Introduction

Overview

The resources in this section are meant primarily for English students, but anyone interested in essay writing can benefit from them.

Our goal is to provide an in-depth reading of a literary text. To make things easy, we’ve picked a fairly short and accessible poem–William Wordsworth’s “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud.” As we analyze the text, we’ll explain the basics of literary interpretation and build up to a sample research essay.

Enjoy!

Paraphrasing

Introduction

Before analyzing a text, we want to understand its literal meaning. We’ll do this by looking up any difficult words and by putting the text in our own words (paraphrasing).

For a short poem, you can do a word by word paraphrase. For a longer text, you might consider writing a short summary of key points.

Our example is William Wordsworth’s poem “I wandered Lonely as a Cloud” (1807).

Vocabulary

As you read the poem, consult the definitions below:

I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud
By William Wordsworth

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales1 and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way2,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin3 of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly4 dance.

The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee5:
A poet could not but be gay6,
In such a jocund7 company:
I gazed—and gazed—but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:

For oft8, when on my couch I lie
In vacant9 or in pensive10 mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

Definitions:

  1. Over valleys.
  2. Earth’s galaxy.
  3. Edge, border.
  4. Lively.
  5. Delight.
  6. Happy.
  7. Cheerful.
  8. Often.
  9. Empty.
  10. Thoughtful.

Paraphrase

The following paraphrase is quite casual, and it doesn’t capture the beauty and imagery of the poem, but it should give you some idea of the literal meaning:

When I went for a walk, I felt like I was a cloud, floating above the hills and valleys below. Suddenly I saw a huge number of daffodils, right beside a lake and under some trees. They were swaying in the breeze.

There were so many daffodils that they looked like the stars in our galaxy. The daffodils formed a line that stretched around much of the bay. In one glance I could see ten thousand of them. They looked liked they were dancing.

The waves in the bay also seemed to dance, but the daffodils looked happier. A poet couldn’t avoid being happy in such circumstances. I did a great deal of gazing, but didn’t fully appreciate the moment at the time.

Often when I’m lying on my couch, and feeling a bit emotionless or thoughtful, I can still see those daffodils in my mind. By the way, being able to remember is quite pleasant when you’re all alone. Now, when I recall the daffodils, I feel warm and fuzzy, as if I’m dancing with the daffodils.

Conclusion

Don’t be too hasty in moving on to analysis. If you don’t take the time to look up difficult words, you will be more likely to misinterpret the text. This is especially the case for “false friends,” words that seem familiar but have changed their meaning.

Methodology

Introduction

Before we explain any literary text, it’s good to take a step back and reflect on the act of interpretation itself. What is the best way to approach a poem, play, or novel? What should you focus on? These questions are answered by what’s called literary theory.

Literary theory is the study of how we read, where we should look for answers and explanations, and whether we can truly discover the meaning of any text.

On this page we introduce a few basic concepts from the world of literary theory.

Author – Text – Audience

A text is a form of communication between an author and an audience. Most authors would like their text to reach a broad audience. After all, texts are generally meant to be enjoyed, appreciated, and understood:

At the same time, any act of communication raises some fundamental questions. Who determines the meaning of the text? The audience? The author? And if the author, how is the audience supposed to know what the author meant to say?

This problem is especially pronounced if the author is dead. For example, you can’t very well write an email to Shakespeare to ask if he meant to insult his mistress in Sonnet 130. Worse, you might not even be totally sure he even wrote the sonnet.

We recognize, then, that over time interpretation becomes more difficult. History brings change, and change brings different viewpoints and values. Our worldview may be quite different from the author’s.

The philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer calls this limited perspective a “horizon of understanding.” We all live with opinions and beliefs that influence how we see the world. To to be more objective, to see beyond the horizon, we have to move beyond our preconceptions, beyond our prejudice (pre-judgment).

To understand the text properly, then, we have to keep in mind that the meaning of the text is linked somehow to the passage of time. In addition, we have to decide what we want to focus on most: the author’s life and historical background, the features of the text (its content and form), or our personal responses and interests. Let’s look at each of these areas in more detail.

Author

Does the author’s life matter? Literary critics often warn against the intentional fallacy, the mistake of thinking that we can reconstruct the intentions of the author. We cannot know exactly what was going through the author’s mind, and speculating can be a dangerous game.

The psychologist Sigmund Freud was particularly notorious for psycho-analyzing various authors and their works. Freud believed, for instance, that Dostoevsky’s novels should be related to his strong bisexual tendencies. Such an approach can easily lead to meaningless conjecture.

Because of this, certain postmodern critics claimed that “the author is dead,” by which they meant that we should stop pretending that our reading of the text corresponds to the author’s original intentions. Instead, texts should be read in relation to language, culture, and history. Above all, texts should be seen as polysemous, i.e., having multiple meanings, some of them even contradictory ones.

The truth is probably somewhere in the middle. We do interpret texts to understand what the author meant to say, but it is also good to remember that the search for truth is difficult. To quote from 1 Cor. 13: 12, “now we see in a glass, darkly” (KJV). In the same way, a text is a clouded mirror of the past, and our best interpretations are always open to revision.

The Author’s Background

A biographical reading can of course simply relate the text to significant events in the author’s life. Sometimes such an approach is inevitable. For instance, John Milton’s poem “Lycidas” (1638) is dedicated to the memory of Edward King, a friend who died by drowning in 1637. While the poem is about much more than friendship, it would be nonsensical to ignore the biographical connection.

However, we can do more than relate the text to the author’s life. We can also examine the author’s time period. Here are some key areas for exploration:

  • Class
  • Politics
  • Culture
  • Language
  • Theology
  • Family
  • Nation
  • Science
  • Friends

As you can see, this opens up a wealth of topics, and certainly more than you could cover in a single essay. The key is to figure out what subjects are most appropriate to the text. For example, if you’re trying to understand Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, you might start by having a look at contemporary understandings of science. If you’re reading the poems of Gerald Manley Hopkins, a knowledge of Catholic theology is essential.

As you explore the author’s background, there is another theoretical question to consider. Did the author present a unique perspective, or is his or her writing indicative of broader currents of thought? This is a question that particularly preoccupies Marxist critics, but it should really concern anyone interested in questions of determinism and free will.

