It has been generally supposed that Wordsworth’s theory of poetic language is merely a reaction against, and a criticism of, ‘the Pseudo Classical’ theory of poetic diction. Such a view is partially true. His first impulse was less a revolt against Pseudo-classical diction, “than a desire to find a suitable language for the new territory of human life which he was conquering for poetic treatment”. His aim was to deal in his poetry with rustic and humble life and to advocate simplicity of theme. Moreover, he believed that the poet is essentially a man speaking to men and so he must use such a language as is used by men.
Wordsworth’s Theory of Poetry
1. “For all good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings”: The Neo-Classical poets and critics of the previous age always emphasized that poetry should be an expression of the poet’s ‘reason’ and his ‘intellect.’ However Wordsworth felt that the opposite was true and emphasized that ‘emotion’ and ‘feeling’ were the hallmarks of good poetry.
2. “To choose incidents and situations from common life”: The Neo-Classical critics restricted the choice of the subject matter of the poets mainly to the lives of kings and queens and the high society. ‘The Rape of the Lock’ a Neo-Classical text is a mock-epic which satirises a high-society quarrel between Arabella Fermor and Lord Petre, who had snipped a lock of hair from her head without her permission. Wordsworth disagreed and his poems dealt with the lives of ordinary people in rustic settings. He was to deal with humble and rustic life and so he should also use the language of the rustics, farmers, shepherds who were to be the subjects of his poetry. Wordsworth’s poems like ‘Lucy Gray,’ ‘The Solitary Reaper,’ ‘The Education of Nature,’ etc show us that he dealt with rustic life using simple language.
3. “There is no essential difference between the language of prose and metrical composition”: A rather controversial point made by Wordsworth in connection with his theory of language of poetry, is that, there is no essential difference between the language of prose and metrical composition. The pseudo classicals advocated that the language of poetry is different from the language of prose while Wordsworth believes that there is no essential difference between them. The poet can communicate best in the language which is really used by men. He condemns the artificial language. Thus William Wordsworth prefers the language really used by common men.
4. “The feeling gives importance to the action”: Neo-Classical poets felt that the ‘action’ gave importance to the ‘feeling,’ but Wordsworth felt that it was the other way round.
5. “A selection of language really used by men”: The Neo-Classical poets and critics were of the opinion that good poetry must be written only in a highly artificial and stylized language called ‘poetic diction.’ Wordsworth felt that, the language exactly as it was used by the “humble and rustic” people was “a far more philosophical language,” and hence more suitable to express sincerely the poet’s feelings. The language of these men was to be used but it was to be purified of all that was painful or disgusting, vulgar and coarse in that language. He was to use the language of real men because the aim of a poet is to give pleasure and such language without selection will cause disgust.
Advantages of Using the Rustic Language The use of such a simple language has a number of advantages. The rustic language in its simplicity is highly emotional and passionate. This is more so the case when these humble people are in a state of emotional excitement. It is charged with the emotions of the human heart. Such a language is the natural language of the passions. It comes from the heart, and thus goes direct to the heart. In other words, through the use of such a language reveals essential truths about human life and nature can be more easily and clearly communicated. It is more ‘philosophical’ language inasmuch as (because) its use can result in a better and clearer understanding of the basic truths.
But in city life emotions are not openly expressed. Wordsworth was going to write about simple life so he writes in simple language and for this he adds metre. In his opinion, the language of poetry must not be separated from the language of men in real life. Figures, metaphors and similes and other such decorations must not be used unnecessarily. In a state of emotional excitement, men naturally use a metaphorical language to express themselves forcefully. The earliest poets used only such metaphors and images as result naturally from powerful emotions. Later on, poets used a figurative language which was not the result of genuine passion. They merely imitated the manner of the earlier poets, and thus evinced the artificial language and diction of Pseudo-classics. A stereotyped and mechanical phraseology thus became current. The poet must avoid the use of such artificial diction both when he speaks in his own person, or through his characters.
Coleridge’s criticism on Wordsworth’s Theory
Coleridge was the first critic to pounce upon Wordsworth’s theory of language and to expose its weaknesses. He pointed out, first, that a language so selected and purified, as Wordsworth suggests, would differ in no way from the language of any other men of commonsense. After such a selection there would be no difference between the rustic language and the language used by men in other walks of life.
Secondly, Wordsworth permits the use of metre, and this implies a particular order and arrangement of words. If metre is to be used, the order of words in poetry is bound to differ from that of prose. It does so differ in the poetry of Wordsworth himself. So Coleridge concludes that there is, and there ought to be, an essential difference between the language of prose and metrical composition.
Thirdly, the use of metre is as artificial as the use of poetic diction, and if one is allowed, it is absurd to forbid the use of the other. Both are equally good sources of poetic pleasure.
Fourthly, Coleridge objected to the use of the word ‘real.’ Coleridge feels that every man’s language varies, according to the extent of his knowledge, activities and the depth of his feeling. Every man’s language has its own individualities; as well as the common properties of the class to which he belongs; and words and phrases of universal use. Coleridge thus feels that ‘real’, needs to be substituted with ‘ordinary’ or ‘lingua communis.’
Fifthly, Coleridge pointed out that it is not correct that the best parts of our language are derived from Nature. Language is letter-moulded. The best words are abstract nouns and concepts. It the poet wants to use the rustic language, he must think like the rustics whose language is curiously inexpressive. It would be putting the clock back. Instead of progression it would be retrogression.
Modern critics such as T.S. Eliot have brought out other inherent contradictions in Wordsworth’s theory of poetic diction. Why should the ‘real language of men be confined to the lower and middle classes of society?’ is the question asked by Eliot. If the character belongs to the upper classes of society, the use of language of that class is as proper as the use of rustic language when the speaker is rustic. Wordsworth’s theory of poetic diction is of immense value when considered as a corrective to the artificial, inane (silly), and unnatural phraseology current at the time. But considered in itself, it is full of a number of contradictions and suffers from a number of limitations. However in today’s world with the difference between prose and poetry rapidly decreasing Wordsworth’s poetic theory seems to be of more relevance than it was in the Romantic Age.