A reflection on Arnold's "Dover Beach" and Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey"
Poetry that establishes its raison d'être as linguistic play is, for Wordsworth, "a matter of amusement and idle pleasure…as if it were a thing as indifferent as a taste for rope-dancing, or frontiniac or sherry" (Preface 250). Wordsworth condemns poets whose efforts contribute mainly in celebrating formal experimentation; he discriminates against poetry that has recourse to what he calls a "superlatively contemptible" (265) language. Wordsworth advises his readership to mistrust what he calls the "infinite caprices" (261) of poetic composition, and he claims that such artifice undermines what he holds as poetry's true task. He is skeptical of poets who "break in upon the sanctity of truth of [their] pictures by transitory and accidental ornaments, and endeavor to excite admiration of [themselves] by arts" (260).
Instead of celebrating metrical aesthetics as a pursuit valuable in its own right, Wordsworth regrets verse that compromises content for the whimsical satisfaction of effect and immediacy of impression. To safeguard poetry from such intransigence, then, Wordsworth proposes a poetry that is more transcendental or conceptual. He seems to conjoin poetry and philosophy with a greater end in view, no doubt one receptive of his own endeavor in mapping out a study of his introspective self:
Aristotle, I have been told, hath said that poetry is the most philosophic of all writing. It is so. Its object is truth, not individual and local, but general and operative; not standing upon external testimony, which gives strength and divinity to the tribunal to which it appeals, and receives them from the same tribunal. (Preface 258)
This statement illustrates a crucial aspect of Wordsworth's project: what we learn here is that the lessons extricated from and delivered through poetic discourse shall ultimately be philosophical.
Evaluating Wordsworth's poetics, Matthew Arnold, in his Preface to The Poems of Wordsworth (1879), says that "poetry is at bottom a criticism of life; that the greatness of a poet lies in his powerful and beautiful application of ideas to life, -- to the question: How to live?" (85). Arnold holds Wordsworth's work in the highest esteem, precisely because Wordsworth's poetry "deals with life, as a whole…powerfully" (88). But how the poet communicates this metaphysical thought process remains something of a mystery, especially in a poem like "Tintern Abbey." If poetry, for Wordsworth, is "the image of man and nature" (Preface 258), what is it about his poetic method that presupposes an adherence to truth and insight? Wordsworth's response, to be sure, is telling and complex:
What then does the poet? He considers man and the objects that surround him as acting and reacting upon each other so as to produce an infinite complexity of pain and pleasure. He considers man in his own nature and in his ordinary life as contemplating this with a...