The Supernatural Power of the Sublime in William Wordsworth’s Poetry


Williams Wordsworth is of course and undoubtedly one of the most influential romantic poets of his era. In addition to his panegyric theme of nature in his work, many critics discuss/debate the supernatural imagery in his Lucy poems or temporality in “The Prelude”, but I would like to study Wordsworth’s application of rhetoric: “We need to know something about conceptual patterns and about the effect of these patterns in discourse” (D’Angelo). He is a master of what rhetoricians would call the ‘common place’, and the sublime as defined by Longinus.

This article will attempt to identify elements of classical rhetoric in hopes to provide unification of the many discussions over the Lucy poems included in the anthology and “The Prelude”.

This is not at all suggesting that the others are wrong or taking the wrong approach by any means, I simply aim to provide a classic lens for a perspective on where Wordsworth stands as far as the use of rhetorical devices for writers. In “A Conceptional Theory of Rhetoric”, D’Angelo points out that at the time that Aristotle wrote his treatise, “rhetoric and poetics were not yet considered separate disciplines, so, inventing in the poetic arts are really analytical topics.”

I will explore Wordsworth’s work as Aristotle might have and also see if Wordsworth meets up to the requirements prescribed by Longinus. The poems are limited to these few as a starting point; comparing the elements of the sublime and the commonplace in these poems may lay the groundwork for further investigation, but for now, they are plenty to discuss.

The Commonplace

An understanding of what is meant by ‘commonplace’ will be necessary before moving on to Wordsworth’s craft of the sublime. Traditionally, the word topic derives from the Greek word, ‘topos’, meaning “of a place” or “commonplace”. For the purpose of this evaluation, we will interpret commonplace as Aristotle had conceived it which “views the topics as abstract and analytical, to be used to probe any subject” (D’Angelo). Further, a commonplace is a viewpoint that the audience holds in common which is also determined by how the audience groups and identifies their interests or values (Aristotle 1.2.21). This “non-static” notion of knowledge works well with Wordsworth’s commonplace – the Supernatural realm. Building on the concept that commonplace knowledge is not based on facts, the supernatural in these poems can be described as being somewhere beyond where concepts and ideals are reduced to one.

A good poet will use metaphors and common places to communicate with many readers, such as Coleridge’s, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, which places the pirate character at the entrance of a wedding. While entertaining and creative, this idea connects with many audiences because we are all familiar with what and how a wedding is conducted – this is commonplace. Notice that in Coleridge’s poem, the event takes place at the wedding; Wordsworth on the other hand takes the reader to a commonplace – the supernatural realm.

The existence of the supernatural theme is supported and studied in the works of Anne Ferry, John Primeau, and Carlo Bajetta. Primeau contends that Wordsworth did not have to exercise his “imagination by introducing supernatural elements into his poetic works, but that he could describe commonplace” (90). How Wordsworth transports the reader to the supernatural is what is now of interest.

His descriptions and use of ideas are highly rhetorical; they are not scientific or philosophical (even though he illuminates these ideas in other poems); they are limited to language. And this limitation of the human language is made explicit in Wordsworth’s “The Prelude, Book Seventh” when he writes “Imagination- here the power so-called through sad incompetence of human speech”

(363). To make his point clear, he follows up with examples of language limitations in the following stanza, beginning at line 623:

Were fellow Travellers in this gloomy Strait, And with them did we journey several hours At a slow pace. The immeasurable height

Of woods decaying, never to be decayed, The stationary blasts of waterfalls,

And in the narrow rent at every turn… Tumult and peace, the darkness and the light

Gloomy and straight are not necessarily ideas on their own, but since each one is more commonly associated with either a negative or positive connotation, they became competitive in the reader’s mind. And then there are the opposites of the stationary blasts; the reader must find a balance between the two. And this is the point where the supernatural commonplace is conjured with language. Pummeling the reader with such abrupt differences forces the reader to find a balance between the two extremes.

