Sunday, 5 April 2020


7 April 1770  A quarter of a millennium since Wordsworth was born!

Wordsworth's output was enormous, though he did have some help from his sister, Dorothy, note-taker and diary-keeper (and occasionally a writer of poetry herself).

I discovered 'Daffodils' at an early age via my father's parody of the poem, 'Caravans':
'I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er hills and sands
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host of gaudy carvans'.
There's more - it parodies the whole poem.

When I was at school I first encountered some of Wordsworth's shorter poems - 'Upon Westminster Bridge', 'Intimations of Immortality' 'Resolution and Independence'. When I reached the sixth form The Prelude (books 1 and 2) was one of my A level set texts.  I loved it, poring over a detailed annotated version in the library, fascinated by Wordsworth's intense response to nature and the precise locations.  A week's sixth form holiday in the Lake District gave an added dimension to my reading of Wordsworth's poetry.

What did Wordsworth do for us?  Mountains of literary criticism have been written about his writing but I'd like to select two important aspects of his work for poetry writers and readers.

1  You can write a poem about anything you like.

In 1798 Lyrical Ballads was published.  These poems were a collaboration between Wordsworth and Coleridge.  The book is credited with kick-starting the Romantic movement in English poetry.  Wordworth wrote in the opening sentence of the 'Advertisement' (the book's preface): 'It is the honourable characteristic of Poetry that its materials are to be found in every subject which can interest the human mind.  The evidence of this fact is to be sought not in the writings of Critics but in those of Poets themselves.'

A bit wordy for modern ears but that 'you can write a poem about anything' is both liberating and challenging.  Some of my poems had their origin in friends' 'You could write a poem about that' moments (two examples from Trace are a snapped cello string and a greetings card).

2  'I' in a poem is 'autobiographical'.

This has left a long legacy and is a lot more problematic.  Wordworth wrote his great work The Prelude about himself.  It was an autobiogaphy in blank verse.  Or, as he put it, he was writing about 'the growth of a poet's mind'.  So when we read that he stole a boat, he went ice-skating or he galloped through the abbey ruins (not something English Heritage would permit today) we know that these things actually happened, we can pinpoint the places where they happened and we know Wordsworth's emotional responses to them.  I = Wordworth.

But Wordsworth's 'I' may not be entirely accurate.  The most notorious example is the world-famous 'Daffodils'.  That well-known first line, 'I wandered lonely as a cloud' is a fiction.  He wasn't alone.  He was with his sister, Dorothy, and he used her journal entry as a basis for the poem, even down to the idea of the daffodils dancing.

Of course in poetry 'I' may not be autobiographical at all, it may be entirely fictitious.

The poet, Matthew Welton, recently said 'Of all the poems out there in the world, I reckon about half are roughly autobiographical and the others are just stuff that the writer has made up.  It's surprising how little this division gets talked about ... with prose we make a distinction between fiction and non-fiction but with poetry we lump both kinds together.'

Reader beware!

Matthew Welton was speaking on the Carcanet blog - see 'Squid Squad: An Interview'

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