What is the worth of words?
7 April marked 243 years since William Wordsworth was born. The very name of this most appropriately named poet embodies his concern for language: what is the true worth of words? As we raise a glass to celebrate the birth of this mock humorously self-styled ‘simple water-drinking bard’ (who, let’s not forget, has written what could be described as a pub crawl in rhyme), let us take a brief look at how Wordsworth used language and the impact it had on the world.
In the famous Preface to the Lyrical Ballads (1800) Wordsworth instinctively and intellectually rejects the use of what he saw as ornate and essentially dishonest language that had hitherto been used by poets: “I have proposed to myself to imitate, and as far as possible, to adopt, the very language of men.” Very laudable, but even the most academic and ardent Wordsworthian could not really say that Wordsworth actually writes as the local working people around him would have spoken, and certainly not the speech that would have been familiar to such fellow north-countrymen. (Although it is interesting to note, as the poet Tony Harrison so eloquently has, that Wordsworth’s rhymes have a distinctly northern flavour to them, for example in rhyming ‘water’ with ‘matter’.)
Yes, it is true that the poems in Lyrical Ballads rarely make use of lengthy Latinate words or inverted word order, but it cannot be said that a work like ‘Tintern Abbey’ reflects the language of ordinary people. How many of us would describe our neighbour’s hedges as ‘little lines of sportive wood run wild’? (Perhaps we should.) The individual words are simple but the phrasing is not, as in order to articulate the complexities of the poet’s mind Wordsworth needs to use highly ornate structures which are often at odds with the way most people speak.
Even the voices of the characters are not imbued with any flavour of their individual identity, geographic or social. Farmer Harry Gill does not cry out ‘How’ee, ars geet cauld’ (more’s the pity) but the more genteel ‘Harry Gill is very cold’; Westmoreland housewife Betty Foy asks ‘What can I do to ease your pain?’ rather than something like the more earthy ‘Hareet, can ars do owt?’ We hear of ‘our rustic dialect’ in ‘Michael’ but not from the lips of the old shepherd himself; unlike his inspiration Robert Burns, Wordsworth chooses to use a more considered, almost biblically reminiscent English, even for reported speech.
However, you could say that by using a more accepted and universally recognized form of English Wordsworth is consciously placing his characters alongside other great figures in literature: dialect speech has so often been used primarily for comic effect that it is difficult to dissociate it from humour and thereby imbue its speaker with sincerity and dignity. By using rustic characters to people his poems, Wordsworth is already taking a risk as they are “of a kind very different from that which is supposed by many persons to be the proper object of poetry.” But unlike Burns, Wordsworth seems to use standard English to ‘elevate’ his characters, whereas Burns uses the language of his peers as a literary language in its own right.
As well as reacting against literary conventions, Wordsworth is also influenced by the ballad tradition: using everyday language to tell everyday stories. As these were not usually regarded as ‘literature’, Wordsworth is one of the first people to take this form into serious poetry, as Burns had done a few years earlier. Wordsworth also avoids using too many references to classical antiquity, so it is possible to understand the narrative and philosophy of his poetry without a classical education.
Wordsworth’s attitude towards the power of language can be summed up in his use of one word: statesmen. Many of us may only recognize this word within a political context, but Wordsworth uses it to mean ‘yeoman’ (or‘man with an estate’), a meaning chiefly confined now to historical uses. This is not a neologism on Wordsworth’s part, but this usage occurs rarely outside of the 18th- and early 19th-century counties of Cumberland, Westmorland and parts of Lancashire (which today make up Cumbria), where statesmen, hereditary holders within the lord’s territory of small parcels of land, were particularly successful in maintaining their independence and land during this period. Consciously or otherwise, Wordsworth uses this word to describe men who are ‘statesman-like’ in their bearing, imbuing them with a sense of distinction, dignity, and authority where others may have seen them as uncultured and therefore uninteresting.
Wordsworth’s assertion that “the naked and native dignity of man” links all humanity is central to understanding this: we have all of us one human heart, and the language of the heart is liberating, equalizing and unifying. All can think and feel the same thoughts and emotions. For Wordsworth, language is not merely a garment to clothe meaning, but remains intrinsic to the message contained within it. If one is to think and feel truly, one’s words must embody as well as represent the ideas they convey. Ultimately, Wordsworth seeks to place all men and meaning as universally accessible and dignified – humour may occasionally be sacrificed, but the goal is a noble and inspiring one, relevant today.