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.