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The "Honourable Characteristic of Poetry":
Two Hundred Years of Lyrical Ballads

Wordsworth's Balladry: Real Men Wanted

Elizabeth Fay, University of Massachusetts, Boston


  1. One aspect of the medieval was particularly appealing to the Romantics: its focus on courtly love and the modern-seeming emotions of the knight or poet for his lady. Such a subjective, introspective, and ennobling experience as transcendent love was newly appealing through the popularized theories of sensibility, and the new knowledge of how emotions could impact the bodily and mental state of the individual. Similarly, the poetry of sensibility investigates subjectivity itself; its practitioners verbalize feeling as a state of being, pushing past reason to the mind's and body's other paths to knowledge. Recognizing the concordance, Wordsworth translates sensibility into chivalry, reabsorbing the sentimentalism that usually attends Romantic chivalry into a bodily comprehension of the sensible. At the same time, this absorption allows him to disallow the feminine object its subjectivity, so that Wordsworth is able to turn sensibility against the feminine. To convince readers of its naturalness, Wordsworth attempts in the Preface to Lyrical Ballads to make this a contractual process, but it remains throughout his poetic career a chivalric move. Only in his moments of troubadourian consciousness does Wordsworth confront the feminine as sensible matter.

  2. Because it is one thing for a poet to work this out for himself, and another for him to feel mocked by outrageous applications of its possibilities, Wordsworth is disgusted, particularly in the Preface, by the Della Cruscan phenomenon. What seems to him a duplicitous unmanning of poethood by those who exploit the unnatural aspects of troubadourism—its false attachments between poet and beloved, its mockery of meaning-making—threatens the sincerity of his own project. Jerome McGann differentiates between poetry that enacts, as in the sensibility of a poet like Frances Greville, and the self-consciousness of a poem like Hannah More's sentimentalization of sensibility. It is that self-consciousness, the mindfulness of emotions felt on the body, that distinguishes poetry of sensibility. More's Sensibility: An Epistle to the Honourable Mrs. Boscawen (1782) is a poem of analysis, a celebration of the sincerely sensible, and a critique of those whose sensibility is put on for effect. More's poem worries that "[a]ffect is haunted by the demon of affectation, virtue by virtuosity, the language of the heart [by artifice]" (McGann 52). This distinction between sincere and insincere sensibility shows that the latter's self-consciousness practices deception on those who believe in sensibility's promise. It is a far greater and dangerous distancing of the subject from his subjectivity than what prevails in the sentimental awareness of self.

  3. The sincerity necessary to sensibility insures that thought bonds to feeling, producing an unmindful immediacy that compacts time so that the felt present of the speaker is also the textual present moment, the moment of enactment. Insincerity endangers the compact between speaker and reader that such an experiential moment is real. In the case of the Della Cruscan school of sentimental poetry, the distancing of subject from an immediate experience of environment and emotions led some readers to interpret the poetry as insincerity rather than sentiment. When Hester Thrale Piozzi recommended Della Cruscan poems to Anna Seward, Seward thought they were all written by the same male poet who was dramatizing a faked love affair for sensational effect. The disturbing difference between sensation and sensational also grated on Wordsworth's nerves and was the basis of his strong dislike of Della Cruscan poetry. Wordsworth does not object to sensibility, but to a corruptive praxis that, like Gothic drama and novels, preys on readerly belief by manipulating emotions. The danger for Wordsworth is that such literature will destroy the compact between poet and reader, a contract in which the reader can be assured that the poet's heartfelt effort is always the ground of his art. The Della Cruscans' self-conscious (sentimental) use of language and nature as artifice to represent the "natural" images of the mind acted as a bad precedent to Wordsworth's desire for a more intense relation to the "natural," such that its representations are indistinguishable from those of the mind. This apparent fusion draws on the bonding of thought and emotion crucial to sensibility, but is distinguished by a self-consciousness drawn from sentimentalism. In bringing the two approaches together, Wordsworth politicizes sincerity as the elemental trait of Nature inheritable by man. It, rather than bodily nerves, is the poet's only true path to vision and poetic knowledge. What Wordworth views as the Della Cruscans' artifice derives, in fact, from their posture, public display of private emotion, and projection of a courtly world as a referential base. Paradoxically, what Wordsworth sees in the late eighteenth century as an artifice of style resulting from an artificiality of spirit, was for the medieval court poets the wringing of a poetic style out of a new naturalness of both emotion ("true love") and language (use of the vernacular).

