Preface to Lyrical Ballads

by William Wordsworth

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What is Wordsworth's theory of poetry in the Preface to Lyrical Ballads?

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Wordsworth believed that poetry was the "spontaneous overflow of intense emotions." He believed that nature was the best subject for poetry and that poetic language should be as close to the language of the common man as possible.

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Wordsworth’s theory of poetry represents a radical departure from the standards of neoclassical verse. Neoclassical poets believed, among other things, that poetry should be written about noble, high-born characters. As poems were generally written for an elite, literate audience, it was not thought appropriate to populate poems with ordinary folk. According to the prevailing aesthetic, poems should be written about the more socially prominent members of society.

Wordsworth challenged this notion completely. In his own theory of poetry, as set out comprehensively in the 1802 preface to Lyrical Ballads, he argued for the representation of ordinary people in verse. Wordsworth believed that as poetry was concerned with the spontaneous overflow of feelings, then it was only right and proper that ordinary folk should be represented in poetry. After all, they had emotions and feelings too; they also had, in many cases, a deep connection with the natural world, which for Wordsworth the Romantic was a vital source of poetic inspiration.

Wordsworth also maintained that poetic language should change, sloughing off the ornamental, affected style of Neoclassical verse in favor of a language much closer to how people actually spoke. In fact, Wordsworth boldly proclaimed that there was no essential difference between the language of prose and that of metrical composition. Poetry, no less than prose, consists of a man speaking to other men.

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Wordsworth outlined several ideas about poetry in his preface to Lyrical Ballads. First, he believed that nature was the best subject for poetry. Second, he thought that the purpose of poetry was to give voice to the emotion the contemplation of nature aroused in the poet (the "spontaneous overflow of powerful emotions"). Third, he thought that poetic language should be simple and close to the language of everyday people. Fourth, he believed that the moral or spiritual content of poetry should follow naturally from the poetic subject.

This all stands in contrast to the Enlightenment tradition of English poetry, represented by men like Alexander Pope. In that tradition, poetry was seen as a form of public discourse, was often satirical and explicitly political, and could be highly allusive and based on classical themes. Wordsworth sought to make poetry more personal, less intellectual, more connected to the common man, and more emotionally sincere.

As a result, he chose "rustic" subject matter for his poetry because in this topic,

the essential passions of the heart find a better soil in which they can attain their maturity, are less under restraint, and speak a plainer and more emphatic language.

It also followed that the best language for poetry is that of the common man, which,

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.

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In the first statement of the 1802 edition, Wordsworth says the poems in Lyrical Ballads are an experiment of "fitting to metrical arrangement a selection of the real language of men in a state of vivid sensation." So, one of the goals that Wordsworth has with this collection of poems is to use real language. In other words, he wants to make poetry from the language that people actually use. This was an attempt to get away from the formal style of his predecessors, namely the Neoclassical poets such as Alexander Pope. And the "vivid sensation" appeals to the poet's provocation of emotion rather than the more rational style of something like Pope's "An Essay on Man." 

Wordsworth also focused on the common man and this goes along with his focus on real or common language. Now, his poetry is still poetic, so to speak, but it was a shift from poetry as a formal, structured poetics to something more common and emotive. He wanted to explore how ordinary events and feelings could be understood in extraordinary ways. He chose to focus on rural settings and people and to explore their feelings "because the manners of rural life germinate from those elementary feelings; and, from the necessary character of rural occupations, are more easily comprehended, and are more durable; and lastly, because in that condition the passions of men are incorporated with the beautiful and permanent forms of nature." Thus, Wordsworth also was enchanted by the emotive and transcendent power of nature. The natural world, the rural lifestyle, and the realness of language and feelings were all inspirational elements for Wordsworth's new theory of poetry. This is why Wordsworth could write a poem about a cloud in which he contemplates nature, his existence, and his role as a poet. 

Since Wordsworth was tapping into "real language" and more common subjects (rendered in imaginative, extraordinary ways), he notes that some of his poems might be as easily read as prose. He is not trying to erase the line between prose and poetry, but he is illustrating how his brand of poetry does utilize a more free, prose style while still presented in poetic verse. And he notes that any subject is more likely to be read in poetic form, " . . . the one in prose and the other in verse, the verse will be read a hundred times where the prose is read once." Such is the accessibility of poetry and such would be the accessibility of Wordsworth's subject matter: common life and language. 

Lastly, Wordsworth's theory about writing poetry is often summed up as writing from the spontaneous overflow of emotion reflected in tranquility. The poet should contemplate the simple things, nature or rural life, but he should allow himself to be emotionally affected by the deep significance of such things: 

I have said that Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility: the emotion is contemplated till by a species of reaction the tranquility 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. 


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