The Problem with Wordsworth’s Prelude

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]

Amplification may refer to exaggeration or to stylistic vices such as figures of excess or superfluity (e.g., hyperbole). [Amplification. (n.d.). In Wikipedia. Retrieved February 17, 2014]

I’ve been hankering for some beautiful blank verse that isn’t Shakespeare, so I thought I’d try reading, once again, Wordsworth’s 865350Prelude. 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 wordsworthfluffery 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.

48 responses

  1. This is a charge that Wordsworth has faced before: Byron, in, I think, “English Bards and Scotch Reviewers,” thumbs his nose at Wordsworth’s blatant verbosity, referring to him as WordsWORDS!


    • While I haven’t always been a fan of Byron’s poetry, the more I learn about him, the more I like him as a person (contrary to just about everyone else) — the hero of my great grandfather and the namesake of my family, my grandfather and father. I strongly suspect that one of my Gillespie ancestors knew Byron. Apparently, a recently auctioned letter also reveals his having called Wordsworth — Turdsworth. This was apparently in response to Wordsworth having criticized Alexander Pope. Well, what goes around, comes around. I can only hope that once I’m dead (but not gone), having left some small mark on the literary world, some little SOB will cut me down to size.


  2. Most of this post was not too pertinent. I did like your reference to Ashbery alongside Wordsworth. The Prelude is long winded with some strong passages and a lot of drivel. Self Portrait by Ashbery has many lengthy ramblings that seem pointless because of Ashbery’s skill at concocting the disconnected bits and pieces that may or may not lead to one little burst of brilliant comprehension. He dares you to believe he’s highly competent if you are willing to look hard enough. As you slog through any long poem, you have to hope you come across a few passages that make it all seem worthwhile. Most poetry sucks but the great poets give you glimpses of enlightened thinking every now and then.


    • //Most of this post was not too pertinent. //

      I suppose so. If one’s interest is primarily in Wordsworth’s thought and philosophy — and in the work’s place alongside the era’s other long poems — then the quality of the writing and poetry isn’t really pertinent. But if one is reading it for the poetry (as a poem), much of it (of not most) is sheer torture. If this were prose, he’d have been laughed off the stage. The blank verse somehow excuses the shoddy writing. I have to say: Poetry/Verse as a get-out-of-jail-free-card for just plain bad writing has run its course (with me at least). Wordsworth isn’t the only poet of the 19th century. Ashbery and few other darlings of the 20th century (as well as their sycophantic defenders) are ready for a thorough dismantling.

      I think the winter is getting to me…


  3. My comment could go in a great many directions: [but] let me just tackle one section:

    Thus have I looked, nor ceased to look, oppressed
    By thoughts of what and whither, when and how,
    Until the shapes before my eyes became
    A second-sight procession, such as glides
    Over still mountains, or appears in dreams;
    And once, far-travelled in such mood, beyond
    The reach of common indication, lost
    Amid the moving pageant, I was 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
    Wearing a written paper, to explain
    His story, whence he came, and who he was.

    Firstly, the constant repetition and seemingly pointless elaboration here actually has a point; there is a method. It’s not dissimilar to the strategy employed by Shakespeare in Sonnet 29, where the first 8 lines are mostly just variations on the same point, where WHAT is being elaborated on (does it really matter how the speaker wishes he was like these other men?) matters less than the EFFECT of the repetition. By effect, I mean the oppressive feeling produced by this accretion of negativity through repetition that we’re finally “released” from in line 10. Wordsworth’s is not as pristinely orchestrated, but neither is it haphazard, with the looked/not ceased to look repetition starting us off, ending the line with the strong word “oppressed,” (Wordsworth is very conscious of the power of line endings and beginnings) setting the tone for this section that all the devices will work towards achieving. You’re absolutely right that “what, whither, when, and how” don’t really matter in that they’re adding new information, but under the above intention of effect, I think they have about the same significance as Shakespeare wishing he was “featured like him, like him with friends possessed.”

    Also important is the fact that this oppression of thoughts “oppresses,” in a sense, the landscape (itself a metaphor for the human crowd and condition, which was made clear by the immediately preceding text), so that thoughts become a “first sight” to the sight of the “landscape’s/people’s” “second sight,” emphasized by another end-line word of what these shapes “became.” Any one familiar with the importance of landscape in Wordsworth would know how significant this is. Two more end-line signifiers, “beyond” and “lost,” carry on with the “emphasis through repetition.” Ultimately, the techniques of the poetry is attempting to enact, by these effects, the process being described, of people becoming landscapes, becoming blurs in landscapes, of thoughts oppressing the vision, of becoming “lost” in thought as if in the landscape. The entire section, in its long, winding sentence, is like a maze we’re meant to feel rather lost and confused in and oppressed by.

    Wordsworth’s awakening comes, not with a thought like Shakespeare’s speaker in sonnet 29, but with a vision, how that awakening is arrange is significantly: just as the shapes “became / a second-sight procession” (verb / (article) adjective noun), what reverses this is how he’s “smitten / abruptly (verb / adverb). The syntactic parallelism hints at the similarity and the difference, with the weaker former construction connoting a kind of lulling lapse, and the latter a much more impactful realization (I think any sensitive reader would feel the force of that “abruptly” that opens the line). Similarly, the “view/sight” repetition that follows serves a different purpose than the earlier repetition, and HERE it’s to emphasize how the objective VIEW comes back in line with the subjective SIGHT (rather than a “second-sight procession”); we’re meant to hear the echo of a few lines back. The sight itself is given metrical, sound, and placement significance: with the strong, stresses and plosive Bs of “blind beggar” emphasized further by the two weak stresses that open the line; which is paralleled with the opening spondee and same plosives of “stood, propped.” One may also note that the “story, whence, and who” echoes back to the “what, whither, when, and how.”

    It’s also worth noting the difference in how the two “sections” of this movement is handled, with the former getting lost in vague descriptions and “pointless” repetitions, compared with the vivid immediacy with how the beggar is handled. The affect is like coming to focus on a single image amidst a blur of life around. Of course, this is entirely the point, too, of how we can’t really see “people” the way we can see “a person,” and that’s why he seems such a profound message “from another world” that turns Wordsworth’s “mind around.” He comes to realize both how we can know people and the limits to which we can; anything more and we end up lost.

    The Prelude is actually full of these kinds of devices. It’s worth considering that the subtitle was “The Growth of the Poet’s Mind” and the poem is not really about EVENTS like most epic poetry is (even Byron’s Don Juan). Rather, most of it is just elongated lyric, with the extra space used frequently to effects like this, where everything is designed around the evolution of a mind and its thoughts. Simply put: you have to read Wordsworth for content, because, if you don’t, then you’ll have no clue as to what purpose the poetry is being used for. Repetition (even seemingly pointless repetition that doesn’t add significant information) can have its place when you take into account what thought is being expressed.

    Is The Prelude perfect? No. In fact, I think it’s arguably more flawed than not; yet you had the misfortune of picking one of its best passages that makes it easy for a more sensitive and thoughtful critic to praise it and dismiss your criticism as a bad exercise in confirmation bias. It wasn’t even difficult (though it took a lot of words!). What I think your criticism says about you is that you abide by Keats’ poetic dictum of “loading every rift with ore;” and while that may be an easily defensible position, it’s not really feasible in long form poetry, nor is it really capable of appreciating affects of structure that you seem to always miss whether in Wordsworth or Merrill or Ashbery (and I suspect in Stevens’ long poems; I shudder to think how you’d read The Auroras of Autumn).