  4. But whereas medieval courtly love poetry played with the idea of manliness as subservience or fealty crossed by desire—both of which place the man at the mercy of the lady—Wordsworth interprets Della Cruscan troubadourism as effeminacy, an unmanly (and thus a superficially and deeply insincere) relation to Nature. A gentleman's or knight's manners reveal an ingrained chivalry, a nobility of soul; the superficial manneredness of the troubadour as displayed by Merry exposes the distance between act and spirit. McGann argues that Wordsworth's "Preface. . .is a conscious critique of the Della Cruscans and the kind of writing inspired by their work. . . .Feeling is the central issue because the Della Cruscans had launched their own writing fifteen years earlier under the same sign"(75-76). Effeminacy is a double play on the relation between supposed passion and natural feeling, and thus a manipulation of all that poetry should engage.

  5. If Wordsworth is explicitly disgusted by what he views as a misapplication of sensibility to poetics and history, he is compelled by the relation of virtue to poetry that metrical romance and uses of the medieval, particularly in Spenser, hold forth. His 1798 contributions to the Lyrical Ballads articulate the posture of the radical, if at times sentimental, poet with little deviation, but with the second volume added in 1800 and the new preface written to justify both the original selections and the new additions, Wordsworth has begun to move away from a radicalizing position for which the present moment and the future are the keys to the past, to a knightly position from which to preserve the past as something it never actually was.

  6. Wordsworth's 1802 Preface retains the introductory posture that marks his 1800 defense of the Lyrical Ballads, a combination of assurance and challenge that targets the reader's readerly merit without preamble. Wordsworth does not revise this gauntlet-throwing posture out of his 1800 Preface. Certainly the posture of the 1800 Preface constructs a poet uneasy with his own time. He follows his initial challenge with a show of humility that can seem a bit false: "I had formed no very inaccurate estimate of the probable effect of those Poems: I flattered myself that they who should be pleased with them would read them with more than common pleasure," but otherwise, "with more than common dislike." Flattery, humility, and hostility frame the presentation of poems that originally had only the "Advertisement" to recommend them, itself a condensed version of courtesy, gauntlet, and honor hiding behind an anonymity that scarcely proclaimed courage. Indeed, it is the threat of dishonor, mentioned three times in six paragraphs, that hedges the initial section of the Preface: "I myself may be protected from the most dishonourable accusation which can be brought against an Author, namely that of an indolence which prevents him. . .from performing it [his duty]"; this "I" is posed against "Poets, who think that they are conferring honour upon themselves and their art, in proportion as they separate themselves from the sympathies of men"; and "I acknowledge that this defect [the triviality and meanness both of thought and language], where it exists, is more dishonourable to the Writer's own character than false refinement or arbitrary innovation" (Gill 596-97). The "defence of the theory, upon which the poems were written," based on this threat of dishonor, requires that the poet act in a manner worthy of the "healthy [taste]" he is trying to inculcate, and against the "depraved [taste]" he wishes to vitiate (595-96). Thus the poems, whose defense hangs between honor and dishonor, are anticipated by an essay whose length indicates that the common reader also threatens the poet with dishonor because of his or her proven taste preferences.

