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Coleridge's Interpretation of Wordsworth's Preface to Lyrical Ballads

Author(s): Don H. Bialostosky

Source: PMLA, Vol. 93, No. 5 (Oct., 1978), pp. 912-924
Published by: Modern Language Association
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Accessed: 27-02-2017 06:56 UTC

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Coleridge's Interpretation of Wordsworth's Preface

Lyrical Ballads

jects, but he has misleadingly distinguished
between what the Preface can legitimately be
C OLERIDGE'S interpretation of the Pref- taken to mean and what it probably does mean.
ace to Lyrical Ballads is probably stillSince these difficulties complicate any attempt to
the single most influential source of criti-pin down his interpretation, they must be exam-
cal topics and judgments about Wordsworth's ined at the outset.
text, but, as James V. Logan has observed, "it is Coleridge first states that he objects solely to
the disintegration of Wordsworth's Preface that the view "that the proper diction for poetry in
the reader chiefly remembers from Coleridge."' general consists altogether in a language taken,
Though most attempts to explicate the Preface with due exceptions, from the mouths of men in
start from Coleridge, few acknowledge that hereal life, a language which actually constitutes
was out to refute, rather than to clarify, Words-the natural conversation of men under the influ-
worth's argument. Coleridge thought that theence of natural feelings" (11, 29). Having an-
controversy over Wordsworth's poetry stemmed nounced this program of debate, however, he
not so much from the poems as from the Pref- immediately begins discussing Wordsworth's
ace, believing that certain flaws in the poemsviews, not on the language of poetry, but on
might not have been taken seriously but for appropriate poetic subjects. This unannounced
Wordsworth's announcement that they were de- head not only provides him with plenty to object
liberate. In search of the true grounds forto but leads him to "the point, to which all the
characterizing the value of Wordsworth's poetry, lines of difference converge as to their source and
Coleridge found it necessary to remove thecentre ... that poetry as poetry is essentially ideal,
obstacle created by Wordsworth's critical the-that it avoids and excludes all accident; that its
ory.2 apparent individualities of rank, character, or
Coleridge's rhetoric has been so effective that it occupation must be representative of a class;
has not merely refuted the Preface but re-created and that the persons of poetry must be clothed
it. His argument has drawn the bulk of subse- with generic attributes . . ." (II, 32-33). How-
quent critical commentary to the question of ever, in the next summary of his objections,
poetic diction, though that topic is subordinate Coleridge does not mention this point. Instead
in Wordsworth, and has even led respectable he introduces still another issue, presenting it
critics, Wordsworthians and Coleridgeans alike, as if it had been before us from the beginning:
to mistake the theses it attacks for those Words-
Here let me be permitted to remind the reader, that
worth defends.3 The many critics who read
Wordsworth through Coleridge seem unable to the positions, which I controvert, are contained in
the sentences-"a selection of the REAL language
inquire into what the Preface is about without
of men;"-"the language of these men" (i.e. men
finding something wrong with it.4
in low and rustic life) "I propose to myself to imi-
From time to time critics have questioned tate, and, as far as is possible, to adopt the very
Coleridge's interpretation of the Preface, butlanguage of men." "Between the language of prose
none has tested its accuracy in detail, perhapsand that of metrical composition, there neither is,
because Coleridge made that task unusually diffi- nor can be any essential difference." It is against
cult.5 Not only has he variously and inconsis-these exclusively that my opposition is directed.
tently identified the passages to which he ob- (nI, 41)


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Don H. Bialostosky 913

Here for the first time Coleridge objects to the which, it is probable, Mr. Wordsworth had be-
passage about the language of prose, but soon fore him in his critical preface" (II, 69). Here is
this objection also gains prominence: by the how the chapter begins:
next chapter it has become "the most important
[point]; its examination having been, indeed, It might appear from some passages in the former
part of Mr. Wordsworth's preface, that he meant to
my chief inducement for the preceding inquisi-
confine his theory of style, and the necessity of a
tion" (II, 45). If, instead of trying to reconcile
close accordance with the actual language of men,
these claims, we simply combine them, we can
to those particular subjects from low and rustic life,
see that, out of the whole scope of Wordsworth's
which by way of experiment he had purposed to
argument, Coleridge confines his attack and his naturalize as a new species in our English poetry.
interpretation to Wordsworth's choice of low But from the train of argument that follows; from
and rustic subjects, his ideas of language in gen- the reference to Milton; and from the spirit of his
eral and of "the real language of men," and his critique on Gray's sonnet; those sentences appear
notion of the essential connection between the to have been rather courtesies of modesty, than
languages of prose and metrical composition. actual limitations of his system. Yet so groundless
Coleridge, however, further complicates any does this system appear on a close examination; and
attempt to judge his interpretations by dissociat- so strange and over-whelming in its consequences,
ing the views he attacks from those he believesthat I cannot, and I do not, believe that the poet
that Wordsworth held. Those who derive their did ever himself adopt it in the unqualified sense, in
which his expressions have been understood by
view of the Preface from Coleridge have not others, and which, indeed, according to all the com-
observed that he presents his criticisms as ap-
mon laws of interpretation they seem to bear. What
plicable not to what Wordsworth must have then did he mean? (ni, 69; italics mine)
meant but only to what his words can be taken
to mean "according to all the common laws of Having refuted the system that Wordsworth in-
interpretation" (in, 69). The manner in which advertently loosed on the world, Coleridge turns
Coleridge introduces his first objection empha-
to save the poet himself by acknowledging the
good intentions that Wordsworth was unable to
sizes this distinction: "My own differences from
certain supposed parts of Mr. Wordsworth's
embody in his work. He goes on to interpret
theory ground themselves on the assumption, some of "the controverted passages of Mr. W's.
that his words had been rightly interpreted,critical
as preface by the purpose and object, which
he may be supposed to have intended, rather
purporting that the proper diction for poetry in
than by the sense which the words themselves
general consists altogether in a language taken,
with due exceptions, from the mouths of men in
must convey, if they are taken without this al-
real life, a language which actually constitutes
lowance" (iI, 77), but this apparently generous
the natural conversation of men under the influ-gesture, even if it succeeds in dispelling the im-
ence of natural feelings" (ii, 29). This statement
pression that the view refuted earlier was Words-
fails to make clear who supposes these partsworth's
to (a success it has not had with later crit-
be true parts of Wordsworth's theory and by ics of the Preface), leaves the impression that
whom his words "had been rightly interpreted."
Wordsworth was unable to say what he meant
and must receive special consideration to be
Coleridge himself only assumes this interpreta-
tion to be correct and, in doing so, leaves open
understood at all. Coleridge comes off as the
whether or not he believes it to be correct.
careful refuter of Wordsworth's apparent mean-
Though one might be led to think he does froming and the generous restorer of his actual sys-
his many direct references to Wordsworth's tem; Wordsworth appears as either a mistaken
poems, attitudes, and ideas in the argument that
theorist or an incompetent writer.
follows, he reiterates more forcibly at the end ofThe success of this maneuver depends on our
his argument that the theory he has refuted andtacit agreement that there are "common laws of
the theory Wordsworth held are not the same. interpretation" that can be applied to an au-
After two involved chapters refuting "certainthor's words without reference to our beliefs or
supposed parts of Mr. Wordsworth's theory" hypotheses
(in, about what he had in mind. I find no
29), Chapter xix takes up "the real object evidence that Coleridge has discovered or fol-