    Yes, it’s true that Wordsworth rarely delights with an original turn of phrase, metaphor, or image the way Keats does; but there’s very little in Keats that so deftly chronicles the way that objective reality and subjective thought interact as in Wordsworth, especially in his masterpieces like Tintern Alley or Intimations of Immortality. One exception may be his Grecian Urn, but even it seems rather flippant in its reversal of thought: “stop asking questions about art and just appreciate the beauty!” While Keats may have been on his way to becoming a philosophical poet, Wordsworth, like Stevens, was one by nature; similarly, it’s possible to appreciate superficial beauty in Keats in a way that’s not really possible in Wordsworth, where beauty (and poetry) is rarely separated from the related thoughts. You may fairly say that in the greatest poets like Shakespeare and Milton, we have both, and that’s fair; but outside them, it more comes down to personal preference rather than one actually being better than the other. I read Keats when I want to engage my senses, I read Wordsworth when I want to engage my thought, and I read Byron when I want to make fun of both!


    • //By effect, I mean the oppressive feeling produced by this accretion of negativity through repetition that we’re finally “released” from in line 10. //

      Right, but [this is] “enactment-fallacy”. The test is whether this is the only place he uses this kind of repetition and if he only uses it to produce the affect you’re describing. Unfortunately, Wordsworth uses this kind of elaboration willy-nilly — with no regard to content. It is, contrary to your assertion, haphazard.

      //Yes, it’s true that Wordsworth rarely delights with an original turn of phrase, metaphor, or image the way Keats does; but there’s very little in Keats that so deftly chronicles the way that objective reality and subjective thought interact…//

      Now that’s an argument worth making. Make the argument for content. But if you’re going to try to convince me that it’s worth reading for the poetry, then you’re off to a very bad start.


  4. I think we’ve thoroughly been over the enactment fallacy before, and I made it clear last time that when I talk about form “reinforcing” or “enacting” it’s always with the content in mind FIRST, and then seeing how, if at all, the form effects it via certain abstract qualities that form does possess. You yourself said that you thought form could “reinforce” content if we considered how content informed form rather than the reverse, and that’s what I’ve done here, IMO.

    Does Wordsworth use repetition elsewhere in a manner that DOESN’T enhance the content or in which the content does not call for it? Yes; these would fall under what I described as the poem’s flaws. I have no clue whether Wordsworth intended the repetition to reinforce the content, but I think his intention is insignificant next to the affect it has on a sensitive, attentive reader.

    Again, the POETRY in Wordsworth is found in how form interacts with content. You cannot content and poetry like you can in Keats, whose poetry is lovely regardless of what he’s saying.


    • To quote David Orr, [Enactment Fallacy is] “the assignment of meaning to technical aspects of poetry that those aspects don’t necessarily possess.” On page 1 of the Prelude you will find the same “technical aspects”, which you claimed were to produce “the accretion of negativity through repetition” used to entirely different ends — the first 25 lines of the 1799 version. This is a habit of Wordsworth’s thought. This isn’t an attempt to produce a given affect.


    • Lighten up. Life’s too short to go at it with someone of no consequence in your life. What makes poetry great is how it makes one feel about some aspect of this temporal world. Arguing about how a writer’s do or do not achieve a certain level of value defeats the point: the poem is you.


  5. All of this is subjective, folks. A matter of taste and opinion and emotion. Let’s not pretend there are objective measures in literature that, by the force of their internal logic, will convince everyone of their rightness. They don’t exist, not even with Shakespeare. The “poetry” is partly on the page, and partly in our brains. That connection is never the same from person to person, moment to moment.

    Steven Withrow

    P.S. Keats, Shelley, and Coleridge are my favorites among the Romantics, but Wordsworth wrote some of the most beautiful short lyrics and lyrical passages in English.


    • Our judgments of quality are subjective, yes, but when one is analyzing the actual poetry there are certainly objective things one can say about it. What I say about, eg, Wordsworth placing certain words in certain places, that’s OBJECTIVE; when I say it’s done to emphasize those words, that’s an inference that may be correct or false. However, we know via cognitive science that beginnings and endings leave a greater impact on our brains than what’s in the middle. Most great poets seem to intuitively get this and place important words at the beginning and ends of lines. Wordsworth was particularly adept at this (and there’s the subjective part). Likewise, I think what I say about the poem chronicling both the blurring and clearing of the speaker’s mind is pretty darn objective.


    • //Likewise, I think what I say about the poem chronicling both the blurring and clearing of the speaker’s mind is pretty darn objective.//

      It’s not until you provide a consistent demonstration of their correlation. Admittedly, that’s a tall order, but if you’re going to make the assertion, then I await your exhaustive blog post or book to back it up.


    • // All of this is subjective, folks.//

      No it’s not. There’s a reason hundreds of books have been written on the texts of Shakespeare and why a book called “The Joy of Bad Verse” can be published — filled with writers who are very unlikely to ever have books written about them. It’s the difference between a Bach and a composer like Graun, the Beatles and the Monkeys.


    • On the question of subjectivity, I’d add the following: All the examples in my post are objective. What’s subjective is in my considering them examples of poor writing. Jonathan tried to make the argument that these objective features of the verse are intentional. However, what I feel he has not demonstrated is that these features are unique to the quoted passage (necessary if one’s going to reasonably argue that Wordsworth meant to “enact” the content). He can only arbitrarily do so by admitting that these features occur elsewhere [but are in those cases] examples of bad writing.

      The kind of redundancy demonstrated in the passage I selected, randomly, aren’t isolated (hence the reason my selection was random). They’re endemic to the verse of The Prelude. All I’m doing is pointing it out. If that makes me the boy who told the King he had no clothes, then so be it. If the next reader wants to make the argument that the content justifies the poem, I’m okay with that. It’s obviously considered a classic for a reason.


  6. You’re describing tendencies and assigning value, Jonathan, as we all do when we critique a piece of writing. You are not accounting for what actually goes on in a reader’s mind, where judgments are not made wholly rationally, and preference and impulse hold sway. And that’s a good and necessary thing.


    • [[[[You’re describing tendencies and assigning value, Jonathan]]]

      Yes, but the “describing tendencies” is objective, while my value assignment is what is subjective. This was in response to your “it’s all subjective” point; I merely said that our value assignments, while subjective, can be based on objective elements in the text that we subjectively respond positively toward.


  7. [[[Your response was, to quote David Orr, “the assignment of meaning to technical aspects of poetry that those aspects don’t necessarily possess.”]]]

    And I’ve already admitted that I’m not assigning “meaning to technical aspects” abstracted from what the content is saying. If I say that the technique of “repetition” is reinforcing the “accretion of negativity,” this is because the content itself is negative and the repetition is emphasizing, enacting, reinforcing (call it what you will) that negative content.

