English Literature » Notes » S. T. Coleridge: Criticism on Wordsworth’s Theory of Poetic Diction

S. T. Coleridge: Criticism on Wordsworth’s Theory of Poetic Diction

Wordsworth and Coleridge came together early in life and mutually arose various theories which Wordsworth embodied in his “Preface to the Lyrical Ballads” and tried to put into practice in his poems. Coleridge claimed credit for these theories and said they were “half the child of his brain”. But later on, his views underwent the change; he no longer agreed with Wordsworth’s theories and so criticized them.

In his Preface, Wordsworth made three important statements all of which have been objects of Coleridge’s censure.

First of all Wordsworth writes that he chose low and rustic life, where the essential passions of the heart find a better soil to attain their maturity. They are less under restraint and speak a plainer and more emphatic language. In rustic life our basic feelings coexist in greater simplicity and more accurately contemplated and more forcibly communicated. The manners of rural life, sprang from those elementary feelings and from the necessary character of rural occupations, are more easily realized and are more durable. Lastly the passions of men are incorporated with the beautiful and permanent forms of nature.

Secondly, that the language of these men is adopted because they hourly communicate with the best objects from which the best part of language is originally derived. Being less under social vanity, they convey their feelings and ideas in simple and outright expressions because of their rank in society and the equality and narrow circle of their intercourse.

Thirdly, he made a number of statements regarding the language and diction of poetry. Of these, Coleridge refutes the following parts: “a selection or the real language of men”; “the language of the men in low and rustic life”: and, “Between the language of prose and that of metrical composition there neither is, nor can be, any essential difference”.

As regards the first statement, i.e. the choice of rustic characters and life, Coleridge points out, first, that not all Wordsworth characters are rustic. Characters in poems like Ruth, Michael, The Brothers, are not low and rustic. Secondly, their language and sentiments do not necessarily arise from their abode or occupation. They are attributable to causes of their similar sentiments and language, even if they have different abode or occupation. These causes are mainly two:

Independence which raises a man above bondage, and a frugal and industrious domestic life.
A solid, religious education which makes a man well-versed in the Bible and other holy books excluding other books.

The admirable qualities in the language and sentiments of Wordsworth’s characters result from these two causes. Even if they lived in the city away from Nature they would have similar sentiments and language. In the opinion of Coleridge, a man will not be benefited from a life in rural solitudes unless he has natural sensibility and suitable education. In the absence of these advantages, the mind hardens and a man grows, ‘selfish, sensual, gross and hard hearted’.

As regards the second statement of Wordsworth, Coleridge objects to the view that the best part of language is derived from the objects with which the rustic hourly communicates. First, communication with an object implies reflection on it and the richness of vocabulary arises from such reflection. Now the rural conditions of life do not require any reflection, hence the vocabulary of the rustics is poor. They can express only the barest facts of nature and not the ideas and thoughts which results from their reflection. Secondly, the best part of a man’s language does not result merely from communication with nature, but from education, from the mind of noble thoughts and ideals. Whatever rustics use, are derived not from nature, but from The Bible and from the sermons of noble and inspired preachers.

Coleridge takes up his statements, one by one, and demonstrates that his views are not justified. Wordsworth asserts that the language of poetry is:

A selection of the real language of men or the very language of men; and that there was no essential difference between the language of prose and that of poetry.

Coleridge retorts that:

‘Every man’s language’ varies according to the extent of his knowledge, the activity of his faculties, and the depth or quickness of his feelings.

Every man’s language has, first, its individual peculiarities; secondly, the properties common to his class; and thirdly, words and phrases of universal use.

No two men of the same class or of different classes speak alike, although both use words and phrases common to them all, because in the one case their natures are different and on the other their classes are different.

The language varies from person to person, class to class, place to place.

Coleridge objects to Wordsworth’s use of the words, ‘very’ or ‘real’ and suggests that ‘ordinary’ or ‘generally’ should have been used. Wordsworth’s addition of the words, “in a state of excitement”, is meaningless, for emotional excitement may result in a more intense expression, but it cannot create a noble and richer vocabulary.

To Wordsworth’s argument about having no essential difference between the language of poetry and prose, Coleridge replies that there is and there ought to be, an essential difference between both the languages and gives numerous reasons to support his view. First, language is both a matter and the arrangement of words. Words both in prose and poetry may be the same but their arrangement is different. This difference arises from the fact that the poetry uses metre and metre requires a different arrangement of words. Metre is not a mere superficial decoration, but an essential organic part of a poem. Even the metaphors and similes used by a poet are different in quality and frequency from prose. Hence there is bound to be an ‘essential’ difference between the arrangement of words of poetry and prose. There is this difference even in those poems of Wordsworth’s which are considered most Wordsworthian.

Further, it cannot be confirmed that the language of prose and poetry are identical and so convertible. There may be certain lines or even passages which can be used both in prose and poetry, but not all. There are passages which will suit the one and not the other.

Thus does Coleridge refute Wordsworth’s views on the themes and language of poetry.

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