Wordsworth, William

Assigned: Wordsworth, William. “Preface” to Lyrical Ballads (566-86). Also read the editors’ introduction (563-66).

“Preface” to Lyrical Ballads (1800/1802)

1. On 566-68 (“The first Volume of these Poems…”), what kind of “experiment” (566) does Wordsworth say his first edition of Lyrical Ballads was meant to carry out? How does he characterize the results? Why, according to Wordsworth, did some of his friends push him to publish along with his poems “a systematic defence of the theory, upon which the poems were written” (567)? Why did he decide not to satisfy that request fully, and why did he nonetheless end up publishing a less rigorous explanation; namely, the “Preface” that we are now reading?

2. On 568-69 (“The principal object, then…”), what does Wordsworth reveal in this key paragraph regarding the source of the “incidents and situations” (568) as well as the type of language to be found in his poems in Lyrical Ballads? What is his rationale for these choices—why do “low and rustic life” and “a selection of the language really used by men” (568) better suit his purpose as a poet than the lifestyle and language one would find in England’s rapidly growing urban centers, or in the refined idiom of neoclassical poetry? Finally, in this densely packed paragraph, what ideal relationship between the natural environment, language, and the deepest, most abiding qualities of human nature does Wordsworth articulate and link to his aims as a poet? In what sense is Wordsworth’s new poetic emphasis more democratic-spirited than the older “neoclassical” style?

3. On 569 (“I cannot, however, be insensible…”), Wordsworth offers a noteworthy definition: “For all good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings….” How does he promptly modify this purely expressive definition by offering readers a characterization of his meditative or reflective process, and how are his remarks on this point related to what he says about the “worthy purpose” of his poems in Lyrical Ballads? How do poets “discover what is really important to men,” and how does this act of discovery become habitual and lead to positive effects in the “understanding” and “affections” of those who read poems thus produced?

4. On 569-70 (“I have said that each of these poems…”), Wordsworth refers several times to the “purpose” of the poems he has written for Lyrical Ballads. What exactly is that purpose, as he describes it? In his view, how do some of the individual poems he mentions achieve this goal? Furthermore, in what sense is the new relationship between “feeling” and “action” (570) in these poems characteristic of Romantic poetics, and how does that altered relationship highlight Wordsworth’s rejection of the ancient and (in his time) still dominant mimetic or imitative theory whereby a work of art is said to represent the world around us, as when Shakespeare’s Hamlet says the artist’s goal is “to hold […] the mirror up to nature”? (Hamlet 3.2)

5. On 570-71 (“I will not suffer a sense…”), Wordsworth expresses faith that his poems will prove satisfying to the public because “the human mind is capable of being excited without the application of gross and violent stimulants” (570). What is the source of this faith (571)? Wordsworth’s long-term optimism aside, what two main “causes, unknown to former times” does he identify as responsible for reducing present-day urban dwellers to “a state of almost savage torpor” (570)? What is this state of being that Wordsworth captures with his oxymoron “savage torpor”?

6. On 571-74 (“Having dwelt thus long…”), what reason does Wordsworth, in discussing the style of his poetry, give for avoiding “personification of abstract ideas” (571)? Why, too, does he avoid “poetic diction” (elevated language). What style does he mean instead to uphold, and why? How does Wordsworth go on to address the often-argued distinction between poetic language and prose? What criticism of Thomas Gray does he make to advance his argument that “there neither is, nor can be, any essential difference between the language of prose and metrical composition” (572)? Finally, what anchors Wordsworth’s strong conviction that poetry written using “a selection of the language really spoken by men” (573) will be sufficiently raised above “vulgarity and meanness” to obviate any need for artificially elevated or syntactically contorted diction? What role does poetic meter play in this regard?

7. On 574 (“Taking up the subject, then…”), what main characteristics does Wordsworth ascribe to poets? What is their relationship to their “own passions and volitions”? What is the relationship between such personal feelings and desires and those of others involved in “the goings-on of the Universe”? To what extent is Wordsworth invoking that Romantic staple concept, “imagination” here? In your own words, what point is Wordsworth making about poets as ideally expressive human beings in comparison with ordinary people? Nonetheless, why is it sometimes necessary for a poet “to let himself slip into an entire delusion, and even confound and identify his own feelings” with those of the characters he creates? Moreover, what role does “the principle […] of selection” play in the creation of a poem in which this identification happens—why must the poet carefully select what feelings to represent and with what intensity to represent them?