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914 Coleridge's Interpretation of Wordsworth's Preface to Lyrical Ballads
acter. Where an objection has been anticipated by
lowed any such laws in his interpretation of the
such an author as natural, his answer to it must
Preface. The closest he comes even to formulat-
needs be interpreted in some sense which either is,
ing a law or maxim of interpretation is in his
reading of the phrase "from low and rustic life,"or has been, or is capable of being controverted.
My object then must be to discover some other
where he argues that the persons Wordsworth
meaning for the term "essential difference" in this
introduces "are by no means taken from low or
place, exclusive of the indistinction and community
rustic life in the common acceptation of those of the words themselves. (Ii, 46-47)
words" (n, 31). This "acceptation" is consid-
ered so self-evident that it is not explained, but
Here readers are no longer invited to acqu
that very fact gives us a clue as to the "law" of
in what they and Coleridge and all person
interpretation operating here and the manner common
in sense think a word means but to
which it is applied. The assumption is that one on what Coleridge and other friends of W
meaning of these words is so widespread that worth know about what Wordsworth must have
all Coleridge's readers will immediately rec-
meant. Coleridge interprets this passage, not
ognize it without his citing it. Wordsworth, how-
according to the "sense which the words them-
ever, is assumed to have misunderstood this
selves convey," as he later puts it, but "by the
meaning or to have misapplied the phrase to the
purpose and object, which he [Wordsworth]
subjects of his poems. No other legitimate mean-
may be supposed to have intended" (ii, 77).
ing is allowed for, and no attempt is made toThe effect, however, is the same whether Cole-
discover what could have possessed Wordsworth
ridge feigns objectivity or intimacy, for the in-
to stray so far from the familiar "acceptation."
terpretation he arrives at either way sets up a
As a method of interpretation this procedure
Wordsworth whose arguments can easily be
makes it virtually impossible to discover an
shown to be absurd.
unusual meaning, or even an alternative "com-
Since we are not given a law of interpretation
mon" meaning, for the phrase, but as a method
that validates the distinction between what
of refutation it has definite advantages. It allows
Wordsworth can legitimately be taken to mean
Coleridge to suggest a "common" meaning that
and what he in fact means, we must assess Cole-
weakens Wordsworth's case and to make the
ridge's interpretation of the Preface not by any
standard of "commonness" the reader's uncriti-
such law but by our best judgment of Words-
cal recognition of that meaning. worth's intention.
Interpretation according to the "common ac-
ceptation" of a writer's words is a strategy, not a
law, and when it does not serve Coleridge's pur-
poses, he turns to another maxim that does.The first interpretation Coleridge offers con-
When he comes to interpret Wordsworth's asser-
cerns Wordsworth's reasons for choosing his
tion that "there neither is, nor can be, any essen-
poetic subjects from low and rustic life. Words-
tial difference between the language of prose andworth writes:
metrical composition," Coleridge chooses the
uncommon way of interpreting the word "essen-
The principal object, then, which I proposed to my-
tial" and offers the following reasons for his
self in these Poems was to chuse incidents and situa-
choice: tions from common life, and to relate or describe
them, throughout, as far as was possible, in a selec-
There are not, indeed, examples wanting in thetion of language really used by men; and, at the
history of literature, of apparent paradoxes that
same time, to throw over them a certain colouring
have summoned the public wonder as new and of imagination, whereby ordinary things should be
startling truths, but which on examination have presented to the mind in an unusual way; and
shrunk into tame and harmless truisms; as the eyes further, and above all, to make these incidents and
of a cat, seen in the dark, have been mistaken for situations interesting by tracing in them, truly though
flames of fire. But Mr. Wordsworth is among the not ostentatiously, the primary laws of our nature:
last men, to whom a delusion of this kind would be chiefly as far as regards the manner in which we
attributed by anyone, who had enjoyed the slightest associate ideas in a state of excitement. Low and
opportunity of understanding his mind and char- rustic life was generally chosen, because in that