If we take a fairly simplistic Marxist perspective, we might argue that a literary text is merely a form of propaganda for the ruling classes. The opposite viewpoint–an equally naive one–would suggest that art is always revolutionary, and that the author stands at a remove from society, providing a thorough critique of social customs and beliefs.

Many literary critics tend to one of these extremes. Either they read the text as a mirror of the larger historical period, or they see the author as some kind of genius immune to the prejudices of the age. Try to resist either urge, and let the text speak for itself.

Form and Content

In addition to focusing on the author, we can also do a close reading of the text. This is what high-school students spend most of their time on. The expectation is that you can identify significant themes and pick out literary devices. By itself, such an approach can be rather boring. Who cares if a poem contains a simile, or that a novel is about the theme of “man vs. nature”? The challenge is to see how the form and content of the poem adds up to something greater, something beautiful or thought provoking. Here we’ll briefly review three strategies literary critics commonly use to make us appreciate the text as a unified work of art.

Form Equals Content

Something that makes a literary critic’s heart beat just a little bit faster is when the form of a text mirrors the message. Consider how John Donne starts his Holy Sonnet 14, a sonnet in which he begs God to save him:

Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend. (1-2)
These are not smooth, flattering lines that flow from the tongue; this is a cry of despair. The second line is particularly choppy and rough. In addition, a traditional sonnet is iambic, which means that every set of two syllables starts with an unstressed syllable (u) and ends with a stressed one (/). For example, here is the opening of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18:
By contrast, Donne’s sonnet starts with a trochee (stressed, unstressed), which is a much more forceful opening. It upsets all expectations, but then that’s appropriate for a sonnet that speaks to God in such frank and forceful ways. Donne suggests that God will have to use something like a battering ram to break down the door to his heart. The poetic form of the lines makes that abundantly clear.

Pattern Recognition

Reading a text is a bit like searching for constellations in the night sky. We’re always looking for patterns and systems that provide a sense of order and meaning.

Consider Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel The Remains of the Day, which describes the life of Mr. Stevens, an English butler who has spent his life serving others. To demonstrate Stevens’ inability to forge his own identity, Ishiguro keeps returning to metaphors of clothing and light. The fact that Stevens wears his employers’ old suits demonstrates that he is not his own man. Stevens even talks of “inhabiting” the role of the butler. Stevens also prefers to remain in the shadows, and at one point, as he is trudging through a field, he avoids shining his flashlight on his feet, for fear of seeing the muck on his trousers. Readers can find satisfaction in spotting such recurring metaphors, especially if they can spot a connection to the message of the text.

Structural Analysis

Pattern recognition can lead to a more extensive structural analysis. Instead of analyzing a single text, you can compare the structure of multiple texts. You might discuss the genre(s) the text belongs to, or you might look at shared language and plot motifs. There are a number of theoretical approaches you can use, ranging from formalism to narratology.

There are two key questions to consider with any structural analysis. The first is whether the structural pattern you’re studying is timeless or changes over time. Is the Gothic novel an unchanging paradigm or do the parameters of the form vary from one historical period to the next? Is the fairy tale a universal construct?

The second question is one you should always keep at the back of your mind when you do comparative work: do the similarities outweigh the differences? Too often literary critics look only for similarities. Yet your analysis will be much more interesting if you are willing to acknowledge some degree of difference.

Reader Response

Sometimes students wonder if all literary interpretation is not completely subjective. What makes one explanation better than another? Aren’t there as many meanings as there are readers?

To some extent it’s true that we will all have a unique, personal reaction to a text. However, we are all part of society, and so we share a common field of reference. We have probably had some similar educational experiences, we share the same language, and we have access to the same interpretive tools.

In other words, if you want to find consensus for your personal interpretation, you will have to make use of common concepts and theories. You might use ideas from fields like philosophy or psychology, you might reference popular culture, or you could quote popular critics.

Always remember, though, that any theory or idea you reference is itself open to criticism, and may be disputed by others.

Conclusion

There are many approaches we have not mentioned. These include Gender Studies, Ecocriticism, Post-colonial Studies, and so on. Our advice is to let the text speak for itself. Try to find the right theoretical approach for the text. Whatever you do, don’t adopt a single pet theory and apply it to every text you read. Be eclectic. Read widely. Be open to new ideas.

Close Reading

Introduction

Once you’ve paraphrased the text you’re studying, you can move on to a close reading. This is where you figure out how the text creates meaning. What kind of patterns can you spot? Does the text have a certain form (e.g., a genre, plot, rhythm, etc.)?  Is the text unified or are there gaps, contradictions, or ironic moments?

Remember that analysis is more than spotting a simile or metaphor. It’s about understanding how all the pieces of the puzzle fit together.

Form and Function

Every text has a certain shape and form. Here we review the poetic features of Wordsworth’s “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud.”

Genre

This poem is a short lyric, a relatively brief poem that describes the speaker’s emotions. Lyrics don’t so much tell a story as describe a subjective experience. Wordsworth chose this form not only to express his strong feelings about nature, but also because the lyric has a simplicity and directness that itself seems natural.

Rhyme Scheme

Each stanza of “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” rhymes ABABCC. The last two lines of each stanza thus form a rhyming couplet, which provides a sense of closure after the previous flowing lines.

Meter

Wordsworth wrote his poem in iambic tetrameter. An iamb (adjective: iambic) is a set of two syllables where the first syllable is unstressed (u) and the second stressed (/). The word meter describes the rhythm of the poem, and tetra- means four. Iambic tetrameter therefore refers to a rhythm that consists of four iambs (u / u / u / u/).

Wordsworth chose this meter because this stress pattern sounds easy and natural. It fits his Romantic notion that poetic language should avoid artificiality. In addition, the lines are fairly short, which again makes the poem more direct and accessible.

Literary Devices

Not every poem uses the same literary devices, which means not only that we have to attune ourselves to a great many poetic techniques, but also that every choice is significant.

“I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” contains a number of similes and metaphors. The similes occur early in the poem (“as a cloud”; “as the stars”). After that the poem becomes more metaphorical. One of the most pervasive metaphors is that the flowers are dancing. The word is used in some form in every stanza of the poem (dancing, dance, danced, dances). The whole poem, then, is full of movement.

