Romantic works are often centred around the life experience of individuals within both the spiritual and physical realms; they attempt to capture individual variations in perception, multiplying and co-existing truths, and the capacity the receptive consciousness has to filter and re-create reality. Wordsworth examines the duality of elements, of vulnerability and cynicism, and of the natural world. His characterisation of ideas such as childhood, self-introspection and death is multifaceted, encompassing their complexities and implications in different social milieus. In particular, he embraces the unity of opposites, for instance, the unity of grief and joy, man and nature, or the co-existence of life and death.
In his writing, Wordsworth also discerns an antipathy towards the increasing accumulation of men in cities and also an unwavering faith in the restorative powers of a benevolent nature. However, when analysing Romantic poems at a deeper level, the readership may infer that the attention to the natural and external world primarily serves as a stimulus to the most characteristic human activity, and that of thinking. Infused with this emphasis, his poetry is characterised by sudden irruptions, episodes that seemed trivial to some contemporary readers, undertaking the form of a “strange fit of passion” or a spontaneous feeling. In Wordsworth’s account in the Preface, although the composition of a poem originates from “emotion recollected in tranquillity” and may be preceded and followed by reflection, the immediate act of composition must be spontaneous – impulsive, artless, and free.
Table of Contents:
Key Themes & Sample Analysis:
Wordsworth’s poetry embodies pantheistic qualities, as he infuses his world with sublime and divine qualities, giving nature restorative and transformative power. Wordsworth’s poems contend that manifestations of the natural world inspire spontaneity and emotions, and by immersing themselves in nature, one may experience transcendence and enlightenment. In contrast, the poems concerning images of man in nature encompass the complexities of the relationship between man and nature, thus producing darker emotions and feelings. Nature is therefore characterised as dual, allowing the co-existence of darker elements with joy. It is also important to note that the appreciation for nature’s beauty is not possible without the intrinsic power of the human mind.
The oeuvre of Wordsworth’s poetry highlights the importance of remaining connected with the natural world and not becoming lost in the pursuit of wealth. He idealises pastoral and Rustic beauty, glorifying the ordinary in his representation of rural scenes and mundane subjects of everyday life. Thus, the audience is invited to express reverence for what is usually seen as natural or ordinary.
Example: I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud
This poem captures the beauty of nature and its transformative effects on the emotions of those surrounded by such beauty. By employing iambic tetrameter and full euphonic rhyming through the phrases, ‘hills’ and ’daffodils’, ‘trees’ and ‘breeze’, Wordsworth mirrors nature’s symphonic harmony and emphasises its consoling effects on beholders. The iteration of the title “I wandered lonely as a cloud” anthropomorphises the “clouds” to highlight nature’s ability to share and placate the loneliness of humans. Likewise, the daffodils are personified, “dancing” and “tossing” their heads”, contributing to the inherent unity between man and nature and the effect of nature on human affections. The poet accentuates how the sight inspires uplifting emotions and combats the narrator’s feelings of solitude and isolation. The celestial imagery, that compares the daffodils with the “stars that shine” alludes to nature’s ability to transcend human experience – in that they possess an enduring power that is on par with the stars, representing divine forces.
I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.
The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed—and gazed—but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:
For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.
Reflection & Solitude:
As discussed in The Norton Anthology, Wordsworth’s imagination is typically stimulated by the “sudden apparition of a single figure, stark and solitary against a natural background”. Poetry is portrayed as the product of solitude, reinforcing the individuality of the poet’s vision. The appeal of nature is attributed to the poet’s tendency to idealise the natural scene as a site where one could find freedom from social laws. One can exercise their artistic self-sufficiency in such settings, and one can find solace and comfort when divorced from the physical realm.
Example: The Solitary Reaper
“The Solitary Reaper” describes a pastoral scene in Scottish highlands in qhixh the titular
reaper sings a Gaelic song while working alone. By employing present tense and plain diction which depict her “reaping” as she “cuts and binds the grain”, the hardworking and energetic actions of the girl are emphasised. The reaper, though alone, feels no isolation, but instead is enmeshed in the landscape’s beauty and tranquility. Her emotions, represented by her “melancholy strain”, dissolves into the vale – her plight becomes impersonal and universal, evoking a sense of time passing effortlessly. Melancholy is transformed by song into its antithetical counterpart – a smoothing contentment. Here, nature allows both the eponymous reaper, the narrator and the readers to immerse themselves within the pastoral scenes, embracing the “profound” emotions naturally experienced and recollected. The depth of the emotions she evokes is explored in the dual meaning of the phrase “profound”, which describes both physical depth of the valley and the reaper’s feelings; explicating the inextricable connection between nature and poetry.
