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Poetry Blog #19 William Wordsworth


Our last poetry bee blog was about Coleridge. As I mentioned in that blog, one of Coleridge’s good friends was the poet William Wordsworth. It is an absolute pleasure to talk about Mr. Wordsworth—probably too much a pleasure, and I will have to restrain myself from writing so much about him that I weary your eyes! One of William Wordsworth’s most admirable works was not a poem at all, but a short essay on poetry titled “Preface to Lyrical Ballads.” It sets out to tell us what poetry is and what it is not, and I think what is said in the essay can be applied to writing and art in general. Wordsworth insists that poetry must be natural, and  if you have been paying attention in the classroom, you will remember those are my exact words regarding writing. My motto as writing teacher is that if you would not say it, don’t write it! You can quote me on that.

William Wordsworth is perhaps the most representative of the Romantic poets. He was not only one of the finest poets of his time but also one of the most respected poets of all time. It would be hard to mention a poet who had a finer ear for poetry. Shakespeare, Milton, Chaucer perhaps. But not many others equaled his natural ability. Wordsworth is indeed a towering figure in the history of English poetry. Most of his fame rests on a monumental work which he published in 1798, titled Lyrical Ballads. Let me tell you a little about the poet, and of one of his poems in particular, “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” (sometimes referred to as “Daffodils”). 

Wordsworth was known for his reclusive habits. He lived in Grasmere, a rather remote village on the border of England and Scotland, far from the hubbub of the busy London City. His cottage, called Dove Cottage, was situated along a dirt path that wound around Grasmere Lake. Along this path many poor would travel, such as one of the several beggars that Dorothy Wordsworth wrote about in her journal: “On Tuesday, May 27th, a very tall woman, tall much beyond the measure of tall women, called at the door. She had on a very long brown cloak, and a white cap without bonnet—her face was excessively brown, but it had plainly once been fair. She led a little bare-foot child about two years old by the hand and said her husband who was a tinker was gone before with the other children. I gave her a piece of bread...” 

The journals of Dorothy, who lived with her poet brother, reveal the incidents of Wordsworth’s life that inspired his poetry, such as the day when both he and his sister saw the “host of golden daffodils” beside a lake beyond Gowbarrow Park, a spectacle which inspired one of his most famous poems, “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud.” This poem is especially interesting in that it reveals the way in which Wordsworth wrote poetry. It is indeed a poem about writing poems. The method was rather simple, but very profound.

The first step in Wordsworth’s method of writing poetry involves an experience. The experience in the poem “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” was his walk with his sister Dorothy and the impressive sight of so many flowers dancing in the wind. Have you ever had such a strong and delightful experience as this? If you have, you will know how pleasant it is to remember—which leads us to the second step.

The second step of the poetic process is having the memory of that experience triggered. The best way of remembering an incident fully, in all its sensory glory, is when the mind is at rest—while you are on the sofa relaxing or resting with your eyes closed. In “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,” Wordsworth talks about lying on a couch: “For oft when on a couch I lie in vacant or in pensive mood.” Remembering pleasant experiences can be a real mood-maker. Wordsworth calls the emotions triggered by remembered experiences and the writing of them the “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.”

The last step in the poetic process, then, is the actual composing of the poem. It has to be done fast, and without too much tinkering, or else it is no longer spontaneous and natural. The poem "I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud" as well as many of his other poems sounds spontaneous and full of feeling. It is both off-the-cuff, so to speak, and immediate. In fact, it seems so fresh that the reader seems to share in Wordsworth’s experience when he took the delightful stroll with his sister on that blustery day in April. Next time you see a daffodil, think of Wordsworth and his experience. By the way, we will celebrate Daffodil’s Day near the date in which Mr. Wordsworth had his experience—April 15—with a specially decorated cake for the occasion.

Wordsworth was also an amateur psychologist. In his preface to his famous book of poems Lyrical Ballads, which I referred to earlier in this blog, he tells us how important it is to fill our minds with good things.   He felt that in his age people were filling their minds with ugly things. Many people had to work in dark, noisy factories and live in busy, dirty cities. Such experiences, he said, degrade the mind. That is why they turned to bad books for entertainment. He felt that it is healthy for people to fill their minds with beautiful experiences, such as being out in God’s creation. I agree with Mr. Wordsworth whole-heartedly. Do you? I constantly tell my younger students not to watch violent movies and play ugly video games. You are not filling your mind with wholesome, good things, I tell them. If a young person fills his life with bad language, bloody violence, and distorted pictures of life, what flashes in his mind when he lies “on a couch in vacant or in pensive mood”? I shudder to think. So before you watch the newest violent movie, think of its effect! Mr. Wordsworth would feel very sorry to know that you were spoiling your young mind!

Dorothy also wrote some poetry herself. One of these, which her brother published with his own works, (to which he contributed two stanzas), is titled “The Cottager to Her Infant,” which is one of the poems that the C is for Cottage students read as part of their curriculum.

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