This balance area, I argue, is similar or can be viewed as the commonplace itself. Since there are no words that can truly describe the immense in a waterfall ‘blast’, it falls in correlates with the realm of the supernatural. This supernatural realm is pointed out in Rzepka’s article: “Lucy is actually more alive now that she is dead because she is now a part of nature and not just a human thing” (56).

It is in negation that the reader is transported = the negation of language and concepts which litter his poetry! These are not “visions divinely revealed through the medium of nature”, rather, they are the ‘common place’ that we all can relate to in our own internal experience (Ferry 70). Even though each reader will have his own location in mind, it is William Wordsworth that has transported them there with his language.

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The Sublime

Writers will continue to debate whether the Lucy poems do or don’t belong together or the importance of “The Prelude”. I believe that Wordsworth majesty over the sublime can unite some of these criticisms as being of the classical element of rhetoric. The rhetorician, Longinus, published a work titled “On the Sublime” in which he argues that the sublime, “wherever it occurs, consists in a certain loftiness and excellence of language and that it is by this, and this only, that the greatest poets and prose-writers have gained eminence, and won themselves a lasting place in the Temple of Fame” (Book 1).

Now let’s see if this is the reason for Wordsworth leaving such a great impression on English poetry. Longinus argues against the notion that there is delusion in attempting to reduce the sublime to technical and provides a set of five criteria that a work must accomplish in order to be sublime.

The five pursuits of novelty in thought are as follows:

(1) grandeur of thought;

(2) a vigorous and spirited treatment of the passions;

(3) a certain artifice in the employment of figures both thought and speech;

(4) dignified expression (choice of words and the use of metaphors);

(5) Majesty and elevation of the structure. Each characteristic of the sublime will be further defined and examined and tested with Wordsworth’s poetry beginning with the first.

The grandeur of thought is the most important of the five because it is natural rather than acquired (Longinus Book 8). An example of this grandeur of thought can be studied in the following passage from “The Prelude, Book Seventh”:

Caught by the spectacle, my mind turned round As with the might of waters; an apt type

This Label seemed, of the utmost, we can know Both of ourselves and of the universe;

And on the Shape of that unmoving Man His steadfast face, and sightless eyes, I gazed

As if admonished from another world.

This loftiness in language, to be able to dabble in the unknown by comparing the unknown in ‘ourselves and of the universe’ is an attempt to define the metaphysical with what we know as fact. Wordsworth describes this man as being from ‘another world’. This passage reinforces the idea of the universe is in every man and the “image of greatness of soul” (Longinus Book 9).

This greatness of soul is also captured in “A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal” when Wordsworth writes:

A slumber did my spirit seal; I had no human fears:

She seemed a thing that could not feel The touch of earthly years.

Again, we see the human soul survive earthly years and human fears and rise to greatness. To be lofty without bombast is now explicit in Wordsworth’s works of the Lucy Poems and in “The Prelude”. The way he moves the human spirit past our known world and into the supernatural can also be viewed as overlapping with the above theme of transportation to a commonplace. It is important to remember though, that Wordsworth takes the reader to the commonplace, he doesn’t just begin there or use it

as a ‘hook’ to draw the reader in. The commonplace helps magnify the grandeur of thought evoked by this poet.

The second requirement to fulfill in order to be sublime is to submit a vigorous and spirited treatment of the passions. This time we will begin with one of the Lucy poems, “Strange Fits of Passion Have I Known”. Clearly, as stated in the title, passion is addressed, but Wordsworth mixes his emotions here.

Strange fits of passion have I known: And I will dare to tell,

But in the Lover’s ear alone, What once to me befell.

When She I loved looked every day Fresh as a rose in June,

These feelings of love and beauty are then juxtaposed in the last lines with:

What fond and wayward thoughts Will slide Into a Lover’s head! “O mercy!” to myself I cried,

“If Lucy should be dead!”

