Preface to Lyrical Ballads

by William Wordsworth

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An analysis of William Wordsworth's major concerns, main concepts, arguments, and purpose in his "Preface to Lyrical Ballads."

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In his "Preface to Lyrical Ballads," William Wordsworth's major concerns include the use of common language, the expression of genuine emotions, and the depiction of ordinary life. He argues for poetry that is accessible to all, emphasizing simplicity and emotional depth over ornate language and classical themes. Wordsworth's purpose is to redefine the role of poetry and to make it more relatable and reflective of everyday human experiences.

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What are Wordsworth's major concerns in his "Preface to Lyrical Ballads"?

William Wordsworth’s “Preface to the Lyrical Ballads” is essentially an apology, or defense, of his style of poetry. In it, he presents what he believes poetry should be. Let’s look at this in more detail to get you started on this question.

Wordsworth and the other poets who came to be known as the Romantics set out in a new direction with their poetry, separating themselves from the Neoclassical poets that came before them. Wordsworth’s goal is to justify the Romantics’ poetic choices.

For instance, Wordsworth explains that the subject matter of poetry should really be ordinary life, things that people can understand and relate to. All of life is poetic in some way or another, and poetry should not be relegated to epics or high ideals alone.

Furthermore, Wordsworth discusses his language choices. Unlike the Neoclassical poets, with their lofty words, the Romantic poets choose ordinary language to best express ordinary life. This is what people can understand, and poetry is actually for all people. Also, everyday language is pure and expressive without sounding fake or showy.

Wordsworth discusses the role of emotion in poetry, too. Feelings are central. Indeed, poetry is “the spontaneous overflow of emotion” that is “recollected in tranquility.” Our experiences lead to emotions, and when we reflect on them later, those emotions overflow, and out comes poetry.

What Wordsworth is doing in this essay, then, is setting the agenda for his poetry and declaring that what he is presenting to his readers is designed to bring them great pleasure.

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What is the main concept in William Wordsworth's "Preface to Lyrical Ballads"?

Wordsworth's purpose is to explain the aesthetic concepts behind his poetry (and, to a lesser extent, that of Coleridge). In so doing, the Preface articulates how the poetry of the Romantics broke with the classical tradition of seventeenth- and eighteenth- century poetry.

The crucial differences have to do with language and subject. Wordsworth sees his poetry as the "metrical arrangement" of the "real language of men," and he believes that its subject matter should be drawn from "common life." The function of poetry is to reveal the "essential passions" underlying experience and to guide the reader into those habits of mind that enable him to perceive the inherent beauty in nature and everyday life.

Another purpose of the preface is to define the qualities that make a poet, and defend the new poetic forms in Lyrical Ballads from criticism. A poet, Wordsworth says, is a man with heightened sensitivity to the passions of life and, in particular, who is able at times to imagine the feelings of common people as his own. This empathetic ability is combined in the poet with the ability to translate these feelings into language that is both evocative and pleasurable. In other words, the poet, through his sensitivity, is able to capture strong emotion in his poetry and through it make those emotions available to the reader. In this regard, Wordsworth says, the primary business of poetry is the articulation of truth.

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What is the main concept in William Wordsworth's "Preface to Lyrical Ballads"?

The "Preface to Lyrical Ballads" represents nothing short of a revolution in the theory of poetry. In the "Preface," Wordsworth sets out how he thinks poetry should be written as well as providing the reader with a justification of the poetry contained in Lyrical Ballads.

The main idea in the Preface is the notion—radical for its time—that poetry should be written in the language of ordinary men. That being the case, a poet is just “a man speaking to men.” At the same time, Wordsworth seeks to employ his imagination in presenting to the mind ordinary things “in an unusual way.”

In other words, the poems in the collection will be ballads in that they will be like popular songs rooted in the lives of the common people but also lyrical in that they will express personal feelings in a highly imaginative way. As Wordsworth explains, he has chosen what he calls “low and rustic life” as a subject matter for his poems because in that condition, the “essential passions of the heart” can “speak a plainer and more emphatic language.”

On the face of it, there doesn't seem anything particularly groundbreaking about Wordsworth's theory. Yet at the time when he wrote the Preface, the dominant strain of English poetry was based on the notion that poems should be written in an elevated style of language and that they should deal with the great and the good rather than with the lives of ordinary folk.