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Don H. Bialostosky 915

condition, the essential passions of the heart find a feelings. Furthermore, their feelings are reflected
better soil in which they can attain their maturity, in manners that have been conditioned by the
are less under restraint, and speak a plainer and enduring circumstances of rural living-depen-
more emphatic language; because in that condition
dence on the seasons, on weather, on day and
of life our elementary feelings co-exist in a state of
night, for example-and they are associated
greater simplicity, and consequently may be more
with objects of continuing pleasurable interest to
accurately contemplated, and more forcibly com-
municated; because the manners of rural life ger- human beings, what Wordsworth calls "the
minate from those elementary feelings; and from beautiful and permanent forms of nature." Be-
the necessary character of rural occupations, are cause passions and manners are linked, the poet
more easily comprehended; and are more durable; can express internal states by showing habitual
and lastly, because in that condition the passions of behavior, as Wordsworth presents the "eager in-
men are incorporated with the beautiful and per- dustry" of Michael and his wife through the
manent forms of nature.6
nightly lighting of "the evening star." The asso-
ciation of rustics' passions with the beautiful and
Coleridge neither quotes nor mentions the first permanent forms of nature makes those passions
sentence of this paragraph, in which Words- more representative of the universal human pas-
worth states his "principal object" in writing thesions that it is Wordsworth's express purpose to
Lyrical Ballads, and this omission leads him to discover and portray. Wordsworth does not
misread the reasons Wordsworth offers for his praise low and rustic life for its own sake or try
choice of subjects. In the first place, the omis-
to explain the characteristics he finds there; he
sion makes it look as though Wordsworth de- explains why what he finds there is useful for his
picts low and rustic life because it is ideal in purposes.7
Coleridge's interpretation of what Words-
itself, not because it is useful for his purposes. In
the second place, it creates the impression thatworth means by "language" has been a more
Wordsworth is explaining why his subjects arefrequent
as focus of critical debate than his inter-
pretation of Wordsworth's choice of subjects.
they are, rather than why he finds them suitable.
On the one hand, Coleridge presents reasons The for endless disputes that brought M. H. Abrams
denying "the desireable influences of low and to say that Wordsworth's remarks about lan-
rustic life in and for itself" (II, 32), while, on
guage are "peculiarly dark and equivocal" began
the other, he suggests causes other than "occu- with Coleridge's interpretation.8 Most subse-
pation and abode" to account for "the thoughts, quent discussions of what Wordsworth means
feelings, language, and manners of the shepherd-
start either by accepting the alternative meanings
farmers in the vales of Cumberland and West- Coleridge offers and choosing between them or
moreland" (II, 31). by stating them and then suggesting a third pos-
Wordsworth, however, does not consider rus- sibility. According to Coleridge, by "language"
tic life desirable in itself so much as he finds it Wordsworth may mean either words themselves
desirable for the purpose of representing human or the order in which words are used. Under
passions in unimpeded and unconcealed opera-both main heads-the language of low and rus-
tion, and what he is trying to do is not, like tic life and the language of prose-Coleridge
Coleridge, to prove a thesis about the causes ofoffers these same alternatives (II, 44-46) and
rustics' sentiments and language but to justify insists that Wordsworth must have meant not
his choice of these subjects to exemplify human just words but the order of the words as well.
emotions. In the first place, he tells us, theirShawcross, in his notes to Biographia, argues
passions are mature, unrestrained, and emphati- that Wordsworth means words only (II,
cally and plainly expressed-all characteristics 276-77, n. to p. 46, 1. 1), while James Heffer-
that make it easier for him to see and to portraynan, sixty years later, accepts Coleridge's alter-
in them "the manner in which we associate ideas natives and agrees that the order of words is also
in a state of excitement." In addition, he saysmeant.9
that the simplicity of their elementary feelings, Abrams states the most commonly suggested
that is, their relative artlessness, makes it easier
third possibility when he writes, "The total con-
for him to contemplate and communicate those text makes it plain that (despite some wavering

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916 Coleridge's Interpretation of Wordsworth's Preface to Lyrical Ballads
because of ambiguity of the word 'real') Words- poems. "Language" for him cannot mean imag-
worth's chief concern is not with the single ery or metaphor, though metaphor is one of the
words or the grammatical order of prose dis- important categories into which he divides lan-
course, but with figurative departures from lit- guage. If to use a metaphor is to apply the name
eral discourse, and that Wordsworth's main of one thing to another that resembles it, then a
intention is to show that such deviations are jus-concept of language in which metaphor is one
tifiable in verse only when they have the same category must include also the category of
psychological causes that they have in the 'art- names properly applied to things. Nothing has a
less' speech of every day" (p. 110). Abrams significant name and words are empty when the
himself is able to rediscover this meaningidea in of metaphor is cut loose from its moorings
Wordsworth's context, and the alternatives he in literal speech.
rejects in arriving at it do not come up there; Greenbie quotes the following remark of
they arise only in Coleridge's interpretation. Hartley's to show what Hartley taught Words-
Perhaps the darkness and equivocality he as- worth about the "vitally metaphorical" character
sociates with Wordsworth's text are most appar- of language: "Similes, fables, parables, alle-
ent to one who approaches it with Coleridge's gories, etc., are all instances of natural analogies
terms already in mind. improved and set off by art. And they have this
The most thoroughgoing attempt to escape common to them all, that the properties, beau-
those terms and to grasp what other meaning ties, perfections, desires, or defects and aver-
Wordsworth may have had in mind is Marjorie sions, which adhere by association to the simile,
Barstow Greenbie's. She anticipates Abrams' parable, or emblem of any kind, are insensibly
suggestion that Wordsworth was thinking about transferred upon the thing represented. Hence
"figurative departures from literal discourse" the passions are moved to good or evil, specula-
and argues that the analytical categories of vo- tion is turned into practice, and either some im-
cabulary and syntax are utterly foreign to Words- portant truth is felt and realized, or some error
worth's way of thinking. She writes that for and vice gilded over and recommended."'0
Wordsworth "language" means something like What Greenbie does not see is that, for Hartley,
"the whole imaginative expression of thought," these powers of metaphor depend upon previous
adding, I think mistakenly, "which, in most knowledge of the thing whose name, now used
cases, mean[s] figures of speech." To supportmetaphorically, already carries with it associa-
her interpretation she points out that whenever tions derived from its proper application. Words-
Wordsworth gives examples of what he means worth also learned this from Hartley, whose idea
by bad poetic language, either in the Preface or of a "real" language was of a language whose
in the 1802 Appendix on Poetic Diction, the words have "ideas," that is, connections with
language he objects to is metaphorical. He ob- sensations received from things (Hartley, i, 77).
jects, she says, not to metaphorical language as Wordsworth claims in the Preface to avoid all
such but to metaphors that are emptily conven- metaphors except those that result directly from
tionalized or that reveal their user's failure to excited states of feeling (those states aroused by
see, or to feel anything about, whatever he de-
powerful things) in order to concentrate his at-
scribes with them (pp. 134-39). tention on using names themselves with a feeling
So far Greenbie would seem to have a clear for the things they mean. When Greenbie says
grasp of the poet's meaning, but when she thatgoes
he admires the language of rustics because
on to suggest that Wordsworth's "language" a rustic who lives in regular association with
should be read as "imagery" or "metaphor" she
the hearth fire and who "compares a feeling to
has inferred more than her observations warrant. a flame . . . associates a distinct image with the
Inappropriate images or metaphors are what idea is of flame," she misses the prior point that a
wrong with poetic diction as Wordsworth sees it,rustic who mentions a flame even as a flame also
but this does not mean that images or metaphorsassociates a distinct idea with it.
are all there is to the language of good poets. With this expansion of Greenbie's view, we
Indeed, he writes the Preface because he feels he can now, without presupposing Coleridge's
must explain the scarcity of such imagery in his terms of interpretation, reformulate our question

