William Wordsworth (1770-1850)

"Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of 
powerful feelings: it takes its origin from 
emotion recollected in tranquility"

This text is in the public domain and may be freely reproduced.

 


 

Preface to Lyrical Ballads (1802)

The first Volume of these Poems has already been submitted to  general perusal. 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. 

I had formed no very inaccurate estimate of the probable effect  of those Poems: I flattered myself that they who should be  pleased with them would read them with more than common  pleasure: and, on the other band, I was well aware, that by  those who should dislike them they would be read with more  than common dislike. The result has differed from my  expectation in this only, that I have pleased a greater number,  than I ventured to hope I should please. For the sake of variety, and from a consciousness of my own  weakness, I was induced to request the assistance of a Friend,  who furnished me with the Poems of the ANCIENT MARINER,  the FOSTER-MOTHER'S TALE:, the NIGHTINGALE, and the  Poem entitled LOVE. I should not, however, have requested this  assistance, had I not believed that the Poems of my Friend  would in a great measure have the same tendency as my own,  and that, though there would be found a difference, there  would be found no discordance in the colours of our style; as  our opinions on the subject of poetry do almost entirely  coincide.

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. But I was unwilling to undertake the task,  because I knew that on this occasion the Reader would look  coldly upon my arguments, since I might be suspected of  having been principally influenced by the selfish and foolish  hope of reasoning him into an approbation of these particular  Poems: and I was still more unwilling to undertake the task,  because, adequately to display my opinions, and fully to  enforce my arguments, would require a space wholly  disproportionate to the nature of a preface. For to treat the  subject with the clearness and coherence, of which I believe it  susceptible, it would be necessary to give a full account of the  present state of the public taste in this country, and to  determine how far this taste is healthy or depraved; which,  again, could not be determined, without pointing out, in what  manner language and the human mind act and re-act on each  other and without retracing the revolutions, not of literature  alone, but likewise of society itself. I have therefore altogether  declined to enter regularly upon this defence; yet I am  sensible, that there would be some impropriety in abruptly  obtruding upon the Public, without a few words of introduction,  Poems so materially different from those, upon which general  approbation is at present bestowed.

It is supposed, that by the act of writing in verse an Author  makes a formal engagement that he will gratify certain known  habits of association; that he not only thus apprizes the Reader  that certain classes of ideas and expressions will be found in  his book, but that others will be carefully excluded. This  exponent or symbol held forth by metrical language must in  different eras of literature have excited very different  expectations: for example, in the age of Catullus, Terence, and  Lucretius and that of Statius or Claudian; and in our own  country, in the age of Shakespeare and Beaumont and  Fletcher, and that of Donne and Cowley, or Dryden, or Pope. I  will not take upon me to determine the exact import of the  promise which by the act of writing in verse an Author, in the  present day, makes to his Reader; but I am certain, it will  appear to many persons that I have not fulfilled the terms of an  engagement thus voluntarily contracted. They who have been  accustomed to the gaudiness and inane phraseology of many  modern writers, if they persist in reading this book to its  conclusion, will, no doubt, frequently have to struggle with  feelings of strangeness and aukwardness: they will look round  for poetry, and will be induced to inquire by what species of  courtesy these attempts can be permitted to assume that title. I  hope therefore the Reader will not censure me, if I attempt to  state what I have proposed to myself to perform; and also, (as  far as the limits of a preface will permit) to explain some of the  chief reasons which have determined me in the choice of my  purpose: that at least he may be spared any unpleasant feeling  of disappointment, and that I myself may be protected from the  most dishonorable accusation which can be brought against an  Author, namely, that of an indolence which prevents him from  endeavouring to ascertain what is his duty, or, when his duty is  ascertained, prevents him from performing it.

The principal object, then, which I proposed to myself in these  Poems was to chuse 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. The language, too, of  these men is adopted (purified indeed from what appear to be its  real defects, from all lasting and rational causes of dislike or  disgust) because such men hourly communicate with the best  objects from which the best part of language is originally  derived; and because, from their rank in society and the  sameness and narrow circle of their intercourse, being less  under the influence of social vanity they convey their feelings  and notions in simple and unelaborated expressions.  Accordingly, such a language, arising out of repeated experience  and regular feelings, is a more permanent, and a far more  philosophical language, than that which is frequently  substituted for it by Poets, who think that they are conferring  honour upon themselves and their art, in proportion as they  separate themselves from the sympathies of men, and indulge in  arbitrary and capricious habits of expression, in order to furnish  food for fickle tastes, and fickle appetites, of their own  creation.
[Note 1]

I cannot, however, be insensible of the present outcry against  the triviality and meanness both of thought and language, which  some of my contemporaries have occasionally introduced into  their metrical compositions; and I acknowledge, that this defect,  where it exists, is more dishonorable to the Writer's own  character than false refinement or arbitrary innovation, though I  should contend at the same time that it is far less pernicious in  the sum of its consequences. From such verses the Poems in  these volumes will be found distinguished at least by one mark  of difference, that each of them bas a worthy purpose. Not that I  mean to say, that I always began to write with a distinct purpose  formally conceived; but I believe that my habits of meditation  have so formed my feelings, as that my descriptions of such  objects as strongly excite those feelings, will be found to carry  along with them a purpose. If in this opinion I am mistaken, I  can have little right to the name of a Poet. 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.

