The Universal Language of Poetry
The relief of emotional tension, or catharsis, which is so often used when discussing Greek tragedy, is apparently not the goal of poetry as it is seen by Aristotle and William Wordsworth; the goal instead seems to be the creation of emotional tension. Although Wordsworth, unlike Aristotle, is not concerned with such high forms of poetry as tragedy and epic, he claims that his own simpler poems are capable of amplifying emotions in his readers. The way in which poetry achieves the proper emotional response in its audience is through the careful selection of language by the poet. Aristotle and Wordsworth agree that the good poet will employ specific methods, by way of devices such as diction, meter, and plot structure, in order not to evoke differing emotions among readers, but rather to bring about the knowledge of universal truths that all readers will similarly discover.
The goal of mimesis, or imitation of events, is to elicit in the audience whichever emotional responses the author chooses to evoke. It is the author’s responsibility to bring about a reaction through his use of certain poetic devices. Although there is the discrepancy as to whether plot or metrical arrangement is more important, both Aristotle and Wordsworth agree that a poem should be simple and clear in its expression in order to effectively reach the goal of producing heightened emotion in the reader. This emotion is not individual, to be interpreted differently among people, but rather is universal, to effect a general truth to which everybody can relate.
The diction and the structure of a poem are the two most important factors in
producing the appropriate emotional response. It is clear that both Aristotle
and Wordsworth advocate a balance between metaphor and simple language.
Wordsworth, in his Preface to Lyrical Ballads, admits that in this collection of
poems he has made no effort to use "what is usually called poetic diction"
(251). His reason for doing so is to avoid causing in the reader a feeling of
disgust, the one emotion he does not encourage. There are many trite
expressions, he argues, are "in themselves proper and beautiful, but which have
been foolishly repeated by bad Poets till such feelings of disgust are connected
with them" (Wordsworth 251). Traditionally poetic language is to be avoided for
its banality yet it can, under the right circumstances, be properly expressive.
Wordsworth believes that this latter situation occurs only "if the Poet’s
subject be judiciously chosen" (254), which will cause the language of the poem
to be "necessarily…dignified and variegated, and alive with metaphors and
figures" (255). There is the concern, then, with adequately selecting not only
the subject but also the language of the poem. In using the simple language of
common men, Wordsworth believes that his poems can be "more accurately
contemplated and more forcibly communicated" (245).
The straightforward approach is to use language that can be commonly understood
by everyone, allowing people to be more easily affected by a poem. The poet,
though, has the added responsibility of making sure the common language has been
"purified" (Wordsworth 245). Here again Wordsworth aims to protect the reader
from any feelings of "dislike or disgust" (245), and thus employs his own
discretion in editing out the undesirable characteristics of common language.
It is clear, then, that the poet’s selection of a suitable topic and of the
proper language is crucial to creating a poem that is easy to understand by a
large number of people while still retaining its dignity.
The distinction between appropriateness and crudity in common language is of
importance, yet structural concerns are also significant. The poetic diction
with which Wordsworth is concerned is also a topic in Aristotle’s Poetics.
Aristotle also believes that language "achieves its characteristic virtue in
being clear but not mean. The clearest style results from the use of standard
words" (58). Poetic diction is not to be completely avoided, yet it is also not
to be used exclusively (as a spectator would be alienated if he could not
understand the language). Just as Wordsworth believes that lively metaphors can
develop if the poet is appropriately selective in his use of common language,
Aristotle similarly believes that there should exist a balance between metaphor
and simplicity. Aristotle argues that "The employment of strange words and
metaphor…will prevent the diction from being ordinary and mean; and the use of
normal speech will keep the diction clear" (58-59). Though Aristotle and
Wordsworth are in agreement on this point, there is disparity between them with
regard to meter and plot. Where Wordsworth involves himself in a lengthy
discussion about the "laws of metre" (252), Aristotle suggests that this aspect
of poetry is not so important. Instead, Aristotle believes "that it is
necessary for the poet to be more the poet of his plots than of his meters,
insofar as he is a poet because he is an imitator and imitates human actions"
The imitation of real human emotions, actions, and events in a poem, whether it
is the metrical structure or the structure of the plot that is emphasized, is
what leads to the author’s goal: to evoke emotion in his audience. The emotions
that interest Aristotle are pity and fear, as well as "other similar emotions"
(56). The audience should feel sympathetic toward the tragedy of a poetic hero
and should themselves feel pity and fear in reaction to his downfall,
"recognizing that it is someone like [them]selves who encounters this
misfortune" (Aristotle 50). It is the plot that should evoke these feelings in
the spectators, and the structure of a good plot must adhere to certain
qualities. The "aspects of the plot must develop directly from the construction
of the plot itself, so that they occur from prior events either out of necessity
or according to the laws of probability" (Aristotle 49). If the poet achieves
this linear relation between events in the plot, yet is still able to cause
frightening and pitiable complications to arise, Aristotle calls this
"marvelous," "astonishing," and "superior" (49).