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What is the main concept in William Wordsworth's "Preface to Lyrical Ballads"?

In the Preface to Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth wanted to express his theory of poetry. The Preface is therefore a justification of that theory and of the themes and styles of the poems in Lyrical Ballads

One aspect of this theory was to use themes about common life (usually in rural environments and situations involving a connection to nature). Thus, Wordsworth wanted to explore how one could attain profound truths and sublime emotional experiences via the imagination. In other words, this process is about understanding the extraordinary while experiencing the ordinary. 

Poetry is to be created out of these extraordinary/ordinary experiences. Poetry will be the spontaneous overflow of emotion reflected in tranquility. The poet has an experience and, reflecting on it later, can arrive at a deeper understanding about that experience and about the act of reflection. The process of experience/feeling and reflection is not just a method for poetic creation; it is also Wordsworth's recommended method for experience in general. 

Wordsworth wanted the style of Lyrical Ballads to stick with the common life theme. He proposed to avoid personification and traditional poetic diction, favoring instead more common (natural) language of people. In a sense, focusing on feeling (lyrical) more than poetic form (i.e., a ballad), Wordsworth shifts the focus from form to content. Although he was attempting a less formalistic poetry in favor of a more natural (even more prose-like) poetry, he did note that verse was the best form for conveying strong emotional content. 

I might perhaps include all which it is necessaryto say upon this subject by affirming, what few persons will deny, that, of two descriptions, either of passions, manners, or characters, each of them equally well executed, the one in prose and the other in verse, the verse will be read a hundred times where the prose is read once. 

One could easily argue that a poem (or a song) has a longer life in the memory than a passage from a work of prose (i.e. a novel). This isn't just because a poem tends to be a shorter work. It's also because of the cadence and rhythm, natural mnemonic devices. In depicting poems about realistic, common people in rustic environments, Wordsworth was rejecting the poetry of the past which tended to treat kings, queens, and heroes in an overly regimented style. For Wordsworth, real people were more relevant. More to the point, Wordsworth believed that sublime emotions can be discovered in the experience and reflection of common experiences.

In other words, it can be inspiring to identify extraordinary virtue in a poem about an extraordinary hero whose exploits are unbelievable to the point of being legendary. Wordsworth supposed that (his main concept) it would also be inspiring, more relevant, and more rewarding to identify extraordinary virtue in a poem about ordinary life. 

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What is the main concept in William Wordsworth's "Preface to Lyrical Ballads"?

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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What is the main concept in William Wordsworth's "Preface to Lyrical Ballads"?

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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What are the main points William Wordsworth argues in his preface to Lyrical Ballads?

Wordsworth argues many things, one of which is that he cannot argue a proper defense of his poetry, "Poems so materially different from those [of] general approbation," in a space proportionate to a volume of poems the size of Lyrical Ballads. In this Preface, he does argue two central points about his theory, his aesthetic, of poetry. One argument is the purpose of his poetry; the other is the style of his poetry.

Wordsworth asserts every poem in the Ballads has a "worthy purpose" and that purpose is that through his poetry we might "discover what is really important to men." Thus he echoes the ancient idea of an inspired poet who brings enlightenment to humans. Wordsworth expects to accomplish this by poems that are inspired by nature and that have language "associated with the great and beautiful objects of nature." His motive is to "counteract" the influence of poems that are "deluges of idle and extravagant stories in verse."

His other argument is to defend the style of his poetry. While Aristotle's poetics, held to by every generation up to Wordsworth, advice characters who are noble, though not unflawed, and subjects that are great and important and of weighty substance, Wordsworth's new poetics advances the value of common, everyday characters from pastoral, "rural life" and natural lifestyles. "Low" language describes low subjects of those who face elemental survival with "passions of the heart [that] find a better soil." Wordsworth concedes that the language of rural living must be purified and made aesthetic before it can be used, yet claims if has intercourse with nature:   

["Low" language must be] (purified indeed from what appear to be its real defects, from all lasting and rational causes of dislike or disgust) [though it is] incorporated with the beautiful and permanent forms of nature.

