Seminar Paper, 2007
19 Pages, Grade: 1,0
2. Wordsworth’s Concept of Poetic Creation: An Interplay of Sensory Perception, Emotion, Memory, Reflection, and Imagination
2.1. The Basic Operations Involved in Poetic Composition
2.2. The Role of the Imagination
3. The Poetic Process Mirrored in “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud”
3.1. The Poetic Expression of the Transformative Operations Involved in the Process of Composition
3.2. The Work of the Imaginative Faculty
“[P]oetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings,” William Wordsworth declares twice in his “Preface” to Lyrical Ballads (242, 250). When reading this statement, one might have the impression that, from his point of view, poetic composition is solely based on the expression of emotions, excluding any reasoning or reflection about them. Of course, as he is a poet of the Romantic period, sensibility plays a significant role in his theoretical works, as well as in his poetry. However, it has to be taken into account that Wordsworth thoroughly qualifies both occurrences of this declaration: on the one hand, he explains that “poems to which any value can be attached, were never produced on any variety of subjects but by a man who, being possessed of more than usual organic sensibility, had also thought long and deeply” (“Preface” 242). On the other hand, he adds that poetry “takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity: the emotion is contemplated […] [and] is qualified […]” (250). Thus, despite the fact that emotions form the basis and the subject of poetry, the composition of a poem requires the interplay of certain intellectual powers, particularly the memory, contemplation and imaginative shaping of emotions.
In this context, it is worth examining how Wordsworth actually turns his concept of poetic creation into a concrete poetic act. For this purpose, his poem “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” serves as an illustrative example, because here, the poetic process is not only traced on the level of surface content and on the level of discourse, but also in the emotional development of the lyrical I, who speaks as a poet. Although the poem does not actually deal with the writing of poetry, it nevertheless mirrors the interplay of the powers necessary for poetic composition.
In general, Wordsworth is far from being a poet who gives purely objective and detailed descriptions of his physical environment. On the contrary, he continually emphasises that “the mind should inform the senses [and] that sensation should not become too exclusive and tyrannical” (Rader 131). This implies that, in his poems, the naturalistic description of an object or of an action only provides the framework for the expression of emotions: “the feeling therein developed gives importance to the action and situation, and not the action and situation to the feeling” (Wordsworth, “Preface” 243). Therefore, Wordsworth’s poetic theory is basically an expressive, not a mimetic one:
The appropriate business of poetry, […] her appropriate employment, her privilege and her duty, is to treat of things not as they are, but as they appear; not as they exist in themselves, but as they seem to exist to the senses, and to the passions. (“Essay, Supplementary to the Preface” 63)
However, the poetic process does not exclusively consist in giving voice to one’s emotions, but is based on a certain emotional and mental development, at the core of which is the transformation from a “primary emotion [to a] secondary emotion” (Owen 42) effected by a combination of the powers of retrospection, reflection, and imagination.
In his “Preface” to Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth describes the inner operations constituting the poetic process, as follows:
[P]oetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity: the emotion is contemplated till by a species of reaction the tranquillity gradually disappears, and an emotion, kindred to that which was before the subject of contemplation, is gradually produced, and does itself actually exist in the mind. In this mood successful composition generally begins […]. (250)
At the first stage, the poet’s mind shifts from the sensory perception of an external source, for instance, an object or event in nature, which affects and impresses him deeply, to “a primary emotion” (Owen 42). Although this stage offers the poet a basic inspiration for writing poetry, it precedes the actual production of a poem: being in an excited emotional state, overwhelmed by his feeling, the poet seems to be incapable of thinking further about it and of articulating it. There is obviously a “need for psychic distance […]: emotion [is] to be recollected in tranquillity and calmly transmuted into verse” (Rader 123).
On the one hand, it is indispensable that the poet has a certain personal distance from the experience and the emotion connected with it in order to be able to focus his attention and emotion on writing poetry. When he is in a calm state, his inner eye can look back consciously on the past experience, which is preserved as a “mental image [which] accompanies or is the source of the emotion recollected in tranquillity” (Pottle ). This offers him the opportunity to recreate and relive the previously experienced emotion he intends to convey through poetry. On the other hand, discovering the significance of and evaluating the experience and the emotion requires a conscious reflection upon them, which helps the poet to become aware of “the value of actions, images, thoughts, and feelings; and assists the sensibility in perceiving their connection with each other” (Wordsworth, “Preface of 1815” 26). Consequently, it is only at a later point in time, when the powers of memory and reflection come into play, that poetic composition starts.
During this second phase, the poet’s mind is in a meditative phase of remembering and evaluating his original experience and emotion until the mood of tranquillity is gradually replaced by a secondary emotion or a “simulacrum” (Rzepka par. 39), which is similar to, but not identical with the first emotion, and poetic composition actually starts. As, according to Wordsworth, “poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” (emphasis added, “Preface” 250), it is actually this modified emotion that brims over suddenly, and is communicated through poetry: “the feeling must ‘overflow’ the poet’s mind, the site of its present ‘re-collection’ in the emotional simulacrum, and to ‘flow over’ into a material form, specifically, into the verbal ‘description’ that is the poem itself” (Rzepka par. 40).
