Wednesday, March 21, 2012

William Wordsworth: The Preface to Lyrical Ballads

Lyrical Ballads:

Essay on Criticism is Pope's statement on Neo-Classicism. An Apology for Poetry is Sidney's defense of poetry. The Preface to Lyrical Ballads by Wordsworth is a very important text for Romanticism. It is an introduction to a collection of poems. It was the first theoretical statement of Romanticism. 

In the late eighteenth century, Coleridge and Wordsworth were friends. Together, they wrote a collection of poems in 1798 entitled Lyrical Ballads. This book was revolutionary in both style and title.
  • Lyrical: is a very short poem expressing feelings or emotions.
  • Ballads: is a very long poem that comes usually from oral tradition and has a story.
This title was a strange combination at that time. It was something unusual. They combined two different genres of poetry together. This breaks the rules of forms just like tragicomedy mentioned in Aristotle and Sidney. From the beginning, they started to break rules. This application was different from anything at the time in form, style and content. They accused them of being poor poets and their language as being common. Yet, some people quoted them.

In the second edition, Wordsworth wrote a preface to answer all the attacks directed to their work. Unlike Sidney's An Apology for Poetry, it was not a justification, but a declaration or a manifesto ( a list of principles) of Romanticism. The Language of this preface is very simple and close to contemporary English more or less. 


Romanticism is a reaction to Neo-Classicism. The course of events is very quick. We have only one generation actually here. This shows the idea of reaction. Each school comes as a reaction to the previous one. It is a cycle of schools. Romanticism reacted to Neo-Classicism. We have more similarities between Renaissance and Romanticism just as between Neo-Classicism and the Victorian Age. Romanticism is one of the most powerful schools in Europe in the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth century. Its ideas started in France and Germany and spread throughout other areas of Europe. It was a very strong movement.

The main keywords of Neo-Classicism are nature, wit, form and reason. The main keywords of Romanticism are passion, love and beauty as well as Nature. Yet, Nature here has another meaning from that of Neo-Classicism.

The Main figures of this movement are William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Blake, George Gordon Byron, Percy Shelley and John Keats. This school has a supernatural element as in Coleridge's "The Ancient Mariner". The Lake District Poets was a movement led by Coleridge and Wordsworth. They did not write anything theoretical about the movement. Coleridge was more organized than Wordsworth.

In The Mirror and the Lamp, M.H. Abrams discuss the nature of poetry. With Neo-Classicism, literature was understood as a mirror, reflecting the real world in some kind of imitation. With Romanticism, literature is  a lamp, a source of inspiration. Art is a flow of emotion. Art and nature are one thing beyond our reach. Neoclassical writers look outside for inspiration, but the romantic poet looks inside for inspiration. So, they were accused of being egocentric. Abrams sums up the ideas very easily.

The Principles of Romanticism discussed in this text which outlines the main concepts of the school:
  1. They value the hear over the mind. They are interested in expressing emotions.
  2. They talk about the marginalized people who has innate wisdom.
  3. They are against the use of the poetic diction and want to use the language of the common people.
  4. They highlight the importance of nature. Art depends on the source of nature, not imitative. They view the poet as a prophet who can express truth. Wordsworth is called the Worshiper of Nature.
  5. Figurative language should not be used in an artificial way, but as common people use it.
  6. They overuse the subjective "I". They are considered ego-centric and self-centered.

Factors Shaping Romanticism:

There are two important events shaping the Romantic Movement:

1- The French Revolution (1789-99): This revolution broke out between the French people on one hand and the French King and nobles (marquises) on the other. This revolution started with an ideal dream of freedom, equality and fraternity. They saw freedom as a human right. This idea came from an oppressed society which was under the feudal system. This system ended in many European countries with the Renaissance. Yet, in France, it was not acceptable for one to change his class. Also, they declared that we are all brothers. This ideal dream echoed Plato's ideal society. Thus, it became one of the most important sources of inspiration. It was affected by the French philosopher, Rousseau.

However, it turned to be one of the most aggressive and violent revolution throughout history. Later on, it diverted into a different direction with bloodbaths. Many people were killed in streets. The French even chose Napoleon to be an Emperor leading to dictatorship in France. Many people lost their faith in this revolution. They saw the decline of the dream of equality. Despite this, this revolution inspired people to rebel against everything. The contemporary image of the artist as an unorganized person was born in Romanticism. This is the legacy of the Romantic Movement. It gave a different look of clothes. Writers wanted to translate all into art. 

2- The Industrial Revolution: Unlike with the French Revolution, the romantists were reacting against the Industrial Revolution. Neo-Classicism witnessed the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. It reached its peak with Romanticism and continued later on with the Victorian. It created poor conditions for people who lived in dirty slums. The Industrial Revolution created a lot of pollution. Forests disappeared as well as animals and birds. Children were forced to work in factories. People polluted nature and destroyed it as represented in human beings. Suddenly the centre of attention turned to cities. This is related to Romantists' conception of nature.

It was a time of mass production. All people do the same thing over and over. The Industrial Revolution forced people to loose their individuality. They had no chance to show their abilities. All these values were strongly opposed by Romantists. Nature is a general idea of Romanticism. The idea of individualism reminds us with the concept of Renaissance. We find more similarities between the Renaissance and Romanticism than between Romanticism and Neo-Classicism. 

Romanticism----------- French Revolution ------ Rebellion, Equality, Freedom, Fraternity
                   -----------Industrial Revolution ----- Nature, Imagination, Individualism 

The Key Principles of Romanticism:
  1. Poetry is a spontaneous overflow or expression of feelings in which imagination plays a crucial part.
  2. Poetry is not the opposite of prose; it is opposed to scientific fact. (The difference between poetry and prose is only in style; both are a genre of writing. This reminds us of Aristotle).
  3. Poetry originated from a primitive expression of feelings, and this expression was natural, rhythmic and figurative. (We take it from people who are less educated and more free. This is the real source of poetry, not the elevated language.)  
  4. Poetry is able of expressing feelings mainly through figures of speech and rhythm which convey the meaning of the poet. (Form becomes only a tool to communicate content which is more important).
  5. The language of poetry should be spontaneous and genuine, not an artificial expression of emotions. (Emotions and the expression of emotions are one thing. The priority here is to the feelings unlike with Neo-Classicism in which language should be sublime). The poet is distinguished from other people by his intense sensibility and passion. (The poet is not made; it is created).
  6. The most important function of poetry is to widen deepens the reader's sensibility. (Because it is pleasurable, the poet creates a model for people to follow. They see the poet as a prophet or guidance for humanity. The poet looks inside him before he writes).

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