Preface to Lyrical Ballads Questions and Answers
by William Wordsworth

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What new idea about poetry was expressed in Wordsworth's preface to Lyrical Ballads?

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Jay Gilbert, Ph.D. eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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As is expressed in the existing educator answer, Wordsworth, in his "Preface to Lyrical Ballads," proposed to utilize "incidents and situations from common life" in "language really used by men" in the poems to follow. While historically, poetry had confined itself largely to the "great subjects" of love, death, and God, this shift toward describing what Wordsworth saw as the true sources of his inspiration was highly significant. It marked the beginning of true Romanticism. Moreover, Wordsworth's description of what inspires his poetry, and what he believes poetry to be, represents the incorporation of Edmund Burke's philosophy of the sublime into the poetic approach:

I have said that poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity: the emotion is contemplated till, by a species of reaction, the tranquillity gradually disappears, and an emotion, kindred to that which was before the subject of contemplation, is gradually produced, and does itself actually exist in the mind.

"Emotion recollected in tranquillity," as Wordsworth describes it, is key to understanding much subsequent Romantic poetry, as it embodies the way in which Romantic poems define the "muse." Wordsworth's interactions with nature in his poems, and his reliance upon the sublime feelings evoked by nature in the poet, marked a new direction for poetry.

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Wordsworth's preface to Lyrical Ballads suggested a new approach to poetry, one which sought to expose the reader to authentic human emotion, which Wordsworth thought should be the goal of good poetry. To do this, he chose subject matter that did not interest many of his eighteenth-century predecessors:

The principal object, then, proposed in these Poems was 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 chose scenes from everyday aspects of country life, and as the last few words in the quote suggest, he sought to illuminate them using language free of abstraction, metrical tricks, and what he called "poetic diction":

...such a language, arising out of repeated experience and regular feelings, is a more permanent, and a far more philosophical language, than that which is frequently substituted for it by Poets...

Wordsworth was articulating a new direction for poetry, one which emphasized authenticity and the power of everyday experiences when subjected to contemplation. This thinking was influential among many Romantic poets and artists, who eschewed the what they saw as the stifling formalism and self-indulgence in eighteenth-century art.


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