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Analysis of William Wordsworth’s Preface to The Lyrical Ballads

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William Wordsworth’s 1802 Preface to the Lyrical Ballads is firmly identified with both Romantic organist and expressivist principles. Held up as one of the seminal manifestos of Romanticism, Wordsworth looked towards introducing a new era of poetry through which he could annul the set patterns of metrical language in poetry, displace the gaudiness and inane phraseology employed by neo-classicalists, and replace it with the reality of the colours and language of common life. He defends the literary validity of new poetry tinged with realism and natural elements, attempting its implementation in the contemporary cultural background against the neoclassical doctrine. Primarily a piece of exposition, the Preface is also defensive, both in its immediacy and towards anticipated and imagined objections.

In the Preface, Wordsworth’s primary concern is with the language of poetry. The poems in his volumes are experiments written chiefly to discover to what extent the language of the lower class is adapted to the purpose of poetic pleasure. Wordsworth was multifaceted in his discourse about the language to be used in poetry: he pursues the theme of a language used by common men most constantly, arguing against the neoclassical poetic diction which advocated for lofty phraseology. In his objection of this glossy language, he promoted commonality found in the real language of men in a state of vivid sensation. Additionally, in a subordinate strain of argument, Wordsworth declares there is no difference between the language of poetry and that of prose, saying that metre is superadded therefore giving beauty to the poem. Wordsworth provides the example of Pope saying that he, by the power of verse alone, has contrived to render the plainest common sense interesting, even appearing to invest it with passion.

Wordsworth’s underlying intention in the Preface was to make general yet profound points which dramatically redefined what constitutes poetic language, plus the nature and scope of the poet. The concept of ‘commonality’ of language addressed above underlines Wordsworth’s central argument of the text that a poet is simply a man speaking to other men. Here, Wordsworth presents a rebuttal against the neoclassical view that poets were extra-ordinary creations. Rather, in Romanticism, they descend from their lofty heights only differing from other men, not in nature, but in the degree of their gifts. To Wordsworth, the poet is a man endowed with great sensibility and receptibility, comprehending truths where others remain blind. Although not explicitly stated, Wordsworth backs this portrayal up with the conceptual egotistical sublime. In line with the shifting schematism as introduced by Abrams outlining the emphasis moving from mimesis and pragmatics (as seen with the neoclassicists) to the expressive theory of authorship, the poets own subjective view of truth and beauty is now fastened to their work.

Wordsworth’s initial claim in the Preface is that his poems claim to represent the ‘real language of men in a state of vivid sensation’. Reacting against the artificial modes of expression that poetry has accumulated for 100’s of years, Wordsworth calls for a return to realism in subject matter as well as in poetic language. To Wordsworth, the subject matter of poetry should consist of incidents and situations found in everyday life. He asserts that subjects, no more than words, can be poetic or unpoetic, with the simplest incident becoming meaningful if one wishes so. Wordsworth’s ability to find inspiration in everyday objects shows his desire to break away from the over-decorated style of neoclassicists, creating a comprehensible art form for the ordinary man. In the Preface, Wordsworth goes on to outline the process of poetic creation, writing that to make these ordinary events unordinary, one must covet them in imagination. Calling upon Aristotle’s belief of the philosophical nature of poetry, Wordsworth’s elucidates that poetry is a spontaneous overflow of feeling that originates from emotion recalled in a tranquil state.

Now a classic statement of Romantic aesthetic doctrine, on the purpose of poetry Wordsworth writes that poetry must instruct and delight; the understanding of the reader must be enlightened, and pleasure created. To Wordsworth, this pleasure that is created in making the happy happier is an exalted one, superior to the mundane pleasure of the everyday. From this, he concludes that pleasure is a necessary part of poetic teaching, with a good poet becoming a teacher. In emphasis of poetry’s relation to pleasure, Wordsworth employs the relative example of science whose purpose is similar in its pursuit of man’s knowledge of himself and the world around him. To Wordsworth, the truths discovered by science’s impassioned expression, only benefit us materially, pleasing the scientist but meaning nothing to the common man. The truths of poetry complement science’s and become a necessary part of our existence. Poetry adds feeling to truth.


Before assessing Wordsworth’s work, it is essential to understand the shifting critical landscape of Neoclassicism to Romanticism. Political upheavals in the 18th century as a result of increased urbanization and industrialization, resulted in a reorientation in the relationship between the author, reader, and text, with both criticism and literature moving from the public sphere of conversation to the realm of the original genius of the artist. Wordsworth wrote in a time symptomatic of author’s becoming alienated from their readers, retreating introspectively to focus upon the private relationship between the writer and their work. Previously, to the neoclassicists, literature was mimetic. Wordsworth’s Preface and his romanticist theory, on the other hand, contributed to the two existing critical theories on art (mimetic and pragmatic) a third: the expressive theory of authorship. Thus, with an emphasis on the particular over the universal, the relationship between text and poet now replaces that between the text and reader.