8. On 574-76 (“But it may be said by those…”), why, according to Wordsworth, is it unnecessary for poets to give in to “unmanly despair” merely because the sort of emotion they produce falls short of what men and women feel in real life, and is even, as he has already written before this passage, “altogether slavish and mechanical” (574 middle ) in comparison with that life? What sort of more universal “truth” does poetry give—so much so that poetry may fairly be considered “the most philosophic of all writing” (575)? Under what “one restriction” (575) may this truth be communicated, and in what sense does human nature make that restriction necessary? Finally, in Wordsworth’s view, how does the poet’s “song” appeal to individuals and to societies in a way that scientific discovery (and its corollaries fact-based history and biography) can’t hope to rival, even though science is already in his day becoming the dominant paradigm and practice?

9. On 576-77 (“To this knowledge which all men…”), to reinforce what he has already written about poetry’s relative superiority to science and allied fields of knowledge, what great contrast does Wordsworth make between “the Poet” and the scientific researcher, or “Man of Science” (576)? How do poets and scientists, respectively, relate to the knowledge they properly seek? Why is the poet’s way of relating to knowledge more universal than that of the scientist? What generous assumptions is the poet able to make about human nature, emotion, and intellect that the scientist cannot make? Why, according to Wordsworth’s sweeping, celebratory prose here, are poets “the rock of defence of human nature” and the poetry they create “the first and last of all knowledge” (576)? Under what conditions, in Wordsworth’s view, should poets be willing to give their approval and aid to any further “material revolution” (576) that science may set in motion?

10. On 577-78 (“What I have thus far said…”), how does Wordsworth sum up what he has been saying about the qualities of genuine poets and about why such poets’ handling of language and subjects appeals to common humanity? What examples does he give to illustrate the enduring quality of the ideas, feelings, and experiences he has been invoking all along? How does he reinforce what he was written about “selection” and “meter” as regularizing and universalizing forces in the new poetry? Finally, in what sense might Wordsworth be trying to protect his argument from being taken as ascribing an almost prophetic, divine power to the creator of this new “Romantic” poetry, as it came to be called—a power that would seem to separate poets from the common person?

11. On 578-80 (“It will now be proper to answer…”), Wordsworth continues with the issue of poetic style, in particular the pleasure attending the skillful use of meter. Why is it a great advantage to poets that their metrical schemes tend “to divest language in a certain degree of its reality, and thus to throw a sort of half consciousness of unsubstantial existence over the whole composition…” (579)? Why, in Wordsworth’s view, is it sometimes necessary to do that, given his definition of poetry’s end-goal as “to produce excitement in co-existence with an over-balance of pleasure” (578 bottom)? Finally, how does Wordsworth link metrical language with what he calls “the great spring of the activity of our minds, and their chief feeders” (579)?

12. On 580 (“I have said that Poetry is…”), as in his previous reference to the “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings (569 middle), how does Wordsworth modify a doctrine of pure, immediate expression by emphasizing a need for the language of reflection and meditation? How, that is, does he describe the process whereby a poet gets into the proper state of mind to compose a poem inwardly? (With the Romantics, the term “composition” generally means internal creation of verse, not the subsequent, written version of the poem.) In the course of this creative process, what is the relationship between the “emotion recollected in tranquility” that Wordsworth references and the new emotion that emerges as the result of such recollection? What degree of reality or authenticity does Wordsworth allow the newly emergent emotion?

13. On 580 (“… Now the music of harmonious metrical language…”), following his “spontaneous overflow […] recollected in tranquility” (580) account of how a poet gets into the proper frame of mind or spirit to compose poetry, why does Wordsworth reintroduce the subject of “metrical language” (i.e., the fact that he writes in ballad meter, or at times in iambic pentameter blank verse, etc. rather than in prose)? What must the poet keep in mind so that readers or listeners will receive a given poem—one that may well have its partial source in disturbingly strong emotion—with “an over-balance of pleasure”? What other accompaniments or poetical devices may prove helpful in maintaining this equilibrium between passion and pleasure?