    Years ago I read an anthology on Poetry Theory & Criticism, and there was an essay by one of the Russian Formalists (I forget who) that argued the need to separate what he called FORM and FUNCTION. I’m a bit fuzzy on the details, but the basic idea was that the same form can serve multiple functions depending on the context (content being part of the context). So repetition CAN serve the “function” of “accreting negativity,” but obviously this is not the ONLY function it can serve. Tolstoy uses repetition liberally in War & Peace for many different effects/functions; so much so that many translators have done a disservice by trying to eliminate them, apparently seeing them, as you do, as a “flaw of bad writing,” and, equally like you, being blind to the function they can serve.

    I already agreed with you that Wordsworth uses these same technical aspects elsewhere and that it’s not always called for, it doesn’t always serve a function except as an iteration of his personal style. This is when such things can be fairly labeled “bad poetry” or “bad writing.” However, in passages like this, the form serves a function; whether it was intended for that function is irrelevant. You, in another conversation, stated you agree with the intentional fallacy (so do I), so Wordsworth’s intention should be irrelevant; whether he liberally used such devices as a tic of style or consciously and selectively chose them is irrelevant; all that should matter is whether or not the device can serve a valuable function in any given context. I’ve argued why I think it serves a valuable function in the quoted passage. You can agree or disagree, but your tossing out “enactment fallacy” is doing nothing but serving as a semantic stop-sign:

    [[[You could not, and can not, demonstrate that the given “technical aspect” was used only to produce a given affect.]]]

    If one wants to be obstinate enough you can say this about ANY writing. Besides, as I already stated, I don’t think it matters AT ALL whether or not the technical aspect was “used only to produce a given affect.” The important factor is whether or not it DOES produce that affect, and I’ve argued why I feel it does, just like with the Williams poem; and you’ve failed here, as there, to argue why my arguments fail.


    • //However, in passages like this, the form serves a function; whether it was intended for that function is irrelevant.//

      It’s not irrelevant, and this is the reason why: If one can reasonably show that Wordsworth was writing this way deliberately, then we can have a fair debate as to whether the writing was an aesthetic choice and therefore, arguably, good writing. But since Wordsworth writes this way regardless of content, the best we can say is that it’s bad writing but that Jonathan Henderson can rationalize it here, there and maybe everywhere. Well, I can’t argue with that. There’s nothing stopping you or anyone from rationalizing the mediocrity of anything: all art is subjective; there’s no such thing as a masterpiece because everything’s a masterpiece because, simply put: It all depends on who’s reading it.

      What this debate is boiling down to is not Wordsworth’s poetry, but how to judge literary merit. To say that an author’s intention is irrelevant makes criticism an utterly subjective exercise (in rationalization among other things) — (and this is reflective of some 20th century critical thought). I don’t go along with it and never will. I believe it’s possible to make objective observations and to hold an author’s feet to the fire. It’s what this blog is all about.


  8. If I think Space Odyssey is pretentious and boring, it is. If long-winded online banter about a minor aspect of one of the poems by a master poet seems boring to me, it is. That’s why what seems to make so much difference to some is of no real consequence to others.


    • We observe, we assign value. We point out what we think others should observe and we make a case for our value judgment, but the other person will not necessarily assign the same value as we do just because we’ve created what we think is an airtight argument for it. That’s not how life works.

      But a critic’s role is to take a point of view and to make distinctions, and Patrick does this admirably. Disagreement doesn’t negate a point of view. Nor does total agreement make a point of view an unassailable truth.

      (You lie, he says. If I could just get all the variables right, you’d surely see…)

      I’m reminded of a friend who has spent hours (days!) trying to convince me that Steely Dan is the greatest band of all time because of the complexity of their arrangements, the ambition of their compositions, the irony of their attitude, the list went on and on and on. I agreed with him on nearly every point and concluded that Steely Dan is actually an incredibly impressive band. But in the end I still don’t spend much time listening to them. They just don’t do it for me.

      (Philistine, mutters my friend, shaking his head. Let me try this again…)


    • I happen to love JS Bach & Beethoven, but I suspect the vast majority could go the rest of their lives without hearing another bar of their music. On the other hand, I’m always hearing that Bob Dylan is/was the greatest poet and musician of the 20th century (or 21rst for that matter) — and you can pile on the superlatives from here. You’ve probably heard them all. Bob Dylan bores. me. stiff. But, I’m willing to make a distinction between personal taste, as a subjective matter, and the argument for Bob Dylan’s greatness as an objective one.

      So, it’s possible that your friend could convince me that Steely Dan is the greatest band of all time if he had the critical acumen to do it, even though I can’t tell you the last time a song of theirs interested me. I’m willing to separate taste from the recognition of greatness. Conversely, go to Amazon and you will find listeners who consider Salieri superior to Mozart.

      Gary Taylor, an Elizabethan scholar, recently published the complete plays of Thomas Middleton. He claims that Middleton is the greatest Elizabethan playwright after Shakespeare and talks of Middleton’s drama bringing tears to his eyes. I’ve talked to other Shakespeare scholars and while they grant that Middleton was an exceptional playwright, they think that Taylor may be just a little weirdly attached to Middleton. There’s no accounting for taste, as the saying goes.

      The trick is in setting aside our subjective preferences, our likings for some kinds of art and literature above and beyond others, to acknowledge that there are objective criteria that all great works, as well as mediocre ones, seem to have in common. There’s a complexity to a Mozart piano concerto (as well as Shakespeare’s poetry) that can be objectively understood and that is utterly absent in the works of his peers. Ask me why those objective qualities should so powerfully communicate to us at an emotional level and I won’t have an answer. All I can say is that hundreds of years have gone by and that 21rst piano concerto’s second movement, or a Midsummer Nights Dream, proves itself with generation after generation. The appeal isn’t arbitrary but tied to their art, which we can understand. Beethoven understood Mozart’s greatness intuitively and intellectually. I think that all great artists have that ability. It’s the reason they start out by imitating what’s best in others (and that they have the power to recognize and understand what’s best is what shapes their own creative powers to greatness). Beethoven’s piano quintet is nearly indistinguishable from Mozart’s. Keats assiduously imitated Milton and Shakespeare. The artist’s themselves, by their staying power over the centuries, prove that there’s a common thread.

      I would never call anyone a Philistine because they like Wordsworth (not that you’re suggesting that — I don’t know). But I do get the sense that I’ve slaughtered a sacred cow, maybe for the first time on my blog, but the steak, let me tell you, is delicious.


  9. [[[It’s not irrelevant, and this is the reason why…]]]

    I simply disagree, and here’s the reason why: I like the distinction once made by Isiah Berlin between artists that are hedgehogs and foxes; the hedgehogs find one style/genre/mood/mode and stick with it/refine it over time, while the foxes adapt themselves to whatever it is they’re tackling. Shakespeare, Goethe, Auden are foxes; Milton, Blake, and Stevens are hedgehogs. Wordsworth definitely fits into the “hedgehog” category.

    For me, for the hedgehog artists that are most hog-like in their style and tone, their best work tends to be when they find content that works best with that style/tone. This is precisely how it is with Wordsworth; it’s not “bad writing,” it’s a personal style that, IMO, works or doesn’t depending on the content. I especially think it’s a style well suited to expressing the muddled, dynamic revolvings of a mind in contemplation, which is what so much of Wordsworth is. Shakespeare, by comparison, is much more artificial in his cognitive rhetorical contraptions, while Wordsworth feels far more organic (organic because thinking is, more often than not, closer to the muddle of Wordsworth than the complex rhetorical structures of Shakespeare). This doesn’t make either innately better or worse, it just makes them different.