I have said that each of these poems has a purpose. I have also  informed my Reader what this purpose will be found principally  to be: namely to illustrate the manner in which our feelings and  ideas are associated in a state of excitement. But, speaking in  language somewhat more appropriate, it is to follow the fluxes  and refluxes of the mind when agitated by the great and simple  affections of our nature. This object I have endeavoured in these  short essays to attain by various means; by tracing the maternal  passion through many of its more subtle windings, as in the  poems of the IDIOT BOY and the MAD MOTHER; by  accompanying the last struggles of a human being, at the  approach of death, cleaving in solitude to life and society, as in  the Poem of the FORSAKEN INDIAN; by shewing, as in the Stanzas entitled WE ARE SEVEN, the perplexity and obscurity  which in childhood attend our notion of death, or rather our  utter inability to admit that notion; or by displaying the strength  of fraternal, or to speak more philosophically, of moral  attachment when early associated with the great and beautiful  objects of nature, as in THE BROTHERS; or, as in the Incident of  SIMON LEE, by placing my Reader in the way of receiving from  ordinary moral sensations another and more salutary  impression than we are accustomed to receive from them. It has  also been part of my general purpose to attempt to sketch  characters under the influence of less impassioned feelings, as in the TWO APRIL MORNINGS, THE FOUNTAIN, THE OLD MAN TRAVELLING, THE TWO THIEVES, &c. characters of which the  elements are simple, belonging rather to nature than to  manners, such as exist now, and will probably always exist, and  which from their constitution may be distinctly and profitably  contemplated. I will not abuse the indulgence of my Reader by  dwelling longer upon this subject; but it is proper that I should  mention one other circumstance which distinguishes these  Poems from the popular Poetry of the day; it is this, that the  feeling therein developed gives importance to the action and  situation, and not the action and situation to the feeling. My  meaning will be rendered perfectly intelligible by referring my  Reader to the Poems entitled POOR SUSAN and the CHILDLESS  FATHER, particularly to the last Stanza of the latter Poem.

