Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Against Expressivism: Wordsworth's Cyberpoetics

Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Against Expressivism: Wordsworth's Cyberpoetics

Article excerpt

William Wordsworth's famous pronouncement "poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings" (126), (1) which first appeared in the 1800 Preface to Lyrical Ballads, has long been the centerpiece of an expressivist interpretation of Wordsworthian poetics. According to this view, which still dominates critical discussion, Wordsworth saw poetry as essentially, and at its origin, an unmediated and unpremeditated outpouring of emotion that circumvents deliberate composition with little or no regard for the poet's audience. Cybernetics, the science of control and communication invented by Norbert Wiener in 1948, offers a set of conceptual tools for analyzing this statement that is fundamentally at odds with the prevailing expressivist view. In fact, adopting a cybernetic perspective leads, inevitably, to two claims, one a logical consequence of the other, that will seem, to expressivists, outrageous: first, that "the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings" with which the poet identifies poetry is to be conceived as taking place in his reader as well as himself, and not as the origin of the creative process but as contributing to its ultimate end, which is the experience of pleasure. Second, that for this reason, the long-standing expressivist view of Wordsworth's poetics, namely, that the poet conceived his verse as the impulsive "pressing out" of his deepest feelings, is fundamentally wrong.

From a cybernetic point of view, the place to begin any interpretation of Wordsworth's spontaneous overflows is not the Preface, where they make their first appearance, but at the beginning of the poet's first efforts to explain what he's up to in Lyrical Ballads: the opening sentences of the volume's 1798 Advertisement. Here, Wordsworth characterizes the "majority of the ... poems" in Lyrical Ballads as "experiments ... written chiefly with a view to ascertain how far the language of conversation in the middle and lower classes of society is adapted to the purposes of poetic pleasure" (116). For a cyberneticist, everything that Wordsworth has to say about poetry in the rest of the Advertisement, as well as in the Prefaces of 1800 and 1802, depends on construing the word "experiments" correctly at the outset.

   The majority of the following poems are to be considered as
   experiments. They were written chiefly with a view to ascertain how
   far the language of conversation in the middle and lower classes of
   society is adapted to the purposes of poetic pleasure. Readers
   accustomed to the gaudiness and inane phraseology of many modern
   writers, if they persist in reading this book to its conclusion,
   will be induced to enquire by what species of courtesy these
   attempts can be permitted to assume that title. It is desirable
   that such readers, for their own sakes, should not suffer the
   solitary word Poetry, a word of very disputed meaning, to stand in
   the way of their gratification; but that, while they are perusing
   this book, they should ask themselves if it contains a natural
   delineation of human passions, human characters, and human
   incidents; and if the answer be favourable to the author's wishes,
   that they should consent to be pleased in spite of that most
   dreadful enemy to our pleasures, our own pre-established codes of
   decision. (116)

Note, first, the plural "experiments": in 1798 at least, (2) Wordsworth was not talking about Lyrical Ballads as a whole, but about individual poems within it, and not even all of these, but a "majority." He's thinking of these individual poems as devices meant to arouse a certain kind of pleasure in their users, "poetic pleasure," the only kind one should expect to derive from poetry. Lest readers miss the point, Wordsworth repeats the word "pleasure" at the end of this paragraph and employs a synonym and a cognate ("gratification," "pleased") along the way. Each of the poems in question is experimental because it represents a test or a trial of something new, something constructed out of materials drawn from a heretofore neglected source: "conversation in the middle and lower classes of society. …

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