior.
It is true that not all critics have been in agreement as to the value of the Ode on the Intimations of Immortality. Professor Knight, in his edition of the poet’s works, takes it out of its chronological place and puts it at the close, as “the greatest of wordsworth’s poems, and that to which all the others lead up.” Mr. Emerson found in it the highwater mark of modern poetry, and declared it to be the best essay on personal immortality. On the other hand, Mr. Matthew Arnold thinks the central thesis of the poem not true, and all the “intimations” based upon it, therefore, “no great things.”
It will be remembered that in planning the first edition of the Lyrical Ballads, the two poets agreed that Coleridge should “devote his endeavors to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic,” while Wordsworth was to choose such characters and incidents as may be found in almost every village. In accordance with this agreement, all of Wordsworth’s contributions to the volume, with the one notable exception of the Lines Above Tintern Abbey, were on common or humble themes.
Up to this time he does not seem to have considered the lives of humble folk an inviting subject for poetry. Neither in An Evening Walk nor in the Descriptive Sketches does he give more than incidental notice to persons; and when they are mentioned they are introduced chiefly to give more animation to his narrative. He says himself in The Prelude that up to his twenty-second year man was entirely subordinate to nature in his thought. In his Hawkshead days though “Shepherds were the men that pleased me most,” they pleased him not for their own sake, but because they seemed almost identified with the forms of Nature.
A variety of reasons doubtless influenced him, more or less consciously in this preference. His own failure in The Borderers had probably convinced him of his inability in the portrayal of violent passions or romantic adventure. The disappointment of his revolutionary hopes had quickened rather than depressed his human sympathies; if he had less confidence in any wide revolutionary movements, he had a warmer feeling for the individual man. Tired of all high speech about the rights of man, he based his hope of a better society upon the character of plain men and women.
It is in the Lines Above Tintern Abbey that we find the clearest and most complete expression of the influence of nature upon Wordsworth’s thought and feeling throughout all the best part of his life. Whoever would understand what nature meant to Wordsworth must know this poem by heart. There is little English poetry better worth knowing; it is hardly too much to say that no such noble verse, of such high thoughtfulness, had been written since the days of Milton. It may be well to quote it entire, and examine briefly its teaching.
The World is too much with us and The Rime of the Ancient Marine
The following sonnet, written two or three years later, is often quoted as embodying Wordsworth’s conviction of a Spiritual Presence without which the world is dead and life barren.
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The world is too much with us; late and soon, Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers: Little we see in Nature that is ours; We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon! This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon; The winds that will be howling at all hours, And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers. It is only in the frame of nature that one can have “the calm, contented mind”; only there can one win back one’s faith in human nature.
One can well believe that there are in the Universe more invisible Beings than visible. But who shall reveal to us the family of them? or their degrees and relations and distinctions and several endowments? What do they? in what region do they dwell? The human mind has ever eagerly desired knowledge of these things, yet has never attained to it. In the meantime it is agreeable, I confess, to contemplate in the mind, as in a picture, the image of a grander and better world, lest the mind, wonted to the trivialities of everyday life, be narrowed overmuch and sink wholly into mean ideas. But at the same time we must have a care for the truth, and observe moderation, that we may distinguish between certainty and conjecture, day and night.
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, the one great imaginative poem by which Coleridge is best known to the generality of men, should itself be the most famous illustration in our literature of a narrative poem with marginal glosses or commentary. The text that trickles in fine type along the margin did not form part of the poem as it first appeared in Lyrical Ballads ( 1798), but was added to the much revised version in Sibylline Leaves ( 1817). All too frequently the engrossed reader of The Ancient Mariner ignores that gloss, which is a superb stretch of poetic diction on its own account.
It was begun shortly after half-past four o’clock on the afternoon of November 13th, 1797; it was finished when the final proof-sheets of Sibylline Leaves were returned to the printer in 1815, almost two years before that volume was published. The Road to Xanadu makes clear that the richest material for future students of Coleridge’s writings is to be found in the note-books, the unpublished letters, and the marginalia.
Origin. Kubla Khan was probably written in the summer of 1798, though the author dated it a year earlier. Coleridge had retired to a lonely farmhouse between Porlock and Linton, on the border of Somer set and Devonshire. As a result of an anodyne to which he had resorted for the relief of severe pain, he fell asleep over the pages of Purchas’s Pilgrimage. He awoke some three hours later with a vivid consciousness of having composed not less than three or four hundred lines. “All the images rose up before him as things, with a parallel production of the correspondent expressions, without any sensation or consciousness of effort.”
His recollection of the entire vision was distinct, on awakening, and he began immediately to write it down. But he had written only the fifty-four lines that comprise the existing fragment, when he was interrupted by a “person from Porlock” who kept him in business conversation for an hour or more. When Coleridge was able to return to his writing, only a few scattered verses and dim images remained in his memory.
Coleridge’s poems are widely known. All decently educated children of our race or language read The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and it is a joy for ever. He who could unweave the magic of Kubla Khan could make the sun and moon stand still. Christabel, too, has enchanted tens of thousands, every one of whom cherishes his or her solution of its problem and rejects all others. This famous trio, which we may denominate Coleridge’s “Mystery Poems,” deserve the favour they have won. But without disparaging them, which would be preposterous, I wish to claim attention for other glories in his poetry, some of them full and perfect stores of beauty, others glowing solitary here and there in the deep, unfathomed caves of oblivion.
Quite distinct in origin, tone, and purpose from the Mystery Poems is a group of finished compositions, each “complete in itself and having a certain magnitude,” as Aristotle described the typical tragedy. These are the Conversation Poems, in which Coleridge, ever social, ever affectionate, seems to have in mind congenial friends, whose imagined presence stimulates and regulates his thoughts.
The difference between his struggle with the mystery of the mind and its several faculties and Wordsworth’s is that Wordsworth did not consciously and deliberately abstract all “natural man” from his own nature in the manner of a philosopher, but rather set about discovering himself in the whole, in the Other. The initial impulse in him leads of course to contemplation of the problem and its dangers; in Coleridge it is rather the other way around: the reflection and analysis through philosophical and psychological discursiveness seem necessary to arouse impulse, or at least to check it until ratified by reason.
It is because both poets, Coleridge and Wordsworth, attempt to solve the problem of the part’s relation to the whole in terms of that most intimate part of the world, individual consciousness, and try to solve it in terms of the imagination that we call them philosophical poets. We add at once that Coleridge is more nearly the philosopher. And so we may here introduce that much discussed problem which Coleridge is credited with having burdened criticism with, the distinction between the fancy and imagination.
Damrosch David Anthology of British Literature, Compact Edition, Volumes A & B, The: The Middle Ages to the 20th Century, 2/E Longman 2004.