Most of the metaphors involve an element of personification. Personification means that the poet attributes human qualities to non-human things. To Wordsworth, the daffodils look like a “crowd” or a “host” of people. They cheerfully toss their “heads” (12), know how to dance, and provide good “company” (16), which is more than can be said of some individuals.

Why does Wordsworth use personification so extensively? His point is that he feels more at home in nature than in society; he is in fact not “lonely” (1) at all when he spends time gazing at flowers.

A lot of readers have found this a rather odd attitude. Flowers are nice enough, but isn’t Wordsworth exaggerating a bit? He certainly is: the poem is full of hyperbole, which is a poetic term for the kind of exaggeration that is used for emphasis and is not meant to be taken literally. Wordsworth claims that he saw “ten thousand [daffodils] … at a glance” (11), and that “they stretched in never ending line” (9). Seems a bit over the top, doesn’t it?

Yet Wordsworth’s tone is serious. He describes the scene as if this is how it really was. And if we agree with the Romantic idea that our understanding of nature is always subjective, then we cannot really fault Wordsworth for using such fanciful imagery. From an emotional point of view this is exactly what Wordsworth saw. He literally felt as lonely as a cloud before feeling as if he might dance with the daffodils. Such is the power of the imagination.

What is most remarkable about the poem is that despite all the hyperbole, the poem still feels natural and unforced. It’s as if Wordsworth is simply talking to us. This is partly the effect of enjambment, a poetic device where the poet does not conclude his thought at the end of each poetic line. Instead the sentence continues across the end of the line without a pause. Here, for example, are the opening lines of the third stanza: “The waves besides them danced; but they / Out-did the sparkling waves in glee” (13-14).

Ultimately, however, it’s up to us whether we are willing to indulge Wordsworth in his imaginative flight or if we’re too jaded to understand how a bunch of wild daffodils can lift a person out of depression. The truth is that we’re not just reading the text: the text is also reading us, exposing exactly who we are and what we believe.

The Big Picture

Wordsworth’s poem consists of two sections. The first three stanzas describe how the speaker felt in the moment; the last stanza relates how the memory of the scene subsequently affected him. In both instances, the speaker feels “lonely” (1) or experiences “solitude” (22), but each time the daffodils give him pleasure.

The scene also retains a kind of freshness and an ability to surprise. Wordsworth comes upon the daffodils “all at once” (3), and ever after their memory comes to him in a “flash” (21). Nature seems to sneak up and catch him unawares.

However, there are some differences between the two experiences. When Wordsworth first sees the daffodils, he is overwhelmed by the sight, and in the spontaneity of the moment he doesn’t recognize how precious the experience truly is (17-18). By contrast, the memory of the event may not be as intense, but the poet is more self-conscious. He knows now “what wealth the show … had brought” (18).

By contrasting the two experiences, Wordsworth is exploring a question that fascinated the Romantics: if the fullest experience of nature is to lose oneself completely in “gazing” on a beautiful scene, does the realization that one is enjoying oneself not shatter illusion and end the trance? Similarly, how can a poem capture such a moment accurately? Composing a poem is a rather active process involving a great deal of thought and revision, whereas the experience itself leaves the poet passive and overwhelmed.

While the poem raises these questions, it never treats them as a serious problem. The movement from the first three stanzas to the last one is seamless. Despite becoming more self-aware, the poet continues to find joy in nature and makes the poetic process seem effortless and spontaneous.

Perhaps that is what makes this one of Wordsworth’s finest poems: not only does it show that nature can be magical and that our imagination adds to the effect, but it also allows us to fully immerse ourselves in nature without feeling embarrassed or too self-aware.

Conclusion

Our close reading has not covered every last aspect of the poem–it merely shows what is possible. In the next lessons we will start to provide some context and look at the text through different critical lenses. Whereas a close reading works primarily with the patterns found in the text, there are many more perspectives that can enrich our understanding of the poem.

Works Cited

  • Photo of Narcissus, by Ingrid VanderGaag.

Historical Context

Introduction

In the previous lesson we provided a close reading of the text. Now it’s time to zoom out and provide some historical perspective. These are of course not entirely separate stages of reading and interpretation. Our close reading will inevitably be informed by what we learn about the context. It’s always a back and forth process, and the more we discover, the more we have to adjust our earlier perceptions.

So, as we continue our discussion of Wordsworth’s poem “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,” we situate the poem in its historical moment.

Romanticism

William Wordsworth (1770-1850) was a Romantic poet. Romanticism was an artistic movement that spread across Europe in the late 18th century and lasted well into the 19th century. In fact, we still feel the effects of Romanticism today.

In English literature, the Romantic period is usually dated as lasting from 1789, the year of the French Revolution, to 1830 or 1832. The Romantic period is preceded by the Enlightenment and followed by the Victorian Period.

Romanticism was a reaction against the rationalism of the Enlightenment. It was of course also a development of ideas, but the revolutionary character of Romanticism cannot be ignored. For instance, we easily forget how radical the French Revolution truly was. The motto of the revolution was “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité” (liberty, equality, brotherhood). This rallying cry called for the complete equality of all human beings, their shared humanity, and the right to be free from political and social oppression. It was a rebellion against the king and the aristocracy, but it also represented an attack on the church, for one might equally want to be free from having to believe in a supreme God.

The intense focus on the rights of the individual led to a greater emphasis on the value of personal subjectivity and feeling. Romantic writers put a premium on emotions that were natural, genuine, and sincere. They treasured spontaneity of expression and detested affectation and artificiality. At the same time, such a preference for passionate expression and pathos could itself become artificial and excessive, and, as we’ll see, Wordsworth was often accused of making too much of his emotions over a few daffodils.

The Romantic period was also the era of the Industrial Revolution, and the revolutionary ideas about the rights of the individual often clashed with the demands of capitalism. Workers had few rights and worked long hours in difficult conditions. Cities grew rapidly, but the smoke and soot from the factories often made urban life grim and grimy.

Romantic writers responded to these challenges in two ways. On the one hand, they drew attention to the plight of the less fortunate. William Blake, for example, wrote poems describing the hardships experienced by young orphans. Literature was meant to be a tool for criticism and political change. On the other hand, Romantic literature also provided an escape from the world of industrialization and capitalism. The individual might turn to nature to find his or her true self. Nature was seen as restorative, authentic, and even divine. Nature thus offered a transcendental experience that involved an aspect of pantheism, the idea that the divine is part of everything.

