Monday, October 5, 2009

William Wordsworth is boring

What can I say, it's true. He may be the most boring great poet in history.

I don't want to dispute his greatness. I'd rank him #3 or 4 in English (Shakespeare, Chaucer, Wordsworth and Yeats, Milton) in "greatness," whatever that means. "Michael" (1800) is one of my favorite poems. The 1798 Lyrical Ballads, the collaboration with Coleridge, is a favorite, too. And the reason Wordsworth's dullness is on my mind is because I just finished my fourth pass through The Prelude (the 1850 version this time) Wordsworth's blank verse epic of himself. The Prelude is boring.

Like many a dull-brained pupil, what I mean, or at least one thing I mean, by "boring" is "hard." Wordsworth - the philosophical Wordsworth - presents difficult ideas in a heightened language. Sometimes his subject is concrete, and not so hard. Sometimes it is completely abstract, akin to philosophy, but without the underlying logic, which makes it even harder. I obviously think The Prelude is worth the effort. But the effort is real, for me, just to finish the book, much less to really undertand it.

A not-so-boring bit of The Prelude, young Wordsworth at play:

And in the frosty season, when the sun
Was set, and visible for many a mile
The cottage windows blazed through twilight gloom,
I heeded not their summons: happy time
It was indeed for all of us—for me
It was a time of rapture! Clear and loud
The village clock tolled six,—I wheeled about,
Proud and exulting like an untired horse
That cares not for his home. (1850, I, 425-33)

And then the next phrase is "All shod with steel," ice skates in reality, but another link to that wheeling horse. What an image, and what absolute mastery of blank verse. Too bad that blank verse is large quantities is typically a bit, what's the word, boring.

Wordsworth is describing the development of his own mind, a subject he barely understands. How could that be easy? Since he understands it better than I understand my own growth, or whatever I should call it, I keep reading him, and reading The Prelude.

I don't want to spend a whole week on The Predude - boring! - but I'll try to push past my own resistance and see if I can find a few more posts.


  1. I can see from the section you've posted the Wordsworth is both "great" and "boring." It's hard to imagine living in a time when poems like that were widely popular, but they were.

  2. I cannot accept your premise that Wordsworth is boring. Many of his early lyrics are profoundly moving creations of emotional intensity (and I speak here specifically of those included in his early collaboration with Coleridge as well as other poems from his early years). I would concede that the later, older Wordsworth is an inferior poet compared to the younger Romantic. Perhaps my fondness for English Romanticism prejudices my opinion in favor of Wordsworth. Nevertheless, I never neglect an opportunity to share Wordsworth's lyrics with students in my introductory literature classes. I think they appreciate encountering an accomplished poet who was the heart and soul of an important literary era.

  3. Tough way to start the week, but good luck to you. You've done a nice job of breaking down greatness into difficulty and "boredom," but I'm most intrigued by putting him in the highest rank. Curious about the other names that you leave beneath his accomplishment--Tennyson, Pope, Keats, Spenser... I don't know. I think you're right, but perhaps you'll tell us how he gets there. What about the contrast with Whitman and Dickinson, your winners in last week's anthology sweepstakes? It's funny how their success is how they seem to have modern language, attitudes, and complexity, but Wordsworth's accomplishment seems quite different. Count me as another big fan of Michael. Good luck!

  4. I've always thought he gets less interesting the more you read him...but more power to you. Enjoy the week

  5. Excellent responses. C.B. - that's just the effect I was hoping for. I've been looking at some contemporary responses to Wordsworth, by serious people, and you're exactly right - they loved this stuff.

    Art, don't stop - do you mean reading WW in bulk, or re-reading the same poems?

    zhiv, maybe I should have omitted the ranking - it's a bit empty as is. I'll just say that a lot of Wordsworth seems comparably modern to Whitman and Dickinson, sometimes in ideas, sometimes in language, occasionally both at the same time. Everyone's influenced by Wordsworth. I don't think the same can be said of Tennyson. But I still don't know Tennyson that well, much less the people who followed.

    R.T., you've made me pull out my big, dull, gun today, The Excursion, the dullest poem ever written by a great English poet. It's all a matter of ratios and proportions. Amount of boredom divided by total poems or something like that. So, yes, the 1798 Lyrical Ballads is a perfect book; his poems up through 1805 or so are mostly amazing; his Michelangelo translations are lovely things. The paradox of The Prelude is that it is boring and yet great, worth reading and re-reading.

  6. After your excellent efforts with Arnold and Clough and others, I'm a bit surprised that Tennyson hasn't gotten any attention. In good time, I hope. Yeah, the ranking thing is just a distraction. But that being said, my own vague impression is that Al T. has more poems than most in the "Michael" vein, works his own changes on the Lyrical Ballads model, pretty enjoyable by and large, but what do I know. I don't feel the same interest in Browning, but my interest in Wordsworth is very similar to my interest in Tennyson. And I'll even add, while I'm here, that it occurs to me that it sometimes seems as if Wordsworth was broken into two Victorian branches, first Tennyson and then George Eliot. Now that you're more of a George Eliot man than before, I wonder if her world and concerns seem like echoes of Wordsworth at all. You know, maybe just to get past the boredom thing.

  7. Tennyson is a definite Subject for Future Research. G. Eliot, too.

  8. The Thorn - Most Boring Poem of All Time

  9. Wait, what? You don't think measuring tiny ponds is exciting?

    "You see a little muddy pond
    Of water, never dry,
    I've measured it from side to side:
    'Tis three feet long, and two feet wide."

    Even Wordsworth thought those lines were boring, and changed them in later publications of the poem.

  10. The posting today prompts me to say that I should amend my previously posted argument (Oct 5) regarding Wordsworth and boredom. If a reader encounters work of the young Wordsworth as opposed to work of the older Wordsworth, the reader generally finds powerful, lyrical poetry that works (with work by Blake, Coleridge, Keats, and Shelley) as the brilliant foundation for Romanticism and all that would follow in English literature; so, with that being said, my amended argument is this generalization: Most of Wordsworth's early works avoid being boring, but most of Wordsworth's later works can hardly avoid being boring.