Amplificatio: The way in which style may elevate or depress the subject at hand… the first means of stylistic ornament, amplification or attenuation… (a) in the actual word employed to describe a thing… (b) by the four principle methods of amplification: incrementum, comparatio, ratiocinatio, and congeries. [Quintilian (VIII, iii, 90) from A Handbook of 16th Century Rhetoric p.28]
I’ve been hankering for some beautiful blank verse that isn’t Shakespeare, so I thought I’d try reading, once again, Wordsworth’s Prelude. I’ve been reading the Norton Critical Edition with its side by side printing of the 1805 and 1850 Prelude. Most seem to prefer the 1805 edition, but in terms of poetic quality, I occasionally find the 1850 version better — but not by much.
Here’s my problem with Wordsworth’s Prelude. I’m of the mind that Wordsworth is a second rate poet, but reading his Prelude convinces me that Wordsworth isn’t just a second rate poet who writes poorly but a third rate poet who only occasionally writes well.
The website goodreads offers several pages worth of very interesting comments by readers. They’re mostly favorable, but there’s often this proviso:
I like a lot of Wordsworth’s poetry, and this is my second time reading The Prelude, and it’s still a bit of a slog to get through for me. There are beautiful, lovely passages, but then a lot of trudging through rambly boring ones that make me sleepy. [Comment by Claire]
Right. Exactly. Reading Wordsworth is mostly a slog and I’m going to explain why. First this disclaimer: I don’t read for content, which probably makes me a poor reader of Wordsworth. The poets’s philosophical views hold almost zero interest to me. I read for poetry. All the criticism I’ve read on The Prelude, so far, has focused on the work as exegesis rather than poetry. By contrast, the criticism of Keats’ Hyperion is commonly far more invested in the poetry. Keats’ Hyperion is appreciated as great poetry. I presently can’t think of any critic who would seriously contend that the Prelude stands comparison to Paradise Lost or Hyperion. It has its moments, but they’re few and far between.
So, here’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to close my eyes. I’m going to slip the pages under my finger and open to a page at random — this so you don’t think I’ve deliberately chosen the dregs. And here we go. I’ve landed on Book Seventh lines 605-644 1805 (on the left side), 630-669 1850 version (on the right side). Pages 260-261 in the Norton Critical Edition. We’ll go with the 1850 version, since I can copy and paste it from here:
Thus have I looked, nor ceased to look, oppressed 630 By thoughts of what and whither, when and how, Until the shapes before my eyes became A second-sight procession, 1.) such as glides Over still mountains, 2.) or appears in dreams; 3.) And once, far-travelled in such mood, a.) beyond The reach of common indication, b.) lost Amid the moving pageant, I was 4.) smitten Abruptly, with the view (a sight not rare) Of a blind Beggar, who, with upright face, Stood, propped against a wall, upon his chest 640 Wearing a written paper, to explain His story, whence he came, and who he was. Caught by the spectacle my mind turned round As with the might of waters; and apt type This label seemed of the utmost we can know, Both of ourselves and of the universe; And, on the shape of that unmoving man, a.) His steadfast face b.) and sightless eyes, I gazed, As if admonished from another world. Though reared upon the base of outward things, 650 Structures like these the excited spirit mainly Builds for herself; scenes different there are, Full-formed, that take, with small internal help, Possession of the faculties,1.) --the peace That comes with night; 2.) the deep solemnity Of nature's intermediate hours of rest, 3.) When the great tide of human life stands still: 4.) The business of the day to come, unborn, Of that gone by, locked up, as in the grave; 5.) The blended calmness of the heavens and earth, 660 Moonlight and stars, and empty streets, 6.) and sounds Unfrequent as in deserts; 7.) at late hours Of winter evenings, 8.) when unwholesome rains Are falling hard, 9.) with people yet astir, 10.) The feeble salutation from the voice Of some unhappy woman, now and then Heard as we pass, a.) when no one looks about, b.) Nothing is listened to. But these, I fear, Are falsely catalogued; things that are, are not,
Right, so here’s the first thing that gets under my skin, Wordsworth’s pointless elaborating.
