Style is a debatable thing about Wordsworth. Many critics say that he has two styles. A few argue that he has many styles and still some even go to the extent of saying that he has no style at all.
Wordsworth had a belief that poetic style should be as simple and sincere as the language of everyday life, and that the more the poet draws on elemental feelings and primal simplicities the better for his art. He advocated the use of simple language in poetry. He said that poetry should be written in a “language really used by men in humble and rustic’’. He set himself to the task of freeing poetry from all its “conceits” and its “inane phraseology”. He made certain very effective and striking experiments in the use of simple language.
According to Lytton Strachey, Wordsworth was the first poet who fully recognised and deliberately practised the beauties of extreme simplicity; and this achievement constitutes his most obvious claim to fame. Hardly any interested reader misses the beauty of his simplicity.
One could quote numerous examples of the successful and effective manner in which Wordsworth handled simple language. All Lucy poems offer striking examples. A poem like the one on daffodils represents the successful simple style too.
Wordsworth’s use of the nobly-plain style has something unique and unmatchable. Wordsworth feels his subjects with profound sincerity and, at the same time, his subject itself has a profoundly sincere and natural character. His expression may often be called bald as, for instance, in the poem Resolution and Independence; but it is bald as the bare mountain tops are bald, with a baldness which is full of grandeur.
Wordsworth prefers generally to employ an unostentatious, ascetic style. It demands a mature and thoughtful reader to appreciate the power and comprehensiveness.
But many are the occasions when Wordsworth’s simplicity deteriorates into triviality. While the daring simplicity is often highly successful, there is also the other kind of simplicity which has been called the bleat, as of an old, half-witted sheep. This creates a strange inequality in Wordsworth’s verse, an inequality which has been noted and commented upon by almost every critic.
His deficient sense of humour is responsible for many banalities, but the chief reason for this mixture of puerility and grandeur is his poetic theory. According to this theory, Wordsworth was to use “a selection of the language really used by men in humble and rustic life,” while at the same time he was to throw a certain colouring of imagination over his subjects.
Wordsworth’s experiments in a simple style were intended to arouse the ordinary man’s sympathy for his fellow men. He sacrifices the idiomatic order of words to preserve simplicity of diction and the demands of rhyme. He undermines his purpose with amazing effects. Sometimes he offends merely by the use of such metre as—
Poor Susan moans, poor Susan groans
Fortunately Wordsworth’s splendid imagination was often too powerful for his theory; and in his best work he unconsciously ignores it altogether.
As Graham Hough points out, in Tintern Abbey Wordsworth is far more willing than his theories would suggest to use the full resources of the English vocabulary. In the more exalted passages of this, as of most of the reflective blank verse poems, the influence of Milton is apparent. We sometimes find Wordsworth using a Latinised and abstract vocabulary, commonly supposed to be most uncharacteristic of his work, and directly due to Miltonic influence.
According to a critic, Wordsworth has not “two voices”, but many; and even relatively short poems such as Resolution and Independence, Yew-Trees, and Fidelity show a considerable range. To hold, as Arnold does, that Wordsworth has no style is a dangerous simplification.
The journals of Dorothy Wordsworth show what pains Wordsworth took to find the right expression. Few poets spent more time searching for the right word or revising their poems. The result of such strenuous application was often exhaustion leading to dull prosaic verse; but the same labour produced the wonderful poetry of Tintern Abbey which was written in a few hours and hardly altered, and great extempore works, even in his declining years, such as the 1835 effusion on the death of James Hogg.
The famous dullness of Wordsworth which measures the grave in The Thorn and finds it three feet long and two feet wide is all part of his fearless search for a diction which should bypass; the pomposity of literature, and take a sort of photograph or recording of experience itself, not just the scene but the emotion connected with the scene.
Wordsworth was right in his banalities, given the premises from which he started. Only the metre and the inversions employed to contain ordinary conversation in short lines create an unhappy effect in some of the ballad poems.
Wordsworth often used imagery which is more visual, especially in similes from Nature. But generally, he demands more of the reader’s imagination than most poets do. His poems frequently echo Milton, Shakespeare, Burns, the Elizabethan poet Daniel, Pope, Thomson, and Gray; but not a single work had as lasting an influence on him as Paradise Lost. Instead of being dazzled with words, he had looked steadily at his subject. The imagery he used is derived from his own experience and thought.
We can aptly sum up Wordsworth’s style thus: “Wordsworth’s language is usually worthy of his themes. At its best it has restraint, quietness and integrity, a refusal to be clever or fanciful in order to attract the reader. But there are other times when it is not so much serious.
Wordsworth was practising his theory that poetry should be written ‘in a selection of language really used by men’; but not paying enough attention to ‘selection’. Again, when his powers failed, he fell back on bombast as a substitute.
According to Cazamian, Wordsworth never seriously believed that a poet’s means of expression should coincide altogether with those of the most familiar speech. He does not try to identify entirely the language of poetry with that of conversation among men of the low or of the middle class.
Poetry of the preceding period suffered from the artificiality of a language in which the means of conveying intensity had been worn out by the deadening effect of custom and had lost all their power of suggestion. To shake off these chains, to dare to employ the language of pure passion, such a step meant a return to the practice of the old masters. Their style, when compared with that of the eighteenth century at its close, was of a relatively simple quality, just as it was ever racy, frank, and spontaneous.
The cult of Chaucer, Spenser, and Shakespeare is part and parcel of the faith animating the literary reform of which the Lyrical Ballads are the symbol. To the pages of these writers, Wordsworth and Coleridge go in quest of materials for the making of a “permanent” style.
Although unequal, and full of flaws, of lapses into the prosaic or into a tedious accuracy of statement, Wordsworth’s shorter poems of the best period undoubtedly possess a unique value, however mixed they may be. Among them are pure masterpieces, in which the tension of the style is delightfully relaxed: an ecstatic or divinely childlike spontaneity replaces the effort of concentration. These poems bring to a decisive realisation the revival towards which the previous literary transition was tending.
Wordsworth broke the spell of an antiquated tradition, and his work inaugurated the reign of liberty. England awoke to this fact, not indeed at once, but by degrees, and in the course of a generation. All the English poets o f the nineteenth century are indirectly his heirs.