Please analyze Wordsworth's definition of poetry from his Preface to the "Lyrical Ballads." "Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility."

Wordsworth's preface to the Lyrical Ballads is a long, complex statement about the nature of Romantic poetry. This single sentence makes an important point about Wordsworth's view of poetry, both that it is a powerful outflow of emotion and something which should be reflected on after the event.

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In stark contrast to his neoclassical predecessors, Wordsworth believed that emotions constitute the ultimate foundation of poetry. Neoclassical poets tended to distrust the emotions, seeing them as unruly and out of control, certainly not the appropriate raw material out of which well-made poems should be constructed.

But in the “Preface”...

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In stark contrast to his neoclassical predecessors, Wordsworth believed that emotions constitute the ultimate foundation of poetry. Neoclassical poets tended to distrust the emotions, seeing them as unruly and out of control, certainly not the appropriate raw material out of which well-made poems should be constructed.

But in the “Preface” to Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth puts emotion front and center of the poetic craft. He regards the emotions as nothing less than the wellspring of poetry. Poetry ultimately comes from the heart, not, as neoclassical poets believed, from the head. Simply put, without deep emotions and powerful feelings, it is impossible to write poetry.

Even so, poems must also have an intellectual component to them. Emotions may form the raw material of a poem, but they still need to be tempered and controlled by the intellect. In that sense, the ideal poem is a synthesis of the heart and the head, of the emotions and the intellect.

That's what Wordsworth means by “emotion recollected in tranquility”. It's not enough that one has emotions—though that's certainly, as we've seen, a vital prerequisite for writing poetry—one must also engage in deep thinking. For Wordsworth, it is this fusion of profound thought and profound emotions that creates great poetry.

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Wordsworth's famous statement about poetry from the preface to the Lyrical Ballads differs significantly from that of Coleridge, his collaborator and fellow Romantic, who more conventionally declared that, while prose consists of putting words in their best order, poetry is "the best words in the best order."

Coleridge's definition highlights what is missing from Wordsworth's: any element of skill, craft or virtuosity. The nearest Wordsworth comes to this is in his concept of "tranquility." This can be taken as an admission that any "spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings" cannot necessarily be described as poetry. If this were the case, anyone who shouted with pain when he stubbed his toe would count as a poet. The poet must create something out of the emotion, and tranquility is necessary to work and concentrate.

The preface to the Lyrical Ballads, however, is a complex piece of writing, and it is full of references to and definitions of poetry, poets, and poems. This single sentence must be taken in context and balanced with the many other things Wordsworth says about poets and poetry. In particular, Wordsworth is very clear that a poet is not the same as other people. In another well-known passage, he writes:

What is a Poet? to whom does he address himself? and what language is to be expected from him?—He is a man speaking to men: a man, it is true, 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.

This description and many others must be taken into account in understanding Wordsworth's definition of poetry, and of Romantic poetry in particular. Romantic poetry is emotion recollected in tranquility, but it is a myriad of other things besides this.

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As Coleridge and Wordsworth met and walked the countryside together in the late 1790s, they talked excitedly about the theory and meaning of poetry. Both had been political radicals, but with the French Revolution having gone bad and the French and the English heading towards war, the two men turned from radicalism to the importance of a way of living and writing that gave primacy to the emotions. 

Wordsworth, especially, had been shattered by his experiences in France during the revolution, but he still, as he expressed later in his autobiographical poem The Prelude, wanted to stand up for the common man. He thought he could do this by capturing emotional moments that depicted the simple working person in a positive, sympathetic light.

In the preface, Wordsworth famously described the goal of this new kind of poetry, a radical break from the measured, rational Neoclassical poetry of the 18th century in which emotions were downplayed. He wanted, as this quote expresses, to capture the intensity of emotions. But he didn't want his poems simply to be an embarrassing gush of raw feelings: he wanted to express the emotions from a place of tranquility or calm, to ponder them and then recreate them from a distance. Thus, his poems, such as "I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud" or "The Solitary Reaper" often end with the narrator happily recollecting the deep emotions the poem describes. 

 

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This often quoted sentiment from Wordsworth speaks directly to both his beliefs as a poet and a thinker of Romanticism.  The quote speaks to how Wordsworth feels poetry is to be created.  In stark contrast to the Neoclassical period which preceded Romanticism and was driven by wit and a sense of the intellectual, Wordsworth believes poetry as something to be created from the realm of the subjective.  The idea of a "spontaneous overflow" drives home the notion of the affect in both poetry and the creation of it.  While the mind does possess a role in this state of being, the artist must be in a synchronized mode with their consciousness from an affect point of view.  This is enhanced with the idea of recalling this emotional state from a point of recollection in tranquility, implying that the poet or artist cannot engage in this profess of reflection and rumination from a position in traditional and conformist society.

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