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Apr 2, 2017

Preface to Lyrical Ballads: Wordsworth

Theory of poetry

“Poetry is the thought and the words in which emotion  spontaneously embodies itself.”         
Thoughts on Poetry and its Variations by Mill.

Wordsworth took the hint and produced the theory of poetry which is contained in Preface to Lyrical Ballads wherein, at least two places; he points out: “All good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feeling,” and “It takes its origin from the emotion recollected in tranquility”. At first glance, these two are quite opposite to each other—the one is coming on a sudden, and the other deliberately called to memory—but Wordsworth makes no difference between two and tries to explain one by the other.

In his famous Preface to the Lyrical Ballads, he enunciated his theories that he was going to use “a selection of language really used by men”, and this chiefly “in humble and rustic life” because such men are in hourly communion “with the best objects from the best part of language is originally derived” and,       “at the same time to throw over a certain colouring of imagination, whereby ordinary things should be presented to  the mind in an unusual manner”. He also adds “there neither is nor can be any essential difference between the language of prose and verse”.

Poetry “a hopeless product of intelligence playing upon the surface of life …made out of the interests of society in its great centers of culture” originates in the heart and not in the intellect; and a poet cannot write under any pressure, as Keats says “Poetry should come as natural as leaves to a tree” and again he says “We hate poetry that has a palpable design upon us”. A poet writes only when he is inspired because only then his ideas spontaneously flow out of his mind and he creates poetry of high order and which is: “nothing less than the most perfect speech of man, that in which he comes nearest to being able to utter the truth”.

Wordsworth’s own typical poems—A Moving Sight, Skylark, A Solitary Reaper— were composed in his own manner. The group of Daffodils was also seen during a walk, stored in the memory and recalled in the moments of calm contemplation to be bodied forth into the poem. This is what Wordsworth actually means when he says in Daffodils:       
                        “For oft, when on my couch I lie       
                        In vacant or in pensive mood,           
                        They flash upon that inward eye       
                        Which is the bliss of solitude;
                        And then my heart with pleasure fills,          
                        And dance with the daffodils.”

So the end of poetry is to impart pleasure, this pleasure is not ideal pleasure, but of a profound kind because poetry “is the breath and finer spirit of all the knowledge, the impassioned expression that is in the countenance of all the science”. Poetry aims at winning “the vacant and the vain to noble raptures” and also aims at evoking a feeling of love for mankind. Wordsworth hoped that with his poetry he should be able to “console the afflicted, to add sunshine to daylight by making the happy happier: to lead the young and gracious of every age to see, to think, and to feel, and, therefore, to become more actively and securely virtuous”. The pleasure imparted by poetry ennobles and edifies the readers.

Thus, “The end of poetry is to produce excitement in co-existence with an overbalance of pleasure; but, by the supposition, excitement is an unusual and irregular state of mind; ideas and feelings do not, in that state, succeed each other in accustomed order”. For Wordsworth, the first stage of the progress of poetry, which is “unforced overflow of powerful feelings”, is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings; the next is that of emotion recollected in tranquility; and the last is of its expression in poetry. He always composed his poems with the greatest care, not trusting his first expression which he found often detestable, in his own words, “it is frequently true of second words as of second thoughts that they are the best.”

F.L. Lucas once said “Wordsworth’s famous theory of style is merely a natural revulsion frozen into a foolish rule; and his style in practice is often the very opposite of his own theory, without being any the better for that”. J.K Stephan said, “There are two wholly different Wordsworths. Suddenly in this rough block of granite the mica flashes out, like diamond, beneath the moon; on this blunt, whale-headed fell the sunset strikers, like a great transfiguration, athwart the grey, crawling rags of mists”, until     
                        “…………………… the sky seems not a sky         
                        Of earth, and with what motion move the clouds”.

Despite all criticism, including Eliot’s, who said “poetry is not the turning loose of emotions but an escape from emotions,” Wordsworth’s theory of poetry can hardly be over-estimated or over-praised, thus, Preface gives Wordsworth concept of nature, function and language of poetry which give direction to the nineteenth century poetry. All in all, through the breathless efforts, Wordsworth gives a new trend to poetry.

Wordsworth says that nature obeys certain rules and poetic diction arbitrary and capricious, however, Walter Raleigh declares that Wordsworth hardly observes rules set by himself—but it is said that he writes well when he breaks his own rules. However, Coleridge’s objection is that when a poet begins to arrange words he no longer remains spontaneous.

When we say that Wordsworth did not always practise his theory of poetic diction, we refer to the poems as Tintern Abbey, The Intimation of Immortality Ode, or Simplon Pass, etc. Here, too, however, there is no bombast; the style is not complicated but there is a sonorous “trumpet tone” which is not quite in keeping with his decision to select the real language of men. Many a time, he uses Latinised vocabulary—“incommunicable sleep”, “diurnal course” “unimaginable touch of time”, etc. There is nothing much ordinary with lines such as: 
                        “And O Fountains, meadows, hills and groves          
                         Forebode not every severing of our loves.” 


Dr. Johnson declared that noble and the graceful action is degraded if expressed in ordinary and simple language; and Gray staled: “the language of the age could never be the language of poetry”. So Wordsworth rebelled against the artificial language used by the poets of the preceding sensation, which was known as the Neo-Classical language.
Wordsworth asserts that there is essentially no difference between the language of prose and metrical composition. He gives an example to prove that the meter should not be confused with poetic diction.  Wordsworth gives a false example which has been applied to poetry in which the language resembles life and nature. Here is bad poetry:     

                        “I put my hat on upon the head,                    
                        And walked into the strand    
                        And there must another man
                        Whose hat was in his hand”. 

And here is an example of good poetry:       

                        “The pretty Babies with hand in hand;          
                        Wandering up and down;      
                        But never more they saw the Man    
                        Approaching from the town”.

In both these examples, the words are in prose order and ideas familiar. Yet one stanza is poor poetry and the other is good poetry: where is the difference? Surely not in the words or metre, but in one, the matter is contemptible and in the other interesting images emerges.

In sum, under the influence of Wordsworth, poetry broke through the iron modules of rules and came to be blessed with a sweet music that rose directly from the poet’s heart and went overflowing direct to the heart of the readers.

All in all, to conclude, it must be admitted that Wordsworth gives a new trend to English poetry by eliminating artificial diction from it. He broke a vicious tradition and evolved a simple, unaffected and natural style which reaches the hearts of men. Thus, Wordsworth in his theories was, as he himself remarks “a man fighting a battle without enemies”; whose principle object was “to choose incidents from the common life….to imitate and, as far as possible to adopt the very language of men.”

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