First Readings of The Semester

Posted: January 7, 2019 in Uncategorized


William Wordsworth
(1770 – 1850)
“Preface to Lyrical Ballads (1800)


Samuel Taylor Coleridge
(1772 – 1834)
The Stateman’s Manuel (1816)
Biographia Literaria (1817)

  1. Kenzie Crowley says:

    I agree with Wordsworth at the bottom of the first page and continuing onto the second, that the author’s gratify certain known habits of association.
    Authors are biased and therefore, their writing will be biased too. I believe that the readers bias can change based on the time period the writing is being read. Something wrote hundreds of years ago will be understood and applied differently in 2019 than it would have been understood and applied when it was first published.

    • Yes. The way a text is read depends greatly on the conditions under which it is read, and these change over time and from place to place. The process of how a text is modified by the very act of reading is a topic studied within a field called Reception Theory. I had not imagined we would discuss that topic at this time, but not matter. I’m happy to address any number of relevant issues as they spontaneously arise.

  2. Nick Fontaine says:

    In the Samuel Taylor Coleridge Biographia Literaria reading on page five, what does the author mean when he compares money and pig nature? Also what does it mean when the author says he must be pulled backward from the boat in order to make him enter it?

    • Nick, it’s good of you to post here. You’re already moving forward into materials I have yet to assign. For now, hang tight and stick with the Wordsworth. And do keep these questions in mind for when we do address Coleridge. He is not nearly as easy to read as Wordsworth. I’ll need all the help I can get when trying to explain him adequately.

  3. John Stitt says:

    I found it very interesting when Wordsworth discussed pure truth being found in poetry. The way I understood it was that poetry is the poet communicating as best they can their perception of the world. To me (and hopefully Wordsworth), this means that while poetry might not be a universal truth, it is an exact truth for the person writing it. This same idea is also transposed onto art as a whole, where Wordsworth postulates that all art is an expression of the artist’s truth.

    • Without getting into deep and murky waters, it seems Wordsworth believes there to be more than one kind of truth. As genuine Romantic, Wordsworth has enough distance from the Scientific Revolution (beginning circa 1610 – 1640) that he can begin to think critically about its capacities and incapacities, its benefits and liabilities. Wordsworth hardly repudiates modern science, but he does know that exact and object knowledge have their limits and come at a price. A famous line of his, commenting of the price of knowledge, is this: “We murder to dissect.” While objectivity can do a decent job of telling how the world works, it can’t tell us why the world works as it does, much less how we should act within it. Science can logically convince us of facts, but it can’t compel conviction. There is will and won’t in physical nature, but there is no ought and oughtn’t – if that makes any sense. For answers to the questions ‘what should I do’, or even ‘how should I feel’, we must turn to other sources. For Wordsworth, a primary sources of moral conviction, or moral truth, is poetry. Because it shows us not simply the dissected anatomy of the human, but it reveals the soul, which cannot be quantified or functionalized. These thoughts will occupy much of the length of the Preface, wherein Wordsworth wants to anatomize not the human body, but rather human action. Hence his insistence that actions described in poetry should be clear and purposive. Any carapace or ornamental that conceals human motivation takes us further from the discovery of moral truth.

      Of course I’m not saying this is how it really is. As suggested in class the other day, Wordsworth will soon enough by the object of repeated attack by a wide variety of modern thinkers. However, we won’t understand the nature and value of those attacks if we can’t see what is being attacked. That’s why I assigned Wordsworth. I’m glad you found him at least somewhat interesting.

  4. Kevin Nielson says:

    What I found I found interesting about what Wordsworth had to say were his feelings on the aspect of imagination in his poetry. What he does by redefining and expanding the traditional norms of imagination allowed him to expand his definition of poetry. This allows him to explain that anything can be made poetic and that something doesn’t have to be poetic in nature to write poetry about it. I think that Wordsworth’s draws an important parallel between imagination and what it truly means for something to be poetic.

    • Yes. The word imagination has a long and complex history. It was undergoing significant change in Wordsworth’s day, and he was part of that transformation. Prior to him, imagination might have referred either to the (simple?) ability to retain pictures in one’s mind, or more complex flights of fancy and free association. Wordsworth seems to strive for a compromise between the two extremes. For him, imagination seems to mean ability to isolate and develop simple scenes which are neither exotic or extraordinary, but nevertheless possess the power to move the heart.

