Preface to Lyrical Ballads by William Wordsworth

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What happens in Preface to Lyrical Ballads?

In the preface to Lyrical Ballads, William Wordsworth explains his theory of poetry. He argues that literary tricks and devices such as personification make it difficult for writers and readers to speak simply and directly about their feelings. He hopes to combat this with his work.

  • Wordsworth outlines three principles guiding the composition of such lyrical ballads. First, the poetry must concern itself primarily with nature and life in the country.

  • Wordsworth's second reason 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 true depths of human emotion and experience.

  • Wordsworth argues that good poetry doesn't have to be overly complicated or ornamental in order to capture the reader's imagination. Clean, simple lines are best, in his opinion.

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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...

(The entire section is 1,956 words.)