  7. The reader must be taught to read correctly, to appreciate a taste antithetical to Della Cruscan effeminacy, a false refinement frequently substituted for real poetry "by Poets . . . in proportion as they . . . indulge in arbitrary and capricious habits of expression, in order to furnish food for fickle tastes, and fickle appetites, of their own creation." Wordsworth specifically counters such consumerist fickleness, based as it is on bodily appetites and decadent foods, with the "incorporat[ion]" of "the passions of men. . . with the beautiful and permanent forms of nature." To prefer food to art, capriciousness and indulgence to "simplicity" and "contemplat[ion]," and eating to other forms of incorporation, is, of course, a female or effeminated preference (Gill 597). Against this "sickly" and fickle taste (represented by the desire for "frantic novels, sickly and stupid German Tragedies, and deluges of idle and extravagant stories in verse" [599], and compared to "a taste for Rope-dancing, or Frontiniac or Sherry" [605]) Wordsworth will construe a truer, more "permanent" relation of linguistic interchange. Rather than turning poetry into food, he proposes to overturn this body-language relation by representing instead language as the vehicle for the body to elevate itself through the passions to a state of linguistic transcendence. In this state, the mind will absorb what is atemporal and permanent about the persistence of art in life. That is, poetic language will be represented as the natural communication between men and things, as a vehicle rather than an end, and validated through original rather than degenerate appetite: "[rusticated] men hourly communicate with the best objects from which the best part of language is originally derived" (597). In the 1802 Preface, this thought is preceded by a return to the 1798 Advertisement: "They who have been accustomed to the gaudiness and inane phraseology of many modern writers. . .will, no doubt, [here] frequently have to struggle with feelings of strangeness and aukwardness: they will look round for poetry, and will be induced to inquire by what species of courtesy these attempts can be permitted to assume that title" (596). That claim, from the second paragraph of the Advertisement, was there a defensive gesture, but in the 1802 Preface it becomes ground for the poet's self-definition.

  8. This return to origins—figured by the recapturing of the 1798 statement, and redirected to real language of real men that is nevertheless transcendent—is the object of manly poethood. This is the poethood that takes such language and such men in order to be a man speaking to men. This poet needs a "style [that] is manly" in order to overturn any self-doubt about his ability to transform passion into "language as exquisitely fitted for the passion as that which the real passion itself suggests," rather than the kind of "slavish and mechanical" imitation which, if one succumbs to it, might "encourage idleness and unmanly despair" (Gill 609, 604). Such manliness, which is not perturbed by the exquisite but rather by the superficial or "trivial" imitation of it, as a "false refinement" (597), is emphasized by the repetition of the word "purpose." The "mark of difference" that the lyrical ballads sustain is "that each of them has a worthy purpose."

    Not that I mean to say, that I always began to write with a distinct purpose formally conceived; but I believe that my habits of meditation have so formed my feelings, as that my descriptions of such objects as strongly excite those feelings, will be found to carry along with them a purpose. If in this opinion I am mistaken, I can have little right to the name of a Poet. (597-98; emphasis in original)
    This thrice repeated and twice emphasized term clearly says what Wordsworth wants it to, and he repeats a few lines later, "I have said that each of these poems has a purpose." But he would not have been so pointed if he were not anticipating that hostile reader who, degraded by Della Cruscan-style sentiment, believes in poetic idleness, and desires poetry as an idle indulgence. "I have said that each of these poems has a purpose. I have also informed my Reader what this purpose will be found principally to be" (598). Nearly twice as many repetitions of "purpose" in half the space allotted to the repetition of the terms of honor earlier in the Preface establishes this positive and enacting word in the place of the anxiety of dishonor. But still the reader must be convinced.
  9. Purpose and duty argue against the threat of indolence anticipated as that which dishonors the poet. Thus the poetic vocation, which is historically an indolent one, must be justified against the labor of the biographer, historian, lawyer, physician, mariner, astronomer, natural philosopher, scientist, chemist, mathematician, and anatomist. Significantly, this comparative study, which pits the truth of poetry, "truth which is its own testimony," against the "fidelity," "knowledge" and "pleasure" of the professions, is figured as "the tribunal to which it [such testimony] appeals." Vocation wrestles with profession as in a knightly joust of a medieval appeal to truth (605). This embattled position, in which the poet represents an access to Truth against the desire of the reading public, the facticity of the man of history, and the knowledge of the man of science, is that of the knightly champion. "But Poets do not write for Poets alone, but for men" (608).