    For me, Wordsworth is probably the best poet I know for capturing the workings of the philosophic mind in poetry, where the “art” is all in how its simultaneously messy (which is what you focused on and derided as “bad writing”) and organized (which is what I focused on). “The art of art is to hide art,” as the old saying goes. Perhaps Wordsworth hides it too well for your tastes, as he’s certainly worlds away from the complex and obvious structures of Shakespeare and Milton.

    [[[To say that an author’s intention is irrelevant makes criticism an utterly subjective exercise]]]

    While I wouldn’t say author’s intentions are irrelevant, I think intentional criticism brings with it so many caveats that it’s much simpler to ignore it. Even when we do have access to artists’ intentions (via letters, interviews, etc.), they’re often frustratingly ambiguous or out-of-synch with the actual work. Besides, intentional criticism does absolutely nothing to address the central question as to what affect any combination of content and form has on a reader.

    I think your insistence on labeling any style “bad writing” a priori is nothing more than an expression of personal bias, pure subjectivity. In fact, even the bit you quote as “good writing” looks to be nothing more than writing of a different style for a different purpose. It’s Wordsworth in a calmer mood and clearer mind, with all those end-stops, evenly arranged/distributed lines, sensuous descriptions, etc. nicely fitted to that lucidity. While it’s a beautiful passage, I think the kind of writing there would be completely out of place in the earlier passages you quoted, which are about (content-wise) confusion and frustration, where people blur like landscapes, where the speaker can’t get a clear picture of anyone or anything. To me, that latter content calls out for a style that is repetitive, verbose, piled, abstract. its’ a type of confusion that I find Wordsworth and his “messiness” far better at expressing than Shakespeare ever was. Even Hamlet’s “confusion” seems to artful and clear to really “enact” confusion.


    • // it’s not “bad writing,” it’s a personal style that, IMO, works or doesn’t depending on the content.//

      It’s not “bad writing” when it works, but when it doesn’t (depending on the content) then what is it? Good writing with bad content? So, you’ve shifted the focus from the writing to the content? It’s all good writing but the content/context is bad?

      On the one hand, you vehemently deny my observations. On the other, you agree with it, describe the writing — yourself! — using words like repetitive, verbose, piled, abstract, messy, confusion. With friends like you, Wordsworth doesn’t need enemies. You “simply disagree” but you agree that the writing is bad, but it’s bad in a good, “enacted” way.

      According to the terms of your argument there’s ultimately no such thing as bad writing. It’s all a matter of subjectively/contextually rationalizing it.


    • It’s time to move on. Wordsworth has so many fine qualities, a genuine master and the Prelude is just that: a lead in to the rest of a great body of work.


    • I am reading, and have admired Jonathan’s argument. The leap you make from his points to “then it’s all subjective” I don’t really follow. It seems plenty fair to me, and valid, to ascribe value to the tropes and diction, repetition etc–out of place as it may be in someone else’s poetry–if they animate the state of mind of the poet with a unity that has its effect. Though I wouldn’t go so far as to say Shakespeare is in another class this way. He’s more foxily protean, for sure, but for all his formality his choice of phrasing and words and scansion hums with the particularities of thousands of unique people and consciousnesses; sometimes with concision and sometimes exuberant excess. Of course these are Shakespeare’s creations (even the narrators of the Sonnets and poems). Wordsworth is a creation too, of his own, self-regarding, and in constant revision and elaboration. You can object to that project, and reject all its disciples and inheritors too I suppose. I wouldn’t. You could say Wordsworth is playing Hamlet in exploring his consciousness this way, and playing him badly. But what I think you’re actually reacting to is the project itself. You seem much more at home (as I have cursorily looked over your stuff) with poetic merchants of the tactile, the real when it is wonderfully observed. Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t see you as big Henry James fan? Or Ralph Waldo Emerson? Or Jorie Graham? I think of James in particular, often, because sometimes I cannot stand him and other times I’m mesmerized by his unspooling meta-world; I come to him in different moods, and won’t disown any of them.. I don’t think I could do better than Jonathan in defending Wordsworth, as I’ve been out of this game for a coon’s age. Though your thoughtful site, and some very fine poetry too, which I’ve begun to read, including the parody you spun out so quickly (like a Dunciad), is inspiring and reining me back in. And I will sidle up to the Prelude again some time soon and if I have another palisade to erect for Wordsworth on a side where there’s none, I will. I did re-read Tintern Abbey the other night and it reminded me why I love this poet and feel umbrage at the summary take-down.


    • //The leap you make from his points to “then it’s all subjective” I don’t really follow.//

      I don’t mind disagreement if the disagreement is on sound footing. I enjoy it.

      But that’s not what’s going on here. I’m having to explain the fundamental flaws in Jonathan’s argument, repeatedly; but if it helps clarify some of these issues, which can be quiet interesting, than I guess that’s part of having a blog like this.

      First of all, let’s draw an analogy, and one I’ve already alluded to. One of the most common defenses of poor writing in almost every Freshman creating writing class is the “I meant to do that” escape-clause. I have sat at a table when a young writer was told that this or that passage was boring only to hear her respond that it was supposed to be boring because it reflected the content of the story. This is called The Fallacy of Imitative Form. This, along with the Enactment Fallacy, is precisely the defense Jonathan mounts (elsewhere and repeatedly).

      Here is a definition of the fallacy from here:

      11/1 – On the Fallacy of Imitative Form


      To say that a poet is justified in employing a disintegrating form in order to express a feeling of disintegration, is merely a sophistical justification for bad poetry, akin to the Whitmanian notion that one must write loose and sprawling poetry to “express” the loose and sprawling American continent. In fact, all feeling, if one gives oneself (that is, one’s form) up to it, is a way of disintegration; poetic form is by definition a means to arrest the disintegration and order the feeling; and in so far as any poetry tends toward the formless, it fails to be expressive of anything.

      ** COMMENT: We have already encountered a couple selections concerning this fallacy — adopting a form or style of writing that mimics one’s attitude toward one’s subject — which, as far as I am able to determine, was first discerned and judged fallacious by Yvor Winters. It is a fallacy made too often in modern literature and is too often praised by popular critics and reviewers. I am sure that Winters has had very little influence suppressing this fallacy. Most authors and critics seem wholly unaware of it to this day. Nonetheless, knowing the fallacy is very useful, for it immediately cuts through to the reasons so much of modern literature seems weak and formless and purposeless. There is no passage in Winters, however, that makes a good case for this idea, in my opinion. Winters simply states, without elaboration, that it is a fallacy. In this passage, Winters says that the fallacy leads to disintegration, but, of course, this is just what many modern writers intend it to lead to, though, perhaps, not to COMPLETE formlessness or dissolution.

      Here’s Jonathan:

      …the constant repetition and seemingly pointless elaboration here actually has a point… I mean the oppressive feeling produced by this accretion of negativity through repetition…

      And here again is the definition:

      To say that a poet is justified in employing a disintegrating form in order to express a feeling of disintegration, is merely a sophistical justification for bad poetry…

      The entirety of Jonathan’s defense is a “sophistical justification for bad poetry” (I used the word rationalization); and, worse yet, the defense itself either predicates that Wordsworth meant to write like this at this particular moment, for which there is zero evidence because (as I write again and again) Wordsworth writes like this regardless of content [or that he just happens to hit the right note when style and content align] The whole apologia boils down to the “broken clock is right twice a day” argument. In other words, as Jonathan apparently admits, the same flaws that mar the current passage mar the rest of his poetry but it just so happens that it works well here. Well, who’s to say it works well?

