Coleridge and Wordsworth: Romanticizing English Literature
The transmission of Romantic theory into anglophone culture was a complex process. Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s (1772—1834) Biographia Literaria (1817), a collection of philosophical reflections and thoughts on literature, played a key role in disseminating the major tenets of German philosophical idealism and Romanticism in Britain.
I brought to Britain Schelling’s “revolution in philosophy”.
What is Poetry? For Coleridge, following Schelling, it meant the “balance or reconciliation of opposite or discordant qualities”.
The aspects of biographical self-exploration that characterize Coleridge’s text exemplify the Romantic emphasis on the subjectivity and selfhood.
In 1798, Coleridge collaborated with his friend William Wordsworth (1770—1850) in producing a book of poems entitled Lyrical Ballads. Wordsworth’s “Preface” to the 1800 edition of the Lyrical Ballads was akin to a manifesto for Romanticism in Britain.
What is a Poet? He is a man speaking to men: a man who has a greater knowledge of human nature, and a more comprehensive soul, than are supposed to be common among mankind.
The individualism of the Romantic worldview is palpable; Wordsworth emphasized the intense subjectivity of the poet’s perception of the world, particularly the natural world.
Poetry is the “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” — feelings that are then recollected and recorded in tranquillity.
Wordsworth suggested that poetry was the result of a play of thought and feeling, reason and passion.
Wordsworth’s poetics of inspiration is nonetheless rooted in the faithful imitation of nature, as the poet’s role remains one of “selection”, rather than an attempt to “trick out or elevate nature”.
In marked contrast to the elevated style of neoclassical poets like Pope and Dryden, who also claimed to imitate nature, Wordsworth argued that poetic diction (language) should model itself on the “language of ordinary men” — a choice which motivated his preference for the “popular” ballad form*.
One problem with Wordsworth’s emphasis on the heroic genius of the poet’s selective vision is that it fails to account for what the poet might exclude or deliberately overlook.
This is one reason why the verb “to romanticize” still has pejorative connotations, implying a process of idealization that is untrue to the reality it claims to describe.
For example, in his poem “Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey”, included in the Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth omitted to mention the negative consequences of the Industrial Revolution, excluding from the speaker’s field of vision the traffic and pollution of the Wye Valley, as well as the itinerant workers who made a living from charcoal mining in the surrounding area.
Wordsworth omitted these features of the landscape in order to present an image of the English countryside, replete with “plots of cottage-ground” and “orchard-tufts”, as natural and unspoilt.
This point has been elaborated in the work of New Historicist literary critics like Marjorie Levinson (b. 1951) and Jerome J. McGann (b. 1937) (see New Historicism).
Poetry is passion: it is the history or science of feelings.
In making this claim, though, some would suggest that Wordsworth obscures the extent to which all poetry, including his own, is a carefully wrought rhetorical exercise and so is never quite the “spontaneous”, unmediated expression of passion and experience that he claims it to be.