New Modes of Poetic Discourse in the Poetry of the Romantic Period: Wordsworth, Blake and Coleridge
Wordsworth and Coleridge, in the Preface to the 1800 version of the Lyrical Ballads, state the following: “The majority of the following poems are to be considered as experiments. They were written chiefly with a view to ascertain how far the language of conversation in the middle and lower classes of society is adapted to the purposes of poetic pleasure” (Wordsworth and Coleridge, 3). As two of the poets who began the Romantic movement in poetry, their stated goal can be taken to have been a major interest of poets generally in the early Romantic period: namely, to introduce new modes of poetic discourse. Poetry in the early Romantic period was concerned with change. Stephen Pickett, in his introduction to The Romantics, says, “.it was clear that literature stood in a highly complex relationship to a world caught up in an unprecedented process of change” (6). Three early Romantic poets in particular- Wordsworth, Coleridge and Blake- can be said to have jointly introduced similar new modes of poetic discourse. If poetic discourse is defined as the way in which the poet communicates with the reader, then the changes initiated by these early Romantic poets have to do with the language used, the subject matter, the sentiment expressed, and the tone and mood of the poems. The poetry of these three poets is marked by the simplicity of its language and form, the familiarity of its subject matter, the universality of sentiment, and the intimacy of tone and mood that it aims for.
In terms of the language used, the Preface goes a long way towards explaining the difference between the early Romantic poetry and the poetry that preceded it. While earlier poets such as Pope, Dryden and Milton had chosen to use elaborate classical forms and language for their poetry, these three early Romantic poets sought to make poetry more accessible and intimate. By doing this they were breaking significantly with the poets who had preceded them. In the 1800 Preface to Lyrical Ballads , Wordsworth expresses his acknowledgement of this break with tradition:
It is supposed that by the act of writing in verse, an author makes a formal agreement that he will gratify certain known habits of association. This exponent or symbol held forth by metrical language must in different eras of literature have excited very different expectations- for example. in the age of Shakespeare and Beaumont and Fletcher, and that of Donne and Cowley, or Dryden, or Pope. I am certain it will appear to many persons that I have not fulfilled the terms of an engagement thus voluntarily contracted” (Wordsworth (b), 251-2).
These Romantic poets sought to make poetry more personal and accessible by using simple- and, to some, vulgar- language- “The language of men” (Wordsworth (c), 360), and simple poetic forms. They wished to avoid poetry which twisted and distorted the natural flow of language. As Wordsworth describes it:
There will also be found in these volumes little of what is usually called poetic diction: I have taken as much pains to avoid it as others ordinarily take to produce it. to bring my language near to the language of men. (Wordsworth (c), 360).
A good example of this is Wordsworth’s We Are Seven. Look, for example, at the simplicity of the language in the opening stanza:
A simple child, dear brother Jim, That lightly draws its breath, And feels its life in every limb, What should it know of death? (Wordsworth (e), 231)
Compare this to, for example, the complex opening of Paradise Lost. Wordsworth has dispensed with the complex sentence structure comprising of many meandering clauses, and with the twisting of phrases to match a verse pattern. The above stanza is short and simple, and flows easily and naturally off the tongue, remarkably close to everyday speech. The same can be seen in Coleridge’s This Lime-Tree Bower, My Prison, which opens:
Well, they are gone, and here must I remain, This lime-tree bower my prison!. (Coleridge (b), 551).
Again, the language is simple and flows naturally. The same can be applied to Blake’s A Cradle Song, which takes the easy, simple style of a lullaby:
Sweet dreams, form a shade O’er my lovely infant’s head; Sweet dreams of pleasant streams Be happy, silent, moony beams (Blake (a), 65).
Blake’s verse is natural and pure, like that of Wordsworth and Coleridge. In this sense, the poetry of Wordsworth and Coleridge fulfils the expectations presented in the title Lyrical Ballads- the pieces have the simplicity of lyrics and the flowing rhythm of ballads.