Behold her, single in the field,
Yon solitary Highland Lass!
Reaping and singing by herself;
Stop here, or gently pass!
Alone she cuts and binds the grain,
And sings a melancholy strain;
O listen! for the Vale profound
Is overflowing with the sound.
No Nightingale did ever chaunt
More welcome notes to weary bands
Of travellers in some shady haunt,
Among Arabian sands:
A voice so thrilling ne’er was heard
In spring-time from the Cuckoo-bird,
Breaking the silence of the seas
Among the farthest Hebrides.
Will no one tell me what she sings?—
Perhaps the plaintive numbers flow
For old, unhappy, far-off things,
And battles long ago:
Or is it some more humble lay,
Familiar matter of to-day?
Some natural sorrow, loss, or pain,
That has been, and may be again?
Whate’er the theme, the Maiden sang
As if her song could have no ending;
I saw her singing at her work,
And o’er the sickle bending;—
I listened, motionless and still;
And, as I mounted up the hill,
The music in my heart I bore,
Long after it was heard no more.
Wordsworth promotes the image of an idealised Romantic child and laments the passage from childhood to adulthood. The loss of childhood splendour and transition to adulthood may catalyse a sacrifice of purity and divinity. Wordsworth’s poems regarding visions of childhood express the feelings of unbridled joy and wonder children feel upon viewing and engaging with nature.
Example: My heart leaps up when I behold
Natural deduction and “natural piety” are regarded as highly significant in Wordsworth’s poetry, and the ode “My heart leaps up when I behold” demonstrate that the perceptions and feelings of childhood have peculiar value. In contrast, the testimony of later years is comparatively dull and confused. The title, which is reiterated in the first line, encompasses Wordsworth’s idealisation of the spontaneous and physical response to witnessing beauteous nature. His personification of the heart “leap[ing] up” – as the narrator beholds the sublimity of the “rainbow in the sky”, associates the moral instincts of childhood with vitality and vigour. The child, paradoxically referred to as “father of the Man” is idealised, applauded by his acute perceptions, rendering him closer to truth than the man. The rhyme and rhythms of the poem are somewhat irregular with full rhyme of line 1 and 5 ‘behold/old’, giving a simple authenticity to the narrator’s childlike expression of feeling and sentiments.
My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old,
Or let me die!
The Child is father of the Man;
And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.
William Wordsworth expressed concern for the commercialisation of England spurred by the Industrial Revolution and the desire for material wealth. He laments human’s destruction of nature and the growing distance between men and the natural world. The city, representing modernity, is portrayed as the antithesis of nature, and human activity contributes to the loss of its beauty.
Example: London 1802
Wordsworth’s poetry serves as a polemic of consumerism and materialism — catalysed by increasing industrialisation. The Sonnet “London, 1802” critiques English men’s obsession with material comfort and selfish pursuits. Wordsworth’s desire for change is epitomised through the statement “England hath need of thee” as he apostrophises “Milton!”. Through the metaphoric “fen of stagnant waters”, Wordsworth mirrors England’s corrupted state, as it is adulterated by men’s selfishness and materialism. He also employs “altar, sword and pen” as the symbolism of England’s most important virtues: religion, militaristic culture and literature” and equates their “dower of inward happiness”. Juxtaposing London’s former grandeur and rich culture with the characterisation of England as a “fen of stagnant water”, Wordsworth establishes his disappointment towards the capital’s decay, shifting the audience’s attention towards the importance of art and culture. The generalised statement “We are selfish men” illustrates that the country’s decline is caused by, and thus has an effect on all of its citizens, including those who are aware of the ways in which England has fallen from greatness. The narrator thus implores Milton to “raise [them] up” , expressing his reverence for poetry and celebrates the contribution of his art towards the growth and development of England.
