The Romantic Programme Problems And Contradictions

Let us now consider the problems raised by Lyrical Ballads, the creative and theoretical manifesto for Romanticism, and see how these might contribute to our broader understanding of the Romantic programme.

Wordsworth's objective, as he states in the preface, is to bring poetry closer both to spontaneous, spoken discourse and to prelinguistic experience. This desire for expressive transparency is both the ideal and the collective paradox which binds together the major Romantic poets.

The Ideal

Coleridge, in the Biographia Literaria, writes,

They [images] become proofs of original genius only as far as they are modified by a predominant passion; or by associated thoughts and images awakened by that passion...when a human and intellectual life is transferred to them from the poet's own spirit.

Shelley, in A Defence of Poetry, writes: 'Poets are the hierophants of unapprehended inspiration; the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present; the words which express what they understand not'. Keats, in a letter to Richard Woodhouse, describes the poetic character: 'it is not itself—it has no self—it is everything and nothing—it has no character—it enjoys light and shade; it lives in gusto, be it foul or fair, high or low, rich or poor, mean or elevated'. The philosophic and aesthetic origins of these aspirations are well documented in Abrams's The Mirror and the Lamp (1953). In the late eighteenth century a largely Anglo-German tradition, usually described as primitivism, held that the intrinsic, rhythmical nature of poetic language predated the 'civilised' conventions of prose: the pre-linguistic registers of physical and mental activity—walking, running, desire, fear, hate—would manifest themselves in patterns of language that were uncontaminated by the arbitrary sophistications of culture and reason—in Shelley's terms 'words which express what they understand not'. The Romantics were undoubtedly inspired by this theoretical model, but their problem was how to transform theory into practice.

The Paradox

Wordsworth in Lyrical Ballads juxtaposed the sub-cultural status of the ballad with its high cultural counterpart, blank verse, and although in each instance he disrupted the reader's expectations of how stylistic and cultural paradigms should relate to each other he nevertheless fed upon and remained within the established poetic langue of generic and structural precedents. In short he had mediated 'the real language of men' by drawing upon the least transparent and most refractory of all linguistic media. In the preface he concedes that there is an irreconcilable fissure between theory and practice:

The music of harmonious metrical language, the sense of difficulty overcome, and the. pleasure which has been previously received from works of rhyme or metre of the same or similar construction, an indistinct perception perpetually renewed of language closely resembling that of real life, and yet, in the circumstance of metre, differing from it so widely.

In short, poetic language is an autonomous, self-determined system of rules and conventions, and its 'close resemblance to real life' is largely the product of an arbitrary cultural phenomenon now referred to as literary competence: each convention (such as the ballad) is a sign which must be decoded by the perceiver before it can be said to correspond with its predicate. Coleridge, in the Biographia (written during the later more embittered period of his relationship with Wordsworth), foregrounds the paradox: '[The best part of human language] is formed by a voluntary appropriation of fixed symbols to internal acts, to processes and results of imagination, the greater part of which have no place in the consciousness of uneducated man'. Roughly translated: poetry is a high cultural game played only by trained and competent participants.

In terms of the issues raised so far regarding the structural and functional conditions of poetry, Romanticism is a turning inward. The conventions and objectives of Augustanism were the reconciliation of the poetic with the prosaic functions of disclosure, exposition, cataloguing, the rational contemplation of thesis and antithesis. This, according to the Romantics, falsified the contingent, spontaneous relation between poetic expression and the pre-linguistic world. Their problem was that this relationship is, in any event, false and arbitrary. Without the double pattern language is unpoetic and unpoetic language surrenders either to the institutional imperatives of prose discourse or to the unstructured localised patterns of speech; with the double pattern language becomes further enclosed within the systematic complexities of the poetic langue. For the rest of this chapter we will examine extracts and individual poems and consider the ways in which Wordsworth's precedent, in the Lyrical Ballads, of reintegrating and juxtaposing the already established codes governing the structural and contextual registers of poetry, was both maintained and extended by his peers. We will begin with Blake.

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