Preface to Lyrical Ballads

by William Wordsworth

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

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 . . . 

In this quote, Wordsworth explains the key difference between his poems in Lyrical Ballads and those of his contemporaries. He directly challenges the school of Augustan poetry that focuses on the deeds of great men, especially those from classical literature: with his poetry, he aims to cast the “common” life in a positive light in order to raise sympathy for people of lower classes. Additionally, Wordsworth rejects using an exalted poetic language or diction. While many critics of his day felt that the diction used in poetry should be more elevated than that of prose, Wordsworth argues that the simpler language once reserved for prose can—and should—be used in poetry as well. 

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.

In this famous quote, Wordsworth analyzes the process of poetic creation: the poet recalls and reflects upon an emotion until he begins to feel that emotion, and in that state, he begins to write. Wordsworth goes on to warn that the emotion recalled should bring pleasure to both the poet and the reader, and that no matter what other emotions are expressed in the poet’s writing, there should be an “overbalance of pleasure.” The value Wordsworth places on emotion throughout the preface reflects the emphasis he and other writers would place on emotion over reason and truth in the Romantic movement. 

[The poet] considers man and nature as essentially adapted to each other, and the mind of man as naturally the mirror of the fairest and most interesting qualities of nature.

From a young age, Wordsworth loved and was fascinated by nature and human interaction with it; the emotional solace humans can derive from nature is a principal theme of many of his poems. This quote comes from a passage in which Wordsworth reflects upon the nature and vocation of the poet. He compares the poet to the “Man of Science,” noting that while the scientist’s pleasure comes from slowly and independently acquired knowledge, poetry provides pleasure through knowledge that “cleaves to us as a necessary part of our existence” and thus unites mankind. 

From what has been said, and from a perusal of the Poems, the Reader will be able clearly to perceive the object which I have proposed to myself: he will determine how far I have attained this object; and, what is a much more important question, whether it be worth attaining; and upon the decision of these two questions will rest my claim to the approbation of the public.

In this final passage of the preface, Wordsworth tasks his readers with judging whether he has been successful in his goals to establish a new type of poetry—as well as whether or not this was a worthy goal in the first place. Throughout the preface, Wordsworth acknowledges the fact that his poetry differs greatly in both topic and diction from other poetry of his time. He expresses concern that his audience will condemn his poetry simply because it is not what they are accustomed to. However, he feels that if they consider the poems of Lyrical Ballads for themselves, not judging him by the condemnation of his critics or the poetic norms of the day, they might discover a love for this new form of “genuine poetry.”

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