14. On 580-82 (“Having thus explained a few…”), what two genuine anxieties does Wordsworth reveal about the poetry he is handing over to his readers? After revealing these concerns, he has a bit of fun at the expense of those practitioners of “false criticism” (581) who ridicule poetry that keeps its language close to “life and nature” (581). How does he employ Samuel Johnson’s parodic poem that begins “I put my hat upon my head…” (581) to demolish the credibility of those who would dismiss the poetry of everyday language and feeling? What is very wrong with Johnson’s poem, and what’s right about the one beginning “These pretty Babes” from Percy’s Reliques? Why is it beside the point, in Wordsworth’s view, to argue over whether Dr. Johnson’s parody is in fact a poem? (582) What would be a more sensible thing to say about this little production, then?

15. On 582-83 (“If an Author by any single composition…”), what plea does Wordsworth make to readers for himself and indeed for any author who has earned considerable credit as a poet; i.e., one who has “impressed us with respect for his talents” (582)? What point about the key eighteenth-century matter of “taste” does Wordsworth enlist the neoclassical painter Sir Joshua Reynolds in making? In what sense is he assessing a common flaw in the way ordinary readers (and perhaps even some expert critics) judge the work of artists and poets? By inference, how does that flawed manner of assessment actually damage Wordsworth’s project as a Romantic poet who emphasizes the dignity and value of the individual human being?

16. On 583-86 (Appendix. “As perhaps I have no right…”), how does Wordsworth refine his definition of “poetic diction” (583) and his argument against it along with its admirers? How does such flowery, artificial language pervert what Wordsworth considers the true value of poetry for the ordinary person? How does he explain the gradual acceptance of false poetic diction over time, and in what sense might his remarks on these pages be taken as an indictment of the specialized literary criticism that validated the pridefully artificial diction of latter-day poets?

17. General question: Scholars in the Meyer Abrams tradition have long argued that William Wordsworth’s “Preface” to Lyrical Ballads, written after early radical supporters of the French Revolution of 1789 found it necessary to confront the ascendancy of Jacobin extremism (the guillotine-happy Reign of Terror spanned 1793-94), displaces the Revolution’s three main ideals (liberty, equality, fraternity) into a theory about how poetry is composed and the effects it ought to have. If that is the case, what are the theoretical equivalents in the “Preface” to liberty, equality, and brotherhood? How do they play out in Wordsworth’s socially conscious poetical treatise?

18. General question: William Wordsworth, as is evident from the “Preface” to Lyrical Ballads, would probably have little patience with popular entertainment in twenty-first-century America—reality television, endless game shows, crime-series broadcasts and spin-offs, shock-jock radio, ubiquitous pornography, political hate-speech and extreme polarization, needling by internet “trolls,” and so forth would probably drive him to despair. How might some (though certainly not all) of this popular culture be defended against assertions that it is simply “the application of gross and violent stimulants” (570) for the dubious benefit of a dehumanized urban population? What is the risk involved in making the kind of assumptions Wordsworth makes about “healthy” and “natural” tastes and universal passions, etc.?

19. General question: William Wordsworth’s “Preface” to Lyrical Ballads amounts to a passionate assertion that the popular taste needs to be shaped, even re-humanized, by poets and thinkers who are neither mere promoters of wild imagination and raw passion nor effete (overrefined, that is) and elitist in their sensibilities. How tenable do you find such assertions in our own time? As you see things, what agents and factors actually shape the public’s taste in modern America? How do they exercise this shaping influence? Is that influence for better, for worse, or both, depending on the particularities of each case? Do we have a principle of excellence towards which to strive, or do we just drift, culturally speaking? Discuss.

20. General question: William Wordsworth in “Preface” to Lyrical Ballads and other Romantics (even Shelley, who admired science) often write negatively about what they see as the destructive effects of scientific thinking and practices—do you find their assertions about the superiority of poetry and poetic truth convincing? Why or why not? Do you think what they say is fair to science? If so, why? If not, what do you mean by “science”: the pursuit of truth for its own sake, or applied science? How well does such a distinction hold up in the twenty-first century? Explain.

Edition: Leitch, Vincent B. et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 3rd ed. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-60295-1.

Copyright © 2021 Alfred J. Drake