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Don H. Bialostosky 917

about whether Coleridge adequately interprets phrase Wordsworth does not use in the Preface
Wordsworth's idea of language. Can a view of (or, as far as I can discover, in any of his other
language whose primary distinction is between published writings). Offering this phrase as a
vocabulary and syntax (words and the order of substitute for the phrase "real language," Cole-
words) be used to interpret a view whose primary ridge says that this ordinary, or common, lan-
distinction is between literal and figurative lan- guage is to be discovered empirically by elimi-
guage? What are the proper domains of these nating words peculiar to individuals and classes
distinctions and how are they related? and saving the remaining words, those in "uni-
The distinction between vocabulary and syn- versal use" (ii, 41): "Omit the peculiarities of
tax is in the domain of the grammarian, who each, and the result of course must be common
views language as the structure in which words to all" (i, 42).
are related to one another according to the The consequences of this interpretation for
forms of syntax. The distinction between literal Wordsworth's claim that a real language is to be
and figurative usages is in the domain of the found uniquely in the language of men in low
rhetorician, who is concerned with the way in and rustic life ought to be apparent, and Cole-
which a community uses its language in naming ridge insists upon it repeatedly. Men in low and
and judging things and therefore with the colors rustic life are in a class that, like any other class,
and connotations that give words their power to has peculiarities of language specific to it; con-
move us. The grammarian can describe the lan- sequently a lingua communis "is no more to be
guage of a community in terms of the words it found in the phraseology of low and rustic life
habitually uses and the patterns into which it than in that of any other class" (In, 41-42).
habitually casts them without ever inquiring into Wordsworth's attempt to make a common lan-
what its members mean by the words they use. guage out of a region-bound dialect strikes Cole-
Coleridge's distinction between words and the ridge as absurd, and he heightens the appearance
order of words belongs in the grammarian's of absurdity by subtly shifting the meanings of
domain. The rhetorician is primarily interested the terms in which Wordsworth describes his
in discovering the meanings a community asso- adoption of that language.
ciates with words and in using those associated Wordsworth says he adopts the language of
meanings to influence its judgments. Words- men in low and rustic life "purified indeed from
worth's attempt to purify the meanings his what appear to be its real defects, from all lasting
compatriots associate with their words is a and rational causes of dislike or disgust" (p.
rhetorical enterprise intended to improve the 245). Coleridge restates this qualification as
quality of their judgments.11 "purified from all provincialism and grossness,
Each approach to language is intelligible in and so far reconstructed as to be made consis-
itself, but it should be clear that any attempt to tent with the rules of grammar" (II, 38). Con-
interpret one in the terms of the other would sider what this implies about the language
necessarily lead to darkness and equivocation. Wordsworth has chosen. First, the only pe-
Wordsworth is concerned with words, but not culiarities Coleridge finds in it are undesirable
with words as the constituents of syntactic pat- ones. The language of low and rustic men is just
terns. He is not equivocating between words in like that of refined and cosmopolitan men except
his sense and words in Coleridge's; he is inter- that it is provincial, gross, and ungrammatical.
ested in words insofar as they carry meanings This characterization makes it difficult to see
about the world for a given community. The what Wordsworth could have found attractive in
shadow cast by Coleridge's concept of language rustic language. Only a fool would choose a
has obscured Wordsworth's views, clouding criti-
provincial language in order to purge it of its
cal discussions of what Wordsworth means not
provincialism or choose a gross and ungram-
only by language in general but by the real lan-
matical one in order to clean it up and straighten
guage of men. it out.

The Coleridgean phrase one is most likely toWordsworth, however, does not say. he is
meet in contemporary discussions of "the real
purifying low and rustic language of provincial-
language of men" is lingua communis (11, 41), a he says that he is purifying it of "lasting

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918 Coleridge's Interpretation of Wordsworth's Preface to Lyrical Ballads
and rational causes of dislike or disgust." "Pro- strange. His enterprise is to make a real lan-
vincialism" is a term applied to rural language guage more common. Whether he is right that
when viewed from the standpoint of an urban such a language is more likely to be found
community that takes its own manners of speech among men in low and rustic life than among his
as the norm, and Wordsworth is quite deliber- cultivated readers, it is at least not absurd for
ately not taking that standpoint. Lasting and ra- him to seek his ideal language in the conversa-
tional causes of dislike or disgust must for him tions of men who "hourly communicate" with
be something more than the present prejudices the objects they communicate about.
of that fashionable society which calls itself "the Coleridge's final argument against Words-
world." That is the only community that rejects worth's choice of the language of rustics as the
provincialism as such without giving any more real language of men again combines distortion
compelling reasons for doing so. Charges of of the text with a failure to consider the relation

