Marisa Oppelt


ENGL 490

paper 1

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.

Works Cited

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.