  10. This champion must carry his quest into the public domain, his task to generate representations of "truth . . . general, and operative," a truth "carried alive into the heart by passion" (Gill 605). The poet is, like the knights of medieval romances, a man "originally possessed of much sensibility" yet armored against the "gross and violent stimulants" promoted by the unmannered abusers of romance, "frantic novels" and "sickly" Gothics. The "magnitude of the general evil" facing the reader indeed requires a knight's challenge to battle. That he gleans his poetry from the "language of ordinary men," the very men reading cheap reprints of romances circulating about the countryside, requires both a defense to the reader and a further knightly quality, homage: "Nor let this necessity of producing immediate pleasure be considered as a degradation of the Poet's art . . . it is a task light and easy to him who looks at the world in the spirit of love: further, it is a homage paid to native and naked dignity of man" (Gill 605). The homage here is not to an overlord but to human dignity, yet it is couched in the language of chivalric love; Wordsworth the knight has put aside his arms to become the courtly lover, thus completing his self-transformation into the medieval model of manly perfection.

  11. One reason I am drawn to the complex politics of the Preface is that over the course of the last ten years my women students, both undergraduate and graduate, have consistently objected to both the posture and the terms of Wordsworth's self-presentation in the Preface. The manly perfection escapes them, and in reaction to his emphasis on sincerity, students repeatedly respond with hostility, using terms like "arrogant" and "insincere" to describe their perception of his chivalric posture. As hostile readers, these women students sit in for the hostile readers anticipated by the Preface, readers who are incapable of accepting the terms of the poetic contract. The reasons for their incapacity become doubly interesting when the poet's style is emphatically promoted as "manly" against the effeminacy of the degraded reader's taste, for whom poetry is "a matter of amusement and idle pleasure" (Gill 604). Women reading Wordsworth's Preface understand that they are excluded from his defined readership even before they discover its literal exclusionary terms in the definition of poethood as "a man speaking to men" (603). Students who do not target this particularly marked phrase, nevertheless sense the hostility emanating from the Preface and directed toward them. They find themselves in battle position with a poet whose very defensiveness situates him as proscriptively embattled. He cannot, as it were, imagine his manly project without an enemy, and oddly enough, the woman reader stands in for this enemy—literally, the effeminated reader rather than the female one—instead of standing in for the ennabling reader, she who urges the knight onward or who needs to be rescued by his valiant acts. This feminizing of the enemy, a not unfamiliar trademark of male aggression, and one often acted out in war time by the rape of the enemy's women, is covertly remarked on in "Nutting," a poem added to the Lyrical Ballads along with the Preface. "Nutting" was composed in October to December, 1798, however, and so prefigures the Preface both imagistically and ideologically. Its knightly quest ends in a rape of the feminized, indeed sacrificial, landscape as the boy ravages the trees' fruitfulness. His aggression against the female, complicated imagistically by the simultaneous hostilities against the fruit as male seed as well (the rape of enemy women is always an assault upon the male, a desecration of property), enacts the authorial hostilities of the Preface.