I will not suffer a sense of false modesty to prevent me from  asserting, that I point my Reader's attention to this mark of  distinction, far less for the sake of these particular Poems than  from the general importance of the subject. The subject is  indeed important! For the human mind is capable of being  excited without the application of gross and violent stimulants;  and he must have a very faint perception of its beauty and  dignity who does not know this, and who does not further know,  that one being is elevated above another, in proportion as he  possesses this capability. It has therefore appeared to me, that  to endeavour to produce or enlarge this capability is one of the  best services in which, at any period, a Writer can be engaged;  but this service, excellent at all times, is especially so at the  present day. For a multitude of causes, unknown to former  times, are now acting with a combined force to blunt the  discriminating powers of the mind, and unfitting it for all  voluntary exertion to reduce it to a state of almost savage torpor.  The most effective of these causes are the great national events  which are daily taking place, and the encreasing accumulation  of men in cities, where the uniformity of their occupations  produces a craving for extraordinary incident, which the rapid  communication of intelligence hourly gratifies. To this tendency  of life and manners the literature and theatrical exhibitions of  the country have conformed themselves. The invaluable works of  our elder writers, I had almost said the works of Shakespeare  and Milton, are driven into neglect by frantic novels, sickly and  stupid German Tragedies, and deluges of idle and extravagant  stories in verse. When I think upon this degrading thirst after  outrageous stimulation, I am almost ashamed to have spoken of  the feeble effort with which I have endeavoured to counteract it;  and, reflecting upon the magnitude of the general evil, I should  be oppressed with no dishonorable melancholy, had I not a deep  impression of certain inherent and indestructible qualities of the  human mind, and likewise of certain powers in the great and  permanent objects that act upon it which are equally inherent  and indestructible; and did I not further add to this impression a  belief, that the time is approaching when the evil will be  systematically opposed, by men of greater powers, and with far  more distinguished success. Having dwelt thus long on the subjects and aim of these Poems,  I shall request the Reader's permission to apprize him of a few  circumstances relating to their style, in order, among other  reasons, that I may not be censured for not having performed  what I never attempted. The Reader will find that  personifications of abstract ideas rarely occur in these volumes;  and, I hope, are utterly rejected as an ordinary device to elevate  the style, and raise it above prose. I have proposed to myself to  imitate, and, as far as is possible, to adopt the very language of  men; and assuredly such personifications do not make any  natural or regular part of that language. They are, indeed, a  figure of speech occasionally prompted by passion, and I have  made use of them as such; but I have endeavoured utterly to  reject them as a mechanical device of style, or as a family  language which Writers in metre seem to lay claim to by  prescription. I have wished to keep my Reader in the company of  flesh and blood, persuaded that by so doing I shall interest him.  I am, however, well aware that others who pursue a different  track may interest him likewise; I do not interfere with their  claim, I only wish to prefer a different claim of my own. There  will also be found in these volumes little of what is usually called  poetic diction; I have taken as much pains to avoid it as others  ordinarily take to produce it; this I have done for the reason  already alleged, to bring my language near to the language of  men, and further, because the pleasure which I have proposed  to myself to impart is of a kind very different from that which is  supposed by many persons to be the proper object of poetry. I do  not know how without being culpably particular I can give my  Reader a more exact notion of the style in which I wished these  poems to be written than by informing him that I have at all  times endeavoured to look steadily at my subject, consequently,  I hope that there is in these Poems little falsehood of  description, and that my ideas are expressed in language fitted  to their respective importance. Something I must have gained by  this practice, as it is friendly to one property of all good poetry,  namely, good sense; but it has necessarily cut me off from a  large portion of phrases and figures of speech which from father  to son have long been regarded as the common inheritance of  Poets. I have also thought it expedient to restrict myself still  further, having abstained from the use of many expressions, in  themselves proper and beautiful, but which have been foolishly  repeated by bad Poets, till such feelings of disgust are connected  with them as it is scarcely possible by any art of association to  overpower. If in a Poem there should be found a series of lines, or even a  single line, in which the language, though naturally arranged  and according to the strict laws of metre, does not differ from  that of prose, there is a numerous class of critics, who, when  they stumble upon these prosaisms as they call them, imagine  that they have made a notable discovery, and exult over the Poet  as over a man ignorant of his own profession. Now these men  would establish a canon of criticism which the Reader will  conclude he must utterly reject, if he wishes to be pleased with  these volumes. And it would be a most easy task to prove to him,  that not only the language of a large portion of every good poem,  even of the most elevated character, must necessarily, except  with reference to the metre, in no respect differ from that of  good prose, but likewise that some of the most interesting parts  of the best poems will be found to be strictly the language of  prose, when prose is well written. The truth of this assertion  might be demonstrated by innumerable passages from almost all  the poetical writings, even of Milton himself. I have not space for  much quotation; but, to illustrate the subject in a general  manner, I will here adduce a short composition of Gray, who was  at the head of those who by their reasonings have attempted to  widen the space of separation betwixt Prose and Metrical  composition, and was more than any other man curiously elaborate in the structure of his own poetic diction.

In vain to me the smiling mornings shine, 
And reddening Phoebus lifts his golden fire: 
The birds in vain their amorous descant join, 
Or chearful fields resume their green attire: 
These ears alas! for other notes repine; 
A different object do these eyes require; 
My lonely anguish melts no heart but mine; 
And in my breast the imperfect joys expire;
 
Yet Morning smiles the busy race to cheer, 
And new-born pleasure brings to happier men; 
The fields to all their wonted tribute bear; 
To warm their little loves the birds complain. 
I fruitless mourn to him that cannot hear 
And weep the more because I weep in vain.
 

[Thomas Gray, "Sonnet on the Death of Mr. Richard  West" (1742)]

It will easily be perceived that the only part of this Sonnet which is of any value is the lines printed in Italics: it is equally obvious, that, except in the rhyme, and in the use of the single word "fruitless" for fruitlessly, which is so far a defect, the language of these lines does in no respect differ from that of prose.

By the foregoing quotation I have shewn that the language of  Prose may yet be well adapted to Poetry; and I have previously  asserted that a large portion of the language of every good poem  can in no respect differ from that of good Prose. I will go further.  I do not doubt that it may be safely affirmed, that there neither  is, nor can be, any essential difference between the language of  prose and metrical composition. We are fond of tracing the  resemblance between Poetry and Painting, and, accordingly, we  call them Sisters: but where shall we find bonds of connection  sufficiently strict to typify the affinity betwixt metrical and prose  composition? They both speak by and to the same organs; the  bodies in which both of them are clothed may be said to be of  the same substance, their affections are kindred and almost  identical, not necessarily differing even in degree; Poetry [Note 2] sheds no tears "such as Angels weep," but natural and human tears; she can boast of no celestial Ichor that distinguishes her vital juices from those of prose; the same human blood circulates through the veins of them both.

