Preface to Lyrical Ballads

by William Wordsworth

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What are the main features of Wordsworth's "Preface" to Lyrical Ballads?

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The main features of Wordsworth's "Preface" to Lyrical Ballads include an emphasis on exalting the common person, the use of simple language, a focus on nature as an expression of the divine, and a conviction that poetry should be lyrical or emotional, expressing "the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings ...recollected in tranquillity."

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Wordsworth's "Preface" represents a radical break with eighteenth century neoclassical poetry. Such poetry emphasized the deeds of great men and allusions to works of classical antiquity. Instead of that, Wordsworth proposed that poetry focus on depicting the ordinary person—poor, obscure, and laboring—in the most positive light possible (in other words, it should "romanticize" such individuals). While commonplace today, the idea of exalting the everyday person, usually either ignored or represented as a "clown" in literature, was then an unusual concept.

Wordsworth, in his "Preface," also argued in favor of using simple language that would be easily accessible to all people. He conceived of the poet in Miltonic terms, as a person conveying the ways of God to men. Wordsworth envisioned the poet as a type of priest, an intermediary with a special gift of translating or interpreting the divine. This led him to an emphasis on nature, which Wordsworth felt was an expression of the divine force made manifest, and an emphasis on supernatural and folk tales, not much represented at the time in poetry.

The "Preface" also emphasized the importance of the lyrical or emotional. Instead of poems celebrating great events, poetry, in Wordsworth's mind, should primarily be a matter of conveying emotions. He famously said that poetry is:

the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity.

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Wordsworth's Preface to the Lyrical Ballads has been called a manifesto of Romanticism. It thoroughly expounds many of the features and precepts of Romantic verse. These include the following major points:

There is a focus on the everyday, in terms of people and incidents, and the use of common language. Wordsworth says that it was his principal object to "choose incidents and situations from common life, and to relate or describe them, throughout, as far as was possible in a selection of language really used by men." He goes on to say that he prefers humble or rustic subjects because in such settings "the essential passions of the heart find a better soil in which they can attain their maturity."

Wordsworth spends some time talking about the nature and character of the Poet (a word he routinely capitalizes). He describes the Poet as "a man talking to men" but says he has certain special gifts and abilities—"a greater knowledge of human nature, and a more comprehensive soul" than most men. He compares the Poet's art and specialized knowledge with that of lawyers, scientists, and other specialists. While he admits that some of a Poet's art is dependent on technical skill, this is a necessary rather than sufficient condition.

Wordsworth defends poetry, writes of the pleasure of meter, and explains his own decision to write in this particular genre. He offers his own celebrated definition of poetry: "the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity."

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In the Preface to Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth outlines his main ideas about the nature of poetry and defends his own poetic practices. 

He argues for a poetry grounded in nature and in the lives of ordinary people, especially the peasants, shepherds, and farmers living in rural areas. Unlike the pastoral, Wordsworth's version of the countryside claims to be grounded in the real lives of rural people rather than being an idealized rural backdrop to mythological or courtly tales. 

He argues for the importance of ordinary experience and of finding the sublime in moments of ordinary time rather than in the unusual or extraordinary. He also believes in using ordinary language, grounded in regular speech rather than relying on exotic vocabulary and ornate figures of speech. He emphases the importance of feeling over ideas. He does not, however, reject the literary tradition but rather sees himself as returning to its roots in the common human experience and helping people reconnect with emotions and the ordinary beauties and moments of joy we experience. 

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I think that one of the main features of Wordsworth's Preface is to outline his fundamental beliefs about the nature and construction of poetry.  This consists of analyzing three distinct features to poetic construction that he believes lies at the essence of the Romantic credo.  The subject matter of poetry is one of these features.  Wordsworth suggests that the idea of country life, simplicity in nature, is of vital importance.  It is here where poetry must emphasize its power.  In doing so, Wordsworth believes that poetry speaks to the basic idea of expressing the joy in living, reveling in what is seen every day.  In this, Wordsworth outlines the feature of emotional connection that is a part of the poetic experience.  The belief of poetry being the "spontaneous overflow of emotion" is of critical importance.  Poetry has to be seen as a mode of expression where the emotion of the poet guides the exploration and articulation of the subject matter.  In both of these, Wordsworth feels that poetry will be able to capture the imagination of the reader.  This becomes the third feature of the Preface, suggesting quite clearly that there is an emotional and thoughtful experience within poetry that is meant to unify both realms.  Poetry is the source of unity in a world of fragmentation and division, accomplishing one of the central tenets of Romanticism.

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Name and discuss the features of Romantic poets and poetry which William Wordsworth asserts in the Preface to Lyrical Ballads.

Much of the basis of Romanticism is brought out in Wordsworth's Preface to Lyrical Ballads.  For example, when Wordsworth argues that poetry must "choose incidents and situations from common life," this can go very far in being seen in his own work.  In "The Solitary Reaper," the subject is a woman working in a field.  This is rather common and is a real life situation from which universal truths and artistic imagination are explored.  Wordsworth also demands that the language used is one "used by men."  This helps to bring out the idea that the articulation of such experiences is done so in a manner that can be approachable by anyone.  In Byron's "When We Two Parted," the subject of a breakup is done in direct and clear language, lacking any feeling of antiquated English, and rather embracing what individuals articulate and experience in a pure form.  When the strict adherence to "coloring of imagination" is invoked, I tend to think of Colerdige's "Kubla Khan," which explores the supernatural and the realm that lies outside of mortal consciousness.  It is through language that Coleridge accomplishes such a movement of the reader to a world that is "different."  The final demand of a tracing of one's consciousness in these situations in an "interesting" manner can be seen in Keats' "Ode on a Grecian Urn."  In this poem, the truths of beauty, truth, and one's place within both domains is evoked in such a manner that there are far more questions than answers.  Naturally, one can find different poems to fit the features asserted in the Preface, but in my mind, these poems stand out as embodying what Wordsworth was seeking to evoke in poetry.

In Blake's poem, I think that these principles are also evident.  The subject matter of a chimney sweep is one that is common and not something that has to be sought.  The fact that Blake chose this subject matter would be concurrent with the idea that poetry is in the life of the day to day.  The language used to explore both the contrast of the boy's reality and his dreams is also one that can be appropriated by the reader, and there is little in terms of reaching for language outside the grasp of the individual that is present.  The "coloring of imagination" is present in the middle stanzas, when the chimney sweep envisions a life that it outside of their own, an existence that is in contrast to what is.  In this, Blake ends up using both his own and the reader's imagination to bring out what can be in harsh contrast to what is, which is the last stanza's darkness.  Finally, in presenting "difference" through poetry, one can only examine how children find their own youths robbed due to material or social reality.  When Romanticism seeks to bring out childhood in all, what is there to be said when children are denied their own entitlement of childhood?

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