Preface to Lyrical Ballads Questions and Answers
by William Wordsworth

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Discuss Wordsworth's theory of poetic composition with reference to his "Preface" to Lyrical Ballads.

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Wordsworth believed that the proper subject of poetry was "situations from common life," and that poetic language should resemble the language that was "really used by men." His purpose as a poet, therefor, was to present these common situations in an imaginative way, "tracing in them . . . the primary laws of our nature" and to:

follow the fluxes and reflexes of the mind when agitated by the great and simple affections of our nature.

Much of the preface is given over to a defense of these precepts, arguing that the cleverness most readers associate with poetic style is in fact unpoetic and "unnecessary" and that the poet should strive to exclude all but that language which the subject "naturally suggests."

His famous definition of poetry as "the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings . . . recollected in tranquility" suggests that the role of the poet is to serve as a kind of conduit for expressing these emotions.

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Wordsworth's Preface to Lyrical Ballads was a manifesto for a new approach to poetry. Arguing that the expression of "essential passions" ought to be the goal of poetry, he sought to do so by choosing subject matter from everyday life, particularly in nature. He thought that country people expressed themselves more plainly, and without artifice, and so he proposed to make their experiences the subject of his poetry. Power and beauty could be found in everyday life if it was subjected to contemplation, and to do so in a more authentic way, he claimed that poets had to use everyday language and diction, not the artificial devices that were employed by many of his predecessors:

...such a language, arising out of 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, who think that they are conferring honour upon themselves and their art, in proportion as they separate themselves from the sympathies of men...

The point was not necessarily that poetry should be written for "common people," or that its language should be watered down in order to gain broader appeal. It was that powerful emotions were present in everyday life, and that the composition of authentic poetry ought to focus on these emotions rather than classical themes or the use of arcane literary devices to show off the poet's learning and skill. 

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