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William Wordsworth: Preface to Lyrical Ballads

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Anna H

on 9 June 2014

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Transcript of William Wordsworth: Preface to Lyrical Ballads

William Wordsworth

Preface to
Lyrical Ballads

Preface for third edition of
Lyrical Ballads
Considered a "revolutionary manifesto regarding the nature of poetry"
Preface explains and defends how
Lyrical Ballads
are radically different in form, style and subject matter from the established literary conventions
What is poetry's principle object?
The principle object, then proposed in these poems
was to choose incidents and situations from common life
, and to relate and describe them, throughout, as far as possible in a selection of language really used by men, and, at the same time, to throw over them
a certain colouring of imagination,
whereby ordinary things should be presented to the mind in an unusual aspect; and, further, and above all,
to make these situations and incidents interesting by tracing in them,
truly though not ostentatiously,
the primary laws of our nature:
chiefly as regards the manner in which we associate ideas in a state of excitement. (p. 294)
What is the reasoning for using this subject matter?
Low and rustic life was generally chosen, because in that condition, the

of the heart find a better soil in which they can attain their maturity,
are less under restraint
, and speak a
and more emphatic language; because in that condition of life, our
feelings co-exist in a state of
greater simplicity,
and consequently, may be more accurately contemplated, and more forcibly communicated; because the manners of rural life germinate from these
feelings, and, from the
character of rural occupations, are
more easily
comprehended, and are
more durable;
and lastly, because in that condition the passions of men are incorporated with the beautiful and
permanent forms of nature.
(p. 295)
*Notice the emphasis on the "natural". Wordsworth believed that common men and their language are closer to nature and, therefore, closer to the essence of human nature. This is the antithesis to the subjects of conventional eighteenth century poetry. Wordsworth is proposing that the language of rural life and the experience of rural life allow for a more transparent, more immediate, and more philosophic (deeper) way of expressing poetic truth and poetic pleasure.

What kind of language should poetry use?
The language, too, of these men has been adopted (purified indeed from what appear to be its real defects, from all lasting and rational causes of dislike and disgust)
because such men hourly communicate with the best objects from which with the best part of language is originally derived
; and because, from their rank in society and the sameness and narrow circle of their intercourse,
being less under the influence of social variety, they convey their feelings and notions in simple and unelaborated expressions.
such a language, arising out of the repeated experience and regular feelings is a more permanent, and a far more philosophical language, than that which is frequently substituted for it by Poets,

think that they are conferring honour upon themselves and their art, in proportion as they separate themselves from the sympathies of men, and
indulge in arbitrary and capricious habits of expression,
in order to furnish food for fickle appetites, of their own creation. (p. 295)
The subject of common men requires some rethinking of poetic language for Wordsworth & Coleridge. Though,
Wordsworth notes he had to tidy up (or "purified," as he puts it) the language of common men.
What is the definition of poetry?
For all good
poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feeling
: and though this be true,
Poems to which any value can be attached were never produced
on any variety of subjects
but by a man who, being possessed of more than usual organic sensibility, had also thought long and deeply
. For
our continued influxes of feeling are modified and directed by our thoughts, which are indeed the representative of all our past feelings
; and, as
by contemplating the relation of these general representatives to each other, we discover what is really important to men
, so by the
repetition and continuance of this act, our feelings will be connected with important subjects,
till at length, if we be originally possessed of such sensibility, such habits of mind will be produced, that by
obeying blindly and mechanically the impulses of these habits, we shall describe objects, and utter sentiments
of such a nature, and in such connection with each other, that
the understanding of the Reader must necessarily be in some degree enlightened, and his affections strengthened and purified
. (p. 295)
I have said that poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings:
it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity:
the emotion is contemplated till, by a species of reaction, the tranquillity gradually disappears, and an emotion, kindred to that which was before the subject of contemplation, is gradually produced, and does itself actually exist in the mind. In this mood successful composition generally begins, and in a mood similar to this it is carried on; but the emotion, of whatever kind, and in whatever degree, from various causes, is qualified by various pleasures, so that in describing any passions whatsoever, which are voluntarily described, the mind will, upon the whole, be in a state of enjoyment. (p. 303)
*Wordsworth's project is an idealistic one, and clearly poetry, for him, has a vital role in educating the mind and sensibility of his readers, a moral purpose. This quotation illustrates how important this benevolent effect is for the reader.
Poetry is the
spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings
. In other words, it is something that happens almost on its own, a kind of possession or inspiration. Poetry is somehow if not irrational then a-rational—beyond reason.

Note: Highlight the passages noted in this presentation in your book and take notes
Some central questions the Preface addresses:
What is poetry's principal object (subject)?

What is the reasoning for choosing this subject matter?

What kind of language should poetry use?

What is the definition of poetry?

What is a poet?

What is a poet?
What is a Poet? to whom does he address himself? and what language is to be expected from him?—
He is a man speaking to men
: a man, it is true, endowed with
more lively sensibility, more enthusiasm and tenderness, who has a greater knowledge of human nature, and a more comprehensive soul
, than are supposed to be common among mankind;
a man pleased with his own passions and volitions
, and
who rejoices more than other men in the spirit of life that is in him; delighting to contemplate similar volitions and passions as manifested in the goings-on of the Universe
, and
habitually impelled to create them where he does not find them
. to these qualities
he has added a disposition to be affected more than other men by absent things as if they were present
; an
ability of conjuring up in himself passions
, which are indeed far from being the same as those produced by real events, yet (especially in those parts of the general sympathy which are pleasing and delightful) do more nearly resemble the passions produced by real events, than anything which, from the motions of their own minds merely, other men are accustomed to feel in themselves:— whence, and from practice, he has acquired
a greater readiness and power in expressing what he thinks and feels, and especially those thoughts and feelings which, by his own choice, or from the structure of his own mind, arise in him without immediate external excitement
. (p. 299-300)
The Poet thinks and feels in the spirit of human passions. How, then, can his language differ in any material degree from that of all other men who feel vividly and see clearly
? It might be proved that it is impossible. But supposing that this were not the case, the Poet might then be allowed to use a peculiar language when expressing his feelings for his own gratification, or that of men like himself.
But Poets do not write for Poets alone, but for men.
Unless therefore we are advocates for that admiration which subsists upon ignorance, and that pleasure which arises from hearing what we do not understand, the Poet must descend from this supposed height; and, in order to excite rational sympathy,
he must express himself as other men express themselves.
(p. 303)
*Much as he does with language (and at the same time), Wordsworth makes an argument that poets do not differ from other men in essentials, but only in the degree of their ability to think and feel. In other words, they are the same as other guys, but not quite. That being the case, the poet will use the language of ordinary people, but he will use it selectively and imaginatively. But, again, the language used will be an accessible one. Poetry is not something reserved for the educated classes. All (literate) men and women can enjoy it.
• Believes poetry should be natural and emotional: "the spontaneous overflow of powerful feeling... recollected in tranquility"
• Believes poetry brings pleasure in the acknowledgment of the beauty of the universe
• Believes an increasingly urbanized and industrialized world needs moral regeneration and a return to natural passions
Believes poetry should be in "the language of men": simple and direct and accessible to people
Believes the poet has a "greater knowledge of human nature" (the poet is superior)
Believes poetry can educate and offer readers a moral sensibility
Believes that the everyday lives of common men ("low and rustic life") is a connection to nature and, thus, to human nature
Believes the poet should use the imagination to transform the experience: "a colouring of imagination
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