Become a Fan
William Wordsworth's revolutionary techniques in poetry contributed significantly to the creation of the poetic form known as prose poetry. This article explores the important contributions of Wordsworth on this 'new' genre, contributions that have largely gone unrecognized.
William Wordsworth's revolutionary techniques in poetry contributed significantly to the creation of the poetic form known as prose poetry. Wordsworth's fresh and innovative work has, both directly and indirectly, influenced poets to con-temporary times and shaped the "history of poetry" over the "last two hundred years" (Rehder 15). One of the poets influenced by Wordsworth is the French poet Louis "Aloysius" Bertrand, the originator of the poetic genre of prose poetry (Padgett 151). Bertrand's collection of prose poetry called Gaspard of the Night was published post-humously in 1836 (Padgett 151).
Prose poetry is a relatively new poetic style that is difficult to define; indeed, "as both poem and prose, as neither poem nor prose," the style exposes the very "precariousness" of definitions in general (Richards 16). Prose poetry is similar to free verse in style as it does not follow any set rules of rhyme or rhythm (Wright 7). However, free verse is written with poetic line breaks and prose poetry is not. Prose poetry is prose with the "imagery, density, quickness, and freshness of language that are associated with poetry" (Padgett 151).
We cannot trace Bertrand's work directly to Wordsworth because "what works and authors influenced Bertrand is difficult to ascertain" (Wright 7). However, it is certain that Wordsworth indirectly influenced Bertrand through Byron and Scott, whose works were "the rage on the continent" (Wright 4). Tracing Wordsworth's effect in France and on Bertrand is not as difficult as it appears if "we consider how much of Wordsworth there is in Scott and Byron" (Rehder 204). Scott's ballads were translated into French prose (Richards 14), and Bertrand was a "steady reader" of these translations (Simon 81). After reading Scott and other similar translations by other poets, Bertrand's "first prose poems emerge" (Simon 81). Bertrand himself stated in an article published in the French newspaper the Provincial, "the epic of the present, moreover, will not be written in poetry, but in prose as exemplified by Walter Scott" (Wright 3). Despite the difficulty in establishing a direct link between Wordsworth and Bertrand, Wordsworth's radical new innovations in poetry are used by Bertrand in his prose poetry.
One example supporting Wordsworth's contribution to the development of prose poetry is his use of the "long sentence" (Rehder 82). By choosing not to rhyme in some of his works, Wordsworth gained "greater syntactical freedom" (Rehder 83). Wordsworth "adds, modifies, and repeats" to expand his sentences, and he does this "because there is always something more to say"(Rehder 84). Wordsworth's repetitive use of the word 'and' in his poetry, as well as his longer sentence structure, is remarkably similar to prose in form (Rehder 84). In fact, Wordsworth incorporates The Excursion, a narrative poem, into his longer work The Recluse (Rehder 136). What is narrative, but a story in prose? In addition to Wordsworth's experiments with prose in poetry, which was a precursor to the development of the genre by Bertrand, he also propounded that "there neither is, nor can be, an essential difference between the language of prose and metrical composition" (Monte 17). Wordsworth also states in the 1802 version of the Preface to Lyrical Ballads that "the language of prose may yet be well adapted to poetry" and that the language of a poem "can in no respect differ from that of good prose" (Norton 245).
Another innovation Wordsworth uses in his poetry is textual identity and by incorporating the "without and within", he "dialogizes a poetic version of himself" (Nichols 69). He sees himself as a paradox, which he uses to "create relationships between writer and readers" (Baron 3). Through these paradoxes, and comparison and contrast, "self then/self now, self to others/self to self", Wordsworth opens up vistas in poetry for later poets, including Bertrand (Nichols 69). Bertrand takes Wordsworth's poetic version of the self even further by exploring not only the paradox between the past
and present, but also the duality of the "ego and the unconsciousness of the writer" in Gaspard De La Nuit (Richards 38). In the dialogue of Gaspard, the "narrator is Bertrand's ego and Gaspard his unconscious" (Richards 38). The use of paradox by both poets mirrors the formation of prose poetry, in which duality exists as "difference remains fundamental" to the genre (Richards 103). The prose poem itself is a paradox, as "the interaction of prose and poetry provide the impetus for an appraisal of what those terms mean" (Richards 103).
Wordsworth uses the narrator in his poetry to "direct and redirect" the reader's attention (Baron 5). Bertrand echoes this technique in Gaspard with the use of both himself and Gaspard as the narrators. Indeed, in Gaspard, it is hard to separate the author from the "alter-ego Gaspard de la Nuit" who, in the text, is actually supposed to be the author who wrote about the "spiritual and profane sides of the personality"(Wright 8). Bertrand is merely the recipient of Gaspard's manuscript, which reveals that Gaspard has discovered a "new poetic form, the prose poem"(Wright 8). In Gaspard de la Nuit, Bertrand and his character have merged into one. This idea is quite similar to Wordsworth's The Prelude, which "is an autography: a text that is the self it represents" (Nichols 66). Although The Prelude wasn't published in its entirety until 1850, after Wordsworth's death, it is conceivable that portions of it circulated among the poetry crowd and reached the continent before the works publication (Norton 221). If Bertrand wasn't aware of Wordsworth's The Prelude, it is certain that his follower, Baudelaire, "being one of the first to rediscover Bertrand" was (Wright 8). According to Rehder, it was "Baudelaire who, with his Le Spleen de Paris (published 1855-1869), establishes the prose poem as form" (Rehder 206).