In summary, Wordsworth asserts that he writes with the dual intention of [1] counteracting the base turn literary art has taken that depends on gross emotionalism and sensationalism and [2] idealizing the rural, or pastoral, qualities of life and commonplace struggles along with the commonplace, sometimes vulgar and defective, expressions of language and thought. Coleridge came to disagree with him because, as Coleridge points out, it takes a poet to turn vulgar reality to the poetic commonplace though Wordsworth denied doing so materially discounted the commonplace low poetic diction he strove for. One of the premiere examples of Wordsworthian success in this new poetic is The Ruined Cottage.

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What are the main points William Wordsworth argues in his preface to Lyrical Ballads?

Wordsworth makes several crucial points about poetry in his preface to Lyrical Ballads. He suggests that the most authentic poetry is that which engages with everyday experience, particularly in nature. This theme is reflected throughout the book of poems, where he emphasizes the power and beauty of the natural world, free from human artifice. Wordsworth also says that good poetry should speak to emotion, reflecting a spirit of deep and profound meditation. He claims that many devices used by poets (e.g. personification, off-kilter wording, and so on) distracted readers from the feelings that should lie at the heart of the poem. So he proposes to strip poetry down, so to speak, to its basics, in a language that can be understood and appreciated by a wide readership. The crux of his approach to poetry, especially in Lyrical Ballads, is summarized in the following passage:

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, and, at the same time, to throw over them a certain colouring of imagination, whereby ordinary things should be presented to the mind in an unusual aspect...

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Could you explain the significance of William Wordsworth's "Preface to Lyrical Ballads"?

Wordsworth wrote his introduction as a way of explaining why the poems in "Lyrical Ballads" were so different from popular poetry that had come before. As he says, there has been a general expectation that people who write in verse make a kind of "promise" to their readers that certain themes will be handled in a specific manner and that other themes will be excluded -- that poetry will deal with "noble" themes using exalted language. "Lyrical Ballads" defies those expectations. Wordsworth lays out how different his project is in one remarkable sentence:

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, and, at the same time, to throw over them a certain colouring of imagination, whereby ordinary things should be presented to the mind in an unusual aspect; and, further, and above all, to make these incidents and situations interesting by tracing in them, truly though not ostentatiously, the primary laws of our nature: chiefly, as far as regards the manner in which we associate ideas in a state of excitement.

The principle features of Wordsworth's idea of poetry are that its subject matter should be incidents from common life; that the language of poetry should be the language of common men; that poetry is the product of an excited state of imagination; and that the essential theme of poetry is the representation of these events in such a way as to show how they represent the common laws of nature.

I think the main significance of Wordsworth's formulation is that, with the Romantics, poetry becomes a private and personal form of discourse; Wordsworth's allusion to the "promises" earlier poets made to their readers had to do with the expectation that poetry was a high form of public discourse. With "Lyrical Ballads," poems that Wordsworth feared were "so materially different" from what the public liked, the proper subject for poetry becomes the personal, or the emotional and imaginative inner landscape of the poet.

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Discuss the purpose of "Preface to Lyrical Ballads" by William Wordsworth.

Wordsworth's Preface to Lyrical Ballads helps to articulate and identify what Romanticism, as a movement, is.  It is a declaration of sorts of what Wordsworth and Coleridge believe to be the defining elements of Romanticism.  The movement is articulated in the writing so that there is a clear understanding of how one can both write in the Romantic style and recognize it in other writing.  For example, when Wordsworth and Coleridge write that the subject or nature of poetry is driven by "incidents and situations from common life," it helps to bring out the idea that Romanticism is about the world around the individual.  Anything can have poetic value and it is upon the shoulders of the poet to make the smallest and most insignificant item possess poetic importance.  The Preface talks about elements such as this in terms of outlining the parameters of Romanticism according to Wordsworth and Coleridge.  It is important to note that much of what was featured in the Preface flew in the face of traditional conventions, and was especially challenged by those who followed the Neoclassical school of thought.  It was essential that the new movement of Romanticism be defined in as clear and direct of a manner as possible and the Preface was an attempt to do just that.

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How can one analyse William Wordsworth's Preface to Lyrical Ballads?

I find it helpful to consider the Preface as a sort of "statement of intent" where Wordsworth explains what he hopes to achieve in his poetry and what he believes all poets should strive for in their own work.

