Preface to Lyrical Ballads

by William Wordsworth
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Did Wordsworth achieve the aim he describes in the preface to Lyrical Ballads?

One could say that Wordsworth generally achieved the aim he describes in the preface to Lyrical Ballads. However, there are still a few poems in the collection that don't use “the real language of men,” such as Coleridge's “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and Wordsworth's “Lines Written a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey.”

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The preface to Lyrical Ballads sets out nothing less than a revolutionary manifesto for the transformation of poetry. Both in terms of style and content, Wordsworth puts forwards a radical vision that comprehensively overthrows the dominant approach of neoclassicism, with its obsession with decorum, neat rhymes, and elevated subject matter.

Wordsworth's avowed aim is to depart from the neoclassicists and write poetry that deals with the lives or ordinary folk and is written in “the real language of men” and not the artificial, ornamental language that poets at that time often used.

For the most part, Wordsworth succeeds in realizing this objective. Works such as “We are Seven” and “The Idiot Boy” have a touching simplicity about them, both in terms of the characters they represent and in relation to the language that they use. One wouldn't have to have read any poetry to have appreciated such works.

Yet there are a number of poems in Lyrical Ballads that don't seem to achieve Wordsworth's lofty aims. The most obvious example would be Coleridge's “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” an epic poem written in a self-consciously archaic style, and whose concerns are far removed from those of ordinary folk.

From Wordsworth, we have “Lines Written a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey,” which is written in a very elevated style. To be sure, there's nothing in this poem that harks back to the remarkably ornate language of neoclassical works, but it could hardly be described as being written in “the real language of men.” It is, on the contrary, given to us in the words of an educated man who has thought very deeply about his experiences.

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