grossness and failure in grammatical construc- of words to things. Following the repetition of
tion (which Coleridge sees as failure to abide by his main objection to Wordsworth's choice of
the laws of universal logic) could be seen as the language of rustics as "the real language
more lasting and rational objections, and I think of men," Coleridge adds in the final paragraph of
that Wordsworth would have attended to them Chapter xvii, "Neither is the case rendered at all
in purifying rustic language. He would not havemore tenable by the addition of the words, in a
admitted, however, that such flaws (along with state of excitement" (II, 42). The implication is,
provincialism, or perhaps as the marks of pro- I think, that Wordsworth adds these words to
the phrase "the real language of men." It must
vincialism) are the distinguishing characteristics
of that language. be noted, before we consider Coleridge's reasons
When Coleridge translates "real" language foras finding the addition of these words unhelpful,
"common" language, he focuses exclusively onthat a Wordsworth never adds them to this
language's relation to its users and ignores thephrase.12 They appear instead in the paragra
importance of its relation to the objects envi- in which he tells us that it is his purpose to tra
sioned by its users. When Wordsworth talks in the incidents of common life "the prima
about a real language, I think he places the laws of our nature: chiefly as far as regards
language's relation to objects first and has manner
in in which we associate ideas in a state
mind the opposite of what Hartley calls a nom- excitement" (pp. 244-45, italics mine). Th
inal language. In Observations on Man, Hartley "state of excitement" is that of the minds he
distinguishes between a real language, in whichstudies and represents in his poems. What he
words are associated with ideas (i.e., with sen-
says is that he is fitting into metrical language "a
sations and feelings), and a nominal language,selection of the real language of men in a state
in which words are associated with other words
of vivid sensation" (p. 241, italics mine). He
(i, 285). A real language is one whose words
expresses the same idea in the 1802 additions to
call up associations with experiences of things,
the Preface when he speaks of the language of
while a nominal language is one whose words "men who feel vividly and see clearly" (p. 261).
call to mind definitions in terms of other words. Coleridge's misreading here may seem incon-
A language of either kind might be common tosequential and inadvertent, but, like other seem-
the members of a group or shared in part by ingly careless misreadings, it serves to make
diverse groups. The commonness of the lan-Wordsworth's position look weaker than it is.
guage would affect the size of the audience thatColeridge's reason for finding the phrase "in a
would know what was meant, but its reality orstate of excitement" unhelpful in qualifying "the
nominality would affect the quality of what was real language of men" is that
being communicated.
the nature of a man's words, where he is strongly
In fact, Wordsworth knows that the real lan-
affected by joy, grief, or anger, must necessarily
guage he is trying to write is not common. If it depend on the number and quality of the general
were, he would not need to write the Preface to truths, conceptions and images, and of the words
his readers to explain why such language is good expressing them, with which his mind had been
for them even though it may strike them as previously stored. For the property of passion is not

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Don H. Bialostosky 919

to create; but to set in increased activity. At least, citement in his language-one of the faults he
whatever new connections of thoughts or images, or objects to in his predecessors-through the dis-
(which is equally, if not more than equally, the cipline of looking steadily at his subject and re-
appropriate effect of strong excitement) whatever
porting only those feelings warranted by vivid
generalizations of truth or experience, the heat of
sensations. Coleridge's distortion of the meaning
passion may produce; yet the terms of their con-
veyance must have pre-existed in his former con- intended here overlooks both these disciplines
versations, and are only collected and crowded to- and allows as Wordsworth's only possible
gether by the unusual stimulation. (II, 42) meaning the one that he took greatest pains to

The process Coleridge describes here takes place

We can now turn from Coleridge's interpreta-
exclusively within the mind, and all the words
tion of "the real language of men" and direct
and ideas involved are assumed to be presentour attention to the last main point that he in-
already at the beginning of the "excitement."
terpreted-Wordsworth's statement that "there
The "passion" with which he identifies the "ex-
neither is, nor can be, any essential difference
between the language of prose and metrical
citement" stirs up the existing pool of concepts
and terms but does not introduce anything. composition"
No- (p. 253, n. 46). Coleridge's em-
tice now that a "state of vivid sensation" need phasis on this assertion has led critics to see it as
not be equated with such a "state of excite-
a thesis statement in the Preface, but we can tell
ment." Though both "excitement" and "sensa-that it is not, both from its place in the essay-
tion" may be understood in this purely subjec- at the end of a reply to an anticipated objection
tive sense, "sensation" is more likely to involve
in the midst of Wordsworth's argument-and
an object that is making an impression on the from Wordsworth's failure to build an argument
mind. To speak of a "vivid sensation" would be to support it. Instead of defending his statement,
to refer to an object's making a strong and quite
Wordsworth amplifies it to make us feel its full
possibly a clear impression, but to speak offorce:a
"vivid excitement" would be to refer to a strong
and possibly blinding passion. In a state of vivid
We are fond of tracing the resemblance between
sensation, a mind might well be experiencingPoetry and Painting, and, accordingly, we call them
something new, and its inarticulate repetitions ofSisters: but where shall we find bonds of connection
words and phrases might be the sign that sufficiently
it strict to typify the affinity betwixt metri-

needs a new word or that it is giving an old wordcal and prose composition? They both speak by and
to the same organs; the bodies in which both of
a new meaning; they need not be what Coleridge
them are clothed may be said to be of the same
takes them for-the sign of an "unfurnished or
substance, their affections are kindred and almost
confused understanding" trying to hold onto, or identical, not necessarily differing even in degree;
to recall, a subject already known to it. Poetry sheds no tears "such as Angels weep," but
A state of excitement may or may not be the natural and human tears; she can boast of no celes-
result of vivid sensation; when it is not (and thistial Ichor that distinguishes her vital juices from
is the only possibility Coleridge considers), the those of prose; the same human blood circulates
mind is absorbed within itself; when it is, the through the veins of them both. (pp. 253-54)
mind may be learning about the world. Words-
That his prose has here turned to an elaborate
worth is concerned to avoid the solipsism of the
state Coleridge describes and to make his ex-
personification cannot have escaped the poet
citement reflect genuinely worthy objects. He
who two paragraphs earlier acknowledges that
writes, "I am sensible that my associations"except in a very few instances" his poetry
must have sometimes been particular instead of presents "no personifications of abstract ideas"
(p. 250). The passage itself enacts the kind of
general, and that, consequently, giving to things
a false importance, sometimes from diseased
essential identity Wordsworth has in mind,
impulses I may have written upon unworthy sub-showing prose in an impassioned "affection" in
jects" (p. 268)-the whole discipline of recol-
an argument that defends poetry's right to give
lection in tranquility is meant to avoid this accurate and unembellished representation of
He is also concerned to avoid false signs of ex- its subject.

