Poetry

William Wordsworth: Poetry Study

Introduction

Wordsworth in 1798 by William Shuter

The principal object, then, which I proposed to myself in these Poems was to choose incidents and situations from common life, and to relate or describe them, throughout, as far as was possible, in a selection of language really used by men; and, at the same time, to throw over them a certain colouring of imagination, whereby ordinary things should be presented to the mind in an unusual way; and, further, and above all, to make these incidents and situations interesting by tracing in them, truly though not ostentatiously, the primary laws of our nature: chiefly, as far as regards the manner in which we associate ideas in a state of excitement. 

William Wordsworth defines his literary agenda in the Preface of his Lyrical Ballads, 1798

William Wordsworth was born in 1770 in a town called Cockermouth in Cumberland. He came from a relatively well-off middle class family, but his early years were severely disrupted by the death of his young mother when he was eight years old and then of his father when he was just thirteen. Until he inherited his parents’ wealth, his formative years were full of uncertainty. He was raised by members of his family and teachers at school. His childhood was marked by a rural education in Hawkshead School in the Lake District, and his childhood differs from many of his contemporaries in that it was exclusively rural and Northern. He began writing poetry when he was a teenager, and was noted by his teachers as a promising poet, publishing his first poem when he was just 16. Familiarize yourself with Wordsworth, important events in his life and the world around him that formed the context for his ideas and work:


IB Learner Profile: Reflective

We thoughtfully consider the world and our own ideas and experience. We work to understand our strengths and weaknesses in order to support our learning and personal development.

IB Learner Profile

Appreciating the natural world is a sort of therapy for Wordsworth. It is a prescription designed to cure the alienation modern man feels in the industrialized, urban environment, so much so that, in The World is too much with us, he would abandon orthodox religion just to catch a ‘glimpse’ of nature which would ‘leave him less forlorn’ (lines 12-13). Wordsworth accuses us of being ‘out of tune’, but offers a sort of salvation through reflection. This tenet, that forms a major part of his personal philosophy, is arguably more important in today’s world as it was in Wordsworth’s time. While reading the poems, take a moment to reflect on the current condition of the natural world, your place within it and the actions you might take to mitigate the widespread destruction of wildlife and wild places that modern societies and economies depend upon.

Lang and Lit Concept: Creativity

“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; this I have done for the reason already alleged, to bring my language near to the language of men, and further, because the pleasure which I have proposed to myself to impart is of a kind very different from that which is supposed by many persons to be the proper object of poetry.” 

Wordsworth’s explains his concept of poetry.

Creativity is central to the activities of reading and writing. Writing is, very obviously, a creative act of imagination. In reading, too, creativity is required to interpret and understand a text, and to explore its range of potential meanings. When people first read Wordsworth, they sometimes wonder what all the fuss is about! His poems seem so straightforward compared to the convoluted structures and elevated diction employed by earlier poetic traditions. Nevertheless, at the time his poems were thought to be creative, daring and even revolutionary. As you read Wordsworth, try to come to a clear understanding of the ways he is a creative writer.


Old Man Travelling, Animal Tranquility and Decay

The poet watches a solemn old man walk up a country road. The speaker is struck by how ‘quiet’ and content the old man appears. The poet hypothesizes that the old man derives his inner-peace by being ‘thoughtful’ and ‘lead by nature’. When the poet asks the old man where he is headed, the old man replies that he is going to visit his son, who is dying in hospital from wounds he suffered in a naval battle.

Resources

Discussion Points

  • Compare the Old man in this poem to Wordsworth’s philosophy of ‘wise passiveness’ in Expostulation and Reply and The Tables Turned.
  • Consider the claim that Old Man Travelling is a war poem.
  • Contrast the Old man in this poem to the old Huntsman in Simon Lee. What do the two characters have in common? Are Wordsworth’s poetic aims different in the two poems?

Learner Portfolio

Write a one-two page journal entry in which you argue for or against the idea that Old Man Travelling is a war poem. Make sure you use examples from the poem to support your argument.


Simon Lee, The Old Huntsman

This poem is a ballad which portrays an old Huntsman, based on a real old Huntsman called Christopher Tricky, who Wordsworth met in Alfoxden, Somerset. The poet describes the huntsman’s youth, in which he was strong and competent, but also describes his present, in which he is weak and frail. The Huntsman’s personality shines through, as although he is physically decrepit, he still has a charming and pleasant personality. The poet then narrates an episode in which the Huntsman struggles to cut up an old tree root. The poet is touched by the Huntsman’s emotional reaction to his assistance.

Resources

  • Simon Lee, The Old Huntsman
  • Analysis and Interpretation
  • Worksheet

Discussion Points

  • Consider the difference between ’emotional engagement’ and ‘intellectual engagement’ in Wordsworth’s poetry. Are they opposites, or are they compatible?
  • Compare and contrast with the Elegiac Stanzas on a picture of Peele Castle. Can you see elements of style developing in both poems?
  • Compare the informal and chatty style of the poem to Wordsworth’s blank verse, such as Nutting or There was a boy. What are the differences in style, and how do you think this reflects their different aims? 