One of the most famous lines from the Preface states that "all good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings . . . it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity." Here, Wordsworth upsets the notion that poetry is about form, meter, line breaks, figurative language, etc., claiming instead that it's the inspiring thoughts and emotions of the poet that form the heart of the poem. The idea of "emotion recollected in tranquillity" suggests that the poet must somehow exist beyond the common daily routines that comprise a person's life, reaching for "truth" by seeking quietness and equanimity in order to recreate prior experiences. As Wordsworth says, "The Poet, singing a song in which all human beings join with him, rejoices in the presence of truth as our visible friend and hourly companion."

In analyzing the Preface, it's also important to note that it's written in prose, though it's about poetry! Here, we see Wordsworth's idea of poetry as representing "ordinary people" and "ordinary lives" come to fruition. Rather than writing in rigid metrical patterns or set poetic forms, Wordsworth blends both poetry and prose in the Preface in order to announce his "new" way of thinking about poetry. Neither writing style is "superior" to another, for both allow the writer to allow his imagination to tap into emotion that then "spontaneously overflows" onto the page. Wordsworth's idea that poetry is "about the people" and "for the people" is literally represented in the manner in which he writes the Preface, blending both prose and poetry together to create a democratic definition of art.

While the Preface is quite lengthy, it's a fascinating insight into Wordsworth's own artistic manifesto. Whether or not you agree with his ideas, you must admit that he's certainly spent a lot of time considering the purpose and value of literature and exploring ways to experiment with and broaden the poetic form.

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How can one analyse William Wordsworth's Preface to Lyrical Ballads?

I think that one approach that can be taken in analyzing Wordsworth's Preface is to examine how he is able to articulate the theoretical foundations to Romanticism within it.  This becomes one of the most valuable aspects to the Preface.  Wordsworth and Coleridge were able to use it as a manifesto for Romanticism.  They were able to carve out the definition to Romanticism.  The movement needed definition as it was a stark departure from the tenets of Neoclassicism.  The Preface can be analyzed as a work of Romanticism because it is so direct in wishing to define the movement.  Some of the movement's most important words can be found in the Preface, and it is in this idea where one can devote much in way of analysis.

Wordsworth and Coleridge were deliberate in wishing to reconceptualize what poetry and art should be according to the Romantic sensibilities.  Consider the ideas of what poetry should encompass as part of this exploration in the Preface.  The establishment of  poetry as the “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings" was one of the defining characteristics of Romanticism.   Another instance of Wordsworth being able to use the Preface as a way to define poetry would be in praising the subject matter as every day life.  The ordinary could be seen as extraordinary for it contained the spirit of life within it.  Romanticism came to strictly adhere to many of the standards in the Preface.  Examining the Preface for its definitions of Romanticism is one avenue to pursue. Analyzing language that sought to define Romanticism in the Preface can be an approach one can take in studying it and being able to unearth its literary and intellectual relevance.

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What is Wordsworth's purpose in the preface to Lyrical Ballads?

Wordsworth viewed Lyrical Ballads (a collection of poems by Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge) as a manifesto for a new style of poetry. His preface, which has become at least as famous as the poems itself, laid out his agenda. Fundamentally, Wordsworth claimed that poetry ought to be authentic. He thought that eighteenth century poets had come to focus more on tricks of poetic diction, with the result being that their poetry no longer spoke to the human experience. So Wordsworth argued that poetry should be written in simple language that people actually used, which conveyed more depth of meaning than the artifice of poets:

...such a language...is a more permanent, and a far more philosophical language, than that which is frequently substituted for it by Poets, who think that they are conferring honour upon themselves and their art, in proportion as they separate themselves from the sympathies of men, and indulge in arbitrary and capricious habits of expression, in order to furnish food for fickle tastes, and fickle appetites, of their own creation.

Furthermore, poetry should address everyday themes, ones found in nature. With quiet reflection, Wordsworth argued, beauty and sublimity could be found even in ordinary life. It was not so much that poetry should be stripped of its intellectual weight, but that the energy and attention of the poet ought to be turned to finding beauty and the "primary laws of our nature," which were best understood through examples from daily life, expressed in everyday language.

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