Summary to: Preface to the Lyrical Ballads by William Wordsworth
In his 'Preface' to the 1798 edition of the Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth presented his poetic manifesto, indicating the extent to which he saw his poetry, and that of Coleridge, as breaking away from the 'artificiality', 'triviality' or over-elaborate and contrived quality of eighteenth century poetry. The 'Preface' is itself a masterpiece of English prose, exemplary in its lucid yet passionate defense of a literary style that could be popular without compromising artistic and poetic standards. Yet it is also vital for helping us to understand what Wordsworth and Coleridge were attempting in their collection of verse, and also provides us with a means of assessing how successfully the poems themselves live up to the standards outlined in the 'Preface'.
The 'Preface' covers a number of issues and is wide-ranging in its survey of the place of the Lyrical Ballads on the contemporary literary scene. The topics covered include the following:
1. The Principal object of the poems. Wordsworth, in this extract, places the emphasis on the attempt to deal with "natural" (rather than cosmopolitan) man, arguing that such men live much closer to nature and, therefore, are closer to the well-springs of human nature. Behind this we can see how much Wordsworth owes to that eighteenth century preoccupation with "natural Man", associated particularly with the writings of Rousseau. He sees his poetry, in its concerns with the lives of men such as Michael, as an antidote to the artificial portraits of Man presented in eighteenth century poetry. The argument is developed when he outlines his reasons for dealing with "humble and rustic life".
2. For Wordsworth (and Coleridge) this choice of subject matter necessarily involves a rethinking of the Language of poetry. Note, however, that Wordsworth admits to some license in "tidying up" the language of "ordinary men". Does this affect the persuasiveness of his...