William Wordsworth (1770—1850) is one of the greatest poets of England, one to whom Matthew Arnold assigns a place next only to Shakespeare and Milton. He was primarily a poet, and not a critic. He has left behind him no comprehensive and systematic treatise on literary criticism. His criticism consists of Advertisement to the Lyrical Ballads, 1798, Preface to the Lyrical Ballads, 1800. Preface to the Lyrical Ballads, 1802, with an Appendix on Poetic Diction, The Preface was constantly revise for the subsequent editions of the Lyrical Ballads. For the 1815 edition, the poet wrote a new Preface and the older one was added as an Appendix. The volume also contained an Essay Supplementary to the Preface. The 1502 Preface is generally taken as the standard text, and competent critics regard it as a landmark in the history of criticism.
Wordsworth's critical works also include his Notes to "The Thorn", and other poems, as well as critical remarks of great significance scattered all up and down his correspondence.
The Preface to, “The Lyrical Ballads”—its genesis and history—its plan—its manifold themes—its aim and purpose—its historical significance
Its Genesis and History
Wordsworth’s Preface to The Lyrical Ballads is a critical document of abiding significance. It underwent a number of revisions till it acquired its present form. The Lyrical Ballads was first published in 1798 and to this edition Wordsworth merely added a short Advertisement or introduction. To the second edition of the Lyrical Ballads, published in 1800, he added a more detailed Preface. He began writing it in the summer of 1800 and completed it by the end of September. Coleridge claimed in 1802 that it was, ‘half a child of my own brain’, since many of its ideas had originated in discussions between the two poets; and he may have even given further help by making notes on these topics, Nevertheless, it was Wordsworth who finally shaped this material and in doing so assimilated it to his own way of thinking. With several of his formulations Coleridge subsequently came to disagree.
The 1800 Preface was revised, enlarged and perfected for the 1802 edition of the Lyrical Ballads, The most significant addition to the 1802 Preface is the long account of the nature, qualifications and functions of a poet, the demonstration of his superiority over the man of science, and an examination of the nature of poetic pleasure. To this edition Wordsworth also added an Appendix on Poetic Diction, devoted to a consideration of poetic diction and its history.
The Preface was constantly revised and perfected for each subsequent edition of the Lyrical Ballads, but basically the poet’s views remained the same. No significant changes were made for the edition of 1805, but in the edition of 1815 this Preface appeared as an Appendix, and the volume was provided with an entirely new Preface. To this volume Wordsworth also added an Essay Supplementary to the Preface. The Preface that we study to-day is that of 1808 and, as Garrod points out, the Essay Supplementary, 1815, forms a worthy companion to it. The Preface 1802, Appendix on Poetic Diction, 1802, and the Essay Supplementary, contain all that is worthwhile in Wordsworth’s literary criticism.
Wordsworth himself tells us that his aim in writing the Preface was not to give an elaborate account of his theory of poetry or to make a systematic defence of his point of view. He added the Preface because he felt that his poems were of a new kind, both in theme and style, and, therefore, he should not hurl them at the head of the people without a word of introduction. Every new and original poet has to create the taste by which he is read and enjoyed, and the creation of such a taste was Wordsworth’s basic objective in writing the Preface. He seeks to bring about drastic revaluations of earlier poetry so that his own poetry may be properly appreciated.
The Dominant Theme—Poetic Diction
The theme, which dominates the Preface, and which Wordsworth pursues most consistently, is his argument against poetic diction. As Derek Roper points out, the immediate objects of his attack were the ‘gaudiness and inane phraseology’ of contemporary poets. More generally, Wordsworth is arguing against what F.W. Bateson calls a, ‘positive theory of poetic diction,’ current throughout the eighteenth century; the belief not only that some modes of diction were best avoided in poetry, but that other modes were especially suitable.
Wordsworth’s fundamental objection to what he elsewhere calls a, ‘vague, glossy and unfeeling language is that to separate poetry from ordinary speech is to separate it from human life. For him the great value of poetry is that it permits the sharing of experience, the communication of truths 'carried alive into the heart by passion'. The view of poetry as communication is not confined to one period or movement; but it has never been so forcefully expressed as in the great passage Wordsworth added in 1802, foreshadowed by his earlier sentence: "Poetry sheds no tears 'such as angrily weep,' but natural and human tears; she can boast of no celestical ichor (fluid) that distinguishes her vital juices from those of prose; the same human blood circulates through the veins of them both."
Plea for Simplicity in Theme and Treatment
Of equal interest and significance, is Wordsworth's view of the nature and function of poetry and the process of poetic creation. Wordsworth's view of the scope of poetry is even less restricted than his view of its language, ‘It is the honourable characteristic of poetry’, he writes in 1798, ‘that its materials are to be found in every subject which can interest the human mind’; and this attitude underlies the whole Preface. Several passages of 1800 can be seen as amplifications of the same idea. Subjects, no more than words, are poetic or unpoetic in themselves; a slight incident of village life may be material not merely for verse of the pastoral or burlesque kind but for serious poetry, if the poet can make it meaningful. To some extent this view was already implicit in the work of poets as different as Burns and Cowper. But until 1793 it had not been decisively stated. In this way does Wordsworth seek to extend the scope of poetry, by bringing within its folds themes chosen from humble and common life. The Preface is thus seen to be a forceful pica for simplicity both in theme and treatment.