Thus have I looked, nor ceased to look,
Not only has he looked but he has not “ceased to look”.
By thoughts of what and whither, when and how,
It’s like a nervous tick. You can’t go more than 20 lines without Wordsworth essentially restating the same thing a dozen different ways. Do we really need to know that his thoughts are of what, whither, when, how? No, we don’t. It’s just pointless babbling. From there, the reader descends into a miasma of convoluted phrasing rife with redundancies.
I was 4.) smitten Abruptly, with the view ( a sight not rare) Of a blind Beggar,
He was smitten. Well, if he was smitten, we don’t need to know that it was “with the view”. This is implied and redundant, but if you’re trying to turn little ideas into a big epic, it’s apparently a good trick to be as wordy as possible. But even that’s not enough. He also has to tell us it was “a sight”. So now he’s given us the same information three times and then, finally, tells us what the object of the smiting, view, and sight was—”a blind Beggar”. What’s the blind beggar doing?
Wearing a written paper, to explain His story, whence he came, and who he was.
Not a paper but a written paper. Do we really need to know it was a written paper. No, it’s a needless detail but it conveniently fluffs up the meter. And then what? The written paper explains his story. But if it explains the beggar’s story, doesn’t it stand to reason that it would also explain “whence he came, and who he was”? Isn’t that the point of “his story”? Does Wordsworth really need to add that it explains whence and who? No, it’s redundant.
Wordsworth then goes on to tell us, once again, that he is smitten, viewing, caught by, gazing at, the shape of the unmoving man (lest you thought the beggar burst into song). And then, just in case you didn’t get it the first time — the part about the beggar being “blind” — Wordsworth reminds us that the man’s eyes are “sightless”. Round and round we go.
And then he sets up his next several lines by elaborating on scenes differing (a pretentious Miltonic inversion) beginning with:
--the peace That comes with night;
Good, but Wordsworth can’t leave it at that. Now he’s going to natter on about sleep and peace (see above for the latter):
the deep solemnity Of nature's intermediate hours of rest,
The word deep is lazy — just a bland adjective Wordsworth threw in to keep the meter. Most of his adjectives are tossed in with the blithe indifference of metrical expediency. Solemnity is a vapid poeticism and “intermediate hours of rest” is a wordy abstraction with little poetic power. But Wordsworth isn’t done:
When the great tide of human life stands still:
“Great tide of human life” is nothing short of a cliché, and writing that “life stands still” doesn’t improve matters. Next we’re going to get elaboration within elaboration:
The business of the day to come, unborn, Of that gone by, locked up, as in the grave;
The phrase “as in the grave” elaborates on “locked up”, but is such an embarrassingly clichéd addendum, and so artlessly tacked on, that if I were to read it aloud I could read it for laughs. But Wordsworth is just getting started:
The blended calmness of the heavens and earth, 660 Moonlight and stars, and empty streets, and sounds Unfrequent as in deserts;
More gratuitous elaboration. Do we really need to know about the “Moonlight and stars”? I thought “heavens” already covered that? (And notice how he uses moonlight instead of moon solely to keep the meter.) And then, because he just can’t stop himself, he tacks on “as in deserts’, echoing the simple-minded simile “as in the grave”. But what makes it worse is the generic cliché-edness of the verse. And what really sinks the boat is that this kind of writing does nothing to advance the narrative. It makes reading the poem a slog because the reader has to spend two dozen lines listening to Wordsworth state and restate the same information with pseudo-poetic obviousness.
And as if all that uninspired piling on weren’t enough, Wordsworth launches the reader in a whole new direction, further adumbrating scenes different:
7.) at late hours Of winter evenings, 8.) when unwholesome rains Are falling hard, 9.) with people yet astir, 10.) The feeble salutation from the voice Of some unhappy woman, now and then Heard as we pass, a.) when no one looks about, b.) Nothing is listened to.
