The Romantic Manifesto: William Wordsworth’s Preface to the Lyrical Ballads

FIRST published in 1798, the Lyrical Ballads was a collection of poems by William Wordsworth (1770-1850) and Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) in which an attempt was made to break with existing convention and create an exciting new wave of English Romanticism.

Whilst the 1798 first edition contained just four poetic contributions from Coleridge (including ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’) and almost sixty from Wordsworth, a frank and unequivocal Preface added by the latter to the second edition of January 1801 – and yet speaking on behalf of both men – was viewed as the unofficial ‘manifesto’ of the Romantic movement as a whole. By 1802, a third edition saw Wordsworth add an appendix (‘Poetic Diction’) to the Lyrical Ballads that elaborated on the ideas that had been discussed in the first Preface two years earlier. The original Preface was also greatly expanded. Meanwhile, the two versifying collaborators set about publishing a fourth edition in 1805.

Our task, then, is to examine the extended Preface that appeared with the third edition of 1802 and which clearly outlines the aims of Wordsworth and Coleridge in some detail. It was the former, of course, who was charged with the task of writing this important literary document and he begins by revealing the aesthetic motives behind the original publication of the Lyrical Ballads some four years earlier:

It was published, as an experiment, which, I hoped, might be of some use to ascertain, how far, by fitting to metrical arrangement a selection of the real language of men in a state of vivid sensation, that sort of pleasure and that quantity of pleasure may be imparted, which a Poet may rationally endeavour to impart.

Whilst Coleridge and Wordsworth had fully expected their collected efforts to offend some of their worst critics, they were pleasantly surprised when the first edition of the Lyrical Ballads appealed to far more people than they had envisaged. This led some of their chief admirers to call for a clear statement of Romantic principles:

Several of my Friends are anxious for the success of these Poems from a belief, that, if the views with which they were composed were indeed realized, a class of Poetry would be produced, well adapted to interest mankind permanently, and not unimportant in the multiplicity, and in the quality of its moral relations: and on this account they have advised me to prefix a systematic defence of the theory, upon which the poems were written.

Wordsworth, however, realised that any excessive dissection of the actual meaning behind the poems themselves would not simply diminish their overall effect but appear presumptuous in terms of claiming to account for the public’s favourable reaction towards them.

Due to the political upheavals of the time, something caused by the Industrial Revolution and the concomitant rise of capitalist exploitation, Wordsworth – who, alongside Coleridge, had taken a keen interest in the revolutionary upheavals of the time – stated in a letter to Charles James Fox (1749-1806), a prominent Whig statesman, that the

evil would be the less to be regretted, if these institutions were regarded only as palliatives to a disease; but the vanity and pride of their promoters are so subtly interwoven with them, that they are deemed great discoveries and blessings to humanity. In the meantime parents are separated from their children, and children from their parents; the wife no longer prepares, with her own hands, a meal for her husband, the produce of his labour; there is little doing in the house in which his affections can be interested, and but little left in it that he can love.

Wordsworth had understood that people had become so thoroughly desensitised by capitalism that poetry offered some form of hope and that Romanticism allowed people to reflect on nature and reconnect themselves to the realities of the organic world that was being actively denied to them. As he later explained in his Preface to the Lyrical Ballads:

The principal object, then, which I proposed to myself in these Poems was to choose incidents and situations from common life, and to relate or describe them, throughout, as far as was possible, in a selection of language really used by men; and, at the same time, to throw over them a certain colouring of imagination, whereby ordinary things should be presented to the mind in an unusual way; and, further, and above all, to make these incidents and situations interesting by tracing in them, truly though not ostentatiously, the primary laws of our nature: chiefly, as far as regards the manner in which we associate ideas in a state of excitement. Low and rustic life was generally chosen, because in that condition, the essential passions of the heart find a better soil in which they can attain their maturity, are less under restraint, and speak a plainer and more emphatic language; because in that condition of life our elementary feelings co-exist in a state of greater simplicity, and, consequently, may be more accurately contemplated, and more forcibly communicated; because the manners of rural life germinate from those elementary feelings; and, from the necessary character of rural occupations, are more easily comprehended, and are more durable; and lastly, because in that condition the passions of men are incorporated with the beautiful and permanent forms of nature.

Clearly, expressions pertaining to “the primary laws of our nature” and phrases such as “less under restraint” are designed to associate the reconnection of man to his environment as a form of liberation. This, the first edition of the Lyrical Ballads had achieved by employing a radical ‘conversation’ style that ordinary people could identify with. Although other English poets like Alexander Pope (1688-1744) had tried to engender a new Christian order among the working classes, the approach of Coleridge and Wordsworth offered readers a more ‘pagan’ perspective. Instead of adhering to a strict moral order, the poetry of the Lyrical Ballads was born of a passionately emotive self-identification that had, nonetheless, arisen from a process of careful thought and consideration:

For all good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: but though this be true, Poems to which any value can be attached, were never produced on any variety of subjects but by a man, who being possessed of more than usual organic sensibility, had also thought long and deeply. For our continued influxes of feeling are modified and directed by our thoughts, which are indeed the representatives of all our past feelings; and, as by contemplating the relation of these general representatives to each other we discover what is really important to men, so, by the repetition and continuance of this act, our feelings will be connected with important subjects, till at length, if we be originally possessed of much sensibility, such habits of mind will be produced, that, by obeying blindly and mechanically the impulses of those habits, we shall describe objects, and utter sentiments, of such a nature and in such connection with each other, that the understanding of the being to whom we address ourselves, if he be in a healthful state of association, must necessarily be in some degree enlightened, and his affections ameliorated.

