Preface to Lyrical Ballads Questions and Answers
by William Wordsworth

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Please summarize the second topic, Topic II, of a critical article by Thomas Pfau about Wordsworth's Preface to Lyrical Ballads. The Pfau essay is “‘Elementary Feelings’ and ‘Distorted Language’: The Pragmatics of Culture in Wordsworth's ‘Preface to Lyrical Ballads’” (1993). The essay's main ideas are divided into four topics (I, II, III, IV). I want a summary on just the second topic, Topic II. I tackled this article but found it too difficult to understand, so I need you to describe and comment Topic II's main claims with as much detail as you can.

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In Section II, Pfau examines Wordsworth's concept of the "essence" of human nature, where that essence is found, and analyzes Wordsworth's use of that concept.  As Pfau notes, in Wordsworth's view, essential humanity--loosely translated as the feelings and passions that make us all humans--resides most reliably in

Humble and rustic life . . . the essential passions of the heart find a better soil in which they can attain their maturity, are less under restraint, and speak a plainer and more emphatic language. (Pfau:132)

What troubles Pfau is that this "rustic life," which, in Wordsworth's time, was largely a memory,  and its genuine passions "are being promoted to the status of an a priori, paradigmatic cultural value," meaning that Wordsworth puts forth the value of the rustic life as if everyone still aspires to the now-gone rustic life and its passions as a cultural value, a cultural goal.  More important, however, is Wordsworth's contention in the same passage that

. . . influxes of feeling are modified and directed by our thoughts, which are indeed the representatives of all our past feelings: . . . feeling therein [that is, in the Lyrical Ballads] . . . gives importance to the action and situation, and not the action and situation to the feeling. (Pfau:132)

In essence, Wordsworth has done two things here that Pfau considers problematic: 1) Wordsworth postulates that humanness is best exemplified by the rustic life, which engenders genuine feeling and passion, and writes as if everyone accepts that premise as a cultural truth; and 2) Wordsworth elevates these "regular feelings" to the level of prime mover in human affairs--that is, actions that we take are influenced by "representatives of all our past feelings."  Feelings, then, become more important than logic in the conduct of life, and these feelings and passions, as expressed in poetic discourse, are understood by readers because the feelings are unchanging, authentic, and culturally valuable.

Taking the implications of this argument another step, Pfau considers how feelings, which are inherently individual, can affect a larger culture (and its response to poetry).  To Wordsworth--who argues that the rustic's feelings exhibit the "great and simple affections [that is, feelings and passions] of our nature" (Pfau:133)--the feelings and passions he believes inhere in rustic life are, according to Pfau, "inalienable essentialism"--that is, those traits are at the core of humanness and cannot be changed by time or modern life and so they become the vehicle by which poetic discourse travels through time.  As the larger group of readers changes over time, if we agree with Wordsworth, the "essentialism" of the rustic is still appealing and understood because it holds the ineradicable core of humanness to which readers respond.

The remaining problem, as Pfau sees it, is that Wordsworth continues to struggle against the reality that the rustic life is not universally viewed as the seat of all that is good about humanness.  As Pfau notes, 

Wordsworth now recontextualizes it [the value of rustic feelings and passions] within a realm of agrarian, 'rustic' past that has proven . . . proverbial of the obscurity and contradictoriness of the Preface and its incompatibility with Lyrical Ballads.

Pfau argues here that Wordsworth's design for the Lyrical Ballads, which was "'a natural delineation of human passions, human characters, and human incidents,'" based on the premise of culturally-edifying rustic life, is "largely nostalgic, if not outright imaginary. . . ." (Pfau:134).  The Preface may indeed by obscure and contradict itself in places, but we need to remember that Wordsworth was charting unknown territory here in terms of belief systems and poetic technique, all complicated by his reaction to modernity itself.

Ultimately, though, Pfau concludes that Wordsworth has created a "'founding' allegory (the "other") of a historical consciousness" (Pfau:135) that is attempting to instill in the modern urban reader "a journey of self-re(dis)covery."  He refers here to Wordsworth's belief in the recovery of forgotten feelings and passions--as articulated in the rustic life that Wordsworth writes about in Lyrical Ballads--and discovery of the modern reader that he or she is connected directly to the moral and cultural truths embodied in the rustic life which has passed away but cannot be forgotten if poetic discourse is to survive and thrive.


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