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Dueling Aesthetics: The Poetics of Wordsworth and Coleridge
Symposium: Great Books Student Scholarly Journal
Issue One
Dueling Aesthetics: The Poetics of
Wordsworth and Coleridge

Jack Wilson

The early collaboration of the poets William Wordsworth and Samuel Coleridge marked the beginning of the Romantic period of poetry. Together, these two poets laid the groundwork for this new style in the Preface to their work Lyrical Ballads. Later, though, Coleridge expressed his disagreement with some of the ideals Wordsworth had professed in their early work. In this paper, I will explore the discrepancies in Wordsworth's and Coleridge's ideas on poetry.

Lyrical Ballads marked a departure from mainstream poetry when it first appeared in 1798. Although both Coleridge and Wordsworth had contributed poems to the work and had conceived of the foundations of their new style together, it was Wordsworth alone who wrote the formal testament to these ideas, the Preface to the 1802 edition of Lyrical Ballads. This work outlined several distinctions between this new Romantic style of poetry and its forerunners. Among these differences were an emphasis on portraying common life, a preference for the use of common language, and a distinct effort to reproduce emotional states and influence the feelings of the reader. Wordsworth explained that scenes from common life were well suited to be poetic subjects for several reasons. First, he believed that common or rustic scenes would be understandable to all readers. Second, he thought that since rustic life had a closeness with nature, images from rustic life would be well suited for illustrating nature’s fundamental substance. As Wordsworth explained in the Preface, "Low and rustic life was generally chosen . . . because in that condition of life our elementary feelings coexist in a state of greater simplicity, and, consequently, may be more accurately contemplated, and more forcibly communicated" (1343).

Along with his use of common scenes in poetry, Wordsworth preferred to use common language in his verses. The language of common or rural people, Wordsworth believed, was by necessity well suited to portraying nature in poetry. Since common people had regular first-hand interaction with nature, and since nature played such an important role in their lives, their language appealed to Wordsworth as being constructed to convey the emotions associated with nature. As stated in the Preface, "The language, too, of these men is adopted ... because such men hourly communicate with the best objects from which the best part of language is originally derived" (1343).

The final innovation Wordsworth introduced in the Preface to Lyrical Ballads was the concept that the goal of poetry was to influence the emotions of the reader. This idea was related to the Romantic notion that feeling was as much an integral part of consciousness as reason, and that feeling, rather than reason, was the dominant language of the soul. Thus, by distilling an emotion into verse and creating an impression of that feeling in the reader, a poet was communicating with the reader's soul rather than just his or her rational mind. This important revelation was the basis for all of the three other conventions adapted by the Romantic poets. Since this emotional communication was the goal of their poetry, the Romantics used unconventional devices to further this pursuit.

Although it is incontrovertible that Wordsworth's ideas were important in laying the foundations of the Romantic style, not all of his ideas went uncontested by the other Romantic poets. Coleridge, who had been Wordsworth's friend and collaborator, later summarized his personal differences with Wordsworth in his Biographia Literaria. Coleridge's main dispute with Wordsworth was about what constituted proper poetic language. While Coleridge agreed with Wordsworth on the purpose of poetry and the idea that nature and scenes of common life close to nature were fitting subjects of poetry, Coleridge did not agree with certain sentiments Wordsworth held about common language.

Firstly, Coleridge asserted that common language was not the best language for poetry, and that the best parts of language resulted from educated reflection rather than a familiarity with simple and natural things. Coleridge confirms this in Biographia Literaria, stating: "The best part of human language, properly so called, is derived from reflection on the acts of the mind itself' (1548). Next, Coleridge argued that there is no true common language, but that language varies from person to person, even within classes. The universal concepts of language, however, were common to all classes and not exclusive to the lower and rural classes. As Coleridge explains: "Every man's language has, first, its individualities; secondly the common properties of the class to which he belongs; and thirdly, words and phrases of universal use" (1548).

Finally, Coleridge pointed out that good poetry could not be wholly written in natural, everyday language. Since the goal of poetry was to strongly affect the emotions of the reader, a poet had to use words more artfully than an everyday person would, and therefore poetic language could never be identical to common language. These differences between Coleridge and Wordsworth demonstrate that the Romantic style was not concrete and rigid, but was adaptable to many different approaches.

In conclusion, Wordsworth and Coleridge, though they were two of the founders of Romantic poetry, disagreed about the particulars of the style. While Wordsworth considered common life and language to be in tune with nature, Coleridge believed that more refined and artistic language best fitted poetry. Although they disagreed, both pursued the Romantic goal of capturing and manipulating emotions, and their differences showed that it was this goal, rather than the particulars of poetic theory, which defined the Romantic style.

Works Cited

  • Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. Biographia Literaria. Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Major Authors. 6th ed. Ed. M. H. Abrams. New York: Norton, 1996. 1533-1550.
  • Wordsworth, William. Preface to Lyrical Ballads. Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Major Authors. 6th ed. Ed. M. H.Abrams. New York: Norton, 1996.1341-1352.

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