In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle analyses Wordsworth’s famous line about poetry and ‘spontaneous overflow’
1798 was the key year for Romantic poetry in Britain, for it saw the publication of the Lyrical Ballads, a collection of poems by the two brightest new stars in English verse: William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Romanticism had well and truly arrived on English shores, and Wordsworth and Coleridge became famous.
Lyrical Ballads is a well-known book, but virtually none of the poems we now celebrate its authors for, with three or perhaps four notable exceptions, appeared in it. Many of their most famous poems, from The Prelude to ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’ (i.e. the ‘daffodils’ poem) for Wordsworth, or Christabel, ‘Kubla Khan’, or ‘Frost at Midnight’ for Coleridge, were later compositions. Indeed, the only ‘classic’ Wordsworth poems to appear in the volume were ‘The Idiot Boy’, ‘We Are Seven’ (at a push), and ‘Lines Written a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey’. For Coleridge, the only poem of his which is still widely read was The Rime of the Ancient Mariner – and Wordsworth, who wasn’t sure about that poem, toyed with taking it out of the second edition of Lyrical Ballads. Indeed, only four Coleridge poems appeared in the collection in the first place.
So Lyrical Ballads was very much a Wordsworth book first and foremost, and in 1800, when a second edition of the book was published, he took it upon himself to write a preface to the collection, to explain why its authors had moved away from the Augustan neoclassical style that had dominated so much eighteenth-century poetry towards a more demotic (indeed, democratic) and oral tradition, inspired by the old ballads that had been sung in Britain centuries before.
The ‘1800 edition’ of Lyrical Ballads appeared, of course, in 1801 (in January). In his famous ‘Preface’ to Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth famously writes: ‘Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity’.
But what was his meaning here? Well, that isn’t all he wrote. Indeed, he uses the phrase ‘spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings’ twice in the preface, and that was the second time. The first time he used the expression, he wrote:
I believe that my habits of meditation have so formed my feelings, as that my descriptions of such objects as strongly excite those feelings, will be found to carry along with them a purpose. If in this opinion I am mistaken, I can have little right to the name of a Poet. For all good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: but though this be true, Poems to which any value can be attached, were never produced on any variety of subjects but by a man, who being possessed of more than usual organic sensibility, had also thought long and deeply. For our continued influxes of feeling are modified and directed by our thoughts, which are indeed the representatives of all our past feelings; and, as by contemplating the relation of these general representatives to each other we discover what is really important to men, so, by the repetition and continuance of this act, our feelings will be connected with important subjects, till at length, if we be originally possessed of much sensibility, such habits of mind will be produced, that, by obeying blindly and mechanically the impulses of those habits, we shall describe objects, and utter sentiments, of such a nature and in such connection with each other, that the understanding of the being to whom we address ourselves, if he be in a healthful state of association, must necessarily be in some degree enlightened, and his affections ameliorated.
T. S. Eliot later maintained that, after John Donne in the seventeenth century, a ‘dissociation of sensibility’ set in among poets, so that poets were incapable of thinking as keenly as if they were sensing something or experiencing a deep emotion. Thought and feeling, Eliot argued, were as one in John Donne; in later poets, they became ‘dissociated’. But for all that we like to talk of Romantics like Wordsworth as being poets of sensation, of instinct, of emotion – coupled with the wild, rugged landscapes they inhabited and wrote about – they are, as Wordsworth’s own ‘Tintern Abbey’ shows, poets for whom quiet reflection and deep thought are as important as heady emotion.
So, the ‘spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings’ is only half the story: the other half is what Wordsworth described as emotion, but emotion ‘recollected in tranquillity’:
I have said that Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity: the emotion is contemplated till by a species of reaction the tranquillity gradually disappears, and an emotion, kindred to that which was before the subject of contemplation, is gradually produced, and does itself actually exist in the mind.
In many ways, although they are diametrically opposed in other respects (Wordsworth was the most important poet of the Romantic movement in English; T. S. Eliot was a self-acknowledged ‘classical’ poet, to use T. E. Hulme’s term), Wordsworth’s talk of ‘contemplation’ being the poet’s means of tapping into latent emotions experienced in the past and gradually working them up into poetry sounds much like Eliot’s later argument, in ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’, that the good ‘impersonal’ poet should work up ‘ordinary emotions’ into poetry. And although, in that same essay, Eliot would call Wordsworth’s ‘emotion recollected in tranquillity’ an ‘inexact formula’, it was not completely wrong, either.
Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books, and The Tesserae, a long poem about the events of 2020.