Prose poetry is also influenced by Wordsworth's use of "I" in The Prelude as "I" is a "dramatized cultural self" and not "an authentic autobiographer" (Nichols 66). The self as seen through Wordsworth's "I" points to the dramatized self of Gaspard in Bertrand's poem.
The Prelude's "I" influences prose poetry in yet another way as it is the "prototype" for later writing about the self, and it "emerges out of an interplay between complementary and conflicting discourses" (Nichols 66). In addition to the "lyrical dialogue between Wordsworth and Coleridge" seen in The Prelude, the "dialogizing of the self" is also in evidence (Nichols 68). The Prelude throws off the shackles of the monologic and this revolutionary innovation of Wordsworth's is embraced by Bertrand, who "broke from the monological lyric subject of conventional poetry with his theater-like dialogical texts" (Richards 92). Through Bertrand's dialogue with Gaspard, and Gaspard's dialogue with other characters, we see the self-dialogizing of Wordsworth's The Prelude. Without the use of self-examination and comparison and contrast through dialogue with other characters, Bertrand could not have invented prose poetry. It would be difficult, indeed, to create a prose poem using only the monologic.
Bertrand, like Wordsworth, sought to overthrow "the reigning practice of neoclassic poetry" (Norton 239). In an article published in the French Provincial, Bertrand denounces classicism "because it is useless and old" (Wright 3). He believed that each era should "write its own epic and not attempt to capture the styles of the past" (Wright 3). Despite Wordsworth's and Bertrand's rejection of the neoclassical, both poets used history as subject matter in their works, thus incorporating the past into new styles of writing.
The significant idea that the form of the poem should reflect the experience is marked by "Wordsworth's short poems" (Rehder 179). To experience the uniqueness in "every moment" enforces Wordsworth's "desire for irregular forms" (Rehder 206). This idea of the uniqueness of experience helped the poet to turn away from the conventional techniques of rhyme and meter, and to develop a personal style that logically led to the creation of the poetic genres of Free Verse and Prose Poetry (Rehder 206). The freedom of form offered by this new idea has, in some poets after Wordsworth, developed into the feeling that "any rhyme scheme or any metre" is "forced" (Rehder 179). Bertrand, like "virtually every European poet" who comes after Wordsworth, makes use of Wordsworth's "hard-won discoveries and poetic modes" (Rehder 221).
Despite the lack of direct evidence that Wordsworth's new ideas and innovations in poetry influenced Bertrand, there are many indicators that suggest that Wordsworth profoundly affected the development of the modern genre known as prose poetry. It is important to realize the difficulty involved in tracing the origins of a work of art or an idea such as prose poetry. Artist's live in the same ever-changing environment we all dothey are constantly exposed to various ideas and the works of others. What an artist believes to be his or her own, unique creation is often a conglomerate composed of many ideas and techniques already established by others. This composition is the very essence of art, and is particularly visible in the genre of prose poetry. Although Bertrand was influenced by Wordsworth to a great extent, he also took these ideas and made them his own. Did Bertrand invent prose poetry, or did he discover it while working within the accepted parameters of poetic language? Whether Bertrand developed a new style or discovered it, he used established techniques in a fresh context. The development of prose poetry shows the adaptability, the fluidity, of the creative mind and sheds light on the possibilities available for contemporary and future poets.
Abrams, M.H., general ed. The Norton Anthology of English
Literature. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2000.
Baron, Michael. Language and Relationship in Wordsworth's
Writing. London: Longman Group UK Limited, 1995.
Monte, Steven. Invisible Fences: Prose Poetry as a Genre
in French and American Literature. Nebraska:
University of Nebraska Press, 2000.
Nichols, Ashton. "The Revolutionary 'I': Wordsworth and
the politics of Self-Presentation." In Wordsworth in
Context, ed. Pauline Fletcher and John Murphy, 66-84.
Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 1992.
Padgett, Ron, ed. The Teachers and Writers Handbook of
Poetic Forms. New York: Teachers and Writers
Rehder, Robert. Wordsworth and the Beginnings of Modern
Poetry. New Jersey: Barnes and Noble Books, 1981.
Richards, Marvin. Without Rhyme or Reason: Gaspard de la
Nuit and the Dialectic of the Prose Poem. Lewisburg:
Bucknell University Press, 1998.
Simon, John. The Prose Poem as a Genre in Nineteenth-
Century European Literature. New York: Garland
Publishing, Inc. 1987.
Wordsworth, William. "Preface to Lyrical Ballads." In The
Norton Anthology of English Literature, general ed. M.
H. Abrams. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2000.
Wright, John T. Louis "Aloysius" Bertrand's Gaspard de la
Nuit: Fantasies in the Manner of Rembrandt and Callot,
Translation, Introduction, and Notes. Maryland:
University Press of America, 1994.