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920 Coleridge's Interpretation of Wordsworth's Preface to Lyrical Ballads
Coleridge nowhere quotes or refers to this deciding what Wordsworth means by "essential"
passage, which is the only evidence in the Pref- (which is only superficially on its way to solu-
ace of what Wordsworth means by "essential tion by this arbitrary a priori process) is now
difference." Instead, on the pretext of seeking a complicated by the possible meanings of "sub-
meaning that is not a "truism," Coleridge sets stance" in the second definition of "essence."

out "to discover some other meaning for the Once more, however, Coleridge acts as though
term 'essential difference' in this place, exclusive there were only one possibility, offering an ex-
of the indistinction and community of the words ample in which substance is equivalent to the
themselves" (11, 47). In the difficult passage in material making up a thing and essence is the
which he pursues this object, Coleridge first distinguishing form that the material is given
equates the distinction between existence and es- (OED, s.v. "substance," sense 6). Thus Words-
sence with that between reality and idea. He worth is interpreted as saying that there is no
then distinguishes essence from substance in difference between the forms made of words in
terms of form and matter. Here is the passage prose and the forms made of words in poetry.
itself: We have seen that he does not think about lan-
guage in those terms, but in Coleridge's argu-
Essence, in its primary signification, means the ment there appear to be no other terms he could
have in mind.
principle of individuation, the inmost principle of
the possibility of any thing, as that particular thing. To approach Wordsworth's meaning, we must
It is equivalent to the idea of a thing, when ever we again reject the options Coleridge offers. An es-
use the word, idea, with philosophic precision. sence need not be a principle of individuation or
Existence, on the other hand, is distinguished from
distinction but may be the same thing as sub-
essence, by the superinduction of reality. Thus we stance ("that which receives modifications and
speak of the essence, and essential properties of a
is not itself a mode"), within which distinctions
circle; but we do not therefore assert, that any
are made ("substance," sense 3; "essence,"
thing, which really exists, is mathematically circular.
Thus too, without any tautology we contend for the sense 4). In one way of looking at this meaning
there is only one essence, or substance (God or
existence of the Supreme Being; that is, for a reality
correspondent to the idea. There is, next, a sec- Being), of which everything else is a mode or
ondary use of the word essence, in which it signi- determination, but in another way of looking at
fies the point or ground of contra-distinction be- it every genus is an essence, in which its species
tween two modifications of the same substance or
can be seen as modes. In this sense, to say that
subject. Thus we should be allowed to say, thatthere
the is no essential difference between two
style of architecture of Westminster Abbey is essen-
things would be to say that they are species of
tially different from that of St. Paul's, even though
both had been built with blocks cut into the same
the same genus, as poetry and prose are species
of language in use or of human utterance. It is
form, and from the same quarry. Only in this latter
sense of the term must it have been denied by Mr. some such meaning that Wordsworth has in
Wordsworth (for in this sense alone is it affirmed mind. When he contrasts the essential identity of
by the general opinion) that the language of poetry poetry and prose with the "sisterhood" of poetry
and painting, what he is saying is that, compared
(i.e. the formal construction, or architecture, of the
words and phrases) is essentially different from that
to the distinction between poetry and painting in
of prose. (I, 47-48) their common genus (fine art?), the distinction
between poetry and prose in their common
The first meaning genus
of (verbal
"essence"utterance) is so small
and as tocon
its be
trast with "existence" have
virtually no
nil. If we bearing
perceive on w
the one relationship
Coleridge is saying about
as sisterhood, Wordsworth's
the other is virtual identity. me
ing. The second meaning is the
Another possible meaningone he asser
of "essence" that
must be Wordsworth's,
would fit asthe though
metaphoricalhe has eli
development of
nated the first and demonstrated that the two Wordsworth's thought is that distilled extract of
meanings he suggests are the only possible ones.a substance to which its peculiar power or effect
Here the appearance of logical procedure is onlyis due ("essence," sense 9). The references to
an appearance. Furthermore, the difficulty of the blood and tears of prose and poetry, in

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Don H. Bialostosky 921

which their common vitality is found, suggest question is not, whether there may not occur in
this meaning. In my first interpretation, "essen- prose an order of words, which would be equally
tial identity" means deriving from the same sub-proper in a poem; nor whether there are not beauti-
ful lines and sentences of frequent occurrence in
stance; here it means possessing the same power
from the same inner source. Because Words- good poems, which would be equally becoming as
well as beautiful in good prose; for neither the one
worth's development of his meaning is figurative,
nor the other has ever been either denied or doubted
there is no reason why both senses may
by notany one. (II, 49)
apply. Indeed, the two meanings are consistent,
for the claim of the second is that both poetry
would never gues
and prose get their power from a common
as the chastiser of logica
source, language, that essence with respect to
very moment treating
which their differences are mere accidental
arguments in the Pref
modes of determination.
worth down for a soph
In these terms, is the assertion of the essential
Wordsworth offers the
identity between poetry and prose a truism or a not as evidence for the e
startling truth? Surely it is a truism to say that the languages of poetr
prose and verse are both written in language, but dence for the contention that "some of the most
it is startling to recognize the power that Words- interesting parts of the best poems will be found
worth attributes to language in both theseto be strictly the language of prose, when prose
modes. His paradoxical and extreme statement is well-written" (p. 252). If indeed such an as-
forces us to recognize that the essence of versesertion has "never been either denied or doubted
and prose is in that common power rather thanby any one," it must only prove that Wordsworth
in their distinguishing forms. The distinction be- is not above stating a truism in answer to an
tween matter and form in terms of which Cole-
anticipated objection, for this is the first remark
ridge interprets Wordsworth makes sense in it-
he makes to counter the possibility that his
self but makes nonsense out of Wordsworth's
poems will be called prosaic. The assertion
idea. Though James Logan has suggested about that the essential identity of the languages of
the difference between Coleridge's interpretation
prose and metrical composition follows (in the
and Wordsworth's meaning is the difference be-edition from which Coleridge seems to be
tween a precise philosophic meaning and a loose
quoting) in a new paragraph that begins this
commonplace one (p. 35), it should nowway: be "By the foregoing quotation I have shewn
clear that the difference is between two equally
that the language of Prose may yet be well
precise "philosophies," both of which areadapted
re- to Poetry; and I have previously as-
flected in ordinary ways of thinking aboutserted
lan- that a large portion of the language of
every good poem can in no respect differ from
Coleridge follows his misinterpretation of "es-
that of good Prose. I will go further. I do not
sential difference" with one last misreading of
doubt that it may be safely affirmed, that there
Wordsworth's argument about "the language of
neither is, nor can be, any essential difference
prose." He presents Wordsworth's criticism of
between the language of prose and metrical
Gray's sonnet "In vain to me the smiling morn-composition" (p. 253, n. 46). Wordsworth is
ing shines" as though that criticism were offered
making two distinct points where Coleridge sees
in defense of the assertion that there is no essen-
one. If "things identical must be convertible,"
tial difference between the languages of prosethings distinct must not be.
and metrical composition; he then calls Words-
worth to task with the following remarks:
An idealist defending his system by the fact, that
when asleep we often believe ourselves awake, was Given Coleridge's inaccurate interpretations,
well answered by his plain neighbor, "Ah, but whenwe would not expect his answer to what he sees
awake do we ever believe ourselves asleep?"- as Wordsworth's mistaken views to have any
Things identical must be convertible. The preceding necessary relation to Wordsworth's actual inter-
passage seems to rest on a similar sophism. For the ests or statements. Coleridge sets out to prove

