Wordsworth theory of language of poetry and Coleridge’s criticism on it, is of great significance in the history of literary criticism. Wordsworth revolts against the poetic diction of eighteenth century. His theory has some merits and at the same time has certain demerits.
Wordsworth rejects poetic diction by saying, “avoid poetic diction”. He says that neither there is nor could be any difference in the language of prose and that of metrical composition. Previous critics like Dr. Johnson were of the opinion that a noble and graceful action is degraded when described in ordinary and simple language. Gray said that language of the age could not be the language of poetry. Against this, Wordsworth revolted and declared his theory of poetic diction. He said that poet is a man speaking of men and his language should be simple to communicate his feelings and ideas.
Wordsworth gives the new theory for language of poetry, according to that it should be
“A selection of real language of men in a state of vivid sensation”.
By men he means rustic folk and humble people, by selection he means that this language should be purified of its absurdities and coarseness. There two main arguments with which he supports the theory. First is that rustic people hourly communicate with nature and the best part of the language is derives from communicating with nature, so their language should be the language of poetry. Secondly, their language is simple and clear, so it is more suitable for poetry. When Wordsworth says that there should not be any difference in the language of prose and poetry, he does not make clear that whether he means the vocabulary or the position of words. If he means the vocabulary, then we can agree with him but there is definite difference between position of the words in prose and poetry.
Wordsworth advocates metre for several reasons. We know that this is artificial as poetic diction. Wordsworth says that it adds pleasure and controls the emotion. Coleridge repudiates almost all the points of theory including the two main points. He says that best part of language is not derived from communicating with nature but from the reflection of acts of mind itself. Secondly, if the rustic language is purified then it will be no more rustic.
Coming then to a detailed consideration of Wordsworth’s theory of poetic diction, he takes up his statements, one by one, and demonstrates that his views are not justified. Wordsworth asserts that the language of poetry is “a selection of the real language of man or the very language of man; and that there was no essential difference between the language of prose and that of poetry.” Coleridge reports that “every man’s language, varies according to the extent of his knowledge, the activity of his faculties and the depth or quickness of his feelings.” Every man’s language has, first, its individual peculiarities; secondly, the properties common to the class to which he belongs; and thirdly, words and phrases of universal use. “No two men of the same class or of different classes speak alike, although both use words and phrases common to them all, because in the one case their natures are different and in the other their classes are different.”
This applies much to the language of rustics, as to that of townsmen. In both cases the language varies from person to person, class to class, and place to place. Which of these varieties of language, asks Coleridge, is ‘the real language of men.’ Each, he re plies, has to be purged of its uncommon or accidental features (such as those picked up from family, profession, or locality) before it can become the ordinary (i. e. generally spoken) language of men ‘Omit the particularities of each, and the result of course must be common to all. And assuredly the commissions and changes to be made in the language and rustics, before it could be transferred to any species of poem, except the drama or other professed imitation, are at least as numerous and weighty as would be required in adapting to the same purpose the ordinary language of tradesmen and manufacturers.’ “Such a language alone has a universal appeal and is, therefore, the language of poetry.” A language so generalized, so selected, and also so purified of what is gross and vulgar will differ in no way from the language of any other man of commonsense.” Coleridge objects to Wordsworth’s use of the words ‘very’ or ‘real’ and suggests that ‘ordinary’ or ‘generally’ ought to have been used.
Wordsworth’s addition of the words “in a state of excitement,” is meaningless, says Coleridge, for emotional excitement may result in a more concentrated expression, but it cannot create a noble and richer vocabulary.
To Wordsworth’s contention that there is no essential difference between the language of poetry and that of prose, Coleridge replies that there is, and there ought to be, an essential difference between the language of prose and that of poetry. The language of poetry differs from that of prose in the same way in which the language of prose differs, and ought to differ, from language of conversion, and as reading differs from talking. Coleridge gives a number of reasons in support of his view. First, language is both a matter of words, and the arrangement of those words. Now words both in prose and poetry may be the same, but their arrangement is different. This difference arises from the fact that poetry uses metre, and metre requires a different arrangement of words. As Coleridge has already shown, metre is not mere superficial decoration, but an essential, organic part of a poem. Hence there is bound to be an ‘essential difference between the language, i. e. the arrangement of words, of poetry and of prose. There is the difference even in those poems of Wordsworth which are considered most Wordsworthian. In fact, metre medicates the whole atmosphere and so, even the metaphors and similes used by a poet are different in quality and frequency from those of prose.
Further, it cannot be demonstrated that the language of prose and poetry are identical, and so convertible. There may be certain lines or even passages which can be used both in prose and poetry, but not all the lines or passages can be used thus. There are passages which will suit the one, and not the other.
Coleridge’s devotion of Wordsworth’s theory remains even now one of the finest examples of literary criticism. His essay on Wordsworth has been regarded by Thomas M. Raysor as ‘the finest critical essay in English literature.
1. http://geeklala.blogspot.com/2011/05/wordsworths-theory-of-poetic-diction.html 2. http://neoenglish.wordpress.com/2010/12/16/why-does-coleridge-dispute-wordsworths-assertion-that-the-very-language-of-men-constitutes-the-language-of-poetry/