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

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vangoghfan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

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.