In conclusion, during the poetic process, the poet does not only have an intense emotion excited by the observation of a concrete object or event, but also experiences a period of careful reflection on and modification of his feeling before expressing it. This development can be summarised as “the evaluation of past emotional experiences by a process of introspection which works upon the memory of the experiences” (Owen 40). From this mental processes involved in poetic composition, it can be inferred that Wordsworth does not believe in spontaneous composition at the moment of observation or experience, but in composition originating from the recollection and contemplation of a past emotion, which, in its modified form, overflows into poetry spontaneously.
However, there is also another force involved in the production of poetry – the sensory perceptions and feelings stored up in memory are also shaped and refined by means of the imagination before being expressed through poetry: “the emotion […] from various causes is qualified by various pleasures, so that in describing any passions whatsoever […] the mind will upon the whole be in a state of enjoyment” (Wordsworth, “Preface” 250).
In general, the imagination is a special inherent ability, particularly of a poet, which does not only work independently of the senses, and allows him to generate feelings internally without an external stimulus, but also influences his impressions of and reactions to the external world:
[H]e has […] a disposition to be affected more than other men by absent things as if they were present; an ability of conjuring up in himself passions, which are indeed far from being the same as those produced by real events, […] whence, and from practice, he has acquired a greater readiness and power in expressing […] especially those thoughts and feelings which […] arise in him without immediate external excitement. (Wordsworth, “Preface” 246)
The imagination contributes to the creative nature of the poetic act because it is involved in the transformation of the original experience and emotion. According to Wordsworth, “[i]magination is a subjective term: it deals with objects not as they are, but as they appear to the mind of the poet” (“Conversations” 464), that is, to his imaginative, inner eye. It is a dynamic and creative force that belongs to a higher consciousness because it does not refer to objective mental representations of external phenomena, but produces a subjective view of real objects or events in the form of emotionally determined images. As a result, Wordsworth’s poetry is characterised by a fusion of sensations and emotions: “[it] is sensory and impassioned. It depicts not only concrete qualities, such as colour and sound, but also feeling-tones, such as urgency and grandeur” (Rader 181-182). This correlates with Wordsworth’s expressive theory of poetry: he does not describe what he actually perceives with his senses, but how the scene appears to his mind, and how it affects him emotionally.
Apart from its value as a creative force involved in the process of poetic composition, the imagination is also “a transcendental force, giving unity to all life and binding man to God” (Rader 146): it unearths the fundamental relationships between all natural phenomena forming their underlying interdependence and oneness. Hence, it is able to reveal the pantheistic idea of “the omnipresence of the divine spirit in all the workings of nature and in the creative activity of the human mind” (Rader 147).
To conclude, the imagination constitutes a core element of Wordsworth’s concept of poetic creation: the secondary emotion, which is finally communicated through poetry, does not only result from the interplay of sensory perception, emotion, memory, and reflection, but also from the power of imagination, which accounts for the creativity and originality of poetry. Furthermore, in most of Wordsworth’s poetry, the imagination as a metaphysical faculty allows him to obtain and provide a spiritual insight into the universal principles underlying nature, especially when he writes about the emotional unity, not only within nature, but also of man and nature. This general truth can only be detected by the inner eye of the human soul, and be felt by a highly sensitive person, in particular, a poet:
The principal object, then, which I proposed to myself in these poems was to choose incidents and situations from common life, […] and […] to throw over them a certain colouring of imagination, whereby ordinary things should be presented to the mind in an unusual way; […] and above all, to make these incidents and situations interesting by tracing in them […] the primary laws of our nature […]. (“Preface” 241)
Basically, Wordsworth’s poem “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” deals with the imaginative recreation of the sight of beautiful daffodils, which is a memorable incident in nature and a source of poetic inspiration for the speaker, who speaks as “[a] poet” (“IWL” 15): “the vision of the interconnecting forms of the natural world is clearly a poet’s vision and can only be communicated through poetic means” (Keith 13).
Moreover, this poem serves as an illustration of poetry as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings [which] takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity […]” (Wordsworth, “Preface” 250). Here, the speaker’s point of view and emotional attitude are presented both at the moment of the experience and at the time of composition, when the primary emotion is recalled through memory and has already been transformed into the secondary one by contemplation and imagination. “What we are offered is not only a result of the poetic process, but also an account of it” (Durrant 20).
 In parenthetical references cited as “Preface”.
 This essay does not belong to the “Preface” to Lyrical Ballads, but to the “Preface of 1815”.
 This quotation is taken from an online source where the page numbers are not indicated (cf. bibliography).
 Abbreviation for quotations from “Conversations and Reminiscences Recorded by the (Now) Bishop of Lincoln, &c.” in parenthetical references.
 In parenthetical references cited as “IWL”.
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