Lyrical Ballads

Wordsworth shared many of the Romantic qualities described. In 1798 he and his friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge published a small anthology of poems called Lyrical Ballads, in which they sought to share a new kind of poetry. Wordsworth’s poems in particular are frequently focused on common people, on natural scenes, and on seemingly trivial actions. In the prefaces to subsequent editions, Wordsworth also explained his theory of poetry.

Here is an excerpt from the 1800 preface:

The principal object then which I proposed to myself in these Poems was to make the incidents of common life interesting by tracing in them, truly though not ostentatiously, the primary laws of our nature: chiefly as far as regards the manner in which we associate ideas in a state of excitement. Low and rustic life was generally chosen because in that situation the essential passions of the heart find a better soil in which can attain their maturity, are less under restraint, and speak a plainer and more emphatic language. (244-45)

You can see how Romantic these aims are: the individual’s essential nature is most clearly expressed in moments of great passion and emotion, and, since people are less inhibited and artificial in the countryside, we might do well to study rustic scenes and common language.

In the 1802 version, Wordsworth added that although the language is meant to seem realistic, he did add “a certain colouring of imagination, whereby ordinary things should be presented to the mind in an unusual way” (245). In other words, there should also be room for the poet to express his own passionate response to the scenes he describes. This is where Romantics praised the imagination as the greatest mental faculty.

Later in the preface, Wordsworth described the poetic process as follows:

Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility: the emotion is contemplated till by a species of reaction the tranquility gradually disappears, and an emotion, similar to that which was before the subject of contemplation, is gradually produced, and does itself actually exist in the mind. (266)

You’ll notice that this describes what happens in “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud.” In a quiet and tranquil moment, the poet remembers the beauty of the daffodils and recalls how overcome he was by the sight. As he dwells on the memory, the emotions all come flooding back. He is then able to write about the whole experience–not only what happened originally, but also the subsequent remembering.

Composition

While “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” matches Wordsworth’s description of poetic process in the preface to Lyrical Ballads, he actually composed the poem some years after the success of that anthology.

In 1802 he spent some time in the English Lake District. On April 15 he  and his sister Dorothy went for a walk near Ullswater lake. In her journal, Dorothy recounts the experience of seeing the daffodils:

When we were in the woods beyond Gowbarrow park we saw a few daffodils close to the water side, we fancied that the lake had floated the seeds ashore & that the little colony had so sprung up—But as we went along there were more & yet more & at last under the boughs of the trees, we saw that there was a long belt of them along the shore, about the breadth of a country turnpike road. I never saw daffodils so beautiful they grew among the mossy stones about & about them, some rested their heads upon these stones as on a pillow for weariness & the rest tossed & reeled & danced & seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind that blew upon them over the Lake, they looked so gay ever glancing ever changing. This wind blew directly over the Lake to them. There was here & there a little knot & a few stragglers a few yards higher up but they were so few as not to disturb the simplicity & unity & life of that one busy highway—We rested again & again. (85)

Dorothy’s long run-on sentences certainly suggest a “spontaneous overflow of powerful emotions.” She also mentions that it was a rather wet and windy day.

Wordsworth leaves that out of his poem, but then he also doesn’t mention Dorothy’s presence, despite the fact that he seems to have relied on her description when he composed “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” two years after the event (1804). The poem was first published in 1807, in a collection titled Poems, in Two Volumes. At that point, the poem only had three stanzas. The second stanza was added in 1815.

Reception

Initial responses to the poem were often negative. James Butler explains why those first readers were less than impressed:

The main problem, as Francis Jeffrey wrote in the Edinburgh Review, was Wordsworth’s use of subjects that the ‘greater part of his readers will probably persist in thinking low, silly, or uninteresting’. The reviewer in The Satirist wondered how anyone could think it worthwhile to write about his memories of some daffodils blowing in the wind. (53)

We generally accept that poems can be about any topic, but Wordsworth’s contemporaries felt that a poem that claimed to describe some powerful experience should also have a worthy subject. Daffodils simply don’t cut it.

Even Wordsworth’s friend Coleridge was critical. In a chapter in his Biographia Literaria, Coleridge complains that “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” describes “thoughts and images too great for the subject” (II, 136). The description is beautiful, but it would be better bestowed on something more impressive.

Over time, however, “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” won over its readers, and it is now Wordsworth’s most famous poem.

Conclusion

Hopefully this article on the poem’s background helps you understand why Wordsworth wrote the poem and how it reflects changing attitudes towards nature and the individual. We can now also see that the poem was more radical than it might appear.

In the next lesson we will discuss how the poem engages with contemporary theories about what might be considered beautiful and sublime.

Works Cited

  • Butler, James A. “Poetry 1798-1807: Lyrical Ballads and Poems, in Two Volumes.” The Cambridge Companion to Wordsworth. Ed. Stephen Gill, Cambridge UP, 2003, pp. 38-54.
  • Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. Biographia Literaria or Biographical Sketches of My Literary Life and OpinionsThe Collected Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Ed. James Engell and W. Jackson Bate, vol. 2, Princeton UP, 1983.
  • Wordsworth, Dorothy. The Grasmere Journals. Ed. Pamela Woof, Clarendon, 1991.
  • William Wordsworth, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Lyrical Ballads. Ed. R. L. Brett and A. R. Jones, 2nd ed., Routledge, 1991.

Aesthetics

Introduction

Having done a close reading of our sample text, Wordsworth’s “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,” as well as looked at the poem’s historical background, we are now in a position to sample some specific perspectives on the poem.

Each theoretical approach allows us to see features of the poem that we might not have noticed otherwise.

Our first interpretive lens, and the one we’ll focus on in this lesson, looks at the poem in relation to aesthetics, the study of beauty.

The Sublime


(Image by Flickr user Vanveen, with permission)

One of the greatest thrills is to experience the sublime. The sublime is a moment of complete awe. It sends shivers down your spine. It transports you to a different level and provides a kind of emotional high.

Many people live for these moments. When you climb a mountain and reach the summit, the feeling of conquering the landscape and testing your own limits can be wonderful. Add to that a spectacular view and perhaps some fear of falling down a steep precipice, and the experience can be riveting.

