Wordsworth: true to his word

As we have previously discussed in class, the Romantic period was a definite literary movement and Wordsworth is clearly its spokesman. In his Preface to Lyrical Ballads, he boldly criticises the limitations of literary past and asserts that his plan for the future of it is embedded in simplicity. Above all, Wordsworth is primarily a poet and he does not express much interest in in-depth literary criticism. However, he is still concerned about the issues that arise around the subject of poetry in general as well as the type of poetry he is set on producing. Wordsworth demonstrates his interest (and success) in revamping old expression and creating a new literary experience for readers that is more accessible in its language, subject, and minimalism. Wordsworth sees poetry as an expression of human self in crisis and any following reaction. In the Preface, Wordsworth justifies the experimental and revolutionary nature of his Lyrical Ballads and other poetic works by introducing his philosophy on what poetry is: “all good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings”(295), and encourages reflection on nature and the usage of simple language within it to broaden the audience of readers. Wordsworth also contemplates on the nature of the poet, a “man speaking to men” who has “a greater knowledge of human nature, and a more comprehensive soul”(299).

One of the main principles of Wordsworth’s Preface is the notion that nature never ceases to stimulate creativity and should have a special role in all good poetry. It is evident that his own personal feelings towards nature were predominant in his work – a staggering amount of his passages are directly related to or at least suggestive when it comes to nature themes. He takes delight in contemplating nature and this arguable stimulated his poetic ambitions – in Preface, he argues that “the passions of men are incorporated with the beautiful and permanent forms of nature”(295). Wordsworth’s sentiment towards simplicity is not only expressed in his diction but also his subject matters – by doing so, he believes his work will appeal to, and affect, a wider range of people. He aims to “choose incidents and situations from common life, and to relate or describe them…in a selection of language really used by men; and, at the same time, to throw over them a certain colouring of imagination”(294-5). In Book 1 of Prelude, Wordsworth describes the joy one can find in the discovery of a “beauteous stream” that makes “ceaseless music through the night and day”(273-4.362), or the serenity of a fresh imperfectly worked field. Wordsworth’s fondness goes far beyond his musings of it – he often personifies it, uses it in metaphor, or exemplifies it to justify human behaviour or emotion.

Wordsworth sees his work in poetry as somewhat of a revolution – he rejects the customs and traditions of poets who have preceded him and urges future writers to reconsider their writing style and mannerisms. He proposes he will “imitate” and “adopt the very language of men”(297), in order to keep the reader “in the company of flesh and blood, persuaded that by so doing I shall interest him”(297). Essentially, Wordsworth places value in making his poetry personal and more relatable – a far cry from the somewhat distant and withdrawn (though eloquent) poetic works of his predecessors. He rejects the usage of flowery and unnecessary poetic diction that can be confusing or off-putting to readers who are not as well-educated as the author. Wordsworth favours simplicity in style and technique – this much is evident throughout Prelude, for example. In Preface, he asserts that prose too, has its place in poetry. Much of Wordsworth’s works do not follow a rhyme scheme, constant rhythm, or adhere to the laws of metre. By doing so, he believes his poetry will be more accessible and appealing.

Lastly, a large portion of Preface is dedicated to Wordsworth’s notions on what it truly means to be a poet – a topic he also addresses in some of his poems, particularly Book 1 of Prelude, where lines 142 to 156 are dedicated solely to this question. Wordsworth describes the poet as a troubled ‘creature’ who “fits when he is neither sick nor well, / Though no distress be near him but his own / Unmanageable thoughts”(147-9.359). This relates to Book 1 of Prelude, where Wordsworth similarily describes the poet as somewhat of a rare breed, the type of man who is more sensitive or aware than what is “supposed to be common among mankind”(299).  The poet then, essentially, is a reflection of the common man in a more educated or well-versed light. The ideal poet considers nature and man as adjusted to each other, so that the “mind of man as naturally the mirror of the fairest and most interesting qualities of nature”(301).  Wordsworth’s reoccurring focus on the importance of nature reveals the three ideas he considers most important: attention to nature and its relationship to man, simplicity in both topic and schematics, and the very essence of the poet as a crafter and human being.

Examples from Preludereveal Wordsworth to have adhered to the guidelines and suggestions he himself outlined in Preface. The principles he preaches are reflected in his work – as a poet, Wordsworth remained true to his word.


Preface to Lyrical Ballads, William Wordsworth. Greenblatt, Stephen, gen. ed. The Norton Anthology of English Literature: Volume D The Romantic Period 9th ed. 6 vols. New York: NY, 2012. Print.

The 1805 Prelude: Book First, William Wordsworth. Greenblatt, Stephen, gen. ed. The Norton Anthology of English Literature: Volume D The Romantic Period 9th ed. 6 vols. New York: NY, 2012. Print.

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One Response to Wordsworth: true to his word

  1. Stephanie Van Dewark says:

    I particularly like how you isolated Wordsworth’s own interpretation of what it means to be a poet. I never considered that he might be trying to emphasize his own commonality by writing in the diction of a common man. It made me wonder about Wordsworth’s true motives for writing though. Was he trying to preserve his memory by recording his natural experiences on paper? Is he trying to inspire people to enjoy nature more? or convince people that natural experience has value? Very interesting!

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