Preface to Lyrical Ballads

by William Wordsworth

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Discuss Wordsworth's views on poetic diction in "Preface to Lyrical Ballads".

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Wordsworth wants the diction used in poetry to match the diction people use in their actual lives. He says that, in the volume which follows this preface, the reader will but rarely find abstract ideas personified because he wishes to do nothing to "elevate the style" of the poetry or to "raise it above prose." Wordsworth finds great value in common language that anyone can use and understand. He writes, "My purpose was to imitate, and, as far as possible, to adopt the very language of men [...]." Moreover, he wants "to keep the Reader in the company of flesh and blood [...]." So we see that he will not use poetic diction, but, rather, he will use the language that people use to speak every day. The diction will be conversational, not elevated, and, in this way, he hopes to reach wider audiences with his work, to inspire greater numbers of people with it (and not just those individuals who have received educations which permit them to understand the loftier expressions used by other poets). He admits that he does sometimes use figurative language, but Wordsworth strives to keep his poems accessible to the average person through their diction.

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Essentially, Wordsworth denied that there should be such a thing as a diction specific to poetry. He thought that artifical poetic diction used by many writers obscured the sentiment and feeling that ought to be the focus of poetry. Rather than ornate, basically ornamental language, Wordsworth thought the diction of prose and the diction of poetry should be the same:

It may be safely affirmed, that there neither is, nor can be, any essential difference between the language of prose and metrical composition.

Wordsworth went even further, asserting that poetry ought to be written in the "language really spoken by men," which would accentuate the emotive power of the works by giving them more authenticity. In short, he hoped to strip away what he saw as the pretensions and stuffiness of poetry as it had been written by his predecessors, and his views on diction were central to this project.

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

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

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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Discuss Wordsworth’s theory of poetry as propounded by him in the Preface to Lyrical Ballads.

Wordsworth's Lyrical Ballads Preface is probably one of the most frequently cited works in the history of English literature. In it, he seeks to establish new principles for evaluating and writing poetry and for judging the aesthetic value of poetic works.

I would single out two central points in Wordsworth's essay as the basis of his overall thesis. First, he says, there must be something significant in the content of poetry for it to be of value, regardless of the actual words used. He quotes a well-known quatrain by Samuel Johnson as an example of poetry by a great writer which is worthless because the "matter" of it, the substance, is meaningless:

I put my hat upon my head
And walked into the Strand,
And there I met another man
Whose hat was in his hand.

I might add, as my own personal view, that Wordsworth is giving an especially insignificant illustration of his point, since no one, including Johnson himself, would have ever thought that these lines rose above the level of a silly ditty. Yet the broader point Wordsworth is making is that to him, much of the poetry of the previous age was of little value because it did not deal with man's inner life or with human passion and instead focused on material things in the outer world. One sees that comic and satiric poetry, which dominated much of the eighteenth century, was not of interest to Wordsworth and was not genuinely poetic, in his evaluation.

The second point in Wordsworth's essay I would focus on is his view of the language appropriate to poetry. So far as possible—with the exception of the normal elements of verse, such as meter and rhyme—the language of poetry should be essentially the same as that of prose. It should approximate the way people actually speak in the real world. Wordsworth regards special "elevated" words and phrases poets have traditionally used—"poetic diction"—as artificial and inappropriate to poetry, and he quotes Thomas Gray's sonnet "On the Death of Richard West" as an example of a poem containing such affectations, as in the opening lines:

In vain to me the smiling mornings shine,
And reddening Phoebus lifts his golden fire.

No one, Wordsworth argues, talks this way, and therefore poets should not write this way either.

Whatever the "truth" of Wordsworth's views, one has to admit that in his own poetry, he did follow his principles. His poetry does sound like people's actual speech, allowing for the elements that Wordsworth himself regards as exceptions, and he does consistently deal with "serious" matters, not the trivial and comical subjects he finds worthless in earlier poets' works. Though Wordsworth was a genuine pathbreaker, along with his collaborator Coleridge, the views he enunciates in the Preface were not fully shared by the Romantic poets of the second generation (e.g., Byron, Shelley, and Keats), or even by Coleridge himself. If anything, a poet such as Keats, one of the greatest of the Romantics, used the same type of "poetic diction" Wordsworth condemns in Gray. But much of the poetry of the nineteenth century does conform to Wordsworth's ideal in this regard—even that of a poet like Byron, who disliked Wordsworth's work but in his own poetry, such as Don Juan, wrote in what is essentially a natural, conversational manner, and yet a fully poetic one.