Function of Poetry—Poetic Pleasure
Poetry is communication, and it is his own pleasure that the poet communicates. Traditionally the function of poetry was supposed to be both to instruct and delight, but for Wordsworth the function of poetry is to give pleasure. However, his conception of pleasure is an exalted one. Poetic pleasure is not mere idle amusement like rope dancing, or sherry drinking. Serious poetry provides a pleasure of a more exalted kind. It is the pleasure which results from increased knowledge and understanding. He considers poetry superior to both history and philosophy, as well as to science. He regards it as the most philosophical of all writings, the impassioned expression that is the countenance of all science. The Appeal of science is merely to the intellect, poetry complements science by adding feeling to its truths, and by its imaginative treatment it makes people more fully aware of them.
The Poet : His Qualification
In a long passage added in 1802, he gives us his view of the nature and character of a poet. The poet is essentially a man speaking to man j he differs from other men not in nature, but merely in the degree, of his gifts. He is a man of greater sensibility, observation reflection and imagination, and of greater powers of communication. He can, therefore, comprehend truths to which others remain blind. He can see into the 'heart of things', and can communicate his own understanding of the soul of things to his readers. Thus the Preface makes it clear that Wordsworth’s understanding of his own calling is a very exalted one.
The Process of Poetic Creation
Wordsworth also gives a detailed account of the process of poetic creation. His account of poetic creation has to be pieced together from several passages and each part of it needs to be read in its context. Thus the memorable and misleading statement that, 'all good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings' should not be taken too literally; nothing could be further from Wordsworth’s mind than to equate poetry with a rapid gush of emotion. The statement occurs twice each time in a context which describes intense mental as well as emotional activity. For Wordsworth the process characteristically begins in a state of calm with the remembering of some past emotional experience. Excitement gradually increases until the poet is almost re-living the experience—yet with a difference; the present emotion is ‘kindred to’, not identical with, that of the past. The difference is that the emotion has now been modified by thought, and related to many past thoughts and feelings. The germinal experience has in fact been or is in the process of being understood and evaluated, and it is by this means that the ensuing poem acquires its 'worthy purpose'. Thought and emotion, conscious and unconscious elements, continued their intimate interaction until the 'spontaneous overflow', begins; that is until, these elements are ready to combine in a poem and begin the work of shaping it.
The Preface: Its Richness
The Preface is a rich piece of writing. Its themes are manifold and it raises many questions. To quote Margaret Drabble, "It is quite impossible to try to give an account of all the questions raised by the Preface, for in it Wordsworth covers an enormous stretch of ground, throwing out quite effortlessly the most acute observations on the relationship of poetry and science, on the use of metre, on the place of pleasure in art, on Aristotle, a taste and its cultivation and on the history of poetry. It raises, in fact, almost every knotty aesthetic problem one can think of, and deals with it with an amazing confidence and energy." It cannot be read too often ; every time, it seems to contain something new and unexpected. It marks the beginning of a new age."
There is no doubt that the Preface has its faults. Coleridge criticized it for the needless obscurity of its latter half, and the extreme elaboration and constrainedness of its diction. As Garrod tells us the Preface is a propaganda Pamphlet and as such suffers from the sin of exaggeration and over-emphasis. Wordsworth frequently goes to extremes. Derek Roper rightly points out that considered as the introduction to a collection of poems, the Preface is not a tactful piece of writing. Forty pages of none-too-easy prose deterred readers at the outset. Those who preserved ran some risk of being alienated either by the extreme form in which Wordsworth states some of his doctrines, or by his failures of tone, which is sometimes pedantic, sometimes arrogant, and sometimes absurdly defensive. Wordsworth makes bold claims for his poems, such as not all of them will bear; declares that to appreciate them drastic revaluations of earlier poetry will be necessary; and cautions the reader interminably as to how they must and must not be read. Despite this care, the account he gives of the poems is misleading, since they are much more diverse than the Preface suggests. Coleridge was right in concluding that it was this Preface which provoked the hostility of critics from 1802 onwards.
Its Value and Significance
Despite these weaknesses, the Preface is probably the most important tingle document in the history of English criticism. It helped substantially to bring about the reforms Wordsworth most wanted; it gave valuable new insights into the nature, scope and function of poetry, and into the creative process; above all, it set new standards for the discussion of such matters by its intense seriousness and by its grasp of inward experience. By comparison with Wordsworth’s Preface all previous writings on poetry seem superficial. It is the first critical account of the process of poetic creation, it is the first comprehensive attempt to build up a theory of poetry.
The Preface is an unofficial manifesto of the English Romantic Movement. It explained the aims and objectives of romanticism and thus gave to the Romantic Movement a definite direction and programme. As Smith and Parks point out, “It raised a wall between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries ; it dated a new era—it served to make intelligible forever the dividing line between the two regions in criticism that might otherwise have seemed to flow into one another. We do not often have many such dividing walls.” The Preface is a great irritant to thought; it poses numerous questions and provokes discussion.
- The Preface to "Lyrical Ballads"
- Synopsis of Wordsworth's 'Preface' 1802
- Synopsis of "The Essay Supplementry to the Preface" - 1815
- Wordsworth's Conception of Poetry
- Themes of Poetry
- Language of Poetry
- Qualifications of a poet
- Wordsworth on Metre
- Poetry, Philosophy, History and Science
- The Function of Poetry
- Wordsworth on Imagination - Comparison with Coleridge
- An Estimate of Wordsworth as a Critic