Wordsworth’s Empathetic Repetition and Tautology in ‘Lyrical Ballads’

July 1, 2019 by Essay Writer

Critics like Stork have declared the majority of Wordsworth’s self-designated ‘ballads’ to not truly be ballads at all, since they are more interested in dwelling on thought or emotion than propelled by action, which he seems to admit in Part Second of ‘Hart-Leap Well’: ‘To freeze the blood I have no ready arts / ‘Tis my delight, alone in summer shade, / To pipe a simple song for thinking hearts.’ Although he focuses on emotional and ideological shifts and the reader’s empathy for those changes, Wordsworth uses the limitations of the ballad form to create that empathy – particularly repetition and tautology, as repeated statements in popular ballads originate from the form’s origins as being sung and singers’ need to memorize lines, and he is particularly interested in elevating the mundane, like the workers’ songs of ballad origins, through the meditative focused spaces of his poetry.

In volume I of the 1800 edition of Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth appended a note to ‘The Thorn’, regretting that he had not made the difference between him as the poet and ‘the character of the loquacious narrator’ clearer. In describing the traditional storyteller behind a ballad, he creates a kind of enclosing fiction around the main story: ‘The Reader will perhaps have a general notion of [this character], if he has ever known a man, a Captain of a small trading vessel for example, who being past the middle age of life, had retired upon an annuity or small independent income to some village or country town of which he was not a native, or in which he had not been accustomed to live.’ This conception of the ballad narrator as a Captain in a foreign environment may explain what Wordsworth imagined the reason for repetition in ballads to be: an easily-remembered nostalgic comfort, and a tribute to the shanties and working songs that had a direct purpose for their repetitive style.

Variation upon that repetition and tautology are used in ‘The Thorn’ to build a narrative or journey within the description of a plant while still lingering in the emotional moment of observing that thorn. Verse I ends: ‘It stands erect, and like a stoneWith lichens is it overgrown.Verse II begins:Like rock or stone, it is o’ergrown,With lichens to the very top.’In repeating the description of the thorn, Wordsworth creates an almost chiasmic effect of the phrases ‘is it overgrown’ and ‘it is o’ergrown’ being surrounded by mention of lichens. These initial stanzas discuss the thorn in ways that foreshadow the revelation of a baby being buried in the mound, and this syntactical suffocation invites a second glance at the imagery of a thorn overgrown with lichens to that end. The change from ‘like a stone’ to ‘like rock or stone’ may also connect to the uncertainty surrounding the baby’s actual death. The assonance of ‘like’ and ‘lichens’ as well as ‘or’ and ‘o’ergrown’, and the internal rhyme of ‘stone’ and ‘o’ergrown’, make the second verse appear more cohesive or intentional than the first, and spurs the reader to think about the overall imagery because it has been repeated. The changes from one verse to the other demonstrate how Wordsworth can use the incremental repetition of popular plot-driven ballads like Babylon, Edward and others to build a journey of heightened emotions where a temporal one does not exist.

Russell summarises Wordsworth’s prefatory note as ‘identifying passion as not merely an original motivation, but a continuing component of poetic language: repeated words are of ‘themselves part of the passion’.’ Martha’s ‘doleful cry’ of ‘O misery! Oh misery! / O woe is me! o misery!’ is proof of passion being evident through repeated words, returning as a refrain to four of the stanzas. ‘It emerges from the narrative that this lament, repeated over ‘some two and twenty years’ (115) has accumulated the significance of ritual, sustaining as well as expressing the passion felt by the solitary woman.’

The ritual of repetition here has become crucial, and the poem returns to her as often as it does to the thorn and the idea of ‘graves’. Coleridge complained about the eddying, circular motion of Wordsworth’s poetry in his Biographia Literaria, despite writing in the ballad form himself, but as Alexander argues, this repetition and tautology allows Wordsworth to turn the mundane into something compelling enough to be discussed multiple times. In the note, Wordsworth addresses the ‘lyrical’ and ‘rapid’ metre used, and how it juxtaposes the stillness in a poem that meditates on different scenery and creates a plot through gossip rather than action: the metre and repetition work in tandem to create a sense of moving fast through emotions or ideas while lingering in actual locations.