Additionally, assessing the qualities and disparities of the Preface in relation to Coleridge allows us to further scrutinise its strengths/ weaknesses. Although his poems often focus on the pleasures of solitude, Wordsworth’s closest collaboration came from like-minded poet Coleridge, with whom he conceived the Lyrical Ballads. Coleridge challenged the basic naturalism inbuilt in Wordsworth’s poetics – that the language of poetry should correspond to the language spoken by the middle and lower classes of society, and that there is no essential difference between the language of prose and that of metrical composition. He also dissociated himself from Wordsworth’s glorification of “humble and rustic life’. Coleridge needles the obscurity of the Preface’s latter half with its extreme elaboration and repressed diction. He further acknowledges a lack of tact with the Preface’s none-too-easy prose which deters readers from the outset. Moreover, in Biographia Literaria, Coleridge raises the point that there is little consensus between Wordsworth’s literary theory and his literary practice. Not to deny that a good part of Wordsworth’s poetry does consist of both incidents and language from common life, however, his best poetry is that which departs as far as possible from his theories of what poetry should be. His greatest poems such as Tintern Abbey are in actuality not written in the language used by common men. Instead, they show that the main thematic concern of his poetry is the poet’s own subjective experience rather than the effect of nature/ countryside on the growth of the poet’s mind.

Having had his share of The Lyrical Ballads attacked viciously by the neoclassical critics, Wordsworth was dragged into criticism despite himself; lacking both temperament and training for critical writing. His initial mistake, therefore, was to speak of the volume as an experiment in language, when it is surely patent that the language he must use is that most dramatically appropriate to the material he wished to present. The problem is that Wordsworth wanted it both ways; to use the language ‘really used by men’, and to write about ‘men in a state of vivid sensation’. There is an immediate sense of discord in this juxtaposition stated thus baldly, a desire to bring poetry down to where men can understand it, and a need to elevate the men involved – and Wordsworth seems to have been aware of it. Additionally, more defensive than it is a systematic exposition of literary theory, the Preface addresses any defects the readers may find in his poems. Wordsworth argues that the reader should remember he is exposed to the same capacity for error as the author is (perhaps in a much greater degree). The common man has a much less understanding of objects and ideas than the poet does. Here, Wordsworth makes it impossible for the reader to accuse his poetry of transgressions by saying that the reader, too, has faults. Readers will likely judge his poetry lightly and carelessly because it holds no enduring interest to them… a distraction like the ‘sickly/ frantic novels’ from their many concerns. This condescending view of his audience is not helped by the tone of the extract. To some, the authoritative tone displays Wordsworth’s respect for his audience: his paramount concern being to create/ maintain an accommodating relationship between reader and writer. To others, Wordsworth castigates his audience for their inadequacies; his unaccommodating tone bullying readers into a sense of their unworthiness. Wordsworth characterized his readers as diseased through the agency of a literature with pre-established codes that cultivated their worst tendencies. In actuality, Wordsworth was actively concerned about the pressures that impinged on the lives of those living in newly industrialised cities. Such changes risked reducing the mind into a state savage torpor, leading readers to immerse themselves in reports of sensational accidents. In this rebuttal of sensationalism, used by classical authors to cater to those craving instant gratifications, Wordsworth risks the alienation of his readers.

Regarding the Preface’s strengths, it is overwhelmingly viewed as one of the most important documents in the history of English criticism. Setting new standards for discussions through its intense seriousness and grasp of inward experience, it acts as the first comprehensive attempt to build up a theory of poetry. Additionally, it provides new valuable insights into nature, scope and function of poetry, and creative process that still to this day evoke continuous questions and discussions. Not only kickstarting the Romantic revival through his damnation of neoclassical artifice, Wordsworth writes as beautifully in verse as he does poetry, lending evidence to his argument regarding the similarities of prose and poetry. Through his attack of poetic diction, Wordsworth opposed the Neoclassical practices of judging a work by the application of tests based on ancient models, which allowed no provision for the originality of genius, and at best, judged only the external qualities of the work. Concluding that the test of literary excellence lay in the earthly pleasure afforded to the reader rather than through choice of diction nor in mode of writing, Wordsworth introduced a new paradigm of inquiry that changed the critical landscape for years to come.  

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