“Preface to Lyrical Ballads” by William Wordsworth (1770-1850) has been widely recognized as an unofficial manifesto of the “English Romantic Movement”. Because in this ‘Preface’ Wordsworth has courageously proclaimed his own theories about-
- The function of a poet
- The purpose of the poetry
- Against the artificiality of eighteenth century poetic diction
- The language and subject matter of poetry
- The relationship between poetry and science etc.
By breaking the prevalent literary tradition of the neo- classical poets, the Preface becomes a landmark or milestone in the field of English literary criticism. With Preface to the Lyrical Ballads, a new-epoch, namely Romantic Movement, is started in the history of English literature.
1. Direct reaction against neo-classical age:
The most emphatic attack made by Wordsworth is against the gaudiness and inane phraseology” of contemporary poets. The eighteenth-century’s writers, such as Pope, Johnson and Dryden, imitated the writing strategy of ancient classical writers like Ovid, Virgil, Horace etc. They also took Aristotle’s Poetics as the guidance that what should be or what should not be done in writing. They are followed by reason, Judgment, allusion and discipline. Their aim was more to instruct than entertain. At the time, William Wordsworth triumphantly came to light with a new conception, which freed the imagination from the chain of reason and rules of 18th century literature. As he has exposed his new theory at first in Preface to the Lyrical Ballads, the claim is absolutely justified that it is the manifesto of the English Romantic Movement.
More Notes: Preface to lyrical ballads
2. New definition of poetry:
In Preface to the Lyrical Ballads, William Wordsworth as a precursor of the Romantic Movement sketches a new definition of poetry, which becomes the first propaganda of Romanticism. It is not mere imitation but creation with the help of imagination. As he says.
“Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings; it takes its origin from emotions recollected in tranquility“
This definition, based on personal emotion, is the fundamental principle of English Romanticism. But individual emotion was always neglected by neo-classics.
3. Romantic characteristics of a poet.
Wordsworth’s concept of a poet is more romantic that is enough to make the Preface as a vivid manifesto of the English Romantic Movement. Dominated by the powerful passion of Romanticism, Wordsworth has put some questions.
“What is meant by the word poet? What is a poet? To whom does he address himself? And what language is to be expected from him?”
In the next lines he has disclosed clearly about his own questions.
“He is a man speaking to men, who has a greater knowledge of human nature”
Thus Wordsworth has nicely decorated the qualifications and functions of a romantic poet in his Preface to the Lyrical Ballads.
3. Language of common men:
Wordsworth directly attacks the conventional tradition of the language of poetry. To him, language for poetry should be the real language of men. So he affirms that the language of poetry is a selection of the real language of men in a state of vivid sensation. By denying contemporary literary theory, he has adopted the language of humble and rustic people. He has chosen this language because the humble people live in close proximity with nature.
4. Avoidance Avoidance of frequent ornament:
Wordsworth stands strongly in the Preface against the unnecessary use of figures, metaphors, similes and other such ornaments. To him, decorative and metaphorical language is used only when the speaker is emotionally excited to express himself forcefully. But in the eighteenth century poetic diction supported a figurative language in the poem, which was not the result of genuine passion. So the avoidance of frequent ornament in the poem also proves it as a romantic manifesto of English literature.
5. Individual freedom:
Wordsworth’s love for individual freedom, which opposed the idea of classical writers. It was a revolutionary change in the history of English literature. The early writers thought themselves superior to other ordinary people. But Wordsworth has brought the poets on the same stage as the common man. Wordsworth’s Preface to the Lyrical Ballads is also a strong revolt against the rules, “principles and other restrictions of neo-classicism”.
6. Same language for both prose and poetry:
The neo-classical poets advocated that the language of poetry is different from the language of prose. According to them, the language of poetry must be highly ornamental and figurative. But Wordsworth clearly opposes this guidance and proclaims in the Preface.
“There neither is, nor can be, any essential difference between the language of prose and metrical composition.”
7. Reaction against set poetic diction:
The traditional poetic diction of the eighteenth century is strongly attacked in the Preface. Simplicity became the watchword. The personification of abstract ideas is firmly disregarded in favour of straightforward and simple language. According to Wordsworth,
“Assuredly such personifications do not make any natural or regular part of that language.”
So the romantic idea also certainly assures us that the Preface can be regarded as the manifesto of Romantic Movement.
8. Democratic attitude :
In Preface to the Lyrical Ballads Wordsworth has also chosen a democratic attitude in selecting the subject matter of poetry. It is a tendency towards democratization, apparently the influence of the thoughts of Voltaire and Rousseau. Instead of the neo-classical trend, which accepted only the activities of aristocratic people, Wordsworth took the subject matter of his Poetry from the simple and unvalued man of rustic situation. For this democratic approach of choice, the Preface also becomes a landmark in English history.
To conclude, we must say that by remarking the purpose of poetry, language and subject matter of poetry, function and characteristics of poetry, the Preface to the Lyrical Ballads becomes a manifesto of English Romantic Movement. So the Preface by Wordsworth is obviously a landmark or milestone in the history of literary criticism.