      And this is why I say “it’s all subjective”. If you or I, or Jonathan can, at any time, point to bad writing and concoct a “sophistical justification” for it, then there’s no such thing as bad writing. Right? In that case, all good or bad writing is solely in the eye of the beholder. There is no such thing as good or bad writing because maybe the bad writing enacts a “bad day”.

      Boring writing is bad writing.

      So… if that is countered by the assertion that the boring writing enacts boring content, then no critic can state anything objective about the quality of writing because there will always be someone who can say that x,y, or z was intended to “effect” (Jonathan’s word) or enact x,y, or z. This is the beauty of the Fallacy of Immitative Form. It means you can never say anything is objectively bad because maybe that badness was meant to enact badness, or dullness, or confusion. In that case, all criticism is subjective. What is mediocre writing to one person is a work of genius to another because the latter can justify the mediocrity as an ingenious enactment of mediocrity.

      And here’s my oft quoted passage from the New York Times concerning Enactment Fallacy:

      …Vendler repeatedly commits variations on what has been called the “enactment fallacy.” Basically, this is the assignment of meaning to technical aspects of poetry that those aspects don’t necessarily possess. For example, in an otherwise excellent discussion of Yeats’s use of ottava rima (a type of eight-line stanza), Vendler attributes great effect to “the pacing” allegedly created by “a fierce set of enjambments” followed by a “violent drop” in the fourth stanza of the poem “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen.” Here’s the stanza in question:

      Now days are dragon-ridden, the nightmare
      Rides upon sleep: a drunken soldiery
      Can leave the mother, murdered at her door,
      To crawl in her own blood, and go scot-free;
      The night can sweat with terror as before
      We pieced our thoughts into philosophy,
      And planned to bring the world under a rule,
      Who are but weasels fighting in a hole.

      “With each new verbal or participial theater of action of the stanza, there arrives a new agent,” Vendler writes, “making the clauses scramble helter-skelter, one after the other. The headlong pace is crucial.” Since the stanza involves words like “dragon,” “nightmare,” “murdered,” “blood” and “fighting,” it’s easy to see what she’s thinking here. But to make a more modest use of Vendler’s rewriting trick above, what if we kept the same enjambments, syntax, rhyme scheme and basic rhythm — yet changed some of the words? We might get this (my words, with apologies to I. A. Richards for adapting one of his tactics):

      Now days are slow and easy, the summer
      Sighs into fall: a purring bumble-bee
      Can leave the flower, softened to a blur,
      To soak in the noon sun, and fly carefree;
      The night can breathe with pleasure as once more
      We weave our visions into poetry
      And seek to bring our thoughts under a rule,
      Who are the mindful servants of the soul.

      Not so “helter-skelter” now, is it? In a book review or essay, committing this particular fallacy is a minor error. Most critics do it regularly (I certainly have). In a book that sets out to explain why a poet makes particular formal choices, however, the mistake is more serious, because it replaces the complex relationships among a poem’s elements with just-so stories in which it always turns out — surprise! — that meaning has been mirrored by shape and sound. Think of it this way: we don’t enjoy a bowl of gumbo because it “feels” exactly the way it “tastes”; rather, we find the combination of “taste” and “feel” pleasing. Similarly, a particular stanza arrangement can reinforce our experience of a poem, but only because that arrangement is working in harmony with the poem’s other aspects.

      All this is to say that the claim that Wordsworth’s poor writing is good because it enacts, let’s say, confusion, ennui, dullness, etc… is an entirely specious argument. It’s a sophistical justification.


  10. Alright, for those out of the loop, I’ve acted as a moderator for the first time on this blog. I have deleted about half the comments and have edited my posts and Jonathan’s. I want to say that though we disagree, I appreciate Jonathan’s focus on the subject matter. To that effect, I have edited comments to remove anything that smacked of posturing, verbal abuse, or digression. I want to keep discussion constructive and informative.


  11. Patrick, allow me to make one suggestion: Start a new blog post on The Enactment Fallacy. I think I’ve thoroughly stated in previous conversations my feelings about it, but rather than have to hunt them down it would be nice to have them contained on a blog post about the subject. It would also be nice if you would respond to some of the points I made in those comments, because I still feel like I said some things you never really responded to. EG, I remember once you saying you agreed that form could “reinforce content,” but when I pressed you about the difference between “enacting” and “reinforcing” and how form could “reinforce” if it had no qualities of its own, you only seemed to respond with the notion that it was only a fallacy if we assigned qualities to form a priori, sans content.

    I’m still really confused as to what you think the difference is, where precisely the line is between form legitimately reinforcing content, and form fallaciously enacting content. I don’t think your above post clarifies the distinction, nor would I agree that employing the “disintegration of form to express a feeling of disintegration” is “sophistical” or “bad writing.” To me, creating such connections between form and content is THE mark of good writing. After all, I’m fairly sure I could take any of the posts on your site as examples of “good writing,” keep the form, change the content, and you wouldn’t find it nearly as good. If content doesn’t matter, nor the affect of form on content, then such changes shouldn’t matter; yet I’m fairly sure you’d agree they would.

    [[[According to the terms of your argument there’s ultimately no such thing as bad writing. ]]]

    I think our problem is that you’re trying to speak in big generalities and I’m trying to speak in small particulars. Being aware of how art and tastes evolve, I find it very difficult to name any hard, fast, generalized, and universal rules about what “bad” and “good” writing/composing/filmmaking is. The very qualities that are praised in one generation are damned in another. There are very few whose reputation remains unaffected for decades and centuries, and even with those it’s difficult to say why. For all the “DOs” and “DON’Ts” of creative writing/filmmaking/composition courses, there is an author/director/composer out there doing the don’ts and not doing the dos and making great art.

    Some examples:

    Film: The French New Wave (Godard, Truffaut, et al.) revolutionized film precisely because they consciously did everything that was considered “bad filmmaking” under the standards of the preceding generations; yet all of these subversions–the jump cuts, the shaky camera, blurry focus, metafictional addresses, improvisation, overlapping dialogue, narrative digressions–became the things that almost every major subsequent filmmaker adopted to some extent. You’d probably savage Godard under the enactment fallacy, where the form of a film like Weekend very much seems to be attempting to “enact” the anarchic chaos of its content. You either appreciate those qualities or you do not, and there are plenty of Godard lovers and haters.

    Popular Music: You mentioned Bob Dylan earlier. If we rate Dylan as a singer or guitar/harmonica player or poet by the past standards of good singing, playing, and writing, then he is clearly substandard in all of them. When Dylan showed up on Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Singers list at #7, the article explains exactly why: “When Sam Cooke played Dylan for the young Bobby Womack, Womack said he didn’t understand it. Cooke explained that from now on, it’s not going to be about how pretty the voice is. It’s going to be about believing that the voice is telling the truth.” Dylan’s art can not be reduced to its separate arts, rather, his greatness is all in how he molded his voice and playing to the content. That listeners felt he was “telling the truth” is testified by how many felt he was the “voice of a generation” (though Dylan would insist he was just a bard and balladeer). Again, you either appreciate that “songwriting” art, or you insist that “good songwriting” needs classically good singing, playing, and writing.

