Preface to Lyrical Ballads

by William Wordsworth

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Preface to Lyrical Ballads Themes

The main themes in the preface to Lyrical Ballads are the relationship between poetry and prose, and the nature and role of the poet.

  • The relationship between poetry and prose: Contrary to the opinion of many of his contemporaries, Wordsworth believes that poetry and prose are not so different and that poetry should be written in conversational diction.
  • The nature and role of the poet: For Wordsworth, a poet is someone who can feel emotions more deeply than others and who can express those emotions for the benefit and pleasure of their readers.

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Last Updated November 3, 2023.

The Relationship Between Poetry and Prose

Many poets and critics of Wordsworth’s time believe that poetry and prose should differ not only in structure but also in language. “Prosaisms,” or instances where the language in a poem resembles that of prose, lead some critics to condemn poets as “ignorant of [their] own profession.” However, Wordsworth argues that

the language of Prose may yet be well adapted to Poetry; and . . . a large portion of the language of every good poem can in no respect differ from that of good Prose.

Art enthusiasts are quick to point out the similarities between poetry and painting but hesitate to compare poetry and prose, believing that the two forms of literature should be more distinct. Wordsworth contends that while poetry and painting are described as “sisters,” the relationship between poetry and prose is even closer, as they “both speak by and to the same organs.”

If readers hope to derive any enjoyment from his poems, Wordsworth believes they will need to abandon the idea that poetry and prose must differ significantly in language. In his opinion, poetry ought to be written in conversational diction in order to bring the most pleasure, and it should address commonplace situations. Though simplistic diction and everyday topics are more commonly associated with prose, this is the ideology with which Wordsworth has approached poetry while writing Lyrical Ballads. He hopes that the results of his “experiment” will be a new movement of “genuine” poetry.

The Nature and Role of the Poet

The poet, according to Wordsworth, is someone who has the ability to feel emotions more deeply and express them more accurately than others around him. In addition to this, he can “conjur[e] up in himself passions” in order to reflect upon and write about his own emotions as well as those of others. An essential responsibility of the poet, in Wordsworth’s mind, is to provide pleasure for his readers, and the poet must be sure to provide readers with an overall sensation of pleasure, no matter what emotions he expresses in his writing. 

The poet concerns himself with the “knowledge which all men carry about with them” and emotions common to mankind. Wordsworth compares the poet to the “Man of Science”: while the knowledge of scientists brings pleasure, just as that of poets does, it does not unite people in the same way. Poetry, he feels, constitutes a “necessary part of our existence, our natural and unalienable inheritance.” Because poetry is intrinsically linked to human nature in this way, the poet’s role is invaluable:

He is the rock of defence for human nature; an upholder and preserver, carrying everywhere with him relationship and love. . . . [He] binds together by passion and knowledge the vast empire of human society, as it is spread over the whole earth, and over all time.

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