William Wordsworth: The Poet of the Common Man?

William Wordsworth: The Poet of the Common Man?

6 Sep 2021
By - Samridhya Moitra Teaching Associate, English Department

William Wordsworth, one of the pioneers of the Romantic school of poetry in English literature, after Shakespeare and Milton, can be seen as one of the Bards of English literature. The title “Bard” is primarily and conventionally considered a synonym for Shakespeare, but the term’s archaic meaning implies a poet who traditionally recites verses on heroes and heroic deeds; Wordsworth recites in many of his poems, the deeds, lives, the hardship, the feelings of the rustics and common folk.

Wordsworth was the self-professed spokesman of the reaper, the beggar, the leech-gatherer, and the woodcutter clan; because he sincerely believed, and declared one of his aims, to show that men and women “who did not wear fine clothes could feel deeply.”

The Romantic tradition was the successor of the Neo-classical movement of the eighteenth-century. Its aesthetic ideals and objectives arose as a reaction to the Neo-classical doctrines of reason, order, precision, restraint, artificiality, ornamentations, —characteristics which defined the literature and intellectual circles, as well as the life of the people of the era. Be it Pope’s incisive attack on the pretentious and folly-ridden aristocratic life of Belinda; the periodicals like the Tatler and The Spectator shuffling out tidbits of fashion, etiquettes, manners, and trends of its time to its middle-class and upper middle-class readership. The subject of the writers, the protagonists of the works in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were limited to either the aristocratic beau monde or the fast-rising middle classes.

The Graveyard tradition and the Pre-Romantic school first marked the shift in focus from the “higher” to the “lower” echelons of society, where poets like William Blake, Thomas Gray, Oliver Goldsmith, George Crabbe, John Clare, Robert Burns voiced the plight, the struggles of the commoners. Wordsworth was unarguably not the first poet of the poor, because predecessors like William Blake (his iconic “The Chimney Sweeper,” “The Little Black Boy”), John Clare (touted as “The Northamptonshire Peasant Poet”) or George Crabbe (often called the poet of poverty and misery) left piercing and moving pictures of the working classes, pastoral life, rustic simplicity. But Wordsworth was the first to officially and emphatically bring into the limelight, the need to reorient the poetic tradition, to redefine poetry, poetic diction, style and subject; and the pressing need to bring each of these closer to the earth, to the commoners and rustics who inhabit it. In the Preface to the Lyrucal Ballads (1800), the seminal manifesto of English Romantic poetry, Wordsworth encapsulates the aesthetics of the new form of poetry that was to leave an unprecedented lasting impression on the genre.

Shattering the shackles of artificiality and ornamentation present in the diction, rhythms, and style of Neo-classical poetry, Wordsworth advocated a “selection of language really used by men,” closer to the rhythms of everyday speech. The comprehensive new poetry, he said, ought to derive its material from “incidents and situations from common life”; a new art form that would cater to the tastes of the “ordinary man.” For Wordsworth, it was in “low and rustic life,” in the most elemental and the natural setting, where emotions and passion, “lesser under restraint,” are able to flow with greater abandon. It was the language of the rustics and the peasant folk “originally derived” from nature and natural objects, which could lend poetry the highest simplicity combined with the profoundest depths, ensuring the message gets communicated most forcibly and ardently to the mind and spirit of the reader. Bereft of any artifice, false refinement, or pretentious ornamentation, Romantic poetry, under Wordsworth’s formulation became earthier, simpler yet at the same time loftier.

“Alone she cuts and binds the grain,

And sings a melancholy strain;

O listen! For the vale profound

Is overflowing with the sound”

“She dwelt among the untrodden ways

Beside the springs of Dove,

A Maid whom there were none to raise

And very few to love.”

Wordsworth was an adherent of the religious-philosophical creed of pantheism. Pantheism is the belief that all people, things and objects of the world are imbued with the inextricable presence of Divinity. This idea that God, His aura and godliness is present in every speck of the dust, in every blade of grass is reiterated in Wordsworth’s clarion call upon the reader to discover the nobility and divinity in the daffodil’s sways, the reaper’s wielding of the scythe, the country maid Lucy’s dance upon the vales, or old Simon Lee’s blowing of the horn. Wordsworth elevates the most mundane of actions, the observation of the smallest of objects; yet transmuting them with grace and loveliness, otherwise imperceptible to the human eye. His vision of the “poet” is a person endowed with a “more lively sensibility,” a tenderness and empathy that allows him/her to discern and contemplate the deepest ebbs and flows of “volitions and passions” in the human heart and spirit. And all this is rendered with a coloring of imagination, in a language of “real” life, a language spoken by ordinary men and women.

Coleridge, Wordsworth’s partner in the literary enterprise of the Lyrical Ballads (1798), in Chapter XIV of his own Poetic treatise entitled Biographia Literaria (1817) chastised Wordsworth’s failure to stay true to his principles of “ordinary language.” If one does read up the poems which have earned Wordsworth the loftiest praise and haloed him with greatness, poems like “Tintern Abbey,” “Prelude,” “Ode on Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early childhood”—the diction isn’t always derived from ordinary language, nor is the subject simply a narration of low and rustic life. These heavy verse compositions are infused with such profound meditations and introspective philosophy, that they are liable to go un-understood by the lay readers because they require a certain degree of learning, an ability to ruminate and reflect on the philosophical meditations the poems carry, as part of the reading and understanding process. This is not to say that Wordsworth didn’t practice what he preached. His Lucy poems, along with some of his other shorter poems like “The Idiot Boy,” “Daffodils,” among others, are indeed a pleasure to read—a delight one can reach without undertaking a process of cognition or grave introspection.

Wordsworth’s contribution lies in the fact that by his inauguration of a new kind of poetic tradition, he revolutionized the style, the diction, the subject matter of English poetry. He helped break free the stronghold of artifice and poeticism, the pompous and high-sounding verse of the preceding centuries, heralding forth the importance of subjectivity and the effusions of the spirit. He restored the dignity of what Rousseau called the “Noble Savage”; his celebration of the dignity, nobility, and divinity of the common-folk, his sympathy and reverence for them on a scale and in a manner, was nothing short of revolutionary. He may not exclusively be the poor man’s voice, but among the writers of the English canon, he certainly is, on several poetic occasions, a Bard of the commoners and the rustics.


Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. Biographia Literaria, 1817. Accessed 19 September 2020. http://www.english.upenn.edu/~mgamer/Etexts/biographia.html

Wordsworth, William. Preface to Lyrical Ballads, 1802. Accessed 19 September 2020. http://armytage.net/updata/Wordsworth%20Preface%20Selection.pdf

Wordsworth, William.“She Dwelt among the Untrodden Ways” in the Poetry Foundation. Accessed 12 November 2020. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/45549/she-dwelt-among-the-untrodden-ways

­­­­­——. “The Solitary Reaper” in Poetry Foundation. Accessed 12 November 2020. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/45554/the-solitary-reaper

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