Where poetry comes from

reflectionRecently I came across that line by William Wordsworth about poetry having its origin in “emotion recollected in tranquility.” It had been so long since I’d read Wordsworth that I couldn’t recall the context of that phrase, and suspected that there was a bit more to it.

The quotation is from the Preface to the second edition of Lyrical Ballads, which Wordsworth produced together with Samuel Taylor Coleridge. In the Preface, he talks about his approach to composing poetry, his view of how poetry works, and the language of poetry. This is what he says:

I have said that poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity: the emotion is contemplated till, by a species of re-action, the tranquillity gradually disappears, and an emotion, kindred to that which was before the subject of contemplation, is gradually produced, and does itself actually exist in the mind.

So really, the tranquility is the beginning of a process, not a resting place. And feeling isn’t the whole story, either. Several pages earlier in the preface, Wordsworth says this:

For all good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: and 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 than usual organic sensibility, had also thought long and deeply.

Thus, says Wordsworth, the poet’s contemplation of feelings and thoughts in relation to each other, continued over time so that it becomes habit, helps him or her to determine what is important, and the resulting poetry will enrich both the feelings and the understanding of the reader.

One thing that accounts for poetry’s effectiveness, according to Wordsworth, is meter. For him, meter is the main distinction between poetry and prose, and he sees it acting on the reader in two particular ways. Poetry’s “harmonious metrical language” could temper the pain of strong emotions; and the reader would get a kind of satisfaction from the poet’s use of common language set within the structure of meter and rhyme.

(That use of common language is where Wordsworth made a conscious break with accepted practice. He rejected both the use of specialized poetic diction and the tradition that placed certain subjects higher than others in a sort of poetic hierarchy, insisting that common people and ordinary incidents, depicted in readily understandable language, could make good poetry. This has been normal for so long that it’s now difficult to imagine it as a radical move.)

Wordsworth sets out some pretty high ideals for poetry: giving pleasure, first of all, but through pleasure arousing readers’ sympathies, enlightening their understanding, strengthening and purifying their affections. And all of this is to come through the poet’s contemplation of experiences that are readily accessible to anyone.

Can poetry have that kind of power? Wordsworth really does seem to say that poetry makes people better. I wonder if we really believe that these days…And yet, when I think of what I find in reading good poetry, and what I hope to achieve in my own writing, I do believe that poetry—and story and rhetoric—acts on the reader. A poem ought to move its reader in some way, to evoke sound and color and texture, to persuade or anger or delight or challenge. At the same time as it has these effects on the reader, it also evokes an appreciation  for the poem as a thing in itself, the sound and rhythm and imagery of it, the way its parts build into a whole.

I think this is part of what Wordsworth means when he talks about “pleasure.” It is more than simply liking a poem—at least, “liking” isn’t quite adequate to describe what happens. It’s an attraction that makes us as readers willing to go where the poem wants to lead us. And I think that same pleasure is an important part of the poet’s experience as well, both in the way we’re attracted to a subject and in the satisfaction that comes from making something out of the experiences we’re given.

[The preface and various poems from Lyrical Ballads have been widely anthologized (for instance, in the Norton editions), but you can also find the original collection online at Project Gutenberg, and in print in a new edition from Oxford University Press. The preface alone is also available online at bartleby.com]

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