In ‘The Idiot Boy’, a strong lineal plot is denied when Wordsworth provides no clear explanation for where the boy went, and instead constructs some false ‘Perhaps’ scenarios. Heather Glen argues that this omission is to bestow an interiority on the boy that is unreachable for the reader, as a real person’s would be diminished face-to-face, and separate him from the ‘tale’ of everyone else. The limitations of his writing here only enhance the reader’s empathy for the character Wordsworth decides. When she is reunited with her son at the end of the poem, Wordsworth also chooses to echo the second stanza’s phrase ‘him who you love, your Idiot Boy’: ‘And now all full in view she sees / Him whom she loves, her Idiot Boy,’ and ‘It is no goblin, ’tis no ghost, / ‘Tis he whom you so long have lost, / He whom you love, your Idiot Boy.’ The repetition of this phrase imbues the nickname with affection, since it is always preceded with ‘love’. The syntax always defines him by ‘who she loves’ before any naming, as well, and frames their mother-child experience as universal through non-specific pronouns. In the poem ‘Strange Fits of Passion have I known’, he also uses similarly unusual syntax:’When she I loved looked every dayFresh as a rose in June,I to her cottage bent my way,Beneath an evening-moon.’The syntax of ‘she I loved’ and ‘I to her cottage’ creates an intimacy between the narrator and the object of his action through physical proximity on the page: as stated in his preface he has prioritised feeling over logical placement.

In ‘Simon Lee’, Wordsworth describes the kind of simple village inhabitants that his invocation of the popular ballad form may be a tribute to, and uses variation on repetition to explain this subject:’O Reader! had you in your mindSuch stores as silent thought can bring, O gentle Reader! you would find A tale in every thing.’He defends his choice of writing a poem about such an unassuming moment through addressing the reader directly, and uses significant variation to try and engender the same empathetic frame of mind his narrative voice takes on during the poem. The expected repetition of ‘O Reader!’ is disrupted by the inclusion of ‘gentle’, as if he has extended his kindness to the reader in the same way that he has to Simon Lee, proving the imagination that ‘silent thought’ has given him by lending the reader a personality trait. His ability to find ‘a tale in every thing’ is also arguably proven by the journey from ‘O Reader!’ to ‘O gentle Reader!’ as if his relationship with this hypothetical person has progressed.

The repetition of words in describing Simon Lee working may serve to patronize the old man: he first states ‘So vain was his endeavour’, and later describes ‘The tangled root I sever’d, / At which the poor old man so long / And vainly had endeavour’d.’ The repetition may emphasize his weakness by recreating the repetition or duration of the old man’s action in swinging his tool ‘in vain’. Wordsworth’s narrative voice could be making himself seem stronger in comparison to Simon, especially since the rhyme of ‘sever’d’ with ‘endeavour’d’ directly contrasts their attempts. The structure of the verse, however, may contrast this self-serving view, as it proffers the old man’s action as the final line, leaving the reader with an impression of ongoing weakness that Wordsworth’s intervention has not solved, much like the lasting pessimism of the overall poem’s last word, ‘mourning’. McGrath discusses Wordsworth’s assertion in the preface that a craving for extraordinary incidents leads to a blunted mind, and claims that the narrator here sees the fallibility of one extraordinary incident. The overall effect is to create empathy in the reader for both Simon and the narrative voice, seeing an ongoing struggle for the old man that lasts beyond the moment that has been lingered on, and therefore a kind of interiority in this seemingly humble character.

In both ‘Simon Lee’ and ‘The Idiot Boy’, Wordsworth overtly teases his reader for having the wrong anticipations of what constitutes a ‘tale’, emphasizing the importance of dwelling on a moment instead of rushing to action. Rather than contradicting the rules of a plot-fueled popular ballad form, he may have seen this priority for thought and feeling as served well by the ballad stanza’s repetition, as his style can circle and linger on something apparently mundane through repetition and tautology. In his preface, he discusses his goals in writing: ‘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 (…) that the understanding of the Reader must necessarily be in some degree enlightened, and his affections strengthened and purified.’

The shifts of emotion or thought in Wordsworth’s lyrical ballads are not always linked to a strict lineal ‘tale’, and his use of traditional repetition even in moments of tranquility or circular admiration demonstrates that fact through their juxtaposition. The humanist, ‘lyric’ quality of the poems is created twofold by the presence of repetition in local songs: as tribute to the practical songs of workers and thereby elevating the unpoetic, and in expressing ongoing emotions through their disruption of temporal reality.

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