If it be affirmed that rhyme and metrical arrangement of  themselves constitute a distinction which overturns what I have  been saying on the strict affinity of metrical language with that  of prose, and paves the way for other artificial distinctions which  the mind voluntarily admits, I answer that the language of such  Poetry as I am recommending is, as far as is possible, a selection  of the language really spoken by men; that this selection,  wherever it is made with true taste and feeling, will of itself form  a distinction far greater than would at first be imagined, and will  entirely separate the composition from the vulgarity and  meanness of ordinary life; and, if metre be superadded thereto, I  believe that a dissimilitude will be produced altogether sufficient  for the gratification of a rational mind. What other distinction  would we have? Whence is it to come? And where is it to exist?  Not, surely, where the Poet speaks through the mouths of his  characters: it cannot be necessary here, either for elevation of  style, or any of its supposed ornaments: for, if the Poet's subject  be judiciously chosen, it will naturally, and upon fit occasion,  lead him to passions the language of which, if selected truly and  judiciously, must necessarily be dignified and variegated, and  alive with metaphors and figures. I forbear to speak of an  incongruity which would shock the intelligent Reader, should  the Poet interweave any foreign splendour of his own with that  which the passion naturally suggests: it is sufficient to say that  such addition is unnecessary. And, surely, it is more probable  that those passages, which with propriety abound with  metaphors and figures, will have their due effect, if, upon other  occasions where the passions are of a milder character, the style  also be subdued and temperate.

But, as the pleasure which I hope to give by the Poems I now  present to the Reader must depend entirely on just notions  upon this subject, and, as it is in itself of the highest importance  to our taste and moral feelings, I cannot content myself with  these detached remarks. And if, in what I am about to say, it  shall appear to some that my labour is unnecessary, and that I  am like a man fighting a battle without enemies, I would remind  such persons, that, whatever may be the language outwardly  holden by men, a practical faith in the opinions which I am  wishing to establish is almost unknown. If my conclusions are  admitted, and carried as far as they must be carried if admitted  at all, our judgments concerning the works of the greatest Poets  both ancient and modern will be far different from what they are  at present, both when we praise, and when we censure: and our  moral feelings influencing, and influenced by these judgments  will, I believe, be corrected and purified.

Taking up the subject, then, upon general grounds, I ask 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? 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. To these  qualities he has added a disposition to be affected more than  other men by absent things as if they were present; an ability of  conjuring up in himself passions, which are indeed far from  being the same as those produced by real events, yet (especially  in those parts of the general sympathy which are pleasing and  delightful) do more nearly resemble the passions produced by  real events, than any thing which, from the motions of their own  minds merely, other men are accustomed to feel in themselves;  whence, and from practice, he has acquired a greater readiness  and power in expressing what he thinks and feels, and  especially those thoughts and feelings which, by his own choice,  or from the structure of his own mind, arise in him without  immediate external excitement. But, whatever portion of this faculty we may suppose even the  greatest Poet to possess, there cannot be a doubt but that the  language which it will suggest to him, must, in liveliness and  truth, fall far short of that which is uttered by men in real life,  under the actual pressure of those passions, certain shadows of  which the Poet thus produces, or feels to be produced, in  himself. However exalted a notion we would wish to cherish of  the character of a Poet, it is obvious, that, while he describes  and imitates passions, his situation is altogether slavish and  mechanical, compared with the freedom and power of real and  substantial action and suffering. So that it will be the wish of the  Poet to bring his feelings near to those of the persons whose  feelings he describes, nay, for short spaces of time perhaps, to  let himself slip into an entire delusion, and even confound and  identify his own feelings with theirs; modifying only the  language which is thus suggested to him, by a consideration  that he describes for a particular purpose, that of giving  pleasure. Here, then, he will apply the principle on which I have  so much insisted, namely, that of selection; on this he will  depend for removing what would otherwise be painful or  disgusting in the passion; he will feel that there is no necessity  to trick out or to elevate nature: and, the more industriously he  applies this principle, the deeper will be his faith that no words,  which his fancy or imagination can suggest, will be to be  compared with those which are the emanations of reality and  truth.

But it may be said by those who do not object to the general  spirit of these remarks, that, as it is impossible for the Poet to  produce upon all occasions language as exquisitely fitted for the  passion as that which the real passion itself suggests, it is  proper that he should consider himself as in the situation of a  translator, who deems himself justified when he substitutes  excellences of another kind for those which are unattainable by  him; and endeavours occasionally to surpass his original, in  order to make some amends for the general inferiority to which  he feels that he must submit. But this would be to encourage  idleness and unmanly despair. Further, it is the language of  men who speak of what they do not understand; who talk of  Poetry as of a matter of amusement and idle pleasure; who will  converse with us as gravely about a taste for Poetry, as they  express it, as if it were a thing as indifferent as a taste for  Rope-dancing, or Frontiniac or Sherry. 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. Poetry is the  image of man and nature. 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.