Other sublime moments might include being at a massive concert and being swept away by the music; gazing at the stars and feeling awed by the size of the universe; understanding the intricate complexity of a single molecule; performing an amazing jump on your snow board; or watching an epic scene from The Lord of the Rings or Star Wars.

The Romantic poets were particularly keen on experiencing the sublime–and on having you experience it with them. Although the concept was first explored in a treatise by the first century writer Longinus, it received increased attention in the 18th century. Here are the authors and titles of the principal texts on the sublime:

  • Longinus, On the Sublime (1st century AD)
  • Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of the Sublime and the Beautiful (1757)
  • Immanuel Kant, Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime (1764)

You can already tell from the titles that Burke and Kant made a distinction between the beautiful and the sublime. A bunch of flowers might be beautiful, but it wouldn’t leave you awestruck or spellbound. It was Edmund Burke who suggested that what makes the sublime different is an element of terror. Here is his famous definition of the sublime:

Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling. I say the strongest emotion, because I am satisfied the ideas of pain are much more powerful than those which enter on the part of pleasure. (36)

If you want an example of what Burke is describing, just go stand at the edge of a cliff. There’s a part of us that finds enjoyment in putting ourselves in danger.

For Burke, then, the sublime is associated with fear, with mystery and darkness, with the terror that comes from the contemplation of the vast and infinite. For Burke, the most sublime being is God, though not the divine being contemplated by the rational mind, but more the poetic and enigmatic figure one encounters in the Old Testament book of Job.

Bathos

Before we look at how Wordsworth makes the daffodils seem sublime in “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,” we need to know one more critical term: bathos. In the world of entertainment, bathos is the opposite of the sublime: it describes an anti-climax.

For hardcore Star Wars fans bathos would be whenever Jar Jar Binks appears on screen.

For many students of literature, a good example would be the fight of the angels in Book 6 of Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost. Things become slightly ludicrous when the fallen angels invent cannons. They chain together the cannon balls and fire them at the good angels. Milton points out that if the angels had not been wearing armor, they might have dodged easily. In fact, the cannon balls could have gone right through them, no harm done. But because of their armor many of the good angels get knocked over. The whole scene is rather comical, and some critics have even argued that the entire battle is underwhelming, for the outcome is never in doubt. At the end Christ routs the bad angels without really having to try.

One of the problems is how we might determine when something is either sublime or a moment of bathos. We notice this problem in Longinus’ treatise On the Sublime. Longinus argues that some things may seem impressive, but are actually hollow and false. Think of a brass band playing a marching tune in the streets. Longinus called that kind of noisy display bombast. But who is to decide when something is sublime? There is certainly something subjective about aesthetics, and Immanuel Kant even went so far as to suggest that men are more attuned to the sublime than women (women are apparently more interested in the beautiful).

Wordsworth’s View

In 1811-12, Wordsworth himself wrote an unpublished essay on the sublime. Matthew Brennan points out that Wordsworth splits the sublime into a negative and a positive type. Only the negative version of the sublime depends on terror (à la Burke) and both types create a powerful sense of unity and transcendence (142).

Wordsworth was thus clearly interested in describing and creating a sublime experience, and yet it is still surprising that in “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” he would describe the daffodils as not just beautiful, but also as sublime. It is the second stanza (added in the 1815 version) that does most to create this effect. By comparing the daffodils to twinkling stars, Wordsworth widens the scope and makes the scene seem epic. The daffodils seem innumerable as they “stretched in never-ending line” (9), out of sight. The inability of the mind to fully comprehend and contain the scene causes a sense of wonder. Even a “single glance” reveals “ten thousand” (11) daffodils! As Edmund Burke pointed out, the sublime is usually related to the contemplation of the grandeur of the universe.

Wordsworth’s lofty diction also adds to the sublime. By using personification, Wordsworth transforms the daffodils into his living and breathing companions, dancing and fluttering with happiness. As a number of critics have pointed out, by using the word “host” he even implies a comparison to God’s angels, who are traditionally called the “heavenly host.”

In the third stanza, Wordsworth also introduces an element of competition, a frequent attribute of the sublime. The daffodils strive with the waves of the lake for the title of being the most happy: “The waves beside them danced; but they / Out-did the sparkling waves in glee.”

The last stanza suggests that not only is nature sublime, but so are the workings of the human mind. Geoffrey Hartman has pointed out that in Wordsworth’s poetry “[a] new attitude toward consciousness—a radical consciousness of consciousness—is brought to light: Wordsworth is truly a subjective thinker” (8). The way in which the “inner eye” (our imagination) allows us to revisit the past is in itself sublime.

Conclusion

So does the poem reach the lofty heights of the sublime or is it rather an example of bathos?

Wordsworth’s friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge found the poem somewhat disappointing. He thought that the daffodils might be considered beautiful, but not sublime. He calls Wordsworth’s efforts a kind of “mental bombast” (136). In other words, Wordsworth’s intellectual effort and elevated diction do not match the subject matter.

According to Coleridge, the truly sublime “joy of retrospection” (136) is not the memory of a few daffodils but “the images and virtuous actions of a whole well-spent life” (136). Virtuous action is more sublime than a few flowers.

In defense of Wordsworth, however, we can say that it is not simply the flowers themselves that are sublime. We are also awed by the our human capacity for imagination. This is not just a poem about nature; it is also a poem about the mind. The poem makes us realize the wondrous nature of a mind attuned to beauty and feeling.

Works Cited

  • Brennan, Matthew C. “Wordsworth’s ‘I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud.'” Explicator, vol. 57, no. 3, 1999, 140-43.
  • Burke, Edmund. A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of the Sublime and the Beautiful.  On taste : On the sublime and beautiful, Reflections on the French Revolution, A letter to a Noble Lord. 1757. Ed. Charles W. Eliot, Harvard Classics, vol. 24, Collier, 1909.
  • Hartman, Geoffrey H. The Unremarkable Wordsworth. Minneapolis, U of Minnesota P, 1987.

Marxist Literary Theory

Introduction

You don’t have to be a Marxist to do a Marxist analysis of literature.

In literary theory, a Marxist interpretation reads the text as an expression of contemporary class struggle. Literature is not simply a matter of personal expression or taste. It somehow relates to the social and political conditions of the time.

How it relates is of course up for debate. Is the text a mirror of social values? Is it a form of propaganda for the ruling classes? Can literature challenge social norms? These are the questions that preoccupy Marxist literary critics.

