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Daily RC Article 91

Unmasking Poetry Criticism: The Complexities of Interpretation and Creative Genius


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Criticism must always be concerned with the poem itself. But a poem does not always exist only in itself: sometimes it has a very lively existence in its false or partial appearances. These simulacra of the actual poem must be taken into account by criticism; and sometimes, in its effort to come at the poem as it really is, criticism does well to allow the simulacra to dictate at least its opening moves. In speaking about Wordsworth's ‘Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood,’ I should like to begin by considering an interpretation of the poem which is commonly made. According to this interpretation – I choose for its brevity Dean Spenry's statement of a view which is held by many other admirable critics – the Ode is 'Wordsworth's conscious farewell to his art, a dirge sung over his departing powers."

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How did this interpretation––erroneous, as I believe––come into being? To be sure, the Ode is not wholly perspicuous. The difficulty does not lie in the diction, which is simple, or even in the syntax, which is sometimes obscure, but rather in certain contradictory statements which the poem makes, and in the ambiguity of some of its crucial words. Yet, the erroneous interpretation does not arise from any intrinsic difficulty of the poem itself but rather from certain extraneous and unexpressed assumptions which some of its readers make about the nature of the mind.

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Nowadays, it is not difficult for us to understand that such tacit assumptions about the mental processes are likely to be hidden beneath what we say about poetry. Usually, despite our general awareness of their existence, it requires great effort to bring these assumptions explicitly into consciousness. But in speaking of Wordsworth one of the commonest of our unexpressed ideas comes so close to the surface of our thought that it needs only to be grasped and named. I refer to the belief that poetry is made by means of a particular poetic faculty, a faculty which may be isolated and defined.

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It is this belief, based wholly upon assumption, which underlies all the speculations of the critics who attempt to provide us with explanations of Wordsworth's poetic decline by attributing it to one or another of the events of his life. What the biographical critics are telling us is that Wordsworth wrote great poetry by means of a faculty which depended upon his relations with Annette Vallon, or which operated only so long as he admired the French Revolution, or which flourished by virtue of a particular pitch of youthful sense-perception…

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Now no one can reasonably object to the idea of mental determination in general, and I certainly do not intend to make out that poetry is an unconditioned activity. Still, this particular notion of mental determination which implies that Wordsworth's genius failed when it was deprived of some single emotional circumstance is so much too simple and so much too mechanical that I think we must inevitably reject it. Nothing less than the whole mind, the whole man, will suffice for its origin…

The essay discusses the impact of external interpretations on poetry criticism, using Wordsworth's 'Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood' as an example. It challenges the erroneous view that attributes a decline in Wordsworth's poetry to specific life events, asserting that poetic genius is more complex and deeply rooted in the entirety of an individual's being rather than any isolated circumstance.
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