Nor let this necessity of producing immediate pleasure be  considered as a degradation of the Poet's art. It is far otherwise.  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.  We have no sympathy but what is propagated by pleasure: I  would not be misunderstood; but wherever we sympathize with  pain it will be found that the sympathy is produced and carried  on by subtle combinations with pleasure. We have no  knowledge, that is, no general principles drawn from the  contemplation of particular facts, but what has been built up by  pleasure, and exists in us by pleasure alone. The Man of  Science, the Chemist and Mathematician, whatever difficulties  and disgusts they may have had to struggle with, know and feel  this. However painful may be the objects with which the  Anatomist's knowledge is connected, he feels that his knowledge  is pleasure; and where he has no pleasure he has no knowledge.  What then does the Poet? He considers man and the objects  that surround him as acting and re-acting upon each other, so  as to produce an infinite complexity of pain and pleasure; he  considers man in his own nature and in his ordinary life as  contemplating this with a certain quantity of immediate  knowledge, with certain convictions, intuitions, and deductions  which by habit become of the nature of intuitions; he considers  him as looking upon this complex scene of ideas and sensations,  and finding every where objects that immediately excite in him  sympathies which, from the necessities of his nature, are  accompanied by an overbalance of enjoyment.

To this knowledge which all men carry about with them, and to  these sympathies in which without any other discipline than  that of our daily life we are fitted to take delight, the Poet  principally directs his attention. He considers man and nature  as essentially adapted to each other, and the mind of man as  naturally the mirror of the fairest and most interesting qualities  of nature. And thus the Poet, prompted by this feeling of  pleasure which accompanies him through the whole course of  his studies, converses with general nature with affections akin to  those, which, through labour and length of time, the Man of  Science has raised up in himself, by conversing with those  particular parts of nature which are the objects of his studies.  The knowledge both of the Poet and the Man of Science is  pleasure; but the knowledge of the one cleaves to us as a  necessary part of our existence, our natural and unalienable  inheritance; the other is a personal and individual acquisition,  slow to come to us, and by no habitual and direct sympathy  connecting us with our fellow- beings. The Man of Science seeks  truth as a remote and unknown benefactor; he cherishes and  loves it in his solitude: the Poet, singing a song in which all  human beings join with him, rejoices in the presence of truth as  our visible friend and hourly companion. Poetry is the breath  and finer spirit of all knowledge; it is the impassioned  expression which is in the countenance of all Science. 

Emphatically may it be said of the Poet, as Shakespeare hath  said of man, "that he looks before and after." He is the rock of  defence of human nature; an upholder and preserver, carrying  every where with him relationship and love. In spite of difference  of soil and climate, of language and manners, of laws and  customs, in spite of things silently gone out of mind and things  violently destroyed, the Poet binds together by passion and  knowledge the vast empire of human society, as it is spread over  the whole earth, and over all time. The objects of the Poet's  thoughts are every where; though the eyes and senses of man  are, it is true, his favorite guides, yet he will follow wheresoever  he can find an atmosphere of sensation in which to move his  wings. Poetry is the first and last of all knowledge--it is as  immortal as the heart of man. If the labours of men of Science  should ever create any material revolution, direct or indirect, in  our condition, and in the impressions which we habitually  receive, the Poet will sleep then no more than at present, but he  will be ready to follow the steps of the man of Science, not only  in those general indirect effects, but he will be at his side,  carrying sensation into the midst of the objects of the Science  itself. The remotest discoveries of the Chemist, the Botanist, or  Mineralogist, will be as proper objects of the Poet's art as any  upon which it can be employed, if the time should ever come  when these things shall be familiar to us, and the relations  under which they are contemplated by the followers of these  respective Sciences shall be manifestly and palpably material to  us as enjoying and suffering beings. If the time should ever  come when what is now called Science, thus familiarized to men,  shall be ready to put on, as it were, a form of flesh and blood,  the Poet will lend his divine spirit to aid the transfiguration, and  will welcome the Being thus produced, as a dear and genuine  inmate of the household of man. It is not, then, to be supposed  that any one, who holds that sublime notion of Poetry which I  have attempted to convey, will break in upon the sanctity and  truth of his pictures by transitory and accidental ornaments,  and endeavour to excite admiration of himself by arts, the  necessity of which must manifestly depend upon the assumed  meanness of his subject.

