Preface to Lyrical Ballads

by William Wordsworth

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Preface to Lyrical Ballads Summary

In the preface to Lyrical Ballads, William Wordsworth outlines his theory of poetry. He argues that literary devices such as personification make it difficult for writers to communicate effectively.

  • Wordsworth outlines his principles for the composition of lyrical ballads. He asserts that poetry must concern itself primarily with nature and human experience.

  • Wordsworth's inspiration for writing lyrical ballads is that they emphasize the status of poetry as a form of art. He intends to enlighten his readers as to the depths of human emotion.

  • Wordsworth argues that good poetry doesn't have to be overly complicated or ornamental in order to capture readers' imaginations.

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Last Updated November 3, 2023.


Lyrical Ballads is a collection of poetry by William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge that was originally published in 1798. Wordsworth’s preface to this collection was composed for its second edition, published in 1801, and expanded for its third edition in 1802; in it, he outlines and justifies his poetic choices and beliefs. Lyrical Ballads is considered by many to be the beginning of the Romantic movement in literature, and the preface describes and demonstrates many of the characteristics of Romantic poetry. 


In the beginning of his preface to Lyrical Ballads, William Wordsworth explains the purpose behind the collection of poems: it was an “experiment” to determine whether poetry written in “the real language of men” could be successful. He was surprised, he notes, when he found that more readers like the poems than dislike them, as they are significantly different than any other poetry circulating at the time. Before the publication of Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth and his friends believed that if the project was a success, a new genre of poetry might be established. Having thus explained the general purpose of Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth expresses his fear that in writing a preface, he will unduly influence readers into liking his poems. Wordsworth readily admits that the poetry in this collection might not be viewed as poetry at all, because it is so vastly different from what readers have come to expect from poetry. 

Wordsworth’s writing in Lyrical Ballads differs from that of his contemporaries because of its comparatively simple language and topics. The topics Wordsworth and Coleridge chose to write about in this collection generally concern the “low and rustic life.” They attempted to write about these topics in the “language really used by men”—though with “a certain colouring of imagination” and a link back to “the primary laws of our nature” in order to make them interesting. Wordsworth and Coleridge elected to use the language of the common man because the simplicity of that language allows for greater accuracy in conveying emotion: their language is “simple and unelaborated,” and thus “a far more philosophical language.” Many of Wordsworth’s contemporaries, in their excessively complicated diction, literary devices, and topics, “separate themselves from the sympathies of men”—which, Wordsworth implies, renders their poetry inferior. 

Wordsworth argues that his poems, unlike others of the time period, contain purpose. Here, he famously declares that “all good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” and that the only valuable poems are those that are the product of careful contemplation. Wordsworth states that his purpose is “to illustrate the manner in which our feelings and ideas are associated in a state of excitement”: that is, to illuminate the reactions of the mind that are caused by nature and events in life. The poems of his contemporaries, he claims, are written in such a way as to provide instant gratification; Wordsworth hopes that this literary movement (neoclassicism) and its “evil[s]” will soon be overthrown. 

Wordsworth next begins his analysis of his poetic style in Lyrical Ballads. As his goal was to write in “the very language of men,” he has limited or eliminated “personifications of abstract ideas” and “poetic diction”—neither of which are found in everyday speech. He writes that “personifications of abstract ideas” especially are viewed as trademark characteristics of poetry that differentiate it from prose, but Wordsworth has prevented himself from using them and believes them to be merely “mechanical device[s] of style.” Additionally, he has restrained himself from using certain poetic expressions that, although beautiful, have become overused and cliché. 

Wordsworth launches into a sort of rebuttal in which he defends his poetry against critics who believe that poetry must differ in language from prose if it is to be called poetry at all. Quoting a stanza from Thomas Gray’s “Sonnet on the Death of Mr. Richard West,” Wordsworth demonstrates that “the language of Prose may yet be well adapted to Poetry.” Art enthusiasts love to compare the art forms of poetry and painting—yet they shy away from admitting similarities between poetry and prose, which are more similar in nature than are poetry and painting. 

Having addressed the nature of his poetry, Wordsworth proceeds to analyze the nature and profession of a poet. A poet, he explains, has the ability to experience certain emotions more deeply and express them more accurately than most people can. The poet can also “conjur[e] up in himself passions” without being stimulated by “immediate external excitement.” Likewise, the poet can relate emotionally to the people he describes in his poems in such a way that, though their sufferings are not his own, he can “confound and identify” his feelings with theirs. A necessary responsibility of the poet is providing pleasure to his audience. Wordsworth states that both poetry and science provide pleasure, but the truth in science is individually enjoyed and slowly acquired, whereas the truth proclaimed in poetry unites readers and is rooted in human nature. 

Wordsworth acknowledges that through meter, poetry places constraints on both the poet and the reader that prose does not. Explaining his reasons for writing in poetry instead of prose, Wordsworth argues that meter does not significantly limit the poet’s ideas; further, it adds “charm” to writing and provides a sense of familiarity in poems with difficult and heavy topics so that the reader is not overwhelmed. The presence of a regular meter is why people read Shakespeare’s writings, though heavy at times, over and over again, but will only reluctantly reread the “distressful parts of Clarissa Harlowe, or the Gamester.”

Wordsworth asserts earlier in the preface that “Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings”; however, near the end, he goes into greater detail about the process of writing poetry. The poet, in a state of “tranquillity,” remembers and contemplates an emotion. In doing so, he begins to feel this emotion that he had previously been reflecting upon, and with it, he composes his poem. No matter what kind of emotion the poet reflects upon and writes about, he will experience pleasure from the act of writing. Likewise, he should be careful to provide his readers with an “overbalance of pleasure” in the midst of the emotions he expresses to them: no emotion a reader encounters in a poem should exceed the pleasure he experiences in reading it. 

Wordsworth briefly mentions the “defects” he believes readers may find in his poems. Though he acknowledges that he may have, on occasion, written about “unworthy subjects” that affect or concern his own feelings more than those of readers, he is more concerned that the language he has used to describe these subjects may affect readers in a different way than he intended. He fears that his language—which he felt expressed his emotions at the time—will have the opposite effect on readers and come across as “ludicrous”; therefore he requests that his audience, if this be the case, not judge him too harshly.

Wordsworth directs the final portion of his preface to his readers, requesting that they judge his poems for themselves, refrain from deferring to “what will probably be the judgement of others,” and be careful in evaluating his writing. He recognizes the sacrifice he is asking his readers to make: they must “give up much of what is ordinarily enjoyed,” since his poetry differs so greatly from the other poetry of the day. Nevertheless, Wordsworth believes that if he has succeeded in his aim of writing poetry that is written in the “language of men” but is no less enjoyable than that of his contemporaries, he will have introduced “genuine poetry.” He leaves the task of judging whether or not he has succeeded in this task—and whether or not this task was worth undertaking—to his readers.

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