    Classical Music: You also mentioned Bach and Mozart. Consider that the harmonic complexity of the baroque era, where Bach’s fugues are praised for their immense, even mathematical complexity, gave way to the Classical era’s emphasis on melodicism and formal clarity. Really, most Mozart (and Haydn) are praised for their simplicity more so than Bachian complexity. Bach would probably find Mozart and Haydn “boring,” not understanding the appeal in the superficial prettiness of their melodicism; much less the romantic expressivity and thematic development of Beethoven. The standards of each era seems to contradict those of the previous.

    For literature I’ll stick with Wordsworth, and note that a significant portion of his greatness is contextual, in how he rejected the Augustan standards of heroic couplets, aristocratic refinement, and satire. Read Lyrical Ballads after immersing yourself in Pope, Dryden, Swift, Johnson and you can see why it was such a revolutionary text, a complete breath of fresh air. Wordsworth’s emphasis on “natural supernaturalism” (to use Abrams phrase), everyday people, common diction, philosophy, solitude, etc. is worlds away from what were the “standards” of a time (even though he had definite predecessors: Gray, Burns, Collins, Goldsmith, Cowper), and, much like Godard in film, has influenced (in one way or another) almost every poet who has come after him.

    Given the above, it seems almost trivial to pick passages here and there and say that it’s “bad writing” on some absolute, universal, a priori standard that can apply to all ages and all times. Quite often, the great artists become great not by adhering to what seem like universal standards, but by showing how the very things considered to be in bad taste at the time can be utilized to make great, substantial, influential art. Wagner even addressed this issue specifically in his opera Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg. When I speak of “bad writing” it’s probably not in the same sense you mean it: I mean it to be cases where there is neither anything superficially pleasant about the form, nor does it seem to enhance in any way the content, nor is the content engaging. It seems to me that where we disagree is that you think if form isn’t pleasant, then it doesn’t matter what the content is because unpleasant form to emphasize unpleasant content is still bad writing.


    • I’m not comfortably at home, so I can’t exhaustively respond. I’ll consider a post on Enactment Fallacy, but this sort of thing isn’t really my bailiwick. Briefly, my initial response is, like you say, that form and technique can reinforce content. Poets do this sort of thing, but once the poem leaves the poet’s hands, it gets very dicey. If there’s a prosody in which the poet is working, then the poet might hope that the knowledgeable reader comprehends and correctly interprets the poet’s aims. If there’s not, then matters become subjective. The same techniques that one reader will interpret as enacting ‘X’, the next reader may interpret as enacting ‘Y’. In either case, and based on a differing interpretation of content and technique, the readers will each concoct a “just-so” scenario where the techniques perfectly fit their favored interpretation. Since neither interpreter can be gainsaid, we have to conclude that their interpretation of form/enactment is entirely subjective. Their claims to enactment say nothing about anything that’s intrinsic to the text, but only reflects their biases. That’s the problem (the short form) with the Enactment Fallacy. You can find criticism that drills right down to the very sounds of the vowels and consonants — as if the poet had a another language to choose from and decided English was just perfect for enacting a given affect! And then there’s Imitative Fallacy, Enactment Fallacy’s evil sibling. This fallacy is usually unleashed by the poet as a defense of his or her writing or by defenders of said poet. In my view, a sure sign that something has gone wrong is when the Imitative Fallacy appears. Like the enactment fallacy, it too is self-justifying. It assumes that given techniques enact meaning. But such claims are also entirely subjective and for this reason are as arbitrary as the readers and poets making the claims. Again, just the short form here…


    • Okay, I was able to obtain and read Peter Barry’s article describing Enactment Fallacy this afternoon while visiting Dartmouth. I think he makes a beautiful argument laying out the reasons this type of criticism should be considered a fallacy. One of the salient paragraphs (because it’s the very objection that more than one respondent has made):

      “It might be objected that in the case of all these examples I am taking the alleged enactments to task too literalistically. The critics referred to might argue that enactment is a sympathetic resonance between the meaning of a line of poetry and its sound, that is, an interaction between two things. If the meaning were removed (by changing words) the enactment would disappear too: thus, it is not necessary to suppose, for example, that the vowel in ‘sky’ suggests or enacts freedom except when it occurs, in a suitable context, in the word ‘sky’, or that the rhythmic disturbance in Read’s line would enact a beheading if it did not occur in a line which mentioned one. But if a line or a word mentions something explicitly then the suggestion contained within its sound pattern is redundant — redundant, that is, for as long as it is only a suggestion. If stress and rhythm could do more than merely suggest then they might indeed complement and illustrate the words’ explicit sense, as illustrations do for the words in a magazine story. In fact, not only is it a great exaggeration of the powers of stress to suppose it capable of doing such a thing, but it is also a fundamental misconception about the nature of poetry to believe that its formal structure is so crudely representational.” [Essays in Criticism: The Enactment Fallacy Page 100]

      He also makes the point that this fallacy was, in fact, described hundreds of years before (prior to the pathetic fallacy) by Dr. Johnson:

      “It is scarcely to be doubted, that on many occasions we make the music which we imagine ourselves to hear, that we modulate the poem by our own disposition, and ascribe to the numbers the effects of the sense. (The Rambler, No. 94)

      Hence my statement that any invocation of the Enactment Fallacy is a subjective one. There’s no reason to think the critic, as I’ve accused Jonathan of doing, hasn’t suited the perceived enactments to his “own disposition”. Another reader might read the same passage, see it as humorous rather than confused or tragic, and find just as many enactments of humor in the self-same techniques.

      I think Barry has already made the case and better than I could. Rather than write an article on Enactment Fallacy. and reinvent the wheel, my suggestion is to obtain Barry’s article if the subject interests you enough. I’m happy to discuss the article and the arguments therein. :-)


  12. I’m trying to stay with you, Patrick et al., but this is getting too convoluted and self-referential to be of real value for me. There’s many more than one right answer to the complex questions we’re raising. Also, “enactment fallacy” is so a recent a theory that it hasn’t even gained a toehold in literary criticism. According to David Orr, even Helen Vendler hasn’t even heard of it! It appears 369 times in a Google search, whereas “pathetic fallacy” is cited tens of thousands of times. I’m not saying it’s not a valuable idea, but it is also just an idea — not a law of nature, or of literature.


    • It’s of little to no use to the average reader.

      However, if you’re interested in appraising and interpreting poems, which is what I do (I guess), it’s a useful tool for sorting out the practical from the fallacious.


  13. Hey, Patrick, it’s none of my business but please make all this stop. You are an astute observer of so many different facets of poetry. I am just one who likes to read it and write it. Your thoughts and my thoughts matter not except to us. Why waste your time on someone else’s thoughts when opinions are never right and never wrong. I disagree with most of what you say about poetry but it’s so refreshing just to know that someone up in Vermont is that interested in this amazing art form.


    • I’ve been thinking about the response to this post. I could just make it stop I suppose — by closing comments? — but then it might seem as though I’m trying to silence readers who disagree with me. I wouldn’t do that.