What I have thus far said applies to Poetry in general; but  especially to those parts of composition where the Poet speaks  through the mouths of his characters; and upon this point it  appears to have such weight that I will conclude, there are few  persons, of good sense, who would not allow that the dramatic  parts of composition are defective, in proportion as they deviate  from the real language of nature, and are coloured by a diction  of the Poet's own, either peculiar to him as an individual Poet, or  belonging simply to Poets in general, to a body of men who, from  the circumstance of their compositions being in metre, it is  expected will employ a particular language.

It is not, then, in the dramatic parts of composition that we look  for this distinction of language; but still it may be proper and  necessary where the Poet speaks to us in his own person and  character. To this I answer: by referring my Reader to the  description which I have before given of a Poet. Among the  qualities which I have enumerated as principally conducting to  form a Poet, is implied nothing differing in kind from other men,  but only in degree. The sum of what I have there said is, that the  Poet is chiefly distinguished from other men by a greater  promptness to think and feel without immediate external  excitement, and a greater power in expressing such thoughts  and feelings as are produced in him in that manner. But these  passions and thoughts and feelings are the general passions  and thoughts and feelings of men. And with what are they  connected? Undoubtedly with our moral sentiments and animal  sensations, and with the causes which excite these; with the  operations of the elements and the appearances of the visible  universe; with storm and sun-shine, with the revolutions of the  seasons, with cold and heat, with loss of friends and kindred,  with injuries and resentments, gratitude and hope, with fear  and sorrow. These, and the like, are the sensations and objects  which the Poet describes, as they are the sensations of other men, and the objects which interest them. The Poet thinks and  feels in the spirit of the passions of men. How, then, can his  language differ in any material degree from that of all other men  who feel vividly and see clearly? It might be proved that it is  impossible. But supposing that this were not the case, the Poet  might then be allowed to use a peculiar language, when  expressing his feelings for his own gratification, or that of men  like himself. But Poets do not write for Poets alone, but for men.  Unless therefore we are advocates for that admiration which  depends upon ignorance, and that pleasure which arises from  hearing what we do not understand, the Poet must descend  from this supposed height, and, in order to excite rational  sympathy, he must express himself as other men express  themselves. To this it may be added, that while he is only  selecting from the real language of men, or, which amounts to  the same thing, composing accurately in the spirit of such selection, he is treading upon safe ground, and we know what  we are to expect from him. Our feelings are the same with  respect to metre; for, as it may be proper to remind the Reader,  the distinction of metre is regular and uniform, and not like that  which is produced by what is usually called poetic diction,  arbitrary, and subject to infinite caprices upon which no  calculation whatever can be made. In the one case, the Reader is  utterly at the mercy of the Poet respecting what imagery or  diction he may choose to connect with the passion, whereas, in  the other, the metre obeys certain laws, to which the Poet and  Reader both willingly submit because they are certain, and  because no interference is made by them with the passion but  such as the concurring testimony of ages has shewn to heighten  and improve the pleasure which coexists with it.

It will now be proper to answer an obvious question, namely,  why, professing these opinions, have I written in verse? To this,  in addition to such answer as is included in what I have already  said, I reply in the first place, because, however I may have  restricted myself, there is still left open to me what confessedly  constitutes the most valuable object of all writing whether in  prose or verse, the great and universal passions of men, the  most general and interesting of their occupations, and the entire  world of nature, from which I am at liberty to supply myself with  endless combinations of forms and imagery. Now, supposing for  a moment that whatever is interesting in these objects may be  as vividly described in prose, why am I to be condemned, if to  such description I have endeavoured to superadd the charm  which, by the consent of all nations, is acknowledged to exist in  metrical language? To this, by such as are unconvinced by what  I have already said, it may be answered, that a very small part of  the pleasure given by Poetry depends upon the metre, and that  it is injudicious to write in metre, unless it be accompanied with  the other artificial distinctions of style with which metre is  usually accompanied, and that by such deviation more will be  lost from the shock which will be thereby given to the Reader's  associations, than will be counterbalanced by any pleasure  which he can derive from the general power of numbers. In  answer to those who still contend for the necessity of  accompanying metre with certain appropriate colours of style in  order to the accomplishment of its appropriate end, and who  also, in my opinion, greatly under-rate the power of metre in  itself, it might perhaps, as far as relates to these Poems, have  been almost sufficient to observe, that poems are extant, written  upon more humble subjects, and in a more naked and simple  style than I have aimed at, which poems have continued to give  pleasure from generation to generation. Now, if nakedness and  simplicity be a defect, the fact here mentioned affords a strong  presumption that poems somewhat less naked and simple are  capable of affording pleasure at the present day; and, what I  wished chiefly to attempt, at present, was to justify myself for  having written under the impression of this belief.