In what follows we’ll first sketch out some broad principles of Marxist analysis before turning to one possible reading of Wordsworth’s poem “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud.”

Determinism

Many of the grand theories developed in the second half of the nineteenth century are deterministic in nature. Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution suggests that much of our behaviour is determined by our genes. Sigmund Freud argued that our lives are affected by our unconscious, and that our psychological and sexual wishes and desires are much affected by the formative influences of our childhood. Similarly, Karl Marx theorized that human beings are the product of their social and economic environment.

Marx called the economic conditions of life the base or infrastructure. The base includes everything from technology and raw materials to the social organization of the workplace.

This economic base has a powerful effect on the superstructure, Marx’s term for society, culture, and the world of ideas.

Marx sometimes referred to the superstructure as consciousness, the way we think and look at reality. Marx famously said, “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.” Our ability to think for ourselves is limited: our ideas are shaped by the material conditions of life.

Literature, for Marx, belongs to the superstructure (along with law, theology, politics, etc.). The challenge, then, is to see how it is influenced by the economic base.

Marx himself often treated literature as simple propaganda for the ruling classes. There is some truth to this. For instance, in a Feudal society, people loved chivalric romances, stories about knights who fight for honour and win their lady’s love. In today’s capitalistic society, many people enjoy watching James Bond movies, which celebrate the glamorous lifestyle of the modern gentleman, the lady’s man who dresses in expensive clothes and drives fast cars. In these cultural fantasies it is the aristocrat who comes to our rescue and saves us from imaginary villains that seek to destroy the status quo.

Yet many later Marxists were unhappy with Marx’s somewhat naive characterization of literature as propaganda. For instance, the Italian communist Antonio Gramsci used the concept of hegemony to describe the way in which ideology (a system of beliefs) is not simply oppressive and coercive, but also involves an element of consent. There has to be some reason for me to go see a James Bond movie even when the lifestyle depicted might be unattainable.

More recently, the cultural critic Raymond Williams suggested in Marxism and Literature (1977) that every historical time period has competing hegemonies. The dominant hegemony promotes the interests of the ruling classes, the residual hegemony defends the culture and belief system of the previous era, and the emergent hegemony shares revolutionary ideas that may later become the dominant hegemony.

Literature thus reveals to us the spirit of the times, the issues that mattered to people. Literature (and entertainment) is about much more than enjoyment or escapism: it is a manifestation of class struggle.

Wordsworth’s Wealth

Marxist theory may seem far removed from Wordsworth’s poem “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud.” Yet some surprising connections are still possible.

In fact, one recent Marxist reading of the poem is found in David Simpson’s book Wordsworth, Commodification and Social Concern: The Poetics of Modernity.

As Simpson points out, Wordsworth does place a value on the daffodils. Wordsworth writes, “I gazed–and gazed–but little thought / What wealth the show to me had brought” (17-18). As Simpson notes, the daffodils “provide a wealth that is metaphysical and not material” (169).

Yet why use the word “wealth,” and what is its significance? From a Marxist perspective, the poem can be considered both a criticism of materialistic attitudes and a reflection of the language of commodification.

On the one hand, Wordsworth turns to nature to escape from the world of capitalism and commerce. The daffodils are “golden” (4), and that is the only currency that brings him true “wealth” (18). Wordsworth leaves behind human society, and finds his true self in solitude and in the company of the flowers. From this angle, the poem can easily seem escapist and reactionary. Indeed, Marxist critics such as Terry Eagleton have read the entire Romantic movement as causing a radical split between the private, subjective world of literature, and the public world of politics. Literature increasingly becomes a private matter.

Yet this move away from society ironically produces the very individualism that underpins capitalism. There is a kind of selfishness in the way Wordsworth uses the landscape for his own imaginative reverie. Simpson also reminds us that the word daffodil is but a different name for narcissus, a flower named after the mythological Narcissus, the young man who fell in love with himself.

In addition, the adoration of the flowers is rather similar to what Marx called the fetishism of commodities (Simpson 172). When we treat traded goods as having an intrinsic value, we are guilty of fetishism. We do this all the time. We endow commodities with personalities and act as if our lives are incomplete without them. We have to have the latest gadget or toy, even though the value of these things is artificial and is driven by a kind superstitious faith in the idea that prices are natural. In the same way, Wordsworth personifies the daffodils as animate, living beings, and he ties his own happiness to theirs. Like a commodity, the scene is best enjoyed in secret, in some private or internal space (the mind, the home).

The economic language of the poem makes the poet a wealthy man. Yet the poet is also the banker who pays himself with the riches of nature. As Simpson observes, in this system “a high rate of interest is assured and no one else can drive down prices because they cannot get into the market” (173).

Wordsworth’s poem thus tries to escape the effects of capitalism, but cannot avoid its logic and language.

Conclusion

You might be a bit skeptical after reading this Marxist interpretation. Are we not making too much of a few words in the poem? This is a valid objection, and a thorough Marxist analysis would have to provide further proof from the rest of Wordsworth’s poetry. Nevertheless, even if we don’t accept the entire Marxist interpretation provided above, at least we can see what is possible. A good Marxist reading draws our attention to details in the poem that we might have glossed over otherwise.

Works Cited

  • Simpson, David. Wordsworth, Commodification and Social Concern: The Poetics of Modernity. Cambridge UP, 2009.
  • Williams, Raymond. Marxism and Literature. Oxford UP, 1977

Ecocriticism

Introduction

In previous lessons we have looked at Wordsworth’s “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” through various critical lenses. We have discussed the poem’s aesthetics, as well as its historical and social background. There are many other theoretical approaches we might take, but we will sample just one more: Ecocriticism.

With each new theory we change our angle on the poem slightly. You might compare literary criticism to artists sketching a live model. Each artist has a different perspective, and each one sees something different. Together, however, they can see the whole picture.

Ecocriticism


(Image by Flickr user Vanveen, with permission)

If you found Marxist criticism challenging, you’ll likely find Ecocriticism much easier. Ecocriticism first became a major theoretical movement in the 1990s. It seeks to relate literature to the natural environment, with the hope that we can take action against climate change and the destruction of natural habitats. Ecocriticism thus has a strong ethical aspect, as the reading of literature should ideally inspire political activism and real change. Conversely, practical action must be driven and directed by sound ecological theory, and here too the study of literature can help.