Coleridge and Wordsworth were adamant that there is no real difference between poetry and prose, and that both mediums – as with the more generally accepted relationship between poetry and art – are formed from the very same substance: the mystical life-force of humanity.

Wordsworth then turned his attention to the poet himself and his unique role in life:

He is a man speaking to men: a man, it is true, endued with more lively sensibility, more enthusiasm and tenderness, who has a greater knowledge of human nature, and a more comprehensive soul, than are supposed to be common among mankind; a man pleased with his own passions and volitions, and who rejoices more than other men in the spirit of life that is in him; delighting to contemplate similar volitions and passions as manifested in the goings-on of the Universe, and habitually impelled to create them where he does not find them.

In addition, he argued that the poet is capable of “conjuring up in himself” those passions which are quite different to the more commonplace emotions that one ordinarily relates to real events. Wordsworth was convinced that the poet has an ability to generate a wellspring of passion without any external stimulation whatsoever.

As readers will have noted in my previous contribution to this website on Coleridge’s Frost at Midnight, there is a very important philosophical dimension to Romanticism that often gets overlooked and Wordsworth is keen to introduce this factor into his Preface:

Aristotle, I have been told, hath said, that Poetry is the most philosophic of all writing: it is so: its object is truth, not individual and local, but general, and operative; not standing upon external testimony, but carried alive into the heart by passion; truth which is its own testimony, which gives strength and divinity to the tribunal to which it appeals, and receives them from the same tribunal.

Although many of the German Romantics were of the firm opinion that philosophy and poetry are complementary, Novalis and Schlegel among them, the medium of verse is far less rigid than the academic discipline one must employ elsewhere:

The obstacles which stand in the way of the fidelity of the Biographer and Historian, and of their consequent utility, are incalculably greater than those which are to be encountered by the Poet, who has an adequate notion of the dignity of his art. The Poet writes under one restriction only, namely, that of the necessity of giving immediate pleasure to a human Being possessed of that information which may be expected from him, not as a lawyer, a physician, a mariner, an astronomer or a natural philosopher, but as a Man. Except this one restriction, there is no object standing between the Poet and the image of things; between this, and the Biographer and Historian there are a thousand.

When Wordsworth tells us that the work of the poet is more fluid, therefore, he is highlighting the fact that poetry itself is comparatively more ‘anarchic’ and that it transcends the restrictive bonds of convention. This should not, however, lead us to imagine that poetry tends towards degeneration or a loss of control:

It is an acknowledgment of the beauty of the universe, an acknowledgment the more sincere because it is not formal, but indirect; it is a task light and easy to him who looks at the world in the spirit of love: further, it is a homage paid to the native and naked dignity of man, to the grand elementary principle of pleasure, by which he knows, and feels, and lives, and moves.

Wordsworth continues by explaining that whilst any excitement provoked by Romantic poetry has a tendency to “be carried beyond its proper bounds,” this is always tempered by the fact that many poems deal with our everyday feelings. Not simply passion, in other words, but the intermittent pain of existence. Our reactions may oscillate between these two pillars, yet they act as a necessary balance that allows us to keep a firm check on reality. The key to all this, says Wordsworth, is enjoyment:

I have said that Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity: the emotion is contemplated till by a species of reaction the tranquillity gradually disappears, and an emotion, kindred to that which was before the subject of contemplation, is gradually produced, and does itself actually exist in the mind. In this mood successful composition generally begins, and in a mood similar to this it is carried on; but the emotion, of whatever kind and in whatever degree, from various causes is qualified by various pleasures, so that in describing any passions whatsoever, which are voluntarily described, the mind will upon the whole be in a state of enjoyment. Now, if Nature be thus cautious in preserving in a state of enjoyment a being thus employed, the Poet ought to profit by the lesson thus held forth to him, and ought especially to take care, that whatever passions he communicates to his Reader, those passions, if his Reader’s mind be sound and vigorous, should always be accompanied with an overbalance of pleasure.

Finally, throughout English Romantic poetry one detects a healthy flourish of individuality in the sense that the reader is expected to reject literary opinion and judge for himself. The feelings and emotions that one receives from a particular work should be enough to determine whether one attributes any value to it. Allowing the poetic establishment to decide whether something has any worth is an abrogation of personal responsibility. Wordsworth, perhaps, realising that Romantic poetry would upset the jealous trend-setters of the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries, wanted people to judge for themselves. This was an appeal to individual reason, rather than a willingness to capitulate to the collective might of poetic convention. In this regard, the Lyrical Ballads remain one of the greatest achievements of European poetry.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.