William Wordsworth Poetry: British Analysis
When the volume of poetry called the Lyrical Ballads of 1798 was published in a second edition (1800), William Wordsworth wrote a prose preface for the book that is the single most important statement of Romantic ideology. It provides a useful introduction to his poetry.
Wordsworth’s preface to Lyrical Ballads displays the idea of primitivism as the basis of the Romantic position. Primitivism is the belief that there is some primary, intrinsically good “state of nature” from which adult, educated, civilized humankind has fallen into a false or wicked state of existence. When Jean-Jacques Rousseau began The Social Contract (1762) with the assertion that “Man was born free, and yet we see him everywhere in chains,” he concisely expressed the primitivist point of view. The American and French revolutions were both predicated on Romantic primitivism, the idea that humanity was once naturally free, but that corrupt kings, churches, and social customs held it enslaved. The Romantic typically sees rebellion and breaking free from false restraint to regain a state of nature as highly desirable; Wordsworth’s preface shows him deeply committed to this revolutionary ideology. He says that he is going to take the subjects of his poems from “humble and rustic life” because in that condition humankind is “less under restraint” and the “elementary feelings” of life exist in a state of simplicity.
Many writers feel that serious literature can be written only about great and powerful men, such as kings and generals. Some writers apparently believe that wounding a king is tragic, while beating a slave is merely funny. Wordsworth’s preface firmly rejects such ideas. He turns to simple, common, poor people as the topic of his poetry because they are nearer a “state of nature” than the powerful, educated, and sophisticated men who have been corrupted by false customs of society. Many writers feel that they must live in the centers of civilization, London or Paris, for example, to be conversant with new ideas and the latest fashions. Wordsworth turns away from the cities to the rural scene. He himself lived in the remote Lake District most of his life, and he wrote about simple shepherds, farmers, and villagers. He explains that he chooses for his topicshumble and rustic life . . . because, in that condition, 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; because in that condition of life our elementary feelings coexist in a state of greater simplicity, and consequently may be more accurately contemplated.
He sees a correspondence between the unspoiled nature of humankind and the naturalness of the environment. Romantic ideology of this sort underlies much of the contemporary environmentalist movement: the feeling that humans ought to be in harmony with their environment, that nature is beneficent, that people ought to live simply so that the essential part of their human nature may conform to the grand pattern of nature balanced in the whole universe.
The use of the words “passion” and “restraint” in Wordsworth’s quotation above is significant. English neoclassical writers such as Alexander Pope tended to be suspicious of human passions, arguing that anger and lust lead people into error unless such passions are restrained by right reason. For Pope, it is necessary to exercise the restraint of reason over passion for people to be morally good. “Restraint” is good; “passion” bad. Wordsworth reverses this set of values. Humans’ natural primitive feelings are the source of goodness and morality; the false restraints of custom and education are what lead people astray from their natural goodness. In his preface, Wordsworth seems to be following the line of thought developed by Anthony Ashley-Cooper, the third earl of Shaftesbury (1671-1713) in his An Inquiry Concerning Virtue...
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