Preface to Lyrical Ballads

by William Wordsworth

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What is Wordsworth's major concern for the human condition and politics in his "Preface to the Lyrical Ballads"?

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One of the major concerns Wordsworth had for the human condition and politics was its turning away from nature and toward technology. In his poem “The World Is Too Much With Us” he comments that “Little we see in Nature that is ours / We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!” He was initially interested in equality, but later in his life became conservative. He turned his back on the common man he championed in “Lyrical Ballads.”

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Like many of his contemporaries, William Wordsworth’s concerns for humanity included the loss of a love of nature, the inherent inequality of life in England, and the perceived failures of the French Revolution. Because he turned conservative as a relatively young man, it’s often forgotten how radical Wordsworth was before he changed his politics.

Wordsworth was an early follower of William Godwin, an atheist and strong believer in equality. Wordsworth took some of Godwin’s ideas to heart and wrote his famous “Letter to the Bishop of Llandaff,” lambasting the monarchy, religion, and repression under Godwin's inspiration. It is the work of a young man not yet disillusioned with the French Revolution—and it represents the zenith of his progressive thinking. In his "Preface to the Lyrical Ballads,” Wordsworth has strong opinions on common people and their lives.

The principal object, then, which I proposed to myself in these Poems was to chuse 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…

As noble as that sounds, what Wordsworth attempts to do is unrealistic. He famously declares that

Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings; it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.

But the world around Wordsworth is changing. With the Industrial Revolution looming, in short order the common man will have little time for tranquil recollections. Despite the quiet protest of the effects of the Industrial Revolution in his 1802 poem “The World Is Too Much With Us,” its message would be lost on the common man and his toils.

The world is too much with us; late and soon
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!

Wordsworth, too, gives his heart away. The seeds of elitism having quietly been planted, and his thoughts of equality fade away entirely in 1812. By then, he proclaims,

…the lower orders have been for upwards of thirty years accumulating in pestilential masses of ignorant population; the effects now begin to show themselves.

Despite his own warnings, the world, it seems, had become too much with Wordsworth.

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