How does William Wordsworth link imagination to poetry in his "Preface to Lyrical Ballads"?

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lenagrove eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Lyrical Ballads was first published in 1798. Co-authors William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge broke a lot of new ground and created a quite revolutionary text. Before what is termed the Romantic Period, poetry was defined by and praised for its stringent format, obvious and convoluted syntax (sentence structure and word order), and lofty topic choice. The Ideal poem adhered to a very set meter, rhyme scheme, and / or line length. Furthermore, the Ideal poem adhered to very specific subject matter that tended to be focused more toward “high” art and society (some good examples of this are Alexander Pope’s “The Rape of the Lock” and John Donne’s Meditations). Though imagination is certainly inherent in any creative text, the authors of Lyrical Ballads were of the opinion that such stringent control of a poem limited imagination. And they set out to change this.

Wordsworth and Coleridge believed that poetry should be accessible to all people, that it should be stripped of the convoluted mystery that surrounded it, and that it first and foremost should focus upon the everyday / average person’s experience. When one begins to think of poetry in these terms, it opens up a new and unexplored world.

There are several points in the “Preface” to Lyrical Ballads that highlight precisely how Wordsworth interpreted imagination:

Poetry as the “spontaneous overflow of powerful feeling”: Wordsworth here describes his notion of poetry as something that is not highly structured or pre-determined by tradition. Rather, he thinks of poetry as something that should flow naturally, spontaneously, from the writer. This is certainly the core of imagination. Without trying to fit in a pre-determined format and without censoring thought and subject matter, the writer is free to use his / her imagination in a way they previously weren’t.

Poetry as “emotion recollected in tranquility”: This description encourages the writer of poetry to 1) rely heavily upon emotion, and 2) take time to revisit the time and place in which that emotion occurred. Such an opinion focuses more upon the writer’s own emotions, upon the writer’s imagination, rather than upon a strict adherence to any particular form or structure. The substance of the poem becomes the content and the feeling it creates rather than the structure and format it follows.

Poetry should be written in the “real language of men”:  Here Wordsworth makes a very bold statement for his time – poems should be accessible to all people. How often have we read a poem and been overwhelmed by the dense and convoluted language? When we encounter a poem like that, does it move us in any way? Are we able to take pleasure in it? Or even understand it? If we aren’t able to do any of those things, how is our imagination piqued? Wordsworth calls on poets to use accessible, everyday language in order to make poetry more relatable to the audience – and when an audience engages with a text, there is a shared imagination between poet and reader that did not previously exit.

The above are only three examples from the “Preface” to Lyrical Ballads which demonstrate the crucial role imagination plays in the entire text. Reading the poems, you will see the ways in which both authors put these tenets into effect. Lyrical Ballads is a seminal text which greatly determined much of literature that came after it by encouraging a movement toward the emotional and imaginative aspects of art and human experience.

Read the study guide:
Preface to Lyrical Ballads

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