  12. For women, then, the Preface sets up a readerly double bind that presents a distinctly different level of poet-reader interaction than that which engages male readers. For women, the Preface's chivalry is not that of romance but of patriarchy, the contract not a romantic promise but an exhortation; both the chivalric and contractual terms appear to contemporary women dissemblings that contradict rather than complement the sincerity Wordsworth strives for in his poetry. Thus for those unschooled in reading Wordsworth according to contract, a certain amount of readerly resistance comes from his construction of poetry according to his theory; but an equal amount comes from the same contradictory stance that they locate in his poems of current rural life. There, when the Wordsworthian speaker balances a chivalric sympathy for the defenseless against a contractual relation, a triangulation between himself, his object, and the reader, the woman reader finds herself in an untenable position. So even the radical poet of the 1790s is read by twentieth-century women as conservative, his sincerity implausible. Freud's question of what it is that women want haunts the woman reader's relation to this text even as Wordsworth deftly elides such a query through authorial hostility. The relationship Wordsworth builds up with the properly constructed reader displaces the woman reader, who is figured as resistance, and as in a poem like "Nutting," which represents the more fully medieval character of the two-volume edition of the Lyrical Ballads, as an object of knightly battle.

  13. To what purpose does Wordsworth turn an initially hesitant chivalry in his 1798 Advertisement, which edges on a courage-less use of anonymity to assert a kind of balladic verisimilitude, into full fledged medievalism by the 1802 edition? Similarly, why are the 1798 poems contributed by Wordsworth lacking any real nostalgia for the past while the second volume of the 1800 edition is woven through with such themes? Since displacement and fakery, the articles of female reading, appear to be the very things Wordsworth's Preface argues against in poetic practice, it is interesting to consider that one of the "real" ballads on which Wordsworth and Coleridge were basing their lyrical ballads was the "The Nut-brown Maid." "The Not-browne Mayd," as Bishop Percy gives the title in his Reliques, was perhaps already 300 years old when Wordsworth was writing "Nutting," and it had already provided inspiration for other literary works, including Prior's Henry and Emma (Percy, headnote to "The Not-browne Mayd," II.265-66). But its main pertinence to this discussion is the demand the lover puts on the maiden for her to give up everything of her privileged life to follow him in his outlaw life as he goes into hiding. Her willingness to go live in the woods with the "banyshed man," and worst of all, to disguise her femininity in order to do so (she must cut off her hair and her skirt—"As cut you're here up by your ere,/ Your kyrtel by the kne") proves not only her own valiant love ("For in my mynde, of all mankynde/ I love but you alone" is her part of the ballad refrain), but the ability of womankind to love truly and loyally.

    "Ryght wele knowe ye that women be
    But feble for to fyght;
    No womanhede it is indede,
    To be bolde as a knyght.
    Yet in such fere yf that ye were,
    With enemyes day or nyght,
    I wolde withstande, with bowe in hande,
    To greve them as I myght,
    And you to save, as women have,
    From deth 'men' many one:
    For in my mynde, of all mankynde
    I love but you alone."
    (ll. 157-68)
    The maid's courage passes the test, for test it is. Unlike the superficial readers against which Wordsworth inveighs, this woman would give up every indulgence to be with her knight. Her lover is not an outlaw after all: "Thus have you won an erlys son,/ And not a banyshed man" (ll. 347-49). This, however, is not the full weight of the tale that Wordsworth borrows; for him, it is not the maid's value as a proper reader that he draws on, but her selflessness, metonymically meaningful for him as her nut-brown figuration, her naturalization as nutted or fruitful, and her loyalty. These allow him to transfigure her into woodedness, as the patient and yielding hazelnut trees. Her courage as a female companion becomes the readiness of nature, ever-present, to encourage the male poet on his quest. This reading of the maid is put in place by the ballad's frame, which opens with a charge against women's inability to love truly, and closes with the maid as proof: "Here may ye se, that women be/ In love meke, kynde, and stable" (ll. 349-50). If Wordsworth's balladry depends on the language really used by real men, his Preface and his poetics increasingly agrees with the Nut-browne maid poet, that men's complaint that to love a woman is "A labour spent in vayne" because "yf a newe [love] do them persue,         Theyr first true lover than
    Laboureth for nought, for from her thought
            He is a banyshed man. (ll.4, 9-12)