But I might point out various causes why, when the style is  manly, and the subject of some importance, words metrically  arranged will long continue to impart such a pleasure to  mankind as he who is sensible of the extent of that pleasure will  be desirous to impart. The end of Poetry is to produce  excitement in co-existence with an overbalance of pleasure. Now,  by the supposition, excitement is an unusual and irregular state  of the mind; ideas and feelings do not in that state succeed each  other in accustomed order. But, if the words by which this  excitement is produced are in themselves powerful, or the  images and feelings have an undue proportion of pain connected  with them, there is some danger that the excitement may be  carried beyond its proper bounds. Now the co-presence of  something regular, something to which the mind has been  accustomed in various moods and in a less excited state, cannot  but have great efficacy in tempering and restraining the passion  by an intertexture of ordinary feeling, and of feeling not strictly  and necessarily connected with the passion. This is  unquestionably true, and hence, though the opinion will at first  appear paradoxical, from the tendency of metre to divest  language in a certain degree of its reality, and thus to throw a  sort of half consciousness of unsubstantial existence over the  whole composition, there can be little doubt but that more  pathetic situations and sentiments, that is, those which have a  greater proportion of pain connected with them, may be  endured in metrical composition, especially in rhyme, than in  prose. The metre of the old Ballads is very artless; yet they  contain many passages which would illustrate this opinion, and,  I hope, if the following Poems be attentively perused, similar  instances will be found in them. This opinion may be further  illustrated by appealing to the Reader's own experience of the  reluctance with which he comes to the re-perusal of the  distressful parts of Clarissa Harlowe, or the Gamester. While  Shakespeare's writings, in the most pathetic scenes, never act  upon us as pathetic beyond the bounds of pleasure an effect  which, in a much greater degree than might at first be imagined,  is to be ascribed to small, but continual and regular impulses of  pleasurable surprise from the metrical arrangement. On the  other hand (what it must be allowed will much more frequently  happen) if the Poet's words should be incommensurate with the  passion, and inadequate to raise the Reader to a height of  desirable excitement, then, (unless the Poet's choice of his  metre has been grossly injudicious) in the feelings of pleasure  which the Reader bas been accustomed to connect with metre in  general, and in the feeling, whether chearful or melancholy,  which he has been accustomed to connect with that particular  movement of metre, there will be found something which will  greatly contribute to impart passion to the words, and to effect  the complex end which the Poet proposes to himself.

If I had undertaken a systematic defence of the theory upon  which these poems are written, it would have been my duty to  develope the various causes upon which the pleasure received  from metrical language depends. Among the chief of these  causes is to be reckoned a principle which must be well known  to those who have made any of the Arts the object of accurate  reflection; I mean the pleasure which the mind derives from the  perception of similitude in dissimilitude. This principle is the  great spring of the activity of our minds, and their chief feeder.  From this principle the direction of the sexual appetite, and all  the passions connected with it take their origin: It is the life of  our ordinary conversation; and upon the accuracy with which  similitude in dissimilitude, and dissimilitude in similitude are  perceived, depend our taste and our moral feelings. It would not  have been a useless employment to have applied this principle  to the consideration of metre, and to have shewn that metre is  hence enabled to afford much pleasure, and to have pointed out  in what manner that pleasure is produced. But my limits will  not permit me to enter upon this subject, and I must content  myself with a general summary.

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. Now the music of harmonious  metrical language, the sense of difficulty overcome, and the  blind association of pleasure which bas been previously received  from works of rhyme or metre of the same or similar  construction, an indistinct perception perpetually renewed of  language closely resembling that of real life, and yet, in the  circumstance of metre, differing from it so widely, all these  imperceptibly make up a complex feeling of delight, which is of  the most important use in tempering the painful feeling, which  will always be found intermingled with powerful descriptions of  the deeper passions. This effect is always produced in pathetic  and impassioned poetry; while, in lighter compositions, the ease  and gracefulness with which the Poet manages his numbers are  themselves confessedly a principal source of the gratification of  the Reader. I might perhaps include all which it is necessary to  say upon this subject by affirming, what few persons will deny,  that, of two descriptions, either of passions, manners, or  characters, each of them equally well executed, the one in prose  and the other in verse, the verse will be read a hundred times  where the prose is read once. We see that Pope by the power of  verse alone, has contrived to render the plainest common sense  interesting, and even frequently to invest it with the appearance  of passion. In consequence of these convictions I related in  metre the Tale of GOODY BLAKE and HARRY GILL, which is one  of the rudest of this collection. I wished to draw attention to the  truth that the power of the human imagination is sufficient to  produce such changes even in our physical nature as might  almost appear miraculous. The truth is an important one; the  fact (for it is a fact) is a valuable illustration of it. And I have the  satisfaction of knowing that it has been communicated to many  hundreds of people who would never have heard of it, had it not  been narrated as a Ballad, and in a more impressive metre than  is usual in Ballads.