Ecocritics believe that we also have to investigate the concept of nature itself. Societies frequently view their own hierarchies and codes of conduct as natural, rather than as artificial and man-made. Literary texts can help us realize how human beings use nature for their own ends.

At the same time, literary texts also teach us to appreciate nature fully. They describe the beauty of our environment, and they give us the desire to immerse ourselves in the natural world.

Wordsworth’s Nature

A great example of an ecocritical reading of Wordsworth’s “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” is Scott Hess’s article “John Clare, William Wordsworth, and the (Un)Framing of Nature.”

Hess argues that Wordsworth treats the daffodils like a photo on a postcard. Wordsworth doesn’t involve himself in nature. Instead, he looks at nature from afar (like a cloud), and leaves as soon as he has had his fill. In other words, Wordsworth acts like the tourist who comes by once and snaps a quick picture before moving on. In the end, Wordsworth seems more concerned about his own feelings than about nature:

The narrator composes the landscape into aesthetic form from a single point, located outside that landscape, exactly in the manner of a picturesque viewer, and in the process constructs a purely visual and seemingly disembodied subjectivity. Even as he claims to connect to nature, he views that nature through a kind of invisible frame and turns it into a resource for the construction of his own seemingly autonomous self. (Hess 33)

Just like some early readers complained that Wordsworth seemed a bit egotistic in his desire to experience the sublime, so Hess finds Wordsworth guilty of using nature to construct his own identity.

Hess concludes that by framing the scene as a moment of nature at its best–beautiful, restorative, sublime–Wordsworth is being too selective in his representation of the environment. In fact, Hess compares Wordsworth’s attitude to the way Americans treasure their National Parks as perfect and pristine natural places, while caring less about the degradation of nature everywhere else (40).

Yet is this fair to Wordsworth? Should he have mentioned that he saw some garbage on the side of the road, or that he was planning to spend a Saturday planting an urban garden?

With any theoretical approach there is always the danger that we misrepresent the text in order to further our own agenda. In this case it might be pointed out that Wordsworth is at pains to describe the communion he has with nature. He is not simply a solitary observer, watching from a distance. The personification of the flowers suggests a kind of kinship between people and nature. As Ralph Pite points out, “In Wordsworth’s work, ‘the natural world’ is always social, both in itself and in its relation to man. Consequently, nature does not offer an escape from other people so much as express an alternative mode of relating to them” (181).

From this perspective, Wordsworth sees nature as a teacher, a friend, and a mirror of what it means to be human–and yet he also respects nature’s independence, the distance and difference between humans and their environment (193).

Conclusion

It is not easy to tell which view is correct. Is Wordsworth selfish or not? Even if we can’t offer a definitive answer, the ecocritical perspectives sampled here demonstrate that Wordsworth’s poem is more relevant than ever.

Works Cited

  • Hess, Scott. “John Clare, William Wordsworth, and the (Un)Framing of Nature.” John Clare Society Journal, vol. 27, 2008, pp. 27-44.
  • Pite, Ralph. “Wordsworth and the Natural World.” The Cambridge Companion to Wordsworth. Ed. Stephen Gill, Cambridge UP, 2003, pp. 180-195.

Final Essay

Introduction

This lesson shows how to take some of what we’ve learned about our sample text (William Wordsworth’s “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud”) and turn it into an essay.

The essay provided here is the kind of research essay you might be expected to write in your first or second year of university. A senior paper may be more detailed and complex.

Please do not plagiarize this essay (your instructor can google too!), and note that although we have used MLA formatting, the spacing of paragraphs and Works Cited entries looks a little bit different online.

Sample Essay

John Smith
Professor Conrad van Dyk
English 111
May 27, 2017

“A Certain Colouring of Imagination”: Wordsworth’s Sublime Daffodils

William Wordsworth’s poem “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” is often described as a good example of the short Romantic lyric, despite the fact that its first readers were divided about the poem’s merit. Many of Wordsworth’s contemporaries found daffodils too trivial a subject for Wordsworth’s imaginative description (Butler 53). Wordsworth’s friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge even complained about Wordsworth’s “mental bombast” (II, 136), although he did add that only a genius could provide such a lofty treatment of an unworthy subject. While we might wish to defend Wordsworth based on our personal taste, the poem actually provides its own best defense. Not only are the flowers sublime, but so are the human faculties with which we process their beauty. According to Wordsworth, the passionate observer sees with the imagination and feels from the heart.

The poem’s publication history reveals that Wordsworth increasingly strove to express a sublime feeling. The first version, published in 1807, described the beauty of the daffodils, as well as the poet’s resultant happiness. However, in 1815, Wordsworth added the second stanza, in which the speaker compares the daffodils to the stars in the Milky Way:

Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay. (7-10)

These lines are more epic in scope, and relate the daffodils to the vastness of the universe. They make us think about the concept of infinity (“never-ending”), and turn the landscape into something that is too vast for the human mind to comprehend.

In adding the second stanza, Wordsworth did something controversial: he turned the beautiful into the sublime. Starting with Edmund Burke’s A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of the Sublime and the Beautiful (1757), eighteenth-century treatises on aesthetics distinguished between the beautiful and the sublime. Burke, for instance, argued that beautiful objects provide pleasure, but that the sublime was caused by a feeling of terror:

Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible [i.e., terrifying], or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling. I say the strongest emotion, because I am satisfied the ideas of pain are much more powerful than those which enter on the part of pleasure. (36)

For Burke, the sublime creates a sense of awe and terror. It is associated with darkness and mystery. It should certainly not be evoked by daffodils.

We can understand, then, why many of Wordsworth’s contemporaries were confused. Wordsworth’s extensive use of personification—the daffodils are a “crowd” (3) or “company” (16), they have “heads” (12), they dance—all of this turns the daffodils into thousands of animate beings. Wordsworth’s use of the word “host” (4) further reminds of the angelic host, and perhaps also of the Catholic rite of communion (Joplin 69). In addition, the third stanza introduces an element of competition (a common feature of epic texts), as the daffodils and the waves strive for the crown of happiness. All of this leads to a moment of sublime ekstasis (literally a standing outside of oneself), as Wordsworth joins the “jocund company” (16) and shares in their “glee” (14). He is left in a trance (“I gazed—and gazed”; 17), and only later regains enough self-consciousness to realize how sublime the experience truly was.