      What’s given me pause is the personal animosity aroused by the post. It’s not really directed at me, because there’s no one whom I personally know, but more a result of the way people have learned to interact in forums, email lists and the like. So, should I not rock the boat in the future? That would make this all stop (or prevent it from starting again); but I don’t think that’s the way to go. I happen to think the poetry of The Prelude is, by in large, mediocre. One can go to the site I linked to (in the post) and read comments like this:

      “I really disliked reading this poem because of the blank verse and its long, complicated sentences…”

      “As a piece of literature, judged on its own, I found it far too inconsistent and structurally awkward to merit the sort of status it has; it’s more a fascinating failure than a fascinating triumph.”

      “That said, as stunning as some segments were, I couldn’t entirely bring myself to savour each and every bit, or even each and every book. It’s a work that fluctuates… emerging with conclusions of some sort, ones that aren’t always cohesive or even complete.”

      “I found the English of this text more difficult to read than that of Paradise Lost…”

      I could go on. At least 2/3’rds of the comments obliquely refer to, essentially, the frequent “slog” of his writing. That interested me because I also felt the same way. So I decided to take a closer look and see if I could explain exactly why. That’s how this post came about. I like to explain. It’s why this blog is what it is. It wasn’t just me with a bee in my bonnet. I was trying to objectively explain what hundreds of readers were obliquely referring to. Are they all wrong? Are they just ignorant? Are the handful of critics who call Wordsworth’s Prelude a poetic masterpiece right? — or maybe they’re in an echo-chamber of their own making? Is it a poetic masterpiece? Does that make it a masterpiece of poetry?

      In a sense, I’m not defending myself when I defend my post. I’m defending hundreds of readers whose opinions I share. I’m defending them from the status quo. There are plenty of voices in academia to tell them they’re philistines. There will be at least one writer (who knows a thing or two) to tell them they’re not crazy.

      So, I guess I resist making this stop. This blog isn’t about conceding to the status quo. I’m just gonna’ keep telling the truth as I see it; and the day everyone agrees with me is the day I’ll know I’m doing something wrong. I take your general disagreement as a sign that I’m on the right track. Consider it another character flaw. :-)


  14. I’ve found and obtained another good article called “The Intentional Fallacy“.

    Since this discussion turned into a question of how one critiques and appraises a given poem (in this case The Prelude, I think it’s worthwhile reading. The article is by W.K. Wimsatt, Jr and M.C. Beardsley and is available at JSTOR, for free (I think) if you are willing to register.

    There’s also a good article: “The Intentional Fallacy: Defending Beardsley“.

    Beyond these, you can simply search JSTOR with the search term “Intentional Fallacy“.

    The article I previously mentioned, called “The Enactment Fallacy”, is here.

    But, as far as I can tell, cannot be obtained without a fee unless you’re local library can obtain the Quarterly, “Essays in Criticism”, or unless, as I am, you’re close to a college or university with access to the online versions.

    Going back to the article by Wimsatt and Beardsley, the salient paragraph as regards a defense of Wordsworth, via the Intentional Fallacy, would be this:

    “We argued that the design or intention of the author is neither available nor desirable as a standard for judging the success of a work of literary art, and it seems to us that this is a principle which goes deep into some differences in the history of critical attitudes”.

    “One must ask how a critic expects to get an answer to the question about intention. How is he to find out what the poet tried to do? If the poet succeeded in doing it, then the poem itself shows what he was trying to do. And if the poet did not succeed, then the poem is not adequate evidence, and the critic must go outside the poem — for evidence of an intention that did not become effective in the poem.” [p. 469]

    The Intentional Fallacy is closely related to the Imitative Fallacy in that both, at some level, are predicated on knowing or presuming to know the author’s intention. In terms of the Imitative Fallacy, the claim is limited to asserting (usually by the author) that, in essence, “boring writing can enact or imitate boring content” and therefore can be called “successful” on that basis and in an artistic sense – hence the fallacy. The fallacy is self-justifying in that any criticism leveled at an artist or his work can be defended as “intentional”. And that leads us to the Intentional Fallacy. The Intentional Fallacy goes a step further (in one of its senses) by claiming that if an author wrote “boring prose or poetry to enact boring content”, then the critic is obligated to ascertain the “success” of the passage according to the artist’s intent, and not according to its more general reception by readers or a more general, and agreed upon, critical standard. In other words, if a play is deemed to be boring, the defense rests on establishing that the author meant the play to be boring. Therefore, what we should admire, according to intentionalists, is the author’s skill at producing boring plays. Substitute any other affect for “boring”.

    Enactment Fallacy

    Since there is a general consensus as to what constitutes poor writing, such as redundancy or confusion, and because redundancy in writing is easily identifiable no matter the author, the identification of redundancy is an objective observation (on the scale of such observations). The critic who sees enactment in redundancy, as enacting hopelessness and a lack of progress lets say, is availing himself of the Enactment Fallacy. Since the claim as to the technique’s successful enactment is wholly reliant on a given and immediately contextual interpretation (itself redundant) and because there’s no consensus that redundancy always produces the affect of hopelessness, such assertions are considered entirely subjective, meaning that the critic’s argument wrests on the self-justifying assertion that “it’s just so” rather than anything intrinsic to the text.

    Imitative Fallacy

    If the critic then invokes the Imitative Fallacy, he is claiming that the redundancy or confusion imitates the redundancy or confusion of the narrative content. Since this implies that what constitutes “success” is not whether a given piece of writing is or isn’t redundant or confusing, but whether it successfully produces those effects (presumably in concert with content), nothing objective can be said in terms of artistic merit because any criticism can be deflected by the claim that the critical “flaw” was deliberate — an effort to produce the very flaw being criticized. This makes all criticism subjective in the sense that no critic can ever truly claim something as flawed because a flaw implies a lack of skill or judgment. The Imitative Fallacy obviates objective standards (in the sense of consensus). (This, by the way, is the story of the art world.)

    Intentional Fallacy

    The discussion surrounding this can be incredibly convoluted — but mainly because attempts to defend intentionalism are so convoluted. See the “Defense of Beardsley” above. For my purposes, if the critic invokes the Intentional Fallacy, then this is essentially claiming, in the absence of the author, that the critic can speak for the author. The critic is asserting that the only or best way to judge an author’s work is by considering the author’s intentions or as Beardsley writes “I mean the view that interpretation of literature can be supported by appeal to knowledge of the authors’ intentions.” The problem is in identifying those intentions in the absence of the author. Since aspects of the Intentional Fallacy can rely on both Enactment Fallacy and Imitative Fallacy, the criticism is inherently subjective in the sense that it’s claims are predicated on assumptions and presumptions external to the poem.

    And this, I think, is about as far as I will go with this. Hopefully, it better explains why I don’t feel as though the arguments so far made in defense of Wordsworth’s “Poetry”, capital ‘P’, are legitimate.


    • Not sure if Patrick wants to pick this up (I got busy last year and completely forgot about this discussion; it happened to pop into my mind as I was looking for a good Kindle edition of The Prelude), but this post deserves a response.