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Discuss Wordsworth’s theory of poetry as propounded by him in the Preface to Lyrical Ballads.

Much of Wordsworth's philosophy of poetry is outlined in his Preface.  The idea that poetry should focus on commonplace subjects is something that Wordsworth clung to in his body of poetry.  Wordsworth sought to bring out the powerfully universal qualities in subjects that are very ordinary.  A woman in the field, a set of daffodils, or the conversation between two people in love are ordinary subjects, but ones that allowed Wordsworth to evoke some of the most powerful of images.  In his language and context, the words and choice of words are ones that reflect "language used by men."  Wordsworth wrote in a style that was approachable by common people and in this, Wordsworth sought to democratize poetry and its appreciation.  Finally, in "presenting the usual in an unusual way," Wordsworth was able to bring out the universal from the specific, the objective from the subjective, and in the process, allow his poetry to "see into the life of things" and create a new venue where poetry allows the individual to open new doors of perception.

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Describe Wordsworth's theory of poetry as explained in the preface to Lyrical Ballads.

Wordsworth's theory of poetry as explained in his preface to Lyrical Ballads is based on several propositions. Poetry, Wordsworth argued, ought to arouse strong, profound feelings in the reader. The best way to do this, he thought, was to investigate themes and subjects from everyday life, and in language that was both accessible to readers and purged of artificial devices and "poetic diction." Poetry could thus reveal the power and depth of emotion in everyday life, sentiments that were obscured by many poets who viewed poetry as a means to show off their clever turns of phrase and use of puns. Shorn of these extraneous baggage, and focusing on familiar scenes, poetry could excite the reader's imagination.

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Discuss Wordsworth's theory of poetry as propounded by him in his "Preface to Lyrical Ballads."

William Wordsworth in his “Preface” to the Lyrical Ballads, outlines a theory of poetry that involves a number of different assumptions, including the following:

  • Pleasure in poetry results, in part, from “vivid sensation” and from language that is close to real speech.
  • Good poetry can deal with “incidents and situations from common life,” especially when such “ordinary things” and “presented to the mind in an unusual way.”
  • Effective poetry can deal with the “beautiful and permanent forms of nature,” including the “great and simple affections” of human nature.
  • Wordsworth was deliberately not trying to present the kinds of “personifications of abstract ideas” common in early poetry.
  • Effective poetry can be written when its language is close to the “language of prose.”
  • A poet is

a man speaking to men: a man, it is true, endued [that is, “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 . . . .

  • Poets are more likely to be moved by memories of absent things than other people are.
  • Poets have a greater capacity for expressing what they think and feel, especially when relying on their imaginations and memories.
  • The poet,

singing a song in which all human beings join with him, rejoices in the presence of truth as in our visible friend and hourly companion.

  • Poetry has the ability to unite human beings in shared thoughts and feelings despite superficial differences of language, laws, customs, and geography.
  • In one of the most famous sentences he ever composed, Wordsworth asserts that

poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility . . .

Wordsworth’s theory of poetry has much in common with the theory propounded many centuries earlier in his treatise On the Sublime.  Both men thought of poetry as a kind of lofty, ennobling, almost spiritual force that draws upon and appeals to the best aspects of human nature.


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What is Wordsworth's theory of poetry as given in the preface to Lyrical Ballads?

I find it interesting that Wordsworth appears so humble in the preface.  The most fascinating part of the preface, for me, is this line.

Several of my Friends are anxious for the success of these Poems, from a belief, that, if the views with which they were composed were indeed realized, a class of Poetry would be produced, well adapted to interest mankind permanently... (see second link)

Wordsworth seems to be suggesting that this new type of poetry will alter the landscape permanently.  Actually, he did, by not just writing the poems but also "defining his ideas of the primary laws of nature, the working of the imagination, the process of association of ideas, and the balance of passion and restraint in human conduct" (see first link).

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Discuss Wordsworth's theory of poetry as propounded by him in his preface?  

Wordsworth's famous quotation about the creation of poetry, states that poetry cannot be created at the moment that the poet encounters it.  Often this encounter is so intense, he feels he must capture it. Alas,  Wordsworth feels that beholding natural beauty stimulates the senses and distorts the perceptions.  This is why in his poem, "Daffodils," he explains that it is only after his encounter with a field of flowers, when he is lying on his couch remembering the experience, that he is able to recreate this image poetically.  In other words, his poem is "recollected in tranquility," not in the heat of sensory perception.

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