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Home » , » How does Coleridge Criticise Wordsworth's theory of poetic diction?
"Preface to the Lyrical Ballads" is an epoch-making contribution to English literature. It is a landmark of literary criticism. In this critical essay, Wordsworth argues that the language of ordinary life should be employed in all kinds of poetry. All those phrases and forms of style should be rejected which did not belong to the language of real life. The critic actually gives us his theory of poetic diction in this piece. It is believed that his theory of poetic language is merely a reaction against the pseudo-classical theory of poetic diction. But S.T. Coleridge differs from Wordsworth in certain respects on this subject of poetic diction. He criticizes it and tries to refute it. We also find limitations and contradictions in the poetic diction of Wordsworth.
Wordsworth's theory of poetic diction is of immense value. It is considered to be a corrective to artificial, inane, and unnatural phraseology. It is current at the time. But it is full of several contradictions and suffers from several limitations. Wordsworth does not say clearly what he means by language. Language is a matter of words as well as syntax. It is also a matter of the use of imagery.

Wordsworth himself is not free from criticism. Coleridge is the first critic to criticize his views expressed in "Preface to the Lyrical Ballads". He is particularly critical of his theory of poetic diction and his defense of meter. He exposes many weaknesses of Wordsworth's theory. Wordsworth talks of a selected and purified language. Coleridge argues that such a type of language would differ in no way from the language of any other men of common sense. After such selection, there would be no difference between the rustic language and the language used by common men in their ways of life. Again Wordsworth permits the use of a meter implying a particular order and arrangement of words. So Coleridge concludes that there is and there ought to be an essential difference between the language of prose and metrical composition. Metre medicates the whole atmosphere and the language of poetry is bound to differ from that of prose. The use of a metre is as artificial as the use of poetic diction. If one is allowed, it is absurd to forbid the use of the other. Both are equally good sources of poetic pleasure.

Coleridge objects to Wordsworth's views on the use of common language. He says that the views can be applicable only in some cases. Again when the rustic language is purified its crudities and oddities would be practically the same as the language used by any other class of men. Furthermore, Coleridge feels that the language of the rustics would prove to be too scanty to provide suitable diction for the expression of varied experiences. He also criticized the "Preface" for the needless obscurity of its latter half. The diction employed is also unnecessarily elaborate and constrained.

Coleridge again refuses that the best parts of our language are derived from nature. The best words are abstract nouns and concepts. These are derived from the reflective acts of the mind. This reflection grows as man advances from the so-called primitive state. As man has advanced in thought, he has acquired new ideas and concepts which cannot be expressed through the use of rustic language which is primitive and undeveloped. If the poet wants to use rustic language, he must also think like rustics. The language of the rustics is curiously inexpensive. It would be putting the clock back. Instead of progression, it would be retrogression.

Coleridge refutes Wordsworth's judgment of Gray's sonnet. He then quotes a few lines from The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser. He shows that the language used in them is by no means the language of the ordinary. This language would by no means be used in prose. Coleridge then argues that Wordsworth's over-emphasis on his theory of poetic style was perhaps a reaction against the gaudy affectations of the kind of style which had been current in poetry in the 18th century.

Such are the weaknesses of Wordsworth's theory. It must also be admitted that he did not adhere to his theory in his own practice. Inverted and poetic constructions are frequent in his poetry. His vocabulary is often not drawn from rustic life. He does not always use the language of real men of the rustics of Cumberland. He does not practice his own theory in his "Tintern Abbey", " Immortality Ode" and "The Prelude". The language of the poems is not the language of the common man. So his theory is often either inconsistent with his practice or simply inadequate as a theory.

However, Wordsworth's theory of poetic diction is significant and far-reaching. But it is full of contradictions and limitations. Wordsworth fails to maintain it in his own poems too. So " Preface to the Lyrical Ballads " is inept in argument and conventional of expression. Coleridge criticizes Wordsworth's theory of poetic diction to a great extent. His assessment is not completely right. We may agree with him that there is definitely a difference between the language of prose and the language of poetry. At the same time, we must recognize the value of Wordsworth's theory of poetic diction.


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