  5. Aralia Ward says:

    What I found to be the strongest part of Wordsworth argument was his tone. William Wordsworth’s writing style, in regards to his arguments, reminds me of Erasmus argument style as he defends the existence of free will in opposition to Martin Luther. Both of these authors similarly choose a powerful form of rhetoric in their polite tones. Wordsworth starts his writing just like Erasmus by saying how he did not want to address the issue but his friends encouraged him. Throughout the piece Wordsworth is constantly apologizing for his shortcomings. This humble apologetic tone I believe is a powerful tool in support of his arguments as it flatters rather than insults the reader.

    • Yes. Wordsworth is not wanting simply to make a logical argument. Beyond that, he wants to touch that heart of his reading, even in this explanatory Preface. And that, he argues, can only be done using simple, direct, and everyday human language.

  6. Jaina Lee says:

    The word “pleasure” is mentioned 43 times in this reading. Wordsworth mainly uses this word when describing the purpose of poetry. However, I’m not sure I’m understanding what he means by it. It’s an arbitrary thing, and what I took from it was that poetry is supposed to stimulate the mind and find beauty/passion in the common things. I can see how finding meaning in written words is a pleasant feeling but how does one have an “overbalance of pleasure”?

    • I think Wordsworth point is that literature doesn’t not need to preach to us – or furnish a moral to the story, as we are taught in high school. It can be enough, as far as Wordsworth is concerned, for literature simply to make us feel honest sympathy for the characters and situations it describes, as thus bring us back in touch with our shared humanity. Anything beyond this he considers excessive, controlling, and pretentious.

  7. Kyle Jones says:

    One quote of Wordsworth’s that I didn’t understand was “We have no knowledge, that is, no general principles drawn from the contemplation of particular facts, but what has been built up by pleasure, and exists in us by pleasure alone.” Is he suggesting that we, as a species, only care about what makes us feel good? By extension, is he suggesting that we can’t know something unless we care for it?

    • This is a good question. It seems to me Wordsworth is packing a few ideas in to this brief passage. He does assert the fundamental importance of pleasure in human experience and learning. However, in the context of the complete essay, it should be fairly clear that Wordsworth is not suggesting human are naturally hedonistic, nor that they should attempt to become mere pleasure seekers. It think he believes that the education and culture of his day has become excessively artificial. In order to produce and appreciate the art of his day, it has become necessary to train oneself strenuously for many years in order to produce something which can only be understood and appreciated exclusively by the few persons who have undergone a similar educational ordeal. Such forced art cannot reflect general human nature, because it is produced and intended for a very specific audience. It can give us accurate knowledge about only about a very small set of persons and very limited set of possible experiences and feelings. Or, such art will be entirely artificial and tell virtually nothing at all about the human condition, per se.

  8. To Wordsworth I would propose a few questions.

    If any man is capable of feeling things as vividly as a poet, then why would they be limited by the “false refinement” of language? Would they not be drawn into the work just as the poet intended without simplification?

    It may be a more implicit, abstract understanding, but that is more universally true and relatable than something that is clear cut and simple- rarely is the way of the world straight forward. I dont think that simplifying language and art does the human condition and the reality of the world any justice as the depths of the human experience are limited only by language. The simplification of speech does not clarify meaning as much as it limits the depth and complexity of what it seeks to describe. I know he is prefacing his own work, but I cant help but question his arguments.

    Wordsworth is a good place to start, as mentioned in a previous reply. I will say that some level of reality can be communicated from simplicity alone, but I dont think the ambiguity that is associated with simplicity supports his claims.

    • As far as I can tell, you are under the impression that all of Wordsworth remarks are applicable to all poets. In fact, he’s trying to make a very clear distinction between good poets and bad ones. In his opinion, the poetry of his day is hopeless degraded, scarcely readable, and scarcely worth reading if one even can read it. In contrast, he tries to present his view of what genuine and healthy poetry might be – one free of false refinement.

      As for simplicity, by this Wordsworth does not mean a world or a form of literature free of all complexities and challenges. This is evident from his reference to Aristotle’s Poetics, and its discussion of dramatic conflict. Wordsworth’s complaint about excessively refined poetry is that the excess of ornamentation buries any drama the poem might contain, or it simply hides the fact that the poem lacks any drama whatsoever. While it could appear that Wordsworth is calling for blunt or course verse, it’s good to recall that he does warn against vulgarity. His point is not to call for simplistic thinking or baby talk, but simply to say that the needless multiplication of words or brushstrokes generally detracts from the power of art.

