William Wordsworth’s Preface to the Lyrical Ballads

Wordsworth has added a treasure to poetry. In his Preface to Lyrical Ballads, he has identified his own views related to creation of poetry and poetry as a whole. Wordsworth is among the romantics who used to visualize poetry as associated to nature and romanticized the very idea of existence of a poet.

For the Romantics, the poet was a seer, a creator and the one who kept the ability to deliver the message of nature to the common people. This article contains an interpretation of Wordsworth’s ideas as described in the Preface to Lyrical Ballads.

Wordsworth, a well-known figure of 18th century English society, a representative of Romantic age introduced the Lyrical Ballads containing poems contributed by S.T. Coleridge and himself with the title of Preface to Lyrical Ballads. The preface is considered important for the views about the function and scope of poetry, the role of the poet, the creative process and the language of poetry. In a sentence, the subject of preface is what poetry communicates and how it does it. Through this preface, Wordsworth announced the advent of a poetic revolution.

According to David Daiches, “Wordsworth, the first English poet to explain, defend and define poetry by asking how it was produced, belongs to those modern critics who are chiefly concerned with the process of creation”.

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Wordsworth tells that for the Lyrical Ballads, he chose “incidents and situations from common life”, intending to make them interesting “by tracing in them….the primary laws of our nature”. He claims that his selection of language is more closely connected to “the primary laws of nature”. For that purpose, “Humble and rustic life was generally chosen”, implying that rural life and village communities show human nature in a pure state. He employs a language that is spoken by common men and the reason for its usage is, “they convey their feelings and notions in simple and unelaborated expressions”, which means that Wordsworth likes simplicity.

According to M.T. Abrams, “Wordsworth incorporates in his poetic theory eighteenth century speculations on the emotional origin of language, prevalent ideas about the nature and value of primitive poetry.”

The preface argues for a new poetic standard. Wordsworth rejected the neo-classical theory of poetry, which arranged the different kinds of literature in a hierarchy, each with its own appropriate subject matter and level of diction. Wordsworth particularly rejected the elevated poetic diction of the 18th century poets such as Thomas Gray, whose language according to Wordsworth was artificial and whose style was unnatural, based on reading rather than speech.

Wordsworth proposed making poetry through the selection of the sincere and simple language of the ordinary individual, adapting prose language to poetic uses. He gave poetry a broader scope that included a range of persons and situations never written about before—the humble and rustic life taken seriously.

In trying to answer the question, ‘what is a poet?’ he brings a conception of the poet as a ‘man speaking to men’ but one who has a greater than average sensibility and ‘knowledge of the human nature’. The poet’s main qualifications are not in matter of technique; he is a poet because his feelings allow him to enter sympathetically into the lives of others and to translate passions into words that please. “The poet thinks and feels in the spirit of the passions of men.” It follows that poets must use the language of other men. Unlike Sidney’s imitative poet, the romantic poet does not so much imitate nature as create in the same way as nature. He brings something real into being in just the same way as nature. Another job assigned to a poet by Wordsworth is to make truth plausible to the readers.

Wordsworth defines poetry as the “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” and further elaborates that poetry “takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity”, which is the opposite of T.S. Eliot’s comment, “poetry is not a turning loose of emotions bit an escape from emotions”.

The statement that “all good poetry is a spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” occurs twice in the preface and suggests that the poetic creation is an intense mental and emotional activity. Wordsworth emphasizes that this poetic creation needs calmness and tranquillity. According to Wordsworth, pleasure is the state in which, the poetic composition is written and pleasure is found in result. Wordsworth assumes that the reader of such poetry will share the poet’s pleasure. David Daiches describes poetry in terms of Wordsworth as

“Poetry is not an imitation of an imitation, but a concrete and sensuous illustration of both a fact and a relationship, which provides pleasure and at the same time shows the universal importance of pleasure”.

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Wordsworth’s definition of poetry as ‘the image of man and nature’ or that it is ‘the breath and finer spirit of all knowledge’, or that it is ‘the first and the last of all knowledge; it is as immortal as the heart of man’ are all romantic and in the vein of traditional poetry. Wordsworth believed that poetry, like science, should reveal general truths, particularly truths about human nature. Since for him, there is no difference between ‘truth’ of the man of science and ‘truth’ of the poet, it means that in their common pursuit, they use only different methods. The scientists and poets are not opposites or enemies, they are allies whose task is the same but use different means to achieve it.

Wordsworth reinforces that there is no “essential difference between the language of course and metrical composition (poetry).” According to him, it is the feelings that give attraction to poetry not tools such as meter. For romantics, poetry is a name of behaviour, a state of being, a whole attitude to pass life. They were inspired by their own lives. The centre of their inspiration was their own self. Wordsworth’s preface emphasizes a relationship between a poet and his poem, which is the romantic ideal.

References

Wordsworth, William. (1967). Preface to the Second Edition of Lyrical Ballads. English Romantic Writers. Ed. David Perkins. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc.

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21 Comments
  1. Posted May 4, 2009 at 7:28 am

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  2. bukola bakare
    Posted June 21, 2009 at 1:50 pm

    i live what you’ve done,summarizing and leaving your own criticism and comment…thank you

  3. Sarah
    Posted July 1, 2009 at 2:13 pm

    You have written so clearly and elaboratively that I have understood the ideas in a go.

  4. Posted October 14, 2009 at 10:47 am

    Fantastically done. You have a clear grasp on what makes William Wordsworth tick.

  5. Jonathan Nutter
    Posted October 14, 2009 at 10:48 am

    Fantastically done. You have a clear grasp on what makes William Wordsworth tick.

  6. Bruno Pinto
    Posted November 24, 2009 at 10:40 pm

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  7. Parveen
    Posted January 20, 2010 at 1:58 pm

    Thankyou for such a wonderful and simple analysis of WW.
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  8. Posted March 7, 2010 at 5:55 pm

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  12. Posted October 2, 2010 at 1:45 pm

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  15. laura
    Posted November 19, 2010 at 8:06 pm

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  16. Posted January 22, 2011 at 2:50 am

    nice nutshell estimate of a poet worth worlds of words

  17. v.meenashy
    Posted July 25, 2011 at 11:34 am

    dear mam

    let me first thank you for this summary about preface to lyrical ballads.iam doing my final year b.a.i can’t able to understand this.but your summary gives me a outline and a great refreshment thanks a lot…. here after i will visit your website more….mam,i also had a interest and pleasure of writing short stories but i don’t know how to publish it please guide me mam………thank you

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