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Preface to the Lyrical Ballads, written by William Wordsworth, is a landmark essay in the history of English Literature. Considered to be the Romantic Manifesto on poetry and society, the Preface is a work that is crucial to our understanding of the progress of the Romantic literary thought, originating in 18th century Europe, which has been immortalized in our view of poetry and how we think of it today.
The Preface to the Lyrical Ballads first appeared in the 2nd edition of the poetry collection Lyrical Ballads (1801) and later expanded in the 3rd edition (1802). It would be helpful for us to first familiarize ourselves with this historical context of 18th century
i.) Massive industrialization and urbanization – During this period, London became the urban centre of industrial development and huge masses of people migrated to the cities in search of jobs.
ii.) The Backdrop of the Neoclassicals – Neoclassical works were known for their adherence to rules and regulations of satire and their strict definitions of what is poetry. Their language was far from what people used in daily conversations and they spoke of extraordinary subjects. Neoclassicism was followed by Romanticism.
iii.) Rise of Romanticism – Romanticism is different from romanticism (notice the capital ‘R’ vs. the lower-case ‘r’) Romanticism was a movement which sought to break away from old norms and beliefs by revolutionizing the way people thought about society in 18th century Europe.
Inspired by the ideals of the French Revolution – to shake up the foundations of old hierarchical structures – and distressed by the rise of the choking city life, the Romantic Wordsworth set out to challenge old notions regarding poetry.
Main Ideas in Preface to Lyrical Ballads
Wordsworth’s relation to Nature/Countryside Wordsworth is celebrated as the nature poet because of his beautiful descriptions of nature and rural/countryside areas. However, to reduce his work to just an imitation of trees and flowers would be immature.
Wordsworth admired nature/countryside not only because it looked beautiful, but because of the simplicity and beauty that nature/countryside provided allowed people to be in touch with their soul and experience true beauty in life. Wordsworth believed that the city life made the masses dull and stagnant – it had reduced them to overworked machines who failed to appreciate the simple beauty of life. He called this state of mental stagnancy as savage torpor.
What inspires poetry?
Tired of the highly elevated topics of neoclassical poets and their over-complicated language, Wordsworth wanted “to make the ordinary extraordinary”. Wordsworth found inspiration from everyday figures of everyday life. Whether it be the famous Solitary Reaper or the Daffodils – Wordsworth’s poetry flows to admire the simple beauty that exists in daily life.
Who is a poet?
For Wordsworth, a poet is simply “a man speaking to men” – a fellow human just like all of us trying to communicate his perception and experience of truth and beauty. However, the poet differs from regular people because of his higher sensitivity to the happenings around him and a deeper connection with his own feelings, moods and emotions as they arise in response to these outer happenings.
What is a poem?
Wordsworth famously defined poetry as “a spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings which are recollected in tranquillity”. Simply speaking, the highly sensitive poet is able to experience the beauty of ordinary life, capture his own emotions as they arise and is finally able to sit in a calm, peaceful space to use his imagination to recollect these emotions and finally write about them.
What is the language in which a poem should be written?
Wordsworth believed that the “real language of men” – ordinary daily language – should be used to write poetry. However, Wordsworth refined this common language to a purer form without losing the essence of its simplicity.
The Egotistical Sublime
The Egotistical Sublime is a concept which simply means that a poet’s own subjective view of truth and beauty is extremely attached to his work. The poems they produce are filled with their own imagination and perspective on how they perceive things around them. Wordsworth’s works are often said to be examples of the Egotistical Sublime since his own experience of things is what he believes to be everyone’s experience of things.
In Conclusion, it’ll be safe to say those modern-day poets who hold ideas like self-expression and sensitivity so dear to their hearts truly owe it to Wordsworth’s works to reinforce ideas so simple yet so revolutionary.