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Home » , » Comment on the Shortcomings of Wordsworth's theory of Poetic diction
"Preface to the Lyrical Ballads" is the only literary criticism of William Wordsworth. It is praised in many ways. It is regarded as an epoch-making document. It is also appreciated as a landmark of criticism or as an unofficial manifesto of the Romantic Movement. Such evaluations are not absolutely meaningless. But we should always keep in mind that no literary work can be said free from faults. In this sense, "Preface to the Lyrical Ballads" has some shortcomings and limitations. It gives us the theory of poetic diction creation by Wordsworth. Wordsworth talks about the theme, language, and meter of poetry here. His theory often seems inconsistent with his practice in his own poetry. It also appears simply inadequate as a theory as well. Moreover, it is severely criticized by S. T. Coleridge and T. S. Eliot.

Generally, it seems that Wordsworth's theory of poetic language is merely a reaction against the Neo-classical theory of poetic diction. But such a view is true only partially. His impulse is less a revolt against Neo-classical diction than a desire to find a suitable language for the new territory of human life. He conquers it for poetic treatment. He aims at dealing in his poetry with a rustic and humble life. It is quite natural that he should also advocate simplicity of language to suit the simplicity of the theme. Moreover, he believes that a poet is essentially a man speaking to men. So he must make use of language really used by men. Wordsworth believes that there is no essential difference between the language of prose and metrical composition. Only the difference lies in the use of the meter. So he condemns the artificial language of Alexander Pope and his contemporaries.

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 commonsense. 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 meter 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. A man has advanced in thought. He has acquired new ideas and concepts. These new ideas and concepts 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.

T. S. Eliot rejects Wordsworth's theory of poetry having its origin in 'emotions recollected in tranquility'. He points out that in the process of poetic composition, there is neither emotion nor recollection nor tranquility. Moreover, poetry cannot be a spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings. In this respect, Eliot opines----
 "Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of the personality but an escape from personality".

Thus Eliot ignores the personality or emotions of a poet. The personal emotions of a poet may be simple or crude. But the emotion of his poetry may be complex and refined. 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.

To conclude, we may mention the view of Derek Roper regarding the demerits of " Preface to the Lyrical Ballads". He points out that it is not a tactful piece of writing if we consider it as an introduction to a selection of poems. It is too long and its prose is rather uneven in tone and style. Moreover, Wordsworth does not always practice his theory in his own poems. He is not rigid in practicing them. As a theory of poetry, "Preface to the Lyrical Ballads" seems to be inadequate. It has strong weaknesses and limitations. But its significance is also far-reaching and undeniable.


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