  9. Sevin says:

    Wordsworth appeared to be reverent toward poets. He described how a poet “is a man speaking to men.” A poet is lively, passionate, enthusiastic, and tender and “has greater knowledge of human nature.” A poet is not afraid to express his thoughts and feelings. “The Poet thinks and feels in the spirit of human passions.” I have never given much thought about how influential poems can be until I read Wordsworth. It was interesting to get a deeper understanding of what poets do in their poems to affect readers and the writing styles of poetry.

  10. Sevin Park says:

    Wordsworth appeared to be reverent toward poets. He described how a poet “is a man speaking to men.” A poet is lively, passionate, enthusiastic, and tender and “has greater knowledge of human nature.” A poet is not afraid to express his thoughts and feelings. “The Poet thinks and feels in the spirit of human passions.” I have never given much thought about how influential poems can be until I read Wordsworth. It was interesting to get a deeper understanding of what poets do in their poems to affect readers and the writing styles of poetry.

    • Wordsworth values poets sufficiently that he believes it is important to distinguish the real ones from the fakes. There was no shortage of poetry in his day, but he considered most of it to be dreadful. Consequently, he feared most persons would lose interest in poetry before they had ever even sample the real thing. This is much like persons who say they don’t like beer or wine when all they’ve ever tried is the swill available at the convenience store. Or, other persons will consume only luxury products and wouldn’t never consider drinking anything an average person could afford. Persons who drink such products may say they are either wonderful or horrible, but they don’t even know that the junk they’re drinking is full of all sorts of additives and technically isn’t even beer or wine at all, but simply ‘beer’ or ‘wine’. Whether it be cane sugar or French oak extract, these products, cheap or expensive, and bloated with all sorts of artificial additives. And it is principally they additives which people taste, not the product itself. Wordsworth’s overall goal is to get the society of his day to consider how debased their tastes have become, and to assure them that there is an alternative to garbage.

  11. Eduardo Barba says:

    Wordsworth says that poetry is supposed to be simple and easily understood yet ironically the majority of the class found this poem to be one of the most confusing things they have read. I just find that interesting.

    • The piece we read was not poetry but an essay about poetry. As I tried to convey in class, this piece is challenging simply because Wordsworth is writing in the style of his day, which was over 200 years ago. In comparison with the artificial verse and analytical philosophy of the day, Wordsworth language and ideas must have looked almost embarrassingly straightforward and humble. A good way to understand this is by comparing Wordsworth to the Bible. Many persons today find the Bible incredibly difficult to read, and yet the fact remains that it was written by fishermen and tentmakers. What makes it difficult for us is nothing intrinsic to the text, but the simple fact that it was written in a style which is no longer ours. With a little practice, one can become accustomed to reading the Bible without difficulty, and see that its most impressive stories are simple anecdotes about the struggles, victories, and defeats of common people working people.

  12. Kevin Nielson says:

    I think that this reading of Coleridge ties in very well with what we discussed last week with Wordsworth. And from some further research I learned that Coleridge and Wordsworth were friends and that they both had the same idea that writing needed to be written in a conversationalist manner. And while this had some vocabulary that isn’t commonly used for its time it is written in very plain English. I just thought it was interesting to see an example of the type of writing that Wordsworth was referring to.

    • Palmer Lee-Mesa says:

      I believe the distinction between Wordsworth’s and Coleridge’s ideas is even more compelling. To my understanding, they both agree that language (especially in poetry) should be more standardized for the common person, but Wordsworth seems to disagree with the language or expressed words specifically, whereas Coleridge seems more appalled by what the words mean.

      • I’m not sure I understand you comment here. Wordsworth is focused on actual descriptions, whereas Coleridge is concerned about what is described? I suspect you have in mind Coleridge’s remarks on allegory and symbol in The Statesman’s Manual? I believe their is overlap between the interests of the two thinkers. But I may find myself in agreement with you when I say that Wordsworth was more interested in Memory, whereas Coleridge was more interested in Imagination.

    • Yes, as I stated in class, Wordsworth and Coleridge were best frenemies. These two very different personalities shared many ideas and fought bitterly over others. I will try to compare and contrast them to good effect in class this week. Then we will move directly to high modernity, which should make far more sense after that discussion.