Given that daffodils are usually seen as beautiful, and not sublime, Wordsworth risked creating a sense of bathos. In fact, it might be argued that Wordsworth is not even true to his own theory of literature. In the preface to Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth had insisted that the poet has a responsibility to describe nature truthfully: “The principal object then which I proposed to myself in these Poems was to make the incidents of common life interesting by tracing in them, truly though not ostentatiously, the primary laws of our nature: chiefly as far as regards the manner in which we associate ideas in a state of excitement” (244-45; emphasis added). Could Wordsworth be considered guilty of ostentation? His elevated diction includes three different words for happy (gay, jocund, glee), and some of his similes and metaphors may seem hyperbolic. It is perhaps no wonder that Coleridge complained about Wordsworth’s “mental bombast.”

Yet Wordsworth’s understanding of nature also encompasses the human imagination. In the 1802 version of the preface to Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth added that although his language was meant to seem realistic, he did add “a certain colouring of imagination, whereby ordinary things should be presented to the mind in an unusual way” (245). In other words, “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” is truthful in the way it describes the emotional, imaginative response to nature. For a passionate observer, daffodils can indeed be sublime.

The poem itself draws our attention to the role of the imagination, the “inner eye” (21) upon which the memory of the daffodils “flash” (21). It is the meditative mind, open to the influence of nature, that is most receptive to the influence of nature. In turn, an active imagination affects the heart, the seat of the emotions: “And then my heart with pleasure fills, / And dances with the daffodils” (23-24). When the heart and the imagination work together, even daffodils can be sublime.

By drawing our attention to the importance of the imagination, the poem defends itself against all criticism. Those who find the poem trivial lack a strong imagination. Indeed, in the end it is not simply the daffodils that are sublime: it is the way the human mind can transform a picturesque scene into something so captivating that it leaves us spellbound centuries later. As the poet Andrew Motion has recently pointed out, by focusing on the workings of memory and imagination, the poem makes us think about how we ourselves remember the poem: “In the same way, we recall the intensity and lift of the poem as we close the page and begin returning to it in our mind’s eye. This, more than anything, helps to explain its extraordinary currency: it offers a form of sharing, as well as a report on experience. It invites us in, while giving out” (“Host”). While early critics accused Wordsworth of creating an egotistic sublime, of indulging in imaginative flights of fancy, we can now recognize that Wordsworth taught us that nature is more than what we see. The observer adds something to the scene. The observer adds language, and language is itself sublime.

Works Cited

Burke, Edmund. A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of the Sublime and the Beautiful. On Taste : On the sublime and beautiful, Reflections on the French Revolution, A letter to a Noble Lord. 1757. Ed. Charles W. Eliot, Harvard Classics, vol. 24, Collier, 1909.

Butler, James A. “Poetry 1798-1807: Lyrical Ballads and Poems, in Two Volumes.” The Cambridge Companion to Wordsworth. Ed. Stephen Gill, Cambridge UP, 2003, pp. 38-54.

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. Biographia Literaria or Biographical Sketches of My Literary Life and OpinionsThe Collected Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Ed. James Engell and W. Jackson Bate, vol. 2, Princeton UP, 1983.

Joplin, David. “Wordsworth’s ‘I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud.’” Explicator vol. 56, no. 2, 1998, pp. 67-70.

Motion, Andrew. “The Host with the Most.” The Guardian, 6 Mar. 2004, www.theguardian.com/books/2004/mar/06/andrewmotion.featuresreviews

Wordsworth, William. “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud.” Poetry Foundation, www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/45521

William Wordsworth, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Lyrical Ballads. Ed. R. L. Brett and A. R. Jones, 2nd ed., Routledge, 1991.

Conclusion

Our sample essay borrows mostly from the pages on aesthetics and historical background. If you read through the other pages you will find many other essay topics.

We hope you’ve enjoyed this series of articles on analyzing English literature!

BONUS: Ten Ways To Annoy Your English Prof

Introduction

As an English prof, I have marked thousands of essays. Here are ten words or phrases that students tend to misuse.

Utilize

Even academics abuse this one. You can simply say “use” and be done with it.

Societal

Ditto for this one. Most of the time “social” will do the trick.

Interesting

This one occurs frequently in thesis statements. Saying that something is “interesting” often implies that you haven’t made up an actual argument, but are hoping that your attitude to the subject matter counts for something. It doesn’t.

Overexaggerate

This is not even a word, but a surprising number of students seem to feel that “exaggerate” doesn’t quite do the job. We need something stronger, which is rather ironic given the circumstances.

Relatable

You wouldn’t believe how often students write that the characters in a book are interesting because they are relatable. As long as we can spot that fictional people are in some sense human, our work is done. (Unless of course the characters are overexaggerated).

Theme

Some people like to go trainspotting; others go hunting for themes. These days anything in a text is a theme. Look, I’ve found a theme: it’s man vs. nature, or friendship, or love! There’s no need to make an argument about the theme. Spotting it is enough.

Reading

Some students are eager to show that they’ve actually read the book. That’s why they provide constant references to the reading process (“in my reading,” “to the reader,” “for the audience”). Don’t worry, if you’re writing about the text, we will assume that you have done some reading, even if it’s only SparkNotes.

Essentially

If you think you’ve really made your point, you add the word “essentially” for emphasis. Hamlet is essentially suicidal. Oscar Wilde is essentially gay. Plato’s shadows are essentially unreal.

Dictionary

As soon as I see the phrase “the dictionary definition,” I know I’m about to read a definition of a perfectly ordinary word. This invariably happens in the first sentence of the essay.

In conclusion

If you place this at the start of your last paragraph you’re not doing anyone a service. We can see that this is your last paragraph—there is no need to point out the obvious.

Bonus word: capture.

Some people seem to think that “captivate” and “captive” mean the same thing. By this logic even the best book will put you in chains, forced to read a story that you literally can’t put down.

Dishonorable mentions

It’s hard to stop, so here are some (dis)honorable mentions:

virtually

off of

Conclusion

In conclusion, that is essentially my list of ten interesting words that you should not utilize without thinking about whether they will capture the reader. So next time you analyze some themes, make sure you pick words from the dictionary (unlike overexaggerated) that are relatable and of societal use.