Learner Portfolio

Using examples from Simon Lee, The Old Huntsman, explain how elements of the ballad form create certain effects and understandings in a one-two page journal entry.


Anecdote for Fathers

The poet describes a conversation between himself and his young son while they are at Liswyn Farm on holiday, where the poet is reminded of his home at Kilve. The father asks his little boy which place he likes better: Liswyn or Kilve? The little boy replies that he likes Kilve better, but he is reluctant to say why. The poet insists that his son tell him, and the boy finally explains that he likes Kilve better because there is no weathercock there; a spurious answer, which amuses the father. He decides that the little boy is both wise and ignorant at the same time – a paradox!

Resources

  • Anecdote for Fathers
  • Analysis and Interpretation
  • Worksheet

Discussion Points

  • Contrast the exchange between the boy and his father in this poem to the dialogue between Matthew and the poet in The Fountain.
  • Why were children important in Wordsworth’s theory of the imagination? Consider There was a boy and Nutting.
  • How similar is the Old Man in Animal Tranquillity to the boy in this poem?

Learner Portfolio

Rewrite Anecdote for Fathers as a one-two page short story from the point of view of the father.


Expostulation and Reply

Based on a real conversation enjoyed by Wordsworth with a philosopher called William Hazlitt, the first three stanzas of the poem report dialogue addressed to the poet (William) from the poet’s friend (Matthew). The final four stanzas report the poet’s reply. Matthew initially criticizes the poet for ‘dreaming his time away’ instead of learning from books. The poet responds that he receives an education from nature. The poet declares that the world is ‘forever speaking’, and we may hear it as long as we have a ’wise passiveness’.

Resources

  • Expostulation and Reply
  • Analysis and Interpretation
  • Worksheet

Discussion Points

  • What does Wordsworth mean by ‘wise passiveness’ ? Consider this alongside There was a boy.
  • Explore the concept of ‘pantheism’ as presented in this poem.
  • Explain Matthew’s criticisms of Wordsworth. Do you think Wordsworth successfully defends himself in this poem and in The Tables Turned?

Learner Portfolio

Write a one-two page journal entry in which you explain the criticisms levelled at Wordsworth, and the way Wordsworth defends himself from these criticisms. Conclude by evaluating whether, in your opinion, you think he is successful in his defence or not.


The Tables Turned

This is a companion poem to Expostulation and Reply, and is an extension of the argument of that poem, which was that Matthew should ‘quit his books’ and cultivate communion with nature. The poet claims that an appreciation of nature gives us access to a type of ‘wisdom’ not found in books. This wisdom includes insight into human nature but also knowledge of good and evil. Books are described as ‘barren’ whereas the natural world is living and vital.

Resources

  • The Tables Turned
  • Analysis and Interpretation
  • Worksheet

Discussion Points

  • Compare the ballad technique used in this poem with Wordsworth’s sonnet The World is too much with us. Although the two poems have similar meanings, how does the difference in form create very different poems?
  • Explore the different ways nature can impart wisdom Wordsworth outlines in this poem and The Fountain.
  • Contrast the difference in tone between The Tables Turned and Expostulation and Reply.

Learner Portfolio

What is the message of the poem and how does Wordsworth’s writing bring out this message in effective ways? Write a one-two page essay in response to this question, using plenty of quotations from the poem.


The Fountain

This poem recounts a young boy and an old man spending time together, one of several ‘Matthew’ poems Wordsworth wrote around 1799. Although the old man knows he will die soon, he is consoled by the transcendent stability of the natural world, symbolized by the ‘fountain’, which is a little stream.

Resources

  • The Fountain
  • Analysis and Interpretation
  • Worksheet

Discussion Points

  • Contrast Matthew’s advice in this poem to the advice given by the other character called Matthew in Expostulation and Reply.
  • Explain the metaphorical significance of the stream in this poem. Is it effective?
  • Compare Matthew to the little boy in Anecdote for Fathers.

Learner Portflio

TBC


Strange Fits of Passion Have I Known

Gothic Literature was very popular when Wordsworth was a young man, and Strange fits of passion can be read as a form of gothic literature. Gothic stories often employed the supernatural or showed humans in intense emotional states. The stories were marked by suspense and mystery, and the writers attempted to move the reader by inspiring terror. The poet describes a night-time journey to see his lover. The journey is a dreamlike experience for the poet, and when he finally arrives at his lover’s cottage it occurs to him that she might be dead. We never find out whether or not this is the case as the poem does not reveal what is inside the cottage. The moon and the horse seems to be a bigger presence in the poem for the poet compared to the attention the poet’s lover gets, and this undermines the narrator credibility. Is it all a dream? Is the narrator mad?