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922 Coleridge's Interpretation of Wordsworth's Preface to Lyrical Ballads
that there are "modes of expression, a construc- and rendered instinctive by habit, becomes the rep-
tion, and an order of sentences, which are in resentative and reward of our past conscious rea-
their fit and natural place in a serious prose sonings, insights, and conclusions, and acquires the
name of TASTE. (II, 63-64)
composition, but would be disproportionate and
heterogeneous in metrical poetry; and vice He goes on to say that a poet w
versa" (II, 49), a position that, to paraphrase to distinguish the language of s
Coleridge, Wordsworth had never denied or from the language of indulged a
doubted. Similarly, though Coleridge proposes ing a rule that enjoins him to obs
an alternative to the rule that compels a writer ple but will rely upon the powe
to "adhere closely to the sort and order of words that proceeds upon "the all in e
which he hears in the market, wake, high-road, nature . . . [by] meditation, rath
or plough-field" (II, 63), Wordsworth neither servation." In the remainder of
made nor followed that rule (the latter Coleridge intuition of the poetic genius r
recognized, though he took it as a sign of incon- tion or taste as the faculty that d
sistency rather than as a sign that Wordsworth from inappropriate poetic lang
had something else in mind when he talked nally formulated rules but only
about adopting rustic language). We can only be IMAGINATION [which] are them
surprised, then, when some of the views Cole- powers of growth and product
ridge develops to oppose the views he attributes to judge what a poet has made
to Wordsworth bear striking resemblance to Although Coleridge attribut
views Wordsworth actually expressed in the tuition" of these "sources of ge
Preface. This oddity deserves examination. tion" to Wordsworth, he prese
Let us first recall the first formulation of the
position to Wordsworth's argum
"rule" for poetry to which Coleridge says hehowever, no point in the Prefa
objects: "My own differences from certain sup- worth stresses more than his claim that he has
posed parts of Mr. Wordsworth's theory ground cultivated his taste in subjects and language
themselves on the assumption, that his wordsthrough meditation on the subjects he has ob-
had been rightly interpreted, as purporting that served and on the language he has used to
the proper diction for poetry in general consists describe them. Another branch of the critical
altogether in a language taken, with due excep-tradition regarding the Preface emphasizes these
tions, from the mouths of men in real life, a lan-claims by featuring Wordsworth's remarks on
guage which actually constitutes the natural"the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings,"
conversation of men under the influence of natu-
on "emotion recollected in tranquillity" and on
ral feelings" (II, 29). By the time he reaches his reliance on his own feelings as his "stay and
the first movement of his peroration against this support."13 Coleridge mentions none of these
mistaken view, Coleridge has completed his spe- observations. How can a poet characterized by
cific objections to this rule and has begun towhat many consider an overreliance on his own
object to it simply because it is a rule. He offersfeelings be the same poet whom Coleridge repre-
his alternative to all rules, including this one, insents as the advocate of mechanical and external
the following passage: rules of composition?
Wordsworth himself takes considerable pains
But if it be asked, by what principles the poet is to to prevent being misunderstood. Though he in-
regulate his own style, if he do not adhere closely
sists that his poems have a worthy purpose, he
to the sort and order of words which he hears in
explains that it is not a "distinct purpose for-
the market, wake, high-road, or plough-field? I
mally conceived" but rather one structured into
reply; by principles, the ignorance or neglect of
which would convict him of being no poet, but his
a immediate feelings by his "habits of medita-
silly or presumptuous usurper of the name! By the tion." The passage qualifying his assertion that
principles of grammar, logic, psychology! In one "all good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of
word by such a knowledge of the facts, material powerful feeling" explains how his repeated re-
and spiritual, that most appertain to his art, as, flection
if on his feelings has created "such habits
it have been governed and applied by good sense, of mind ... that by obeying blindly and mechan-

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Don H. Bialostosky 923

ically the impulses of those habits" he can pro- support" in his choice of language would pre-
duce worthwhile poetry (pp. 246-47). Cole- sumably not be moved to alter his choices merely
ridge, then, merely echoes the Preface instead of by someone's claim that men express themselves
correcting it when he admonishes Wordsworth differently "in the market, wake, high-road, or
that the true measure of the poet is "such a plough-field."
knowledge of the facts, material and spiritual, Coleridge's refutative interpretation of the
that most appertain to his art, as, if it have be- Preface has obscured from many subsequent
come governed and applied by good sense, and critics not only these apparent agreements be-
rendered instinctive by habit, become the repre- tween what Wordsworth believes and what Cole-
sentative and reward of our past conscious rea- ridge asserts against him but also the real
sonings, insights, and conclusions, and acquires disagreements between them. If we can ap-
the name of TASTE" (II, 63-64). He does not proach Wordsworth's Preface afresh and recon-
have to remind Wordsworth that, if he lacked such struct the view it is struggling to embody, we will
taste, he would be a "silly or presumptuoussee, I think, that Coleridge had much more in-
usurper of the name" of poet, for Wordsworth teresting reasons for objecting to it than those
says that, if he is mistaken in the belief that his that he directly addresses to it in the Biographia.
habits of meditation have formed his feelings toDifferences not only on matters of poetic sub-
reflect worthy purposes, he "can have little right jects, language, and meter but also on funda-
to the name of a Poet" (p. 246). Coleridge does mental convictions about the poet's mind and its
not need to tell him that the poet's works cannot relation to other minds and the world will ap-
be judged by external rules, for Wordsworthpear when we stop rehashing sophisms about the
himself reminds his readers that, if they are to true sources of rustic language and the real
overcome the effects of certain arbitrary rules of meaning of "essential difference." The issues we
poetic diction and appreciate what he has writ- discover when we match these two arguments at
ten, they must cultivate their taste in poetry (pp. their fullest strength will, I suspect, be momen-
270-71). He also warns them that even their tous for Anglo-American criticism.
agreement with his own stated reasons is no sub-
stitute for such taste (p. 243). The poet who University of Washington
insists that his trained feelings are his "stay andSeattle