It can be argued that despite the importance of the pattern of the plot, a more
important emotional balance arises out of a poem’s metrical structure.
Wordsworth wants to excite the emotions of his audience with passionate emotion,
yet he also wants to achieve balance, to harmonize those emotions. He is
concerned with meter insofar as it must have characteristics similar to the
style of language employed; it must be simple and familiar to the readers. The
poem should be written in an easily-flowing prose style, as this is the sort of
"language really spoken by men" (Wordsworth 254). For the reader, Wordsworth
believes, a pleasant, familiar style causes "a complex feeling of delight, which
is of the most important use in tempering the painful feeling which will always
be found intermingled with powerful descriptions of deeper passions" (266-267).
Just as Aristotle believes a poem should stir up strong emotions, Wordsworth
desires to excite the passions of his readers but also maintain a balance
between that excitement, or "painful feeling," and pleasure, which has a calming
effect. Wordsworth expresses this clearly in his Preface:
The end of poetry is to produce excitement in coexistence with an overbalance of
pleasure.…Now the co-presence of something regular, something to which the mind
has been accustomed when in an unexcited or a less excited state, cannot but
have great efficacy in tempering and restraining the passion by an intertexture
of ordinary feeling. 263-264
Although it seems that for both Aristotle and Wordsworth the end of poetry is
the emotion itself, their respective writings suggest rather that the ultimate
end is what the audience does with that emotion. The emotions attached to the
poem, in Wordsworth’s case the emotions both of the author and of the reader,
are what bring meaning to the poem. Wordsworth argues "that the feeling therein
developed gives importance to the action and the situation" (248). Aristotle
points out, as has already been mentioned, that we can recognize "someone like
ourselves" in a tragic hero (50). In both cases, the audience is intended to
make a larger connection, either with a character, with an event, or with a
similar emotion. One must realize that one’s reactions triggered by poetry are
similar to the reactions of others, are experienced generally. This is why
Wordsworth, for example, chooses to use common language in his poetry, to appeal
to a larger group of people. This sort of plain diction that comes out of
"repeated experience and regular feelings is a more permanent and a far more
philosophical language" (Wordsworth 245) than the supposedly elevated language
that only causes the audience to feel alienated. Wordsworth even consciously
agrees with Aristotle "that Poetry is the most philosophical of all writing"
(Wordsworth 257). Aristotle, in comparing poetry with history for example,
states that "poetry is more concerned with the universal, and history more with
the individual" (48). He believes that man acts according to necessity, that
according to the circumstances any given man will act a certain way (48).
We must understand that there exist similarities between men in general, that
just as they are led to experience similar emotional responses to poetry, they
too can act similarly in real situations, depending on the circumstances.
Wordsworth continues his agreement with Aristotle to say that the object of
poetry "is truth, not individual and local, but general and operative" (257).
Clearly poetry for both Aristotle and Wordsworth is processual and universal.
It encompasses broad and general truths that are of concern to all people.
Through the choices made by the poet in language and structure, the audience is
capable of reaching the desired end. The heightened sense of emotion
experienced by the readers (or spectators) of poetry leads to their
identification with the poet and with each other, causing them to understand
that every person is capable of feeling and acting similarly. The result,
whether we choose to call it universality or connectedness or fraternity, is the
ultimate goal of poetry.
Aristotle. Poetics. The Critical Tradition. Ed. David H.
Richter. 2nd ed. Boston: Bedford, 1998. 38-64.
Wordsworth, William. Preface. Lyrical Ballads. Eds. R.L. Brett
and A.R. Jones. 2nd ed. London: Routledge, 1991. 241-272.