  13. Kenzie Crowley says:

    I thought it was very interesting when talking about Coleridge’s early symbolist theory how symbols and allegory’s were initially concerning because of the connections between the inside and outside of the mind. There’s no point of a transparent symbol, because a symbol is supposed to invoke thought and personal interpretation. A transparent symbol leaves nothing for the reader to discover for themselves. Often times, different people finish the same book with different inspirations gained. A transparent symbol revokes the opportunity for personalized interpretation and implementation of themes gained from books.

    • Coleridge was fairly out of control for most of his life, and so it might come as a surprise to some persons that he began his life wanting to study the Bible. This desire led his to Germany, where he absorbed the most current theology, criticism, and philosophy of the day. This he brought back to England. Nevertheless, Coleridge went on to make a name for himself in literature. And his thoughts on how profitably to read literature are responsible for much of what we and now taught in high school English classes. I wonder how many young persons realize how much of their grade school education can be traced directly back to Bible study.

      • Kenzie Crowley says:

        I had the thought that his writing was similar to the bible while I was reading. The bible is full of allegories and symbols and that could be where Coleridge’s interest in them comes from.

        • The Bible may be full of symbols and allegories. Or it may simply be we’ve been taught to find symbols and allegories where the are none. High school and Sunday school which do that to you.

  14. Sevin Park says:

    Coleridge believed it was the philosopher’s social responsibility to “desynonymize” words for human communication, and he provides several distinctions between symbol and allegory. For example, a symbol is “the only possible expression of some invisible essence. Allegory is one of many possible representations of an embodied thing, belongs to fancy and not imagination.” I thought it was intriguing how he could delve so deeply into the differences between the two terms. Also, he talks about the difference between natural signs and artificial signs. Natural signs are “intuitively and universally recognizable” while artificial signs are “culturally specific and at risk of being ambiguous, incomprehensible, or simply unrecognizable.” Coleridge provides examples of natural signs, like smoke as a sign of fire and a symptom as a sign of disease, but not examples of artificial signs. What would be examples of artificial signs?

  15. Aralia Ward says:

    It is interesting to comprehend, like Coleridge, on the basis of existence. He takes the side of a philosopher, rather than a scientist who believes intelligence grows and that true existence lies in how something will react to another thing. It matters not what these two forces are called in human language what is important is their infinite relationship to one another. It seems though that in this selection of his work he relies heavily on the ideas of others. Is this his philosophy style to bounce his ideas off of others or will he eventually introduce his own truly unique ideals?

    • I’m having some difficulty understanding your sentences, as the diction is somewhat odd. Perhaps you are deliberately imitating the avowedly helter-skelter syntax of Coleridge himself. But, yes, Coleridge does rely heavily on the ideas of others, in particular key scholars he studied while in Germany. Indeed, so much did he depend on their ideas that eventually he was busted for outrageous plagiarism. He’s never really overcome that stigma.

  16. Aleah Griffin says:

    In Coleridge’s symbolist theory, I found his ideas on natural and artificial signs interesting. He says that natural signs are very direct (almost “transparent”), and there’s only one definite meaning to natural signs. However, he appears to be using the words “symbol” and “sign” interchangeably, but I’ve always been under the impression that those are two different things. Symbols aren’t symbols if you can’t find different interpretations of them, but signs have only one specific meaning. As Coleridge says, “smoke is a sign merely of fire, a symptom a sign merely of a disease, a baby’s cry a sign merely of the baby’s distress”.

    • I would not call Coleridge a ‘Symbolist’. That word refers to a later group of artists and writers who are interested in pure beauty, even if it can only come at the subordination or outright sacrifice of morality. While Coleridge certainly did value beauty, he nevertheless believed it derived from morality and remained in morality’s service. Here, morality hardly means a list of things one must do or avoid to be good. Rather, it means the determination to act according to the dictates of one’s own conscience, without any need for external commandments.

      As for symbols, Coleridge certainly is interested in them, as was indicated in class today. Symbols, to repeat my mini lecture, do not stand for anything in particular beyond themselves. We do not ‘read’ them so much as we reflect upon them indefinitely. Consequently, we say they are ‘opaque’. Signs, on the other hand, are ‘transparent’, we simply absorb their immediate meaning and move on. Anybody who sits around to contemplate the unique beauty of a traffic light is probably a fool. The difference between the two you mention is central to Coleridge’s poetics. Whereas persons of his day, in order to preserve their Enlightened attitude, read the Bible as a code to be cracked (because they felt the stories contain there, taken at face value, were either implausible or outright absurd), Coleridge believe that such reading of signs was of no real avail. The key to genuinely profitable Bible study was to see the book as full of symbols, not mere signs.

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