“Writing like Wordsworth”: A Brief Primer

      Comments Off on “Writing like Wordsworth”: A Brief Primer

We are thrilled to welcome to the blog Dr Adam Neikirk, one of the BARS/Wordsworth Grasmere Early Career Fellows. His blog post below discusses his ongoing project “Writing like Wordsworth”, detailing his plans to work with Wordsworth Grasmere on encouraging Wordsworthian creativity!

What is “Writing like Wordsworth”?

Earlier this year I was chosen to be a BARS/Wordsworth Grasmere Early Career Fellow for 2024/2025. This fellowship is a dream come true for me: an American who fell in love with the Lake District while studying for my doctorate in England, I now have a perfectly valid reason to spend an entire month at the Wordsworth Foundation’s beautiful Grasmere location, which is centered around Dove Cottage, Wordsworth’s former domicile. While I am on-site, I will be writing and thinking about poems and how to teach poetry: not just how to read it, but how to conceive of and write it; as I believe this is an important skill that is in danger of becoming lost. I hope to teach writing and present workshops on writing while I am there, and to work together with the site’s staff and outreach teams. I am so thankful to both BARS and the Wordsworth Foundation for selecting me and my project, which is entitled “Writing like Wordsworth.”

“Writing like Wordsworth” is the name of a poetry-based teaching project designed to encourage participants to pursue their own Wordsworthian creativity, whether that be in the penning of a single sonnet or the authoring of an updated Lyrical Ballads for the 2020s. This project is based on my own experiences as a poet who has studied the British Romantics, especially Wordsworth and Coleridge; and who also has frequently been inclined to try to write like them. I believe my readers (what few of them there are) may often have had that experience that Wordsworth describes in the preface to Lyrical Ballads: looking round with feelings of strangeness and awkwardness for what they consider poetry to be, and wondering where it might have gone. Why write in a way that obscures your identity, or that feels so alien from where we are now? Isn’t the point of a poet to be someone who has their finger on the pulse of society right now?

Some academics have likewise asked me to explain in critical terms why I write in an “antiquated” style that is “clearly not modern English,” without considering the ironic fact that, to most non-academics used to texting (and sometimes thinking) abbreviated phrases like “lol” and “omg”, much academic writing would also strike them as curiously out of step with their sense of what contemporary “writing” is really like—although it (academic writing) makes a parsimonious sort of sense to those of us who continuously engage in it, and that is one of the points I will elaborate below.

Simply put, I believe it would be a good thing if more people thought about the world the way Wordsworth did. This is a very large claim that requires a lot of unpacking, but the takeaway is that Wordsworth’s lifelong activity of making verses evidences a deep, abiding love for humanity, an appreciation of natural beauty and its healing potential, and, not least of all, a conviction that one of the best ways to organize and set forth our ideas for others to read and absorb is in the writing of poems, which are, I suggest, uniquely positioned to encode the values we would wish to share with others. The point of writing like Wordsworth is to think like Wordsworth, and the point of thinking like Wordsworth is to write like Wordsworth. It is my belief that the creation of Wordsworthian memes—that is, units of cultural value—through poetry would, in general, help us to achieve a more sustainable* human world.

*I mean this is the ecological sense of helping to preserve a healthy, habitable planet, but I feel there is a lot that goes into the creation of sustainability that belongs in the purview of other fields (such as literature).

What a Difference 174 Years Can Make

One idea I would like to put forward, which is an idea that I think can be really liberating, is that as poets and writers we aren’t duty-bound not to sound like writers from the more distant past. In fact, if those writers used their writing to make a record of their beliefs, why wouldn’t their style contribute to the form of those beliefs? To someone used to thinking about history from a long-term perspective (generally a good thing, it seems), Wordsworth died “only” 174 years ago (as of this writing). In those 174 years, it might be possible to trace a few developments in human society that have produced some unwanted consequences, such as the industrial revolution that has led indirectly to a climate crisis that now threatens the health of the entire world. Or we might wish now to be in a different system other than capitalism, which Wordsworth encountered in a more prototypical stage (but seems to have still written poetry that either maligns, or manages to ignore, its influence on his contemporaries).

Personally, as a human born in 1987, I have spent most of my life wondering how we can stop the world from ending, how I can avoid becoming some iteration of a factory worker, how I can manage to walk outside without seeing some version of a billboard obscuring the sky. Although Wordsworth didn’t write about these “2024 unique” problems per se, he seemed to see them in mankind’s future anyway:

The world is too much with us; late and soon,

Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—

Little we see in Nature that is ours;

We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!

