Friday, 23 March 2018

Preface to the Second Edition of Lyrical Ballads 1800 - William Wordsworth

William Wordsworth(1770 – 18500), one of the most famous of all Nature poets, set off the Romantic revolt in English with the publication of ‘Lyrical Ballads’ in collaboration with Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1798. He published his masterpiece ‘The Prelude’ a long autobiographical poem in 1805. ‘The Preface to the Second Edition of The Lyrical Ballads, 1800’ contains Wordsworth’s philosophy of poetry. He argues that poetry should be written in the natural language of common speech. The themes of his poetry are inspired by ‘humble and rustic life’ Wordsworth’s “Preface to the Lyrical Ballads” with an Appendix on poetic diction is universally acclaimed as a manifesto of Romantic criticism. The principal object of Lyrical Ballads is to illustrate how good poetry can be written on common incidents in the lives of ordinary human beings in simple, natural language. Wordsworth has given a number of memorable definitions of poetry such as “a spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings which takes its origin from emotions recollected from tranquility” He says “Poetry is the breath and finer sprit of all knowledge.” Wordsworth emphasizes on the poet’s freedom of expression and the free play of imagination. He denounces the poetic diction of the Neo- classical poets for their artificiality. He does not consider metre and rhyme as absolutely essential for good poetry, He realizes that metre when superadded can give pleasure. He asserts that there is essentially no difference between the language of poetry and that of prose. However with the exception of his early poems, Wordsworth did not adhere to his own principles.


Wordsworth’s critical pronouncements are found in his Preface to the Lyrical Ballads. They constitute the romantic manifesto. In the Preface to the Second Edition of the Lyrical Ballads, 1800, states the object of writing the Preface to the Lyrical Ballads.

 He expresses his hesitation to defend his theory of poetry for a number of reasons: Firstly, the reader might get the impression that the poet was foolishly and selfishly hoping to persuade them to appreciate the new variety of poems he was placing before them. If his poems possessed a genuine quality, the reader would certainly receive it. He was not in favour of advertising his own poems. Secondly, the poet felt that a substantial and sound view of poetry cannot be condensed within the limited framework of the Preface. If he were to do justice to the task, he would have to examine the prevalent public taste, the changes have occurred in social and literary trends as also the impact of language on the human mind. All this would require a lot of space. In spite of his initial reluctance, Wordsworth did not wish to abruptly present a totally unfamiliar kind of poetry. He found it his duty to prepare his readers for this new variety of poems. Wordsworth expected strong opposition to his volume. Therefore, he intended his Preface. Wordsworth’s principal object of the Lyrical Ballads is to choose incidents and situations from common life, and to relate and describe them, as far as is possible, in a selection of language really used by men and at the same time, treat the subject imaginatively so that ordinary thing would appear unusual. Besides, he hoped to make such incidents and situations interesting by relating them to the primary laws of our nature, particularly the way we associate idea in a state of excitement. Humble and rustic life was generally chosen, since, in such a condition, human passions are less under control, more mature and can express themselves in a plainer and more emphatic language. Secondly, our basic emotions co-exist in a state of greater simplicity ad so they may be reflected upon and communicated more effectively. Thirdly, the manners of rural life originate from these basic passions and lastly, in that condition such feelings blend with the beautiful and permanent forms of nature.

       Wordsworth took special pain to purge the rustic speech of all its defects, coarseness
and faulty constructions before employing it in his poems because the simple country folk are constantly in touch with the best aspects of nature from which the best part of language evolves. Thirdly, as the rural population is restricted to the narrow circle, their manner of expression is more passionate, vivid and powerful. Fourthly, rustic speech is more precise and philosophical than the artificial diction of such poets who deliberately separate themselves from the language and feeling of ordinary people. Thus the principal object of the Lyrical Ballads is to illustrate how good poetry can be written on simple themes of ordinary human beings in simple, natural language. 

    Wordsworth asserts that the poems in the Lyrical Ballads have the moral purpose of enlightening the readers and purifying their affections. He had the habit of meditation and it so regulated and transformed his emotions that the sentiments he has expressed are bound to increase the comprehension of the readers as also to purify and reinforce their own emotions. He says: “For all good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings which takes its origin from emotions recollected in tranquility” However, worthy and noble poems are produced only when the poet has thought long and deep on the subject matter. Wordsworth considers a poet as a man of more than usual organic sensibility, but also one who has “thought long and deeply”, the poet’s feelings are modified by his thoughts which represent all our past feelings; he becomes capable of connecting on thought with another in this manner he is able to discover what is really important and worthwhile. By continued repetition such mental exercises, our feelings will be connected with important subjects so that such a noble perception of things will become habitual. Naturally, whenever he composes poems, such a poet will deal only with noble themes and loftysentiments in a worthy manner. Such poems will have a desirable impact on the readers’ sensibility too. Wordsworth implies that if a poet is always given to noble thoughts and worthy ideas he will never fail to compose poems of a noble note. In “Lyrical Ballads” Wordsworth adopts the simple language of common men. Personifications, figures of speech, antithesis and similar devices are rarely used.