      [[[Since there is a general consensus as to what constitutes poor writing]]]

      It’s never good to start a definition of a fallacy with a fallacy. There is absolutely zero “general consensus” as to what constitutes good or poor writing (or any art-form). As I explained in a previous post, so much of art history is artists taking what was considered “poor art” and making substantial art with it. Standards change. So much of what we consider “bad writing” is more easily classified as kitsch, which takes techniques of the past that have been emotionally effective and rehashes them in a sentimental way that absolutely fails to challenge or provoke or do anything new with what’s been done.

      Really, what you’re promoting, Patrick, is a prescriptivist take on writing. In language, there’s a battle between prescriptivism, where language is a set of pre-determined definitions and rules where any violations are “incorrect,” and descriptivism, where language is what it is and the job of linguistics is to describe how it works. To me, a strict prescriptivist approach does nothing but mummify language, just as it would mummify art if there was, indeed, a “general consensus” of what was good and bad writing. Rather, to quote Wallace Stevens’s Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction: It Must Change. Part of that change is found in violating prescriptivist rules, current standards, and whatever else.

      As for the actual fallacies as described, I basically agree with The Intentional Fallacy, and I don’t think I’ve ever resorted to it. One has to make a careful distinction between arguing what the author intended and arguing what the content itself is. When I discuss how the speaker of The Prelude is expressing confusion, I’m not saying “Wordsworth intended to express confusion,” I’m saying the confusion is what the actual text is about. I don’t think that’s committing the Intentional Fallacy.

      As for the other two fallacies, I simply disagree with them. I already addressed the problem with the notion of a “general consensus… (of) poor writing,” but just to take some of the rest:

      [[[Since the claim as to the technique’s successful enactment is wholly reliant on a given and immediately contextual interpretation (itself redundant) and because there’s no consensus that redundancy always produces the affect of hopelessness, such assertions are considered entirely subjective]]]

      I’ve addressed this before, but the claim is rarely that the form is doing precisely what the content is doing, the claim is usually either that there is a metaphoric relationship between form and content (form “breaking down” metaphorically linked to a mind “breaking down”), or that aesthetic affects of the form is being used to enhance the content. Things like repetition or end/beginning words or line breaks or motifs or even rhymes are ways to aesthetically emphasize what’s being said, because our brains have evolved to both find patterns and think those patterns important.

      So it’s true that repetition need not “(produce) the affect of hopelessness;” because it would help produce the affect of anything that’s being repeated. During one of his battle scenes on a foggy bridge in War and Peace, when Tolstoy repeats the word fog a dozen or more times, the affect (as in all repetition) is to emphasize the importance of the fog, so that the fog literally crowds out everything else in our minds. Just like the characters, we can’t focus on anything because the (emphasis on the) fog won’t let us. This fits into a general pattern of Tolstoy finding as many means as possible to emphasize the messiness of war where the notions of “the genius of leadership/generalship” is merely illusive (he explicitly says this in some of the “essay” sections).

      Really, the majority of that “fallacy” is predicated on the false notion of there being objective standards in art. There are none. Art is what it is. We subjectively (as individuals) and then relatively (as groups of individuals) determine the standards for good and bad, successes and failures, strengths and flaws. A critic can certainly point to objective elements and then argue why they feel it is a flaw (or should be considered as such), but there is absolutely no means to establish it objectively as such. “Nothing is good or bad but thinking makes it so,” as Hamlet said (one can even argue that whole play is about the anxiety over the relativity of all standards).

      Following from the above, I find the notion that “confusion” would be an example of objectively bad writing asinine. Everything that’s a part of human experience should be subject to, well, being a subject; and should be subject to finding a form that creates the affect of that subject in an audience’s mind. The entire impetus for stream-of-consciousness writing was, in part, to reproduce the confusion of a mind in private converse with itself, and it was enormously successful at this. To prescriptively label “confusion” as bad writing would be to toss out Joyce, Faulkner, Woolf, Eliot, and much late James; ironically, the very authors that a “general consensus” have considered to be amongst the best of their time. Yet all of them were given to “enacting” the idea of confusion via their formal strategies.


    • //There is absolutely zero “general consensus” as to what constitutes good or poor writing (or any art-form). //

      Your assertion of absolute relativism is easily dispatched by names such as Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Shakespeare, Keats, etc… There was a book written in the last decade or so that made the assertion that Beethoven’s fame (and recognition as a genius) was entirely cultural, and that there was nothing objectively better about his music than the next composer. But the claim, like yours, chooses to utterly ignore the judgement of other artists and several generations of listeners. Before you make the truly laughable claim that there’s no consensus as to what constitutes poor vs. good writing, you need to dispatch several centuries worth of readers who prefer Shakespeare over Wilkins. Good luck with that, and send me a post card when you get there.

      //there is a metaphoric relationship between form and content (form “breaking down” metaphorically linked to a mind “breaking down”), or that aesthetic affects of the form is being used to enhance the content.//

      This in no way addresses what I wrote:

      “successful enactment is wholly reliant on a given and immediately contextual interpretation (itself redundant)” In other words, even the claim of a metaphoric relationship is dependent on subjective contextual interpretation.

      //Really, the majority of that “fallacy” is predicated on the false notion of there being objective standards in art.//

      You can call it a “false notion” until your keyboard melts, but you’ve yet to demonstrate that it’s actually a false notion. As I wrote, good luck with that.


  15. From the beginning, reading the Prelude felt like reading the phone book, so I never bothered to finish it.

    On the other hand, I read Byron’s “Don Juan” in its entirety, even though english isn’t my first language. It also have some dull moments, but not many, and the good parts of it are worth learning the language just to enjoy them in the original. Oh, and also to delight the mind on Shakespeare, Scott, Pope and Frost.

    Cheers, Mr. Vermontian. I really enjoy your blog. ;)


    • Thank you baptized. As I wrote earlier, I hear your reaction in different ways from other readers. However, I’m reading it now and from beginning to end, by Gad. I’m determined to have the full experience. :-)


  16. Pingback: The Friendship: Wordsworth & Coleridge « PoemShape

  17. LOL WW is 3rd rate and a bad writer. That’s the end. I’m sorry I appreciate you are having semantical argument with others but you are COMPLETELY ALONE in your assessment and every other modern literary critic is 180 degrees away. Even from the perspective of a pathological contrarian this is the wrong book to trash.


    • To a hammer, everything’s a nail. I know your passion is to see a poem with this carpenterish bent, this need for tidy separation of the how and the what. Such analysis is fine; have at it. It’s great to be moved, or not, by a poem and then interrogate why. But for the basis of the being moved to be an admiration or condemnation of the joinery misses the power, alas. The poem might first remind you that you are more than a hammer.


    • As I wrote in the post itself, I don’t read poems for their content; and yet you’re outraged that I don’t read Wordsworth for his content. You’re like a man who’s walked into a vegetarian smoothy bar and is outraged that there are no hamburgers on the menu. Every other critic that I know of will tell you what you want to hear, so you should probably stick with them.


    • PoemShape is back and kicking old Bill way too Wordy. Some of Wordsworth’s stuff is very good but the Prelude’s not part of that package.

      Good to see your up and about.


    • Yeah, every now and then I try to dive back into The Prelude, and am just exasperated by it. A while back I read a biography of Coleridge and Wordsworth, and the author commented that after their falling out, and much later in life, Coleridge met up with Wordsworth and was exasperated with Wordsworth’s conversation for almost exactly the same reason that his Prelude gets under my skin—his tendency to rattle of thesaurus-like redundancies.


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