Wordsworth’s Preface to Lyrical Ballads as a “Manifesto to Romanticism”

Date - 24th Sept 2021

W(caps)ordsworth and Coleridge were the two great poets of Romanticism and it was by their joint efforts that the romantic revival in poetry was brought about during the nineteenth century. The first fruit of their close association was the Lyrical Ballads. The publication of the Lyrical Ballads was a landmark in the history of English poetry. The joint efforts of Wordsworth and Coleridge brought about a change in poetry and introduced a new line in poetic thought. Myers humorously calls The Lyrical Ballads as ‘The Lyrical Blasts ‘since its publication created a profound sensation in the mind of the contemporary poetry reading public.

    It has been remarked that the original idea of the Preface was that of Coleridge. Coleridge declared that the Preface was “half the child of my own brain”. Many of the views expressed in it probably originated in the discussion between the two poets. But there can be no denying the fact that it was Wordsworth who gave it its final shape, and in the process adapted it to his own thoughts.

    Wordsworth and Coleridge decided to transform the old currents of classicism and gave a new turn and form to poetry. They were distinguished with the diction of the eighteenth-century poets and were completely dissatisfied with the kind of poetry that was written by the pseudo-classical poets of the eighteenth century. Both of them felt that the type of poetry produced was neither desirable nor pleasing to the heart and soul of man. They were both gifted with imagination, sensibility and creative power. However, there were certain marked differences in their temperament. “Coleridge’s intellect was quick, versatile and penetrating; Wordsworth was less versatile but more deeply meditative. Coleridge was idealistic and ranged far in the realms of abstract thought; Wordsworth though he transformed them by the imaginary on sought his inspiration among the things of everyday life”.

    Wordsworth wrote the Preface with the express purpose of creating a taste for his own poetry. He gives reasons for writing poems as he does. In the Preface he deals with:-

1.    The subject matter of poetry.

2.    The style and language of poetry and the place of the metre.

3.    The nature of poetry and the poetic process.

4.    The nature, gifts and function of the poet.

5.    The relationship between poetry and science.

6.    The matter of taste and the creation of taste and some other matters. It is obvious that the Preface is quite rich in its themes. It raises a number of questions and problems of aesthetics. Indeed as Margaret Drabble observes, “it is not possible to give an account of all the questions raised in the Preface’’.

    Wordsworth had some affinities with those of the 18th-century poets in his use of the eighteenth-century terminology and insistence on ‘’generality’’. But one cannot deny the fact, that the Preface in spite of these affinities with new-classical thought, remains basically romantic.

    Wordsworth has this in common with Pope and Johnson that the content of poetry is what is central to all mankind. However, he departs from their view when he substitutes poetry as the overflow of feelings for poetry as a pleasure giving imitation. Poetry becomes a matter of self-expression; the poet speaks and expresses his spontaneous feelings. It is only through this that the poet would achieve the ‘universal content ‘of poetry and appeal to the universal in mankind. In this sense, the Preface becomes a “convenient document by which to signalize the displacement of the mimetic and pragmatic by the expressive view of art in English criticism”. The primary source and subject matter of a poem are the attributes of the poet's mind. If aspects of the external world are the matter, then these are converted from fact to poetry by the feelings and operations of the poet’s mind. The term ‘overflow ‘in the definition of poetry as the “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” is significant, for it suggests the internal made into external.

    An obvious ‘romantic’ aspect of the views of Wordsworth is his insistence on the incidents and situations of common life for poetry. It is a tendency towards ‘democratization’, apparently the influence of the thoughts of Rousseau. Humble and rustic life, says Wordsworth, can be the proper subject of serious poetry. He speaks strongly against cheap sensationalism and advocates the simplicity of nature.

    Yet another aspect in which Wordsworth is strongly anti-eighteenth century is his emphatic attack on artificial diction. The language of poetry should be plain and simple, like that spoken by men in real life. It is after Wordsworth that “criticism approves the use of any language in literature which will serve the writer’s turn”. It was a definite step towards paving the way for the liberty of style.

    The terminology used by Wordsworth may be neo-classical, his mentality, however, is romantic.

    He emphasizes the emotional and imaginative content of property: Wordsworth affirms the role of sensation and imagination in poetical composition. Imagination is the most important gift that a poet could have, according to Wordsworth. It makes Wordsworth’s views typically ‘romantic’. As C.M. Bowra remarks if there is any single characteristic "which differentiates the English Romantic from the poets of the eighteenth century, it is to be found in the importance which they attached to the imagination and the special view which they held of it”. Imagination is what helps the poet to gain an insight into the ‘heart of things’. It is through imagination that the poet arrives at the deep and universal truths about human nature. It is through imagination that the slight and common incidents from an ordinary life can be made interesting and significant. The colour of imagination renders the common into usual.

    The Preface gives an account of the poetic process – it is the first romantic critic’s effort at defining the creative process. The new-classical poets had been more concerned with the different types of genres of poetry than with the process of poetic creation.

    Wordsworth indicates the ‘romantic principle’ of liberalism in literature when he advocates independence for the poet. He considers the poet as a man “pleased with his own passions and emotions”. The poet’s own feelings are his “stay and support”. The emphasis is on the individualism of the poet-the poet can trust his own emotions and feelings and express to communicate them.

    The Preface has been called an unofficial manifests of the English Romantic Movement. Its aims and views are in the spirit of romanticism even though it has been pointed out that there are some affinities to eighteenth-century thought. Smith and Pelas observe: “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”.

    Defects notwithstanding occupies the place of a pioneer of the romantic school. They do, however, signify a change in the trend of English literature. It puts forward fresh sets of standards for criticizing works of poets.

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