Resources

  • Strange Fits of Passion Have I Known
  • Analysis and Interpretation
  • Worksheet

Discussion Points

  • Consider how Wordsworth uses the ballad form to create a distinct rhythm in the poem, and explore how this relates to the poem’s themes.
  • Compare the effects of the sublime upon the narrator in this poem to the sublime presentations of nature in There was a boy.
  • Contrast the moon in this poem to the river in Composed upon Westminster Bridge or the cathedral in St Paul’s.

Learner Portfolio

Write a one-two page explanation of how Wordsworth uses various poetic devices to create a Gothic mood in this poem.


There Was A Boy

This poem describes a boy playing in the Lake district at night. He amuses himself by imitating bird calls to provoke the birds into replying. Since the boy is listening very closely for the sound of the birds’ reply, he inadvertently notices the sound of a torrent of water, and is shocked by the sublime majesty of nature. The boy is described as having the awesome imagery of nature impressed deeply into his heart. At the end of the poem it turns out that the young boy died when he was only ten years old.

Resources

  • There Was A Boy
  • Analysis and Interpretation
  • Worksheet

Discussion Points

  • What is the meaning of the term ‘sublime’ in light of There was a boy and Strange fits of passion.
  • Consider the symbolic significance of the owls and the ‘mountain torrent’ (i.e. the landscape). Do they mean different things in this poem?
  • What different literary techniques used to describe communion between the poet and nature in The Tables Turned and There was a boy?

Learner Portfolio

Re-write There was a Boy as a monologue. Choose your perspective: is the boy still alive, or is the boy speaking as a ghost?


Nutting

This is an overtly biographical poem, where Wordsworth recounts how, when he was a boy, he collected nuts from a hazel tree. He describes how he dressed in rustic clothing and searched out the hazel trees, concentrating on the joy he felt at finding a tree which no one else had plundered yet. Although Wordsworth is keen to focus on the pleasure he experienced as a boy and the pleasure he has in retelling the experience, there is an anxiety in the poem over whether or not Wordsworth is remembering the experience accurately.

Resources

  • Nutting
  • Analysis and Interpretation
  • Worksheet

Discussion Points

  • Is mankind inextricably alienated from nature? Answer with reference to Nutting and There was a boy.
  • Discuss Wordsworth’s attitude towards auto-biographical writing by comparing and contrasting Nutting and Strange fits of passion.
  • Meaning is generated in this poem by an effective use of adjectives. Compare this poetic technique to others of Wordsworth’s poems.

Learner Portfolio

With reference to details from Nutting, and other poems if you like, write your ideas about the relationship between man and nature, according to Wordsworth.

Towards Assessment: Higher Level Essay

Students submit an essay on one non-literary text or a collection of non-literary texts by one same author, or a literary text or work studied during the course. (20 marks)

The essay must be 1,200-1,500 words in length.††

This would be a great topic to write about in your Higher Level Essay. You can address the Lang and Lit concept of Perspective and explore Wordsworth’s radical new views about man’s relationship with nature and how these are communicated in various ways through a selection of his poetry. Use your Learner Portfolio work as a draft to develop until it is of the required length.


The World is Too Much With Us

In this sonnet, Wordsworth laments the ignorance most of have of the spiritually fulfilment an appreciation of nature can provide, and explains that he finds traditional Christianity to be inherently unsatisfying for him. 

Resources

  • The World is Too Much With Us
  • Analysis and Interpretation
  • Worksheet

Discussion Points

  • Explore the different attitudes towards orthodox Christianity in this poem and the Elegiac Stanzas. What different techniques does Wordsworth use to accomplish present different attitudes?
  • What is Wordsworth referring to what he talks of ‘power’s which are ‘laid to waste’?
  • Consider the final two lines of the poem. Why do you think Wordsworth makes a classical reference to conclude the poem?

Learner Portfolio

TBC


Composed Upon Westminster Bridge

Inspired by an early morning walk through London, this sonnet is a simple, unadorned sketch of pre-industrial London. The poem takes place early on in the morning, where the city is quiet, while the cloudless sky and the bright sunshine allows Wordsworth to meditate upon the city undisturbed.

Resources

  • Composed Upon Westminster Bridge
  • Analysis and Interpretation
  • Worksheet

Discussion Points

  • Contrast this London scene with the scene described in St Paul’s. Why do you think they are different?
  • Read William Blake’s poem London from Songs of Experience. Is the portrayal different? If so, how and why?
  • Contrast Wordsworth’s views of religious faith in this poem Elegiac Stanzas on a Painting of Peele Castle. Can you distinguish between Wordsworth’s early optimism and his later conservatism?

Learner Portfolio

Write your own sonnet about your favourite place, or write a sonnet about a place you hate, that fills you with dread or somewhere haunting. 


Categories:Poetry

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