October 11, 1999
Poetry: An Original Creation From Within
William Wordsworth’s "Preface" to Lyrical Ballads, written in the beginning of the nineteenth century, responds to the crises that occurred with the changing times. These changing times spurred innovative questions regarding art, more specifically, poetry. Amongst other things, the "Preface" is an account of Wordsworth’s view on the art of poetry, a product of the times. It presents the reader with the belief that poetry imitates the process by which the mind produces emotion as the mind remembers past emotion. Wordsworth, then, views poetry as an imitation, but not an imitation of a mere image of reality, which is the stance argued by Plato. As written in the Republic centuries earlier, Plato attacks poetry on the grounds that the poet misrepresents the truth because it is impossible for the poet to have a conception of the ideal truth, or reality. However, the poet has emotion and inherent creative ability so has the power to present the truth accurately. An emotion from one’s own mind, which is where the poem originates, cannot imitate reality because it is in itself reality. Wordsworth’s theory challenges Plato’s argument that the poet is incapable of creating truth.
In his "Preface", Wordsworth asserts that poetry is a version of our elementary feelings originating from within our mind (Wordsworth 245). He arrives at this conclusion after tracing, in his essay, the calculated sequence of events that occurs in the process of the creation of a poem. First, though, I must begin by clearly defining Wordsworth’s definition of "good" poetry. A good poem for Wordsworth
is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings; but though this be true, Poems to which any value can be attached, were never produced on any variety of subjects but by a man who being possessed of more that usual organic sensibility has also thought long and deeply (Wordsworth 246).
Wordsworth states the significance of the poet and his emotional state, which is directly from his own mind. The poet is a thinking, feeling, emotional being. For a poem to be good, the poet must feel something strongly and be able to manifest that strong feeling into a poem. The massive amount of emotion surrounding the poem must belong to the poet himself, having its origin from within the poet’s own mind. Hence, the poem is a reality from the poet’s mind, and not an imitation of someone else’s reality. For a person to have that strong internal emotion they must first make an observation or be involved in an experience that would trigger the emotion. The poet must then, according to Wordsworth, contemplate that emotion which requires the recollection of that emotion. The emotion that the poet feels then facilitates a problem or conflict that arises during the recollection in tranquility. That second, deeper emotion is precisely what the poet writes the poem about (Wordsworth 266). The emotion originates from inside the mind and is the poet’s elementary feelings’, an imitation of a real, past emotion.
Wordsworth believes that poetry captures the primary laws of our emotional nature. This emotional nature is part of our human nature as living beings. The root of the poem stems from a person’s emotion which is not an imitation of reality, but reality itself. The poet is addressing another human being, the reader, who is also capable of experiencing emotion. According to Wordsworth the reader should experience the same emotions as the poet while reading the poem, considering minds are universal (Wordsworth 245). The audiences’ experience of reading the poem may debatably be seen as an imitation of reality, but certainly the poets is not. As Wordsworth states,
....the Poet, singing a song in which all human beings join with him, rejoices in the presence of the truth as our visible friend and hourly companion. Poetry is the breath and finer spirit of all knowledge…the Poet binds together by passion and knowledge the vast empire of human society, as it is spread over the whole earth, and over all time. The objects of the Poet’s thoughts are every where; though the eyes and senses of man are, it is true, his favorite guides, yet he will follow wheresoever he can find an atmosphere of sensation in which to move his wings. Poetry is the first and last of all knowledge: it is the impassioned expression which is in the countenance of all Science ( Wordsworth 259).
The tone of this quotation is uplifting. Wordsworth compares the poet to a singer that everyone can sing along with because they too know the words of the song. Poetry is stated to be the spirit of all knowledge. It follows, then, that the poet will be praised, which indeed he is. The poet is almost likened to a divine figure, one who is able to combine the feelings of everyone, in every society, all over the world. The poet writes about the truth and the reader "rejoices" that the truth is being expressed. Wordsworth makes it clear that a goal of poetry is to produce excitement in other people. Wordsworth believes that the reader of the poem can identify with the poet and his intended message since the poet is writing about truth, a universal element for all human beings. Poetry captures the essence of man and the knowledge within. This knowledge is fundamental, transcending both time and place. The knowledge is initially detected through the senses, "his favorite guides", which declare the absolute truth since, functionally, they are capable of little else. Poetry is a direct representation of the thoughts and feelings of man that can only imitate the process by which the mind produces emotion as the mind remembers past emotion, which Plato deems inaccurate.
In the Republic, it is argued that poetry can have no conception of the ideal truth. Mimesis is used to describe this conceit. Mimesis has two meanings: imitation of truth and dramatic representation, and is used as an explanation by Socrates of the claim that poets are unable to represent the truth. The thought process is that, "…the imitator is a long way off the truth, and can produce all things because he lightly touches on a small part of them, and that part an image" (Richter 23). Plato believes that the poet, the imitator with a limited knowledge base, does not have a clear vision of the truth. It is as if he is on a journey looking for truth, but is not even close to his final destination. Thus, the poet forms images of what he speculates the truth to be. In the Republic there exists a distinction between image and reality. Image consists of the material world of which we are familiar. The material world of things lacks the truth that is found in reality. Thus, the best a poet can do is imitate the world of appearances, which reflects the truth but is not in itself the absolute truth. The poet does not innately have creative ability, so he must imitate the creativity of another from the external world (Richter 25). This notion captures the most commonly used definition of mimesis, the imitation of truth, since the poet is not capable of truly presenting reality. The knowledge of the truth that the poet possesses, according to Plato, is merely an imitation of reality that is sought by looking to the outside world for poetic inspiration.
Wordsworth and Plato fundamentally differ in opinion concerning the emotional makeup and capabilities of a human being. Wordsworth allots the person much more power and control then does Plato, who insists that universally, the human being is not capable of creating truth. The stance that poetry is created from the voice within not only gives more credit to the poet, but also to the reader who understands the message that the poet is expressing. The poet derives his ability to create a poem from his internal excitement that is not only creative, but his own.
Wordsworth, William and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Lyrical Ballads. Ed. R.L. Brett and A.R. Jones. 2nd ed. London: Routledge, 1991.
Richter, David H. The Critical Tradition: The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts And Contemporary Trends. 2nd ed. Boston: Bedford Books, 1998.