WORDSWORTH, CALL YOUR OFFICE

I gave a shout when I read the following words, yesterday:

It is the honorable characteristic of poetry that its materials are to be found in every subject which can interest the human mind. The evidence of this fact is to be sought, not in the writing of critics, but in the poets themselves.

The majority of the following poems are to be considered experiments.  They were 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.  Readers accustomed to the gaudiness and inane phraseology of many modern writers, if they persist in reading this book to its conclusion, will perhaps frequently have to struggle with feelings of strangeness and awkwardness: they will look round for poetry, and will be induced to enquire by what species of courtesy those attempts can be permitted to assume that title.

The reason I shouted upon reading the passage above was not from its content, for none dispute “every subject which can interest the human mind” pertains to poetry, and that “middle and lower clases of society” benefit from “experiments” by “poets” in a war against “gaudiness and inane phraseology.”

No, I disturbed my neighbors at my local cafe with a surprised yawp because the passage decrying “many modern writers” was published in 1798.

It flashed upon me that two centuries later, we have come full circle.

Following the Romantic revolution in English speaking poetry heralded by Wordsworth & Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads which brought us the accessible sublimities of Byron, Shelley, Keats, Barrett, Tennyson and Millay, we now have the “gaudiness and inane phraseology” of contemporary poetry which nobody reads.

The trouble began when a few modernist writers, rejecting the Romantics, and thinking themselves “Classical,” gave us this sort of bombast:

And then went down to the ship,/Set keel to breakers, forth on the godly sea, and/We set up mast and sail on that swart ship,/Bore sheep aboard her, and our bodies also

This schoolboy imitation of Homer certainly fits the “gaudiness and inane phraseology of modern writers” admonished by Coleridge and Wordsworth.  The modern writer in this case is Pound.

And “gaudiness” aptly conveys the mountains of needless detail we get from poetry like this

Only teaching on Tuesdays, book-worming/in pajamas fresh from the washer each morning,/I hog a whole house on Boston’s/”hardly passionate Marlborough  Street,”

One can almost see Wordsworth wondering, ‘Why is it important that the narrator [Robert Lowell, here] only teaches on Tuesdays?’  Sheepishly we moderns must reply, It isn’t.  We’d have trouble defending anything about this sort of gaudy confessional, in fact.  If such lines were discovered in a notebook, no one would think twice about saving them.

Wordsworth, call your office.

We’ve got a problem.