It’s not enough that the rains are “unwholesome”. The unwholesome rains are also “falling hard”. The phrase “people yet astir” is blandly general. From there we descend into nonsensical stupidity. The phrase from the voice is utterly redundant. Obviously, if one hears a salutation, then it stands to reason that the salutation is from the voice. Right? Wordsworth then throws in some metrical fluffery with unhappy (another vacuous adjective). It stands to reason that if the salutation is “feeble”, she’s probably not happy. But Wordsworth piles on more redundancies, adding: “now and then/Heard as we pass”. Once again, if the salutation was worth mentioning, then it was obviously heard. We don’t need to be told that he “heard it” (now and then as he passed). Wordsworth then gets so tangled up in excess that the whole thing collapses into sheer contradiction. When no one looks about, he writes; but then that begs the question. If no one looks about, why the feeble salutation? And the salutations came more than once. They were now and then. Obviously the unhappy woman (and unnamed others who were astir) was looking about. Nothing is listened to, he writes. Well if nothing was listened to, then who did the hearing (now and then as they passed) and why the salutations?
There are just no two ways about it. It’s terrible writing. It’s terrible poetry. Even Wordsworth seems a little embarrassed:
But these, I fear,/ Are falsely catalogued
I can go to every single page of the Prelude and find more examples. It just doesn’t stop. Wordsworth is a veritable font of bad poetry — needless repetition, vacuous adjectives, pointless elaboration, redundancy, pretentious Miltonic inversions, metrical expediency, banal similes, non-sequiturs, double negatives, Latinate verbosity. You name it.
Wordsworth wasn’t entirely blind to his bad writing. The 1850 does make small improvements from time to time. the following is typical:
It hath been told already how my sight
Was dazzled by the novel show, and how
Erelong I did into myself return.
So did it seem, and so in truth it was —
Yet this was but short-lived.
[The Prelude p. 102 1805Version 204-208]
The portion in italics is pointless. Wordsworth apparently agreed because he weeded out the blather in his 1850 rewrite:
It hath been told, that when the first delight
That flashed upon me from this novel show
Had failed, the mind returned into herself
[The Prelude p. 103 1805Version 204-206]
And that was that, almost, because then Wordsworth launches into another round of “excess and superfluity”:
In climate, and my nature's outward coat Changed also slowly and insensibly. Full oft the quiet and exalted thoughts Of loneliness gave way to 1.) empty noise 2.) And superficial pastimes; 3.) now and then Forced labour, 4.) and more frequently forced hopes; 210 5.) And, worst of all, a treasonable growth Of indecisive judgments, that impaired And shook the mind's simplicity.--And yet This was a gladsome time.
This is the stuff of pure comedy. Each clause builds on the last adding more syllables and verbosity until, by the fifth clause, Wordsworth’s excess tumbles forth with an almost breathless panic:
And, worst of all, a treasonable growth
Of indecisive judgments, that impaired
And shook the mind’s simplicity.
Take a deep breath:
…yet/This was a gladsome time.
Indeed. It’s enough to leave a reader “insensible”. I’ve really come to the conclusion that the only reason Wordsworth is remembered for much of anything is due to the sheer volume of his output. If you write enough, if you’re a William Wordsworth (or a John Ashbery for that matter), you will eventually overwhelm your critics. You will also, like the broken clock, get it right twice a day.
The immeasurable height
Of woods decaying, never to be decayed,
The stationary blasts of water-falls,
And every where along the hollow rent
Winds thwarting winds, bewildered and forlorn,
The torrents shooting from the clear blue sky,
The rocks that muttered close upon our ears,
Black drizzling crags that spake by the way-side
As if a voice were in them, the sick sight
And giddy prospect of the raving stream,
The unfettered clouds, and region of the heavens,
Tumult and peace, the darkness and the light
Were all like workings of one mind, the features
Of the same face, blossoms upon one tree,
Characters of the great Apocalypse,
The types and symbols of Eternity,
Of first and last, and midst, and without end.
[The Prelude Book Sixth Lines 624-640]
If only Wordsworth could have sustained more passages like this; and see here for a recently discovered fragment.