Milton! thou shouldst be living at this hour:
England hath need of thee: she is a fen
Of stagnant waters: altar, sword, and pen,
Fireside, the heroic wealth of hall and bower,
Have forfeited their ancient English dower
Of inward happiness. We are selfish men;
Oh! raise us up, return to us again;
And give us manners, virtue, freedom, power.
Thy soul was like a Star, and dwelt apart:
Thou hadst a voice whose sound was like the sea:
Pure as the naked heavens, majestic, free,
So didst thou travel on life’s common way,
In cheerful godliness; and yet thy heart
The lowliest duties on herself did lay.
Memory & The Past:
Wordsworth also accentuates the pivotal role that memory plays in shaping the human psyche. Past memories, or “emotions recollected in tranquillity”, provide individuals with solace and comfort in times of uncertainty. Amidst changes, Romantics exhibit a strong sense of nostalgia, abandoning the prosaic here-and-now for the more “poetic possibilities housed in a remote, preliterate past”. For instance, Wordsworth views Milton, a composite figure representing biblical prophet, as a charismatic role model, constantly juxtaposing the present with the past whilst calling his forefathers.
Relevant poems include:
- Tintern Abbey
- Elegiac Stanzas
Predominantly, Wordsworth sees death as a transcendent experience, signifying the unity between man and nature, rather than a mere loss of life. In death, one becomes a part of the spiritual world, bequeathed with sublime powers. Wordsworth explores the inevitability of death and argues that the human psyche must confront death as metaphysical terror. He also underscores how death is the ultimate equaliser and represents a universal experience shared between individuals. His poetry additionally highlights the power experiences with death can have on individuals, and how it can lead to a more astute understanding of themselves and wider society.
Relevant poems include:
- A slumber did my spirit seal
- She dwelt among the untrodden ways
- Strange fits of passion have I known
- Extempore Effusion upon the death of James Hogg
“Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey” (1798)
Wordsworth both laments and embraces the loss of innocence, postulating that experience allows individuals to attain meaningful insights into their self development (1). Written in blank verse- unrhymed iambic pentameter, Tintern Abbey’s stately rhythm mirrors the narrator’s philosophising thoughts patterns (2). The eponymous ‘Tintern Abbey’ symbolically represents the narrator’s “anchor” – a constant in time of change, allowing him to immerse in past memories and reflect upon his life experience (3). However, upon reflection, the narrator oscillates between feelings of loss and contentment, associating his childhood with “aching joys” and “thoughtless youths” . The oxymoronic “aching joys” illuminates the narrator’s ambivalence when he retrospectively retraces his development from childhood to maturity (4). His maturity is symbolised as the “gifts / [that] have followed”, showing his appreciation of his developed philosophical understanding of life. Further, Wordsworth celebrates his ability to return to his feelings of childhood, comparing himself to a “roe”, bounding around in nature. This displays his pursuit of pleasure, rendering childhood an unthinking natural time of sheer enjoyment. (5) Conversely, the reference to the “heavy and weary weight / of all this unintelligible world”, with the dragging assonance of “heavy and weary”, exemplifies the futility of life where experiences have passed. The natural landscape of the setting, does, in part, act as an antidote to his tribulation as the “soul/of all [his] moral being”. (6) Here, nature is associated with a power that induces deep contemplation and an appreciation of natural states. For Wordsworth, the reconciliation of his past and present provides him access to a divine understanding of a pantheistic oneness; his feelings of loss and awe become united in an appreciation for nature. (7)
(1) A clear argument focusing on thematic ideas (i.e., innocence) and expands on its implications; the statement discusses the relationship between innocence and experience, and the impacts of the narrator’s experience on his self development.
(2) Include a brief analysis about the poem’s rhyme scheme to add depth to your analysis; this shows the assessors your understanding of the text’s construction. However, be careful not to simply state what rhyme scheme the poem employs, discuss how it adds to the poem’s meaning!
(3) Analyse a symbol, and link the meaning you have inferred to the key ideas.
(4) Integrate your quotes, and describe Wordsworth’s authorial decision instead of explaining what the poem is about
(5) Expand on your analysis by explaining the implications of your evidence; the sentence starting with “This” clarifies your views, and substantiates the above analysis
(6) Embed short quotes to support and contextualise your analysis
(7) End the paragraph strong by bringing all your ideas together; I chose to discuss how those emotions (initially seem disorganised) suddenly become coherent as contemplation allows the narrator clarity.
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