Wordsworth maintained and practised in “Lyrical Ballads” his theory that there is hardly any difference between the language of prose and that of poetry. The language of large portion of every good poem differs from that of good prose only in the use of metre. The choice of words and phrases is done with real feeling and taste. As the subjects of poems are chosen judiciously, they are expressed in a judiciously chosen dignified and variegated metaphors and figures. In the preface to the “Lyrical Ballads” published in 1798 Wordsworth tells the reading public that his poems were a kind of experiment to know how far the language of conversation in the middle and lower class society is successful in producing poetic pleasure. Wordsworth asserts that even in the best poetry, the truly significant passages follow an order of words which is similar to that found in a good prose composition. The sole difference between the two is that the language of poetry is arranged according to the law of metre. Wordsworth declares that “there neither is nor can be any essential difference
between the language of prose and metrical composition” they are intimately related in their nature, function and appeal. According to the poet, poetry shed’s no tears such as Angels weep, but natural and human tears. That is to say, both prose and verse employ the same materials, spring from the same source, and appeal to the same faculties. Thus Wordsworth establishes that there is no essential difference between prose and metrical composition.

Wordsworth points out that in the view of several critics the very use of rhyme and metre distinguishes the language of poetry from that of prose and that this in itself justifies the use of certain other artificial distinctions, which afford pleasure and so are willingly accepted by the readers. In other words, poetry, by its very nature, differs from prose. The use of poetic diction is as much a source of pleasure as rhyme and metre, and so it is equally justified.

Wordsworth does not subscribe to these views; He insistently recommends the use of “a selection of language really used by men”. And if such a selection is made with true taste and feeling, the language of poetry would be free from the coarseness and vulgarity of ordinary life. Such diction is a sufficient distinction, and the addition of metre to it becomes a further source of pleasure. He holds the view that metre and rhyme are not indispensable to poetry. There can exist genuine poetry even without metre. Metre is merely superadded Wordsworth observes that the poet is basically a man speaking to men. He is a person who writes not for his own pleasure but primarily to express his own thoughts and emotions to his readers. He is a person endowed with a more lively sensibility, more
enthusiasm and tenderness than ordinary people. He has a greater knowledge of human beings. He has a greater degree of imagination and so he can feel or react emotionally to events and incidents which he has not directly experienced. In addition, he has a disposition to be affected, more than other men, by absent things as if they were present. Having a more comprehensive soul, the poet can share the emotional experiences of others.

He can identify himself emotionally with others and he can express the feelings and sentiments of others. He has greater amount of zeal and enthusiasm for life than ordinary people. He rejoices in the spirit of life, in the activities of mankind and in Nature at large and takes pleasure in communicating his own joy in life to others. Moreover he has greater readiness and power in expressing what he thinks and feels.

Wordsworth agrees with Aristotle’s concept that poetry is the most philosophic of all writing. The object of poetry is truth, no individual and local, but general and operative. Poetic truth is much higher than the truth of history or philosophy. In fact, poetry is more philosophical than philosophy itself. While history deals merely with particular facts and philosophy, with abstract truths, poetry alone deals both with the particular and the universal. Poetry aims at universal truths and also illustrates them through particular instances and illustrations. It is the mirror of human life and nature. Poetry is guided by sole consideration, namely, that of imparting pleasure to the readers while giving a faithful picture of nature and reality. On the other hand, the historian and the philosopher, labour under several obstacles. Poetry, says Wordsworth is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings which takes its origin from emotions recollected from tranquility. 

This definition of poetry gives us an idea of Wordsworth’s poetics. This definition highlights the spontaneity and emotionalism of poetry. He says: “Poetry is the breath and finer spirit of all knowledge; it is the impassioned expression which is in the countenance of all sciences. This definition explains how poetry blends passions and knowledge. According to Wordsworth, poetic truth is superior to scientific truth, for it is based on universal facts of life and hence can be appreciated by all. While the scientist makes only a surface study, the poet probes into the inner reality and arrives at the soul of things. As he is a man of fine sensibility, the truth which he discovers is surcharged with his personal emotions. 

    These emotions are recollected in tranquility and in a rare mood gush out as a spontaneous poetic outpouring. Wordsworth affixes an Appendix to his Preface to the Lyrical Ballads to express his views on Poetic diction. In poetic diction Wordsworth could not agree with his neo- classical fiends. He wanted poetry to be a medium for expressing the feelings and aspiration of common man in common language. Wordsworth wrote Lyrical Ballads to justify his theory and to see if he could produce pleasure by writing in the language of common man. In the preface in 1978, he told the readers that his poems were a kind of experiment too knows how far the language of conversation among the middle class and lower class in the society was suited for poetry. In the second and the third editions, he stated that his object was to choose incidents and situations from common life and describe them in a language used by men. He preferred the language of these men because they communicate with the best objects in nature and they express their emotions in simple and unelaborated expression. He maintained that there is hardly any difference between the language of prose and that of poetry. His poetic diction is therefore, devoid of personifications, phrases, figures of speech, antithesis and similar devices. He emphasized the selection of language. Words and phrases should be chosen with true taste and feeling. But the selection and choice of words implies the neo-classical attitude of the poets. 

This accounts for the comment that Wordsworth actually ends in good neo-classicism. The whole trend of Wordsworth’s writings, both poetic and critical, was towards the simplification of life. Even his theory of poetic diction is only another aspect of his general effort to pierce down through artificiality and conventions to nature and reality.

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