Wordsworth’s Preface to the Lyrical Ballads is a critical document of abiding significance. His aim in writing it is to demonstrate the need of writing a new kind of poems and to revaluate the poetry of the bygone period. As mentioned by Derek Roper, his immediate objects were to attack the gaudiness and inane phraseology of contemporary poets.
Wordsworth’s fundamental objection to what he elsewhere calls a ‘vague, glossy and unfeeling language’ is that to separate poetry from ordinary speech is to separate it from human life. For him the great value of poetry is that it permits the sharing of experience, the communication of truths, ‘carried alive into the heart by passion.’
Of equal interest and significance, is Wordsworth’s view of the nature and function of poetry and the process of poetic creation. “It is the honourable characteristic of poetry,” he writes in 1798, “that its materials are to be found in every subject which can interest the human mind”; and this attitude underlies the whole Preface. In this way Wordsworth seeks to extend the scope of poetry by bringing within its folds themes chosen from common life.
Traditionally, the function of poetry was supposed to be both to. instruct and delight, but for Wordsworth the function of poetry is to give pleasure. However, his conception of pleasure is an exalted one. Poetic pleasure is not mere idle amusement like rope dancing, or sherry drinking. Serious poetry provides a pleasure of a more exalted kind. It is the pleasure which results from increased knowledge and understanding. He considers poetry superior to both history and philosophy of all writings, the impassioned expression that is the countenance of all science. The appeal of science is merely to the intellect, poetry complements science by adding feeling to its truths, and by its imaginative treatment it makes people more fully aware of them.
Speaking about the nature of the poet he says in a passage in the 1802 edition of the Ballads that the poet is essentially a man speaking to man; he differs from other men not in nature, but merely in the degree of his gifts. He is a man of greater imagination and greater powers of communication. He can, therefore, comprehend truths to which others remain blind. He can see into the heart of things.
To Wordsworth poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings. The process of poetry begins in a state of calm with the recollection of some past emotional experience. Excitement gradually increases until the poet is almost relieving the experience yet with a difference. The difference is that emotion has now been modified by thought. Thought and emotion, conscious and unconscious elements continue their intimate interaction until the spontaneous overflow begins and until these elements are ready to combine in a poet.
Then the Preface gives us a theory of poetic diction and justifies the use of metre in poetry. This Preface gave birth to future criticism by provoking controversies. It gave valuable new sights into the nature, scope and function of poetry, and into the creative process; above all, it set new standards for the discussion of such matters by its intense seriousnesjs and by its inward experience. By comparison with Wordsworth’s Preface, all previous writings on poetry seem superficial. It is the first comprehensive attempt to build up a theory of poetry. The Preface, indeed, is a rich piece of writing. Its themes are manifold and it raises many questions. It discusses beautifully the relationship of poetry and science, the use of metre, the place of pleasure in art. Aristotle, and poetry in general.
To quote Margaret Drabble, the Preface ‘marks the beginning of a new age’. It is an unofficial manifesto of the English romantic movement. It explained the aims and objectives of romanticism and thus gave to the romantic movement a definite direction and programme. As Smith and Parks point out: “It raised a wall between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; it dated a new era; it served to make intelligible for ever the dividing line between the regions in criticism that might otherwise have seemed to flow into one another. We do not often have many such dividing walls.” ‘The Preface is a great irritant to thought; it poses numerous questions and provokes discussion. It heralded the new dawn of democracy in literature and criticism. It was a death-knell of Augustan poetic tradition and a beginning of a revolution in poetry. It established the poet as a mere copier but as a creator, as a man with an intense sensibility, not rationality. He is no longer interested in manners of city life. The poet wants poetry to deal with the essential passions of the heart and for this nature is a i etter subject than man in the city.