    Rather than proving or disproving women's fickleness, Wordsworth takes it for granted that such readers are unworthy unless radically realized as ground. The maid would never stand Wordsworth's test for a loyal reader; she is better served as the spirit in the wood who haunts the ending of "Nutting" and who warns other female readers, troped by Wordsworth's best female reader, Dorothy, in the final lines of that poem:         Then, dearest Maiden! Move along these shades
    In gentleness of heart; with gentle hand
    Touch, --for there is a Spirit in the woods. (52-54)

    This reader, even as a companion after the fact, is not allowed to pick up arms as the Nut-brown Maid proposes to do; she may only touch gently in order to commune with the Maid's spirit in order to learn the lessons such proposals incur.
  14. Wordsworth's Preface goes beyond this transformation of reader into matter. His stated purpose is to emphasize the relation of words to their objects, that is, the literalness of the "real language of men." Posing this real kind of language in opposition to the inflated and de-based, or ungrounded, figurative language too common in contemporary literary endeavor, his grounded model of artistic language will serve to re-connect the urban reader to a purer linguistic experience and thus to his purer self, ending finally in a truer (poetic) ability to judge (see Bialostosky 917, "the quality of their judgements"). This is the projection not only of political, but of chivalric purpose onto the reader, for to purify the reader's relation of language to feeling, to dissociate manners as dead metaphor from manners as a literal relation to living words, is to knight the reader and charge him with a quest of his own. The paradoxical effect of treating purified language as literal, and therefore more truly metaphorical rather than chimerical and sickening, presents such language as a romance object. The poet knight must seek to preserve the inherently mystical nature of the word such that the sign itself is not a dissociable commodity but something coherent, contained and meaningful. But, the Preface seems to suggest, the reader will only agree to such a quest if he is romanced into it. This necessitates, as I have argued, a refutation of Della Cruscan poetics and of the women readers who made it fashionable, and a regendering of that "taste" in order to construct the reader anew as a man among men.

  15. Part of what complicates Wordsworth's regendering of Della Cruscan sentimentalism is the confrontation between the real pain of rustic life—an emasculating pain, as evinced in the 1798 lyrical ballads—and the pain of romance so celebrated in the metrical ballads of Percy. Moreover, when the pain is female, as in the deprivations of the Mad Mother, Martha Ray, Betty Foy, and Goody Blake, they are elaborated in the 1798 ballads, but by the knightly two-volume edition, women's pain—Lucy's being the most memorable—is elided. To write the 1800 Preface, Wordsworth had to medievalize his female subjects as well as his reader and his authorial presence. This means de-historicizing the feminine in order to reference it for knightly protection, a move that looks troublingly like the Della Cruscan model of over-generalized personnae.

  16. I want to suggest that while my women students are usually oblivious to the rhetorical, moral, and political nature of Wordsworth's poetic contract, they are nevertheless emotionally sensitive to its exclusionary tactics, and deeply suspicious of the juxtaposition of such exclusion to the embrace of rustic objects as a purer claim. And that perhaps such hostility points to the cost of enjoining a romance economy with manly enterprise such that chivalry's truth operates at the expense of Camelot itself. For although Wordsworth was crowned laureate, a kind of poet-King Arthur, for the lifelong quest first announced in the Preface, readers have followed Coleridge's lead in evading the terms of romance there, by assuring themselves that the Preface is mere nonsense after all—a sad reflection, as Cervantes also noted, on the claims of chivalry, poethood and the story of self for the new age.

    Works Cited

    Bialostosky, Don. "Coleridge's Interpretation of Wordsworth's Preface to Lyrical Ballads. PMLA. 93.5 (Oct. 1978): 912-24.

    Gill, Stephen. William Wordsworth. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984.

    McGann, Jerome. Poetics of Sensibility: A Revolution in Literary Style. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

    Owen, W.J.B., ed. Wordsworth and Coleridge: Lyrical Ballads. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969.

    Percy, Thomas. Reliques of Ancient English Poetry. 1765. Ed. by J. V. Prichard. 2 vols. London: George Bell, 1908.

Published @ RC

November 1999

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