Such a strong contrast to draw the notion of death from beauty with a personal dialogue, in the end, displays the tormented treatment of the passions. The poet could have just delivered the last lines as he did the rest of the poem, but he chose to deliver with quotes from the speaker, giving the passion a more personal effect. Without the personal attachment at the end, the poem would have just been a treatment of the passions without vigor.

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The third quality of a sublime poet is achieved through their figures of thought and speech. In “Lucy Gray”, the natural distinction could have been: “No comrade Lucy knew; she dwelt in nature, although sweet in nature, she was still human”. Instead, Wordsworth amplifies his grand

thoughts with the figure of adjuration by using an apostrophe and jolting relation: “No comrade Lucy knew; She dwelt on a wide moor, – The sweetest thing that ever grew Beside a human door!” The gain in deploying this tool is the emphasis of her humanity in nature. The reader is forced to think about a little girl by a human door which is then contrasted by the following example of her humanity: “You yet may spy the fawn at play, The hare upon the green; But the sweet face of Lucy Gray Will never more is seen”. The theme of nature is made prevalent in this poem with figures of speech just as similar in “The Prelude”.

Fourth on the list is the use of dignified language, be it in the choice of words or metaphors. Searching for these qualities in Wordsworth’s poetry is rewarding because of its continuous decoration of these tools. To examine one passage, we will begin with “The Prelude, Book 8”:

And thus my heart was early introduced To an unconscious love and reverence Of human nature; hence the human Form To me became an index of delight,

Of grace, honor, power, and worthiness. Meanwhile this Creature, spiritual almost As those of Books, but more exalted far; Far from an imaginative form

This beautiful passage applies metaphor to human nature as an ‘index of delight’. Not only is it a metaphor but the choice to call it a delight helps elevate the subject in the mind of the reader. The human form is then referred to as being a ‘creature’ yet ‘spiritual almost’ interweaves metaphor and contrast as discussed above. Appropriate expressiveness occurs in “A Slumber did my Spirit Seal” when the poet writes “No motion has she now, no force; She neither hears nor sees; Rolled round in earth’s diurnal course, with rock, and stones, and trees.” Although there is no metaphor present, the choice of words and once again the contrast of the living physical to the dead physical is apparent. Wordsworth also juxtaposes her lack of motion and force with the movement of the earth’s rotations. Even these simple words hold weight in such a short poem.

Thank you for visiting with us. For more poetry or Literature related content, visit our blog at The Ritual.

The last element needed to be sublime is the majesty of structure. By understanding how Wordsworth’s passages do not simply depend on arrangement or ideas; the language is subtle and cohesive.

This work must be a whole – that is to say – “the different members of the body, none of which is severed from its connection, has any intrinsic excellence, unite by their mutual combination to form a complete and perfect organism” (Longinus Book 39).

Book 7 of “The Prelude” begins:

As the black storm upon the mountain top Sets off the sunbeam in the Valley, so That huge fermenting Mass of human-kind Serves as a solemn background or relief

To single forms and objects, whence they draw, For feeling and contemplative regard,

More than inherent liveliness and power.

The language is smooth, the words are not hurried and there is a “distinct stress on each word, and the time is delayed” (Book 40). Nature is being described here in modesty; the globe itself is being described in a slow rhythm, including its environment and population. Yet, all of the events are restricted in their power by the singularity of nature as a whole.

Reviewing the work of William Wordsworth in the lineage of writing for horror, this chapter aimed to understand the sublime and the use of commonplace in Wordsworth’s poetry. We learned that using the commonplace can transport readers to the realm of the sublime, or the supernatural.

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Published by Willy Martinez

Willy Martinez is a creative writer, Integrated Marketing Specialist, and Boxing coach. Since being honorably discharged from the Marines in 2004, he has pursued his passion for telling stories, whether they be through film, graphic design, and writing for digital art.

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