1 Wordswortlzian Criticism: A Guide and Bibliography praise from his defenders as well as from his detractors
(Columbus: Ohio State Univ. Press, 1961), pp. 37-38. and have persuaded most historians of criticism. Raysor
2 For Coleridge's statement of the problem see Bio- calls them "the finest critical essay in English literature"
graphia Literaria, ed. J. Shawcross, 2 vols. (1907; rpt. (p. 497), and Norman Fruman finds it necessary, even
Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1965), I, 50-52. His in the midst of a generally damning essay, to cite them
declaration that the problem is solved expresses the as "by far the best of Coleridge's works" (Coleridge,
same view of his enterprise (In, 95). Subsequent refer- the Damaged Archangel [New York: Braziller, 1971],
ences to the Biographia are given in the text, by volume p. 106). George Saintsbury's view that Coleridge was
and page number only. "one of the finest critics of the world" while Words-
3 See "Wordsworth," in The English Romantic Poets: worth had "by no means all, or even very many, of the
A Review of Research and Criticism, ed. Frank Jordan, qualifications of a critic" has been commonly accepted
3rd ed. (New York: MLA, 1972), p. 113. Thomas M. since he first voiced it (A History of Criticism, 3 vols.
Raysor sees Wordsworth's assertion about "the language [New York: Dodd and Mead, 1906], III, 206). Rene
of prose" as a "main thesis of the Preface" ("Coleridge'sWellek's judgment that Wordsworth "left himself wide
Criticism of Wordsworth," PMLA, 54 [1939], 498). open to Coleridge's refutation" is still another reflection
W. J. B. Owen has more recently tried to account for of Coleridge's success, especially since Wellek is or-
Wordsworth's argument in terms of a division under dinarily no uncritical friend of Coleridge's (A History
the heads of "the real language of men" and "the of Modern Criticism, 4 vols. [New Haven: Yale Univ.
language of prose" (Wordsworth as Critic [Toronto: Press, 1955], ii, 132). Most recently, George Watson
Univ. of Toronto Press, 1969], pp. 3-26). has been so convinced that Wordsworth was "badly
4 Coleridge's chapters on Wordsworth have won out of his depth as a critic" that he credits Coleridge

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924 Coleridge's Interpretation of Wordsworth's Preface to Lyrical Ballads
with providing notes for the Preface itself (The Literary like Coleridge, omits Wordsworth's statement about his
Critics [London: Chatto and Windus, 1964], pp. 105- "principal object" from the passage as he interprets it
06). Watson gets the idea from Coleridge, who called and argues against the views this omission seems to
the Preface "half a child of my own brain" in an 1802 produce.
letter to Southey (Letters, ed. E. H. Coleridge, 2 vols. 8 The Mirror and the Lamp (New York: Oxford
[Boston: Houghton, 1895], II, 386). Univ. Press, 1953), p. 110.
5 For some of the questions raised, see Shawcross' 9 Wordsworth's Theory of Poetry (Ithaca, N.Y.:
notes to his edition of the Biographia Literaria; also Cornell Univ. Press, 1969), pp. 39-40.
Arthur Beatty, William Wordsworth, 3rd ed. (1922; 10 David Hartley, Observations on Man, introd.
rpt. Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1962), p. 66; Theodore L. Huguelet (1749; rpt. [2 vols. in 1] Gaines-
Alexander Brede, "Theories of Poetic Diction in Words- ville, Fla.: Scholars' Facsimiles and Reprints, 1966),
worth and Others and in Contemporary Poetry," in i, 297.
Papers of the Michigan Academy of Science, Arts and 11 After this essay reached the publisher, I discovered
Letters, ed. Eugene S. McCartney and Peter Okkelberg that Gene W. Ruoff arrives at this distinction in terms
(Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press, 1931), xiv, of the difference between "semantics and syntactics . . .
537-56; Marjorie Barstow Greenbie, Wordsworth's [which] form the primary domain of classical philology,
Theory of Poetic Diction (1917; rpt. New York: Rus- the tradition of language study in which Coleridge's
sell, 1966), pp. 7, 134; James Logan, pp. 37-38; and poetics is steeped," and pragmatics, "the area of mean-
John Crowe Ransom, "William Wordsworth: Notes ing which is most crucial in speaking situations" and
toward an Understanding of His Poetry," in Wordsworth which is central, as he sees it, for Wordsworth ("Words-
Centenary Studies Presented at Cornell and Princeton worth on Language: Toward a Radical Poetics for
Universities, ed. Gilbert T. Dunklin (Princeton: Prince- English Romanticism," The Wordsworth Circle, 3
ton Univ. Press, 1951), pp. 91-92. [1972], 204-11). He develops this view of Wordsworth's
6 "Wordsworth's Prefaces of 1800 and 1802," in Lyri- enterprise into the important thesis that Wordsworth's
cal Ballads, ed. R. L. Brett and A. R. Jones (1963; rpt. contributions to the Lyrical Ballads "are experiments
London: Methuen, 1971), pp. 244-45. All subsequent both in communication and in the idea of community."
page references to the Preface are given in the text. I 12 Shawcross notes this but makes nothing of it (in,
use the 1802 readings throughout and do not follow 276, n. to p. 42, 1. 20).
Brett and Jones in italicizing the 1802 variants. 13 Abrams and Heffernan, for example, feature these
7 My interpretation of Wordsworth's reasons for phrases throughout their interpretations and criticisms
choosing low and rustic subjects is in fundamental dis- of the Preface.
agreement with Owen's interpretation (pp. 7-13). Owen,

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