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Key principles of ‘Preface’ to Lyrical Ballads

In this video, Professor Sally Bushell discusses what she identifies as four of the main ideas contained in Wordsworth’s ‘Preface’ to Lyrical Ballads.
In the 1800 and 1802 preface, published with the collection Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth made a number of core statements that were to change poetry forever and give the preface the status of a manifesto for British Romanticism.
One of Wordsworth’s most famous statements, in the 1802 preface, is his definition of the role of the poet. He asks, what is a poet? And states, “he is a man speaking to men.” Such a statement is fundamentally democratic. The poet is no different from you and I. But he is clearly a communicator. Wordsworth defines him as someone who speaks rather than writes. In an age when poetry is the highest literary form, dominated by male writers, he is also of course a man. As well as aiming to speak directly to all, Wordsworth also chooses as his subject the everyday man.
Again, this is making the political point that poetry is for everyone, that all men and women are capable of feeling deeply and responding to the world around them, not just the gentry. This decision cost Wordsworth dearly in the reviews. He was much mocked for making ordinary people his subject. Wordsworth also most controversially of all turned his back on the fancy, ornate language of 18th century poetry and aimed instead “to adopt the very language of men.” He claimed to be writing poetry as close to ordinary speech as possible. This is an admirable principle, but hard to put into practice. Finally, Wordsworth declares that “all good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.”
This famous phrase initiates and sums up British Romanticism. Poetry is not about imitating the classical writers. It is about what you feel inside. This statement marks a major turn– from which there is no turning back– to an expressive poetics, which we still essentially believe in today.

Lyrical Ballads is one of the most important collections in the history of English Literature.

It was first published in 1798 and contained poems by William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. An expanded edition was published in 1800 to which Wordsworth added a ‘Preface’ explaining his theories about poetry.

For some critics, Wordsworth’s ‘Preface’ has gained the status of a manifesto for British Romanticism, laying out the core principles of that literary movement.

In this video, Professor Sally Bushell discusses what she identifies as four of the main ideas contained in Wordsworth’s ‘Preface’.

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William Wordsworth: Poetry, People and Place

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