Wordsworth, in the preface to Lyrical Ballads, made it clear that his intention was to realise, in poetry, the 'real language of men', 'the spontaneous overflow of powerful feeling'. In short, he wanted poetry to operate as the immediate, subjective and emotional counterpart to the conventions of speech. While the Augustans sought to bring poetry closer to the designated and orderly functions of prose, Wordsworth valorised the spontaneous contingencies of the vocal utterance. How did he institute what was in effect the next stage in the uneasy relationship between poetry and the 'real' world of experience and communication?
In most of the Lyrical Ballads he achieved what is, for some (particularly Coleridge), a socio-cultural confidence trick. Many of the speaking presences of the ballads will often be (from our retrospective viewpoint) the illiterate, uncultured denizens of the blighted rural landscape of late-eighteenth-century England. Wordsworth, however, presented them as possessed of an intrinsic wisdom, uncomplicated and undiminished by the intellectual constraints of the educated city dweller, and the poems that caused the most controversy among the early reviewers of the collection (see Jordan, 1976, 107) were those which situated the utterance and the speaker as functions of the uncultured events and circumstances of rural existence—the best-known and most discussed being The Idiot Boy', The Thorn', The Mad Mother' and 'Simon Lee'. To have presented these rural figures as speaking within or as the subjects of the established conventions of poetry— such as the iambic pentameter in its couplet form or in its unrhymed, Miltonic version— would have caused an uneasy and potentially derisory tension between code and context. The conventions of poetic discourse were by 1798 locked into a pattern of socio-cultural expectations—Gray's much admired ploughman, the 'mute, inglorious Milton' would have become a farcical and incongruous figure had he addressed the poet in the still respected and much imitated diction and metre of the Master. Nor could Wordsworth replicate the actual speech patterns of such figures and expect them to be interpreted as poems. What he did was to choose a form, the ballad, whose intrinsic features qualified it for the category of the 'poetic' yet whose invocation of familiar lexical, contextual and cultural codes associated it with popular culture. Robert Mayo's seminal piece on The Contemporaneity of the Lyrical Ballads' (1954) should here be consulted. Mayo's article is as important for linguistic critics as it is for literary scholars because he shifts our attention away from the intrinsic stylistic or linguistic properties of the texts towards their relation with a broader network of socio-cultural sign systems. The late-eighteenth-century publications such as the Monthly Magazine, the European Magazine and the Gentleman's Magazine regularly included versified short stories which gave unashamed prominence to the bizarre and ghoulishly attractive experiences of the 'ordinary man', particularly of the rural type. Their use of the ballad form provided a further link with the contact code of an oral tradition perpetuated by tales told in markets and in the drinking establishments of the unlettered. There is no intrinsic correspondence between the subject matter of the stories by unmarried mothers, murderers, village idiots or disabled farmhands and their medium, but Wordsworth was aware that by offering his ballads as 'serious' poetic reflections on the nature of existence he would cause a disturbance in the established cultural expectations of how form designates content. What we shall now do is to examine Wordsworth's intention in creating such tensions and consider whether the methods of literary linguistics can assist us in our enterprise.
We will start with The Idiot Boy'. The deictic features of the text are reasonably informative. Betty, Susan, the boy Johnny, and the doctor are the principal participants in the narrative and its rural setting is designated by regular references to there being 'not a house within a mile', 'the wood', 'the woodman', 'the lane', 'the vale'. The third person speaker narrows the gap between the tale's status as an imagined or even second-hand account and its sense of immediacy by placing the discourse in the present tense and interposing his/her apparent presence within the narrative—"Tis eight o'clock', 'He's at the guide post'—with the utterances of its participants—'"If Johnny's near"/Quoth Betty'. The consequent shift of emphasis from text to event is supplemented by the maintenance of the syntagmatic-metonymic rather than the paradigmatic-metaphoric axis as the dominant function. When Betty reaches the doctor's house the speaker describes the situation.
The town so long, the town so wide,
This trope is governed by the immediate circumstances of the event: the speaker is unwilling to shift its locative references outside the situation of the utterance—we have already been told that it is a 'clear March night/The moon is up—the sky is blue'.
We might continue to interrogate the intrinsic properties of the text but in doing so we would ignore Wordsworth's deployment of the cultural code. The intrinsic metrical and syntactic properties of the ballad form are of much less significance than its familiar cultural status. Fowler (1981) and Halliday (1978) have written about the use of what they call 'anti-language', particularly in contemporary fiction. Their studies have focused on the relation between the largely spoken register of grammatical deviation, dialect and perverse semantics in groups and individuals that are usually detached from the mainstream of literary culture, and the use of such patterns in novels. The structure of prose fiction can
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