Lyrical Ballads and Organic Sensibility

A phrase that really stood out to me from the lecture on Lyrical Ballads was ‘organic sensibility’. This concept actually comes from the Preface to the Lyrical Ballads when Wordsworth says:

For all good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: but though this be true, Poems to which any value can be attached, were never produced on a variety of subjects but by a man who being possessed of more than usual organic sensibility had also though long and deeply. (Wordsworth 146)

I think this quote really sums what Wordsworth and Coleridge are trying to do. From their poems they seem like extremely sensitive human beings, not in the sense that they are easily moved to tears, but that they are very aware of their senses and surroundings. They seem very alert, with a sort of wakefulness that is very youthful and energetic. I see this in the detail of their poems like in “We Are Seven” when he describes the girl as having “a rustic, woodland air” (59). Just reading their poems makes me want to go out on a walk through nature and take in all the sounds, smells and sights around me. There seems to be release of the senses going on, where rather than ignoring your surroundings and input from the body, one looks outwardly and takes in everything the senses detect.

At the same time, this organic sensibility if full of wisdom and thought. I really like how the poems are both wakeful and full of wonder, yet pensive and reflective. In “Lines written a few miles above Tintern Abbey” Wordsworth writes of the nature around him, the “deep rivers and lonely streams”, while reflecting intensely on memory (111). Not only does he conjure images of the forest but he also understands its healing powers and how the memory will provide “life and food / For future years” (111).

Finally, organic sensibility brings to mind what was first discussed in lecture: the chalk portraits of Wordsworth and Coleridge. The small chalk marks create texture, different shades of light, and focus on the face, in particular the eyes and mouth. When I look at the portraits, the organic sensibility of Wordsworth and Coleridge really comes to life.

1 Thought.

  1. I like your focus on organic sensibility here, because it makes me pay more attention to what you talk about in the first paragraph after the quote, above–how the poems reflect the sensitivity to what the senses are taking in, the small details that we might otherwise miss. That strikes a chord with me as something I kind of vaguely sensed myself when reading the poems, but reading your post brought it to consciousness. It brings to mind, for me, “The Nightingale,” in which the narrator talks about others being stuck in ballrooms and “hot theatres” while he and his friends have the joys of nature at night to fill their senses. And the poem itself describes the scene quite vividly, in ways that make me feel I am almost there, and that were I there without the poem I might have been one of those people who ignored the sights and sounds outside of me in my impatience to get back to the theatre. The poem brings the joys of someone who does pay attention to the sights and sounds of the scene, transferring the emotions perhaps in the way that Wordsworth hopes (even though I think this particular poem was written by Coleridge).

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