William Wordsworth: Rational Sympathy

  • Geoffrey Harvey


Wordsworth announces in his Preface to the 1802 edition of Lyrical Ballads that his poetry is about ‘the fluxes and refluxes of the mind when agitated by the great and simple affections of our nature’,1 by which he means the fundamentally ambiguous nature of all profound human experience. His poetry is the record of his investigation into the mind’s simultaneous allegiance to the realities of daily life and to the ardent pursuit of the transcendence of ordinary experience. His main task, as he recognised quite early, was to establish a poetic technique capable of communicating this to his reader. And it is important to be clear what kind of reader Wordsworth had in mind; not the single ‘Intelligent Man’ who is the audience of the artist, in T. S. Eliot’s phrase, but something much closer to Johnson’s ‘common reader’, for Wordsworth believed that the poet was no different from the ordinary reader of poetry except in the degree of his imaginative sympathy and in his power of expression. He therefore wished to communicate his poetic truths effectively to as wide an audience as possible by means of a rational, or philosophical language.2 But clearly, given the unique combination in Wordsworth’s poetry of a close adherence to the claims of quotidian experience and to the truths of visionary inspiration, there is a tension between his desire to articulate his understanding of ordinary reality discursively in the orderly, logical development of his syntax, and at the same time to embody a more profound understanding of the mystery of the universe in symbols. Wordsworth’s solution to this artistic and rhetorical problem was to develop a rhetoric which we find employed with equal assurance in an early ballad such as ‘The Idiot Boy’, a meditative ode such as ‘Tintern Abbey’ and also in his later sonnets. It consists of a rhetoric of sympathy balanced by a contrary rhetoric of irony, a process securing simultaneous identification and moral judgement, which creates a complex effect in the reader’s experience of the poetry. Thus, in his poetry as in his theory, Wordsworth explores the paradox of a poetic art in which the contrary functions of emotion and thought, of spontaneous overflow and intellectual discipline, are integrated into a meaningful whole. In his poetry we find a mystical, joyful affirmation of the universe subjected simultaneously to a moral and intellectual scrutiny. The lyrical ballad, the ode and the three sonnets I propose to discuss, works of the highest imagination, not only illustrate the theory of poetry that Wordsworth formulates so carefully in the Preface, but actually embody the imaginative truth in that theory, the moral struggle to come to terms with the ambiguity of deep human experience, and to establish and communicate the discovery as the rational, undeceived basis for the expression of joy.


Triple Pattern Rational Sympathy Common Reader Romantic Tradition Intellectual Discipline 
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© Geoffrey Harvey 1986

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  • Geoffrey Harvey

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