This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;

The winds that will be howling at all hours,

And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;

For this, for everything, we are out of tune;

It moves us not. Great God! I’d rather be

A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;

So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,

Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;

Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;

Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.

I love to teach this sonnet by Wordsworth because it expresses something that I see everywhere in the sphere of social media, which is a sense of “how did we get here?” and “why couldn’t I have been born at a different time?”. It isn’t the old and middle-aged (including Gen X or even, I must admit, millennials like me) asking these sorts of questions so much as younger people who are starting to see the world for the big mess that it is. Everywhere I look, I see the creations of people who feel that there is a cultural emptiness pervading many things, and I see, as well, people who are simply wandering through life, too anxious about the state of the world and society to try to do something about it, and similarly convinced that, as individuals who aren’t particularly wealthy, they are powerless to make any meaningful change. All they can do, like Wordsworth, is observe what is happening and question why it is happening at all. But I think by leaving us poetical artifacts such as “The World is Too Much With Us” (i.e. the sonnet above), Wordsworth went one step further than just looking on: he turned his response, a trenchantly critical response, into something memorable, not only because it is beautiful, but because his thoughts and the style of his thoughts are encoded in versification.

The Crux of Things: Versification and Value

When I say that verse encodes values, I mean that poetry has a unique way of making our thoughts and feelings rhythmical. Poetry as verse relies on formal elements that are most typically identified as meter and rhyme. But the real crux of these elements is that they make verses and their constituent lines resemble each other, they encourage repetition, and they combine our ability to evaluate life with our ability to dance—to become rhythmical—in spite of what our evaluative gaze might tell us. It helps to bring in a bit of Coleridge here. Coleridge identified writing verse with a feeling of excitement in the author; this excitement, he claimed, comes from contemplation—from contemplating things long enough that we know that we are saying something true. The reader, by the same token, is excited by reading this verse that we have written, and in that sense the poet “brings the whole soul of man into activity” by involving (or “intervolving”) reason and passion simultaneously.

My idea is that effective verse is effective not because it is well-written or describes something beautiful, but, since it encodes an objectively meaningful value, it is formally beautiful in the sense that it allows the reader to encounter something good carried or encoded in its constituent lines. Thus, “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” is beautiful not because it describes clouds or “golden daffodils” but because it describes the speaker’s recollection of these natural objects in a time of crisis—and this form of comfort is an objective human good:

For oft, when on my couch I lie

In vacant or in pensive 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.

The speaker’s heart “dances with” the images that she perceives in an empty mood of sofa-gazing, becoming alive again to the influences of a hidden world—hidden because the distant daffodils are obscured behind walls and billboards; but also hidden because it is the special province of an “inward eye.” These verses don’t simply depict the value of the hidden and of the open inward eye; they stylize its opening in lines that make us feel as if we are bearing witness to something deeper than the surface of everyday language. They move beyond the imagistic while simultaneously giving rise to the rhythmic feeling at the heart of the speaker’s contemplation.


This brief primer doesn’t do justice to all that I would like to say about poetry, Wordsworth, or the importance of writing, but it at least touches on some of the ideas that I have been mulling over for the last several years, trying to understand why I love poetry and how I can help to make the world a better place. The most obvious objection to teaching poetry as a form of sustainable living is simply that no amount of “beautiful” writing will ever have even the slightest impact on our global need to lower carbon emissions. But of course, such an objection misses the point of writing, which is that it is often shared in a society of people who understand the spirit in which it is meant to be read. Wordsworth wanted the whole world to read his poems, but he always tried them out first on his closest friends and family—his sister Dorothy, his wife Mary, and his close friend and collaborator Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Together they formed a small community with poetry at the center, and it is from the nourishing environment of such a community that Lyrical Ballads and many other great literary works emerged.

Similarly, I conceive “Writing like Wordsworth” to be a teaching project that requires and aspires to the creation of a community of people interested in the transformative power of verse. A community anchored in writing is one that, in our digital age, can transcend time and space, even if it is poetry that is ultimately concerned with the local and particular. Therefore, I invite anyone interested in these ideas to reach out to me by email (adamneikirk@gmail.com) or on social media.

Adam Neikirk

You can follow Adam on Twitter/X here or BlueSky here.

Adam Neikirk is a poet, musician and teacher with research interests in British Romanticism, prosody, and the philosophy of literature. He first encountered the writings of Wordsworth and Coleridge as a child, then forgot about them for a while. Adam received his PhD in Creative Writing in 2023 for a verse biography of Coleridge that he one days hopes to publish. He is the author of three books of poetry, numerous essays on British Romanticism, and is a 2024/2025 BARS Wordsworth Grasmere Fellow.