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12/27/2018

Faults of Wordsworth's poetic theory according to S. T. Coleridge.

   In chapter xxii of the “Biographia Literaria” , Coleridge examines in detail the various faults of Wordsworth's poetry. His criticism of Wordsworth is intelligent and penetrating.     The following are the children defects of Wordsworth as listed by Coleridge:    The first characteristic, though occasional, defect in the poems of Wordsworth is inconsistency of style, a tendency to sink abruptly from the height of a happy style to the common level, to a mannar undistinguished and almost prosaic. His style is not uniformly excellent. If we divided language into three categories-- first , that which is peculiar to poetry; secondly, that is proper only to prose. And thirdly, that which is neutral or common to both--- we shall find that Wordsworth frequently sinks to the second kind, causing thereby a sudden alternation of feeling which, except in a few cases, is bound to create an irritation in the mind of a reader of cultivated taste. It comes as a shock to that expectation, concerning the language and style of poetry, with which a reader approaches a poem.  The second defect may be called a matter of factness in certain poems. This fault is of two kinds. In the first place, it consists in a laborious minuteness and fidelity in the representation of objects, and their positions, as they appeared to the poet himself. Secondly, there is an elaboration of accidental circumstances in order to explain the actions and dispositions of his characters. Such circumstantial details may be necessary and proper in real life to establish the truth of a statement about a living person. But in a poetry they are not merely superfluous, but also object able, because they go against the very nature of poetry, which , according to Aristotle, should deal,  not with the particulars, but with the universals. As an instance of this defect, Coleridge refers to the minute accuracy in the description of local imagery in some  passages of “The Excursion” where the poet seems to emulate the art of painter. It is a mechanical art of building the whole by laboriously joining together the separate parts. The poet should paint to the imagination, and not to the fancy. His picture should be organic 'the latency of all in each’ , of the whole in parts, involving even the interchangeablity of senses, eye for the ear, for example.    The second kind of matter of factness results from a minute adherence to details of Characters and incidents, in order to explain biogrphical facts concerning the characters. Coleridge points out that the business of a poet is to stress, not the points in which one person differs from another person, but these which are common to all persons. Secondly, the immediate aim of poetry is not communication, not of truth but of pleasure, and the poet who moralises through a character, as Wordsworth often does, is more of a preacher than a poet. And the case is made worse when such a character is associated with a low profession which has nothing to do with truth and morality. It is when the poet speaks in his own person that he both delights and instructs. Wordsworth would have done better to present the truth and wisdom, put in mouth of the Pedlar in “The Excursion”, directly in his own person, and style suited to his genius.  The fourth defect of Wordsworth's poetry is an excessive fondness for the dramatic in certain poems, which produces two evil results. First, if the character uses a language characteristic of him , and suited to him, the result will be incongruity of style arousing from the mark difference between the language of the speaker and the language of the poet himself. On the other hand, if the character speaks in the manner of the poet he loses all significance and individuality and becomes a mouthpiece of the poet.  The fifth defect is closely connected with with the fourth. It arouses from the certain mannerisms produced by an intensity of feeling disproportionate to the common knowledge and value of the objects and characters described. It results in occasional prolixity, repetition, and certain beating about the bush instead of progression of thought.  The sixth and last defect consists in the use of thoughts and images too great for the subject which has called them forth. Coleridge calls it mental bombast as distinguished from verbal bombast. It is a defect peculiar to a man of genius who applies his habitual loftiness to objects ordinary and commonplace.     Such are the defects of Wordsworth. But the instances of these defects are so few that they cannot detract from his real greatness. Despite these defects Wordsworth remains a poet of genius passages stamped with his real greatness and genius are innumerable. His characteristic virtues far outweigh his defects.


In chapter xxii of the “Biographia Literaria” , Coleridge examines in detail the various faults of Wordsworth's poetry. His criticism of Wordsworth is intelligent and penetrating.

The following are the children defects of Wordsworth as listed by Coleridge:

  1. The first characteristic, though occasional, defect in the poems of Wordsworth is inconsistency of style, a tendency to sink abruptly from the height of a happy style to the common level, to a mannar undistinguished and almost prosaic. His style is not uniformly excellent. If we divided language into three categories-- first , that which is peculiar to poetry; secondly, that is proper only to prose. And thirdly, that which is neutral or common to both--- we shall find that Wordsworth frequently sinks to the second kind, causing thereby a sudden alternation of feeling which, except in a few cases, is bound to create an irritation in the mind of a reader of cultivated taste. It comes as a shock to that expectation, concerning the language and style of poetry, with which a reader approaches a poem.
  2. The second defect may be called a matter of factness in certain poems. This fault is of two kinds. In the first place, it consists in a laborious minuteness and fidelity in the representation of objects, and their positions, as they appeared to the poet himself. Secondly, there is an elaboration of accidental circumstances in order to explain the actions and dispositions of his characters. Such circumstantial details may be necessary and proper in real life to establish the truth of a statement about a living person. But in a poetry they are not merely superfluous, but also object able, because they go against the very nature of poetry, which , according to Aristotle, should deal,  not with the particulars, but with the universals. As an instance of this defect, Coleridge refers to the minute accuracy in the description of local imagery in some passages of “The Excursion” where the poet seems to emulate the art of painter. It is a mechanical art of building the whole by laboriously joining together the separate parts. The poet should paint to the imagination, and not to the fancy. His picture should be organic 'the latency of all in each’ , of the whole in parts, involving even the interchangeablity of senses, eye for the ear, for example.
  3. The second kind of matter of factness results from a minute adherence to details of Characters and incidents, in order to explain biogrphical facts concerning the characters. Coleridge points out that the business of a poet is to stress, not the points in which one person differs from another person, but these which are common to all persons. Secondly, the immediate aim of poetry is not communication, not of truth but of pleasure, and the poet who moralises through a character, as Wordsworth often does, is more of a preacher than a poet. And the case is made worse when such a character is associated with a low profession which has nothing to do with truth and morality. It is when the poet speaks in his own person that he both delights and instructs. Wordsworth would have done better to present the truth and wisdom, put in mouth of the Pedlar in “The Excursion”, directly in his own person, and style suited to his genius.
  4. The fourth defect of Wordsworth's poetry is an excessive fondness for the dramatic in certain poems, which produces two evil results. First, if the character uses a language characteristic of him , and suited to him, the result will be incongruity of style arousing from the mark difference between the language of the speaker and the language of the poet himself. On the other hand, if the character speaks in the manner of the poet he loses all significance and individuality and becomes a mouthpiece of the poet.
  5. The fifth defect is closely connected with with the fourth. It arouses from the certain mannerisms produced by an intensity of feeling disproportionate to the common knowledge and value of the objects and characters described. It results in occasional prolixity, repetition, and certain beating about the bush instead of progression of thought.
  6. The sixth and last defect consists in the use of thoughts and images too great for the subject which has called them forth. Coleridge calls it mental bombast as distinguished from verbal bombast. It is a defect peculiar to a man of genius who applies his habitual loftiness to objects ordinary and commonplace.

Such are the defects of Wordsworth. But the instances of these defects are so few that they cannot detract from his real greatness. Despite these defects Wordsworth remains a poet of genius passages stamped with his real greatness and genius are innumerable. His characteristic virtues far outweigh his defects.

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