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.