11 October, 1999
Eng 490 Midterm Paper
Catharsis, Emotional Response, and Simple Language;
The Selective Nature of Wordsworth’s Theory From Aristotelian Ideas
In William Wordsworth’s Preface to his collection of poems entitled Lyrical Ballads the author includes a reference to Aristotelian poetic theory. He attributes to Aristotle the idea that "poetry is the most philosophic of all writing" (308). Wordsworth and Aristotle agree on the fundamental function of poetry, that it conveys universal, general truth to people’s spirits. They see verse as an opportunity for a poet to invoke an ideal form of an emotional response from inside the reader which convey essential truths. Aristotle’s Poetics is a study in the proper form and nature of tragedy in which he draws from the elements such as plot, emotion, recognition, spectacle, and character to explain the common structure and his expectations for tragedy. In Wordsworth’s Preface he stresses the need for several of Aristotle’s ideas to be the basic building blocks for quality poetry, particularly the notions of reader emotional response, termed as catharsis by Aristotle. Also similar to Aristotle, Wordsworth views the poet’s role as essential and the use of simple language important to conveying meaning. However, while Aristotle purports these elements to be parts of a larger tragical context, Wordsworth selects the several specific issues of emotional response and methodology as solely crucial to the integrity of poetry because they most forcefully negate the increasingly corrupt nature of intellectual society.
In Poetics Aristotle develops a clear, logical argument which describes elements he views as important to the stricture of a tragedy, including the role emotion should play in the process of imitation. Aristotle says that tragedy does not imitate qualities found in men’s characters but in their actions: "tragedy is not an imitation of men, per se, but of human action and life and happiness and misery" (46). Emotion is found within the actions of men and their characters are discovered through an understanding of their actions and emotions. For Aristotle a basis for evaluating the validity of a poetic imitation is the extent to which a poet focuses on human emotions resulting from actions.
Aristotle also addresses the way audience should ideally experience catharsis in a tragedy, the manner by which words can invoke a sincere and strong emotional response from a reader. He advises that "the poet should construct the plot so that… one who merely hears the incidents that have occurred both shudders and feels pity from the way they turn out" (51). Aristotle claims that an audience should not have to visually see the spectacle of a tragedy on stage to experience the emotion intrinsic in the plot, they should only need to hear the words spoken for catharsis to occur. It is therefore the responsibility of poets to ensure that they create only the emotions appropriate for maintaining the integrity of the tragedy, usually pity and fear, and also to allow this emotion to be imparted by the poetic art of the words themselves.
Wordsworth develops a thesis about the role of emotional response similar to Aristotle’s, although this argument is the focal point of his Preface, not merely one of many equal components. He claims at the beginning of the essay that "all good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of feelings" (304). Notice he
does not say all poetry, because he knows there are countless poems in existence which rely more on elements such as methodology and metaphor to communicate meaning. However, Wordsworth firmly believes that poetry should be based on pure emotion in order to convey essential truth. A poet should compose in a state of elevated emotion, impart this truth into the words, and this emotion be transferred to audience as they discover a universal truth through internal realization. For Wordsworth the state at which his poetry contains real purpose is when "my habits of meditation have so formed my feelings, as that my descriptions of such object as strongly excite those feelings, will be found to carry along with them a purpose" (304). Similar to Aristotle he claims that the poet’s role when composing is to be consciously deliberate in creating a profound emotional experience for the reader.
Although apparently Aristotle and Wordsworth share common beliefs about catharsis in poetry, there is one crucial difference in the way which they see this affecting the meaning of the poem or tragedy. As was discussed before, Aristotle believes that "pity and fear arise from spectacle… and also from the very structure of the plot" (51). Emotion arises as a result of the action in the tragedy; it is a byproduct of the composition of the structure. Wordsworth sees it oppositely, for he claims that "the feeling therein developed gives importance to the action and situation, and not the action and situation to the feelings" (305). In Wordsworth’s terms everything is reduced to emotion: all meaning is found within emotion about the every other aspect of the poem. Aristotle adversely sees emotion as meaning to be discovered through other aspects such as plot and performance.
The issue of language in poetry and the significance of its degree of simplicity is also addressed by both Aristotle and Wordsworth, and although they both agree that man cannot relate to poetry without common language, Wordsworth places an absolute significance on the necessity of simplicity whereas Aristotle does not. In Poetics Aristotle debates about the use of figures of speech,
"The employment of strange words and metaphor and ornamental words and the other forms of speech that have been mentioned will prevent the diction from being ordinary and mean; and the use of normal speech will keep the diction clear" (59).
Aristotle advocates the use of simple language because it will keep the meaning from becoming blurred by complicated figures of speech, yet later he claims the benefits of metaphors and complex usage of words. However, Wordsworth says a reader will fail to find the "personification of abstract ideas"(305) in his volume of poetry because he rejects them as a method to elevate the meaning of verse. His main goal is to imitate the language that common men speak every day, and he explains that this aim must restrict him from using more complex figures of speech that have been the standard of poets for years. Thus simple language is a useful tool for Aristotle which when use properly keeps diction clear, yet for Wordworth is a fundamental element to good poetry.
In order to understand why Wordsworth chooses to advocate such specific poetic elements such as emotional response and simple language over all others such as those suggested by Aristotle, we must examine at his theory of "savage torpor"(305). Wordsworth discusses how in his present day the world around him is infected with a corruption that threatens people’s intellectual desires and capabilities. He defines this phenomena as "a craving for extraordinary incident" and "degrading thirst after outrageous stimulation" (305), basically a commercialization of literature resulting in readers who value the sensational, cheap nature of current popular works. He believes that instead of seeking outside stimulation people should find pleasure through an internal application of pleasure derived from reading good literature.
In seeking to find a solution for the intellectual corruptness in the world Wordsworth settles deliberately on internal emotional response and simplistic language because they most effectively will counteract the fallout of sensationalism. The giving of simple but profound pleasure by a poet to an audience who is able to realize universal truth through the words constructed in the language of men is the precise opposite of actions within a society in the state of savage torpor. If Wordsworth were to have taken Aristotle’s basic elements of a quality tragedy and applied them to his current society and literary environment, he would have chosen his ideas of the imitation of emotion and importance of clear language because they fit with his own thesis on the remedy for a corrupted society.
The consequence for Wordsworth’s selectivity is that poetry normally considered to be classic or of excellent quality, now placed in light of his ideas, at once will seem to need purification from figurative language and spectacle-based emotion. Referring to those usually esteemed poets he says "our judgments concerning the works of the greatest poets both ancient and modern will be far different from that they are at present" (307). Wordsworth is careful not to place his opinion at the top of a hierarchy of ideas, but it can be inferred that he feels a reevaluation of the classics and modern esteemed poetry necessary. Ironically, while he shares the same basic views that Aristotle proclaims for tragedy, the highly poetry that Aristotle highly respects would most likely qualify for purification by Wordsworth’s standards.
Aristotle, Poetics. In Bressler, Charles E. Literary Criticism: An Introduction to
Theory and Practice. 2nd ed. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 1999 p. 42-
Wordsworth, William. Preface to Lyrical Ballads. in Bressler, Charles E. Literary
Criticism: An Introduction to Theory and Practice. 2nd ed. Upper Saddle
River. Prentice Hall, 1999 p. 302-314.