Critical Essay William Wordsworth

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This was a time, he recalls, fed on “speculative schemes” based on the worship of abstract reason, or as Wordsworth puts it, “Reason’s naked self ” (XI, 224, 234). Guided by nature, he returns to his “true self,” his fundamental identity as a poet, open “To those sweet counsels between head and heart / Whence grew that genuine knowledge, fraught with peace.” External events, of course, aided this redirection of Wordsworth’s energies, the last straw for him being the coronation of Napoleon as emperor in 1804, attended by Pope Pius VII.

Wordsworth’s own disposition was already becoming distanced from these events. In a passage reminiscent of Burke, Wordsworth comes to the conclusion that: There is One great society alone on earth: The noble living and the noble Dead.

At this stage, Wordsworth regarded the entire feudal fabric, resting on the power of royal courts and “life,” as removed from “the natural inlets of just sentiment, / From lowly sympathy and chastening truth” (IX, 350–351). In book X, however, Wordsworth begins to describe the conflict he felt, as an Englishman who thought of himself as a “patriot of the world,” when England declared war against France on February 11, 1793; he actually rejoiced to hear of English setbacks in the war (X, 285–290).

His inner conflicts intensified as he learned of the “domestic carnage” in France, and were palliated briefly when the death of Robespierre seemed to presage the end of the “reign of terror” (September 1793–July 1794) and to renew the promise of future “golden times” (X, 573–578).

, XI, 108–113 These lines, first published in 1809, embodied the initial promise of the Revolution, and the hopes of reform it inspired in many hearts: the old world, resting on the tottering foundations of feudalism, a world based on authority, caprice, hierarchy, and inheritance, was about to give way before a gleaming new era based on reason, equality, and freedom.

The foregoing lines were eventually incorporated into Wordsworth’s long autobiographical poem, the , completed in 1805 but not published until just after his death.

Earlier in the , he had referred to imagination as an “awful Power” that reveals with a flash the “invisible world” (VI, 594–602).

In the conclusion of the poem, he says that imagination is “but another name for absolute power / And clearest insight, amplitude of mind, / And Reason in her most exalted mood” (XIV, 188–193).

The idea here seems to be that imagination is an intermediary power that stands above both reason and sense even as it connects them.

Imagination, in its capacity as “right reason,” orients our sensibility to the things that are truly universal and permanent; by implication, a “wrong” use of reason, abstracted entirely from things of the sense, would either impel us to impose false schemes upon the world of sense, or to be at the mercy of the world of sense, taking this alone as reality, and understanding its own function as ordering this reality which is already given, already presented to our senses.


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