In his ‘Preface’ to the 1798 edition of the Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth presented his poetic manifesto, indicating the extent to which he saw his poetry, and that of Coleridge, as breaking away from the ‘artificiality’, ‘triviality’ or over-elaborate and contrived quality of eighteenth-century poetry. The ‘Preface’ is itself a masterpiece of English prose, exemplary in its lucid yet passionate defense of a literary style that could be popular without compromising artistic and poetic standards. Yet it is also vital for helping us to understand what Wordsworth and Coleridge were attempting in their collection of verse, and also provides us with a means of assessing how successfully the poems themselves live up to the standards outlined in the ‘Preface’.
The ‘Preface’ covers a number of issues and is wide-ranging in its survey of the place of the Lyrical Ballads on the contemporary literary scene. The topics covered include the following:
1. The Principal object of the poems. Wordsworth, in this extract, places the emphasis on the attempt to deal with “natural” (rather than cosmopolitan) man, arguing that such men live much closer to nature and, therefore, are closer to the well-springs of human nature. Behind this, we can see how much Wordsworth owes to that eighteenth-century preoccupation with “natural Man”, associated particularly with the writings of Rousseau. He sees his poetry, in its concerns with the lives of men such as Michael, as an antidote to the artificial portraits of Man presented in eighteenth-century poetry. The argument is developed when he outlines his reasons for dealing with “humble and rustic life”.
2. For Wordsworth (and Coleridge) this choice of subject matter necessarily involves a rethinking of the Language of poetry. Note, however, that Wordsworth admits to some license in “tidying up” the language of “ordinary men”. Does this affect the persuasiveness of his theories about “natural men”?
3. This leads Wordsworth to an attempt to define poetry and its effects on the reader. Wordsworth’s project is an idealistic one, and clearly Poetry, for him, has a vital role in educating the mind and sensibility of his readers, a moral purpose. This quotation illustrates how important this benevolent effect is for the reader.
4. Inevitably, perhaps, the above leads Wordsworth towards asking What is a Poet? His answer illustrates the underlying assumptions about the poet as the genius, as the special person, capable of re-articulating thought and feeling so as to educate the reader.
The principle object, then proposed in these poems was to choose incidents and situations from common life, and to relate and describe them, throughout, as far as possible in a selection of language really used by men, and , at the same time, to throw over them a certain colouring of imagination, whereby ordinary things should be presented to the mind in an usual aspect; and, further,, and above all, to make these situations and incidents interesting by tracing in them, truly though not ostentatiously, the primary laws of our nature: chiefly as regards the manner in which we associate ideas in a state of excitement.
Humble and rustic life
Humble and rustic life was generally chosen, 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 co-exist in a state of greater simplicity, and consequently, may be more accurately contemplated, and more forcibly communicated; because the manners of rural life germinate from these 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.
The language, too, of these men has been adopted (purified indeed from what appear to be its real defects, from all lasting and rational causes of dislike and disgust) because such men hourly communicate with the best objects from which with the best part of language is originally derived; and because, from their rank in society and the sameness and narrow circle of their intercourse, being less under the influence of social variety, they convey their feelings and notions in simple and unelaborated expressions. Accordingly, such a language, arising out of the 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, who think that they are conferring honor upon themselves and their art, in proportion as they separate themselves from the sympathies of men, and indulge in arbitrary and capricious habits of expression, in order to furnish food for fickle appetites, of their own creation.
Definition of poetry
For all good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feeling: and though this be true, Poems to which any value can be attached were never produced on any variety of subjects but by a man who, being possessed of more than usual organic sensibility, had also thought long and deeply. For our continued influxes of feeling are modified and directed by our thoughts, which are indeed the representative of all our past feelings; and, as by contemplating the relation of these general representatives to each other, we discover what is really important to men, so by the repetition and continuance of this act, our feelings will be connected with important subjects, till at length, if we be originally possessed of such sensibility, such habits of mind will be produced, that by obeying blindly and mechanically the impulses of these habits, we shall describe objects, and utter sentiments of such a nature, and in such connection with each other, that the understanding of the Reader must necessarily be in some degree enlightened, and his affections strengthened and purified.
What is a Poet?
He is a man speaking to men: a man, it is true, endowed with more lively sensibility, more enthusiasm and tenderness, who has a greater knowledge of human nature, and a more comprehensive soul, than one supposed to be common among mankind; a man pleased with his own passions and volitions, and who rejoices more than other men in the spirit of life that is in him; delighting to contemplate similar volitions and passions as manifested in the goings-on of the Universe, and habitually compelled to create them where he does not find them.
To these qualities he has added a disposition to be affected more than other men by absent things as if they were present; an ability of conjuring up in himself passions, which are indeed far from being those produced by real events yet (especially in those parts of the general sympathy which are pleasing and delightful) do more nearly remember the passions produced by real events, than anything which, from the motions of their own minds merely, other men are accustomed to feel in themselves:- whence, and from practice, he has acquired a greater readiness and power in expressing what he thinks and feels, and especially those thoughts and feelings which, by his own choice, or from the structure of his own mind, arise in him without immediate external excitement.