What are some ideas about poets and poetry proposed by William Wordsworth in his "Preface" to the Lyrical Ballads (1802)?

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vangoghfan | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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In his "Preface" to the Lyrical Ballads (1802), William Wordsworth lays out many of the ideas often associated with Romanticism in English poetry.  Among those ideas are the following:

  • an emphasis on the "real language" actually spoken by human beings, especially human beings from the lower reaches of society. Wordsworth thus rejects the kind of “poetic” language that had come to seem stale, artificial, and unconvincing.
  • an emphasis on "vivid sensation," or heightened emotion and perception.
  • an emphasis on using poetry to provide "more than common pleasure."
  • an emphasis on "incidents and situations from common life."
  • an emphasis on using “imagination” to “throw a certain coloring over” descriptions of such incidents and situations so that

ordinary things should be presented to the mind in an unusual way . . . in order to make these incidents and situations interesting by tracing in them . . . the primary laws of our nature: chiefly, as far as regards the manner in which we associate ideas in a state of excitement.

  • an emphasis on “[l]ow and rustic life,” which often reveals essential human nature more readily than the kinds of lives lived by the allegedly more sophisticated persons of the upper classes.
  • an emphasis on “the essential passions of the heart.”
  • an emphasis on a “plainer and more emphatic language” than is usually found among the highly educated
  • an emphasis on the ways human emotions are “incorporated with the beautiful and permanent forms of nature.”
  • a rejection of the kinds of “arbitrary and capricious habits of expression” traditionally used in conventional poetry
  • an emphasis on poetry as a “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” but also on the poet as a person who has “thought long and deeply”:

For our continued influxes of feeling are modified and directed by our thoughts, which are indeed the representatives of all our past feelings . . . .

  • an emphasis on “the fluxes and refluxes of the mind when [it is] agitated by the great and simple affections of our nature.”
  • a rejection of the emphasis on abstract ideas and conventional personifications that had characterized the poetry of the eighteenth century.
  • an emphasis on looking directly and steadily at whatever the poet tries to describe and thus a rejection of “falsehood of description.”
  • an emphasis on a kind of poetic language that resembles the language of common prose.
  • an emphasis on the poet as “a man speaking to men” – that is, as a person who can effectively articulate the kinds of thoughts and feelings experienced by most human beings.


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user6171003 | College Teacher | (Level 2) Adjunct Educator

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In Wordsworth's "Preface to the Lyrical Ballads," something that interested me was that he said that in his poetryhe wanted to represent "incidents and situations from common life." He said he wanted to use a "selection of language really used by men." He does this throughout his poetry and it was interesting to me because, obviously, he's a talented guy, but he finds different ways to relate to common people throughout his poetry. I know it's something we all do when we're writing and know other people will read it, but it's interesting because he does it in so many different ways. He's like the professor that has a doctorate in the class your taking, but has the skill to actually make it comprehensible to his students. Rare, but amazing when it happens.

The way Wordsworth writes is very easy for the common person to understand and he writes about things that are easily related to. Like in "We are Seven," Wordsworth's writes about a little girl that had two siblings that had died, yet instead of saying that her family was only five now, she persisted that they were still seven. She was intent on telling this man that even though part of her family was gone, they were still there with her and they were still part of her family. This is something most people can relate to, whether it is from personal experience or not, we can still empathize with that feeling of loss and remembrance. Then, in "I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud," he relates in a beautiful way, to people and something that's all around us; nature. He does the same in "My Heart Leaps Up."

Through many of Wordsworth's poems, he sufficiently backs up his ideas that he stated in "The Preface to the Lyrical Ballads," that he wanted to talk about things in his poetry that were understandable by the common man and also things that related to common life. He did a fine job of these things in his works and I enjoyed reading them.

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user6171003 | College Teacher | (Level 2) Adjunct Educator

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Wordsworth’s monumental poetic legacy rests on a large number of important poems, varying in length and weight from the short, simple lyrics of the 1790s to the vast expanses of The Prelude, thirteen books long in its 1808 edition. But the themes that run through Wordsworth’s poetry, and the language and imagery he uses to embody those themes, remain remarkably consistent throughout the Wordsworth canon, adhering largely to the tenets Wordsworth set out for himself in the 1802 preface to Lyrical Ballads. Here, Wordsworth argues that poetry should be written in the natural language of common speech, rather than in the lofty and elaborate dictions that were then considered“poetic.” He argues that poetry should offer access to the emotions contained in memory. And he argues that the first principle of poetry should be pleasure, that the chief duty of poetry is to provide pleasure through a rhythmic and beautiful expression of feeling—for all human sympathy, he claims, is based on a subtle pleasure principle that is “the naked and native dignity of man.”

Recovering “the naked and native dignity of man” makes up a significant part of Wordsworth’s poetic project, and he follows his own advice from the 1802 preface. Wordsworth’s style remains plain-spoken and easy to understand even today, though the rhythms and idioms of common English have changed from those of the early nineteenth century. Many of Wordsworth’s poems (including masterpieces such as “Tintern Abbey” and the “Intimations of Immortality” ode) deal with the subjects of childhood and the memory of childhood in the mind of the adult in particular, childhood’s lost connection with nature, which can be preserved only in memory. Wordsworth’s images and metaphors mix natural scenery, religious symbolism (as in the sonnet “It is a beauteous evening, calm and free,” in which the evening is described as being “quiet as a nun”),and the relics of the poet’s rustic childhood—cottages, hedgerows, orchards, and other places where humanity intersects gently and easily with nature.

Wordsworth’s poems initiated the Romantic era by emphasizing feeling, instinct, and pleasure above formality and mannerism. More than any poet before him, Wordsworth gave expression to inchoate human emotion; his lyric “Strange fits of passion have I known,”in which the speaker describes an inexplicable fantasy he once had that his lover was dead, could not have been written by any previous poet. Curiously for a poet whose work points so directly toward the future, many of Wordsworth’s important works are preoccupied with the lost glory of the past—not only of the lost dreams of childhood but also of the historical past, as in the powerful sonnet “London, 1802,”in which the speaker exhorts the spirit of the centuries-dead poet John Milton to teach the modern world a better way to live

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