Having thus explained a few of the reasons why I have written in  verse, and why I have chosen subjects from common life, and  endeavoured to bring my language near to the real language of  men, if I have been too minute in pleading my own cause, I have  at the same time been treating a subject of general interest; and  it is for this reason that I request the Reader's permission to add  a few words with reference solely to these particular poems, and  to some defects which will probably be found in them. I am  sensible that my associations must have sometimes been  particular instead of general, and that, consequently, giving to  things a false importance, sometimes from diseased impulses I  may have written upon unworthy subjects; but I am less  apprehensive on this account, than that my language may  frequently have suffered from those arbitrary connections of  feelings and ideas with particular words and phrases, from  which no man can altogether protect himself. Hence I have no  doubt, that, in some instances, feelings even of the ludicrous  may be given to my Readers by expressions which appeared to  me tender and pathetic. Such faulty expressions, were I  convinced they were faulty at present, and that they must  necessarily continue to be so, I would willingly take all  reasonable pains to correct. But it is dangerous to make these  alterations on the simple authority of a few individuals, or even  of certain classes of men; for where the understanding of an  Author is not convinced, or his feelings altered, this cannot be  done without great injury to himself: for his own feelings are his  stay and support, and, if he sets them aside in one instance, he  may be induced to repeat this act till his mind loses all  confidence in itself, and becomes utterly debilitated. To this it  may be added, that the Reader ought never to forget that he is  himself exposed to the same errors as the Poet, and perhaps in a  much greater degree: for there can be no presumption in saying,  that it is not probable he will be so well acquainted with the  various stages of meaning through which words have passed, or  with the fickleness or stability of the relations of particular ideas  to each other; and above all, since he is so much less interested  in the subject, he may decide lightly and carelessly.

Long as I have detained my Reader, I hope he will permit me to caution him against a mode of false criticism which has been applied to Poetry in which the language closely resembles that of life and nature. Such verses have been triumphed over in parodies of which Dr. Johnson's Stanza is a fair specimen.

 

"I put my hat upon my bead, 
And walk'd into the Strand, 
And there I met another man 
Whose hat was in his hand."

Immediately under these lines I will place one of the most justly admired stanzas of the "Babes in the Wood."

"These pretty Babes with hand in hand 
Went wandering up and down; 
But never more they saw the Man
Approaching from the Town."

In both these stanzas the words, and the order of the words, in  no respect differ from the most unimpassioned conversation.  There are words in both, for example, "the Strand," and "the  Town," connected with none but the most familiar ideas; yet the  one stanza we admit as admirable, and the other as a fair  example of the superlatively contemptible. Whence arises this  difference? Not from the metre, not from the language, not from  the order of the words; but the matter expressed in Dr.  Johnson's stanza is contemptible. The proper method of treating  trivial and simple verses to which Dr. Johnson's stanza would be  a fair parallelism is not to say, this is a bad kind of poetry, or  this is not poetry; but this wants sense; it is neither interesting  in itself, nor can lead to any thing interesting; the images  neither originate in that same state of feeling which arises out of  thought, nor can excite thought or feeling in the Reader. This is  the only sensible manner of dealing with such verses: Why  trouble yourself about the species till you have previously  decided upon the genus? Why take pains to prove that an Ape is  not a Newton when it is self-evident that he is not a man?

I have one request to make of my Reader, which is, that in  judging these Poems he would decide by his own feelings  genuinely, and not by reflection upon what will probably be the  judgment of others. How common is it to hear a person say, "I  myself do not object to this style of composition or this or that  expression, but to such and such classes of people it will appear  mean or ludicrous." This mode of criticism, so destructive of all  sound unadulterated judgment, is almost universal: I have  therefore to request, that the Reader would abide independently  by his own feelings, and that if he finds himself affected he  would not suffer such conjectures to interfere with his pleasure.

If an Author by any single composition has impressed us with  respect for his talents, it is useful to consider this as affording a  presumption, that, on other occasions where we have been  displeased, he nevertheless may not have written ill or absurdly;  and, further, to give him so much credit for this one composition  as may induce us to review what has displeased us with more  care than we should otherwise have bestowed upon it. This is  not only an act of justice, but in our decisions upon poetry  especially, may conduce in a high degree to the improvement of  our own taste: for an accurate taste in poetry, and in all the  other arts, as Sir Joshua Reynolds has observed, is an acquired  talent, which can only be produced by thought and a long  continued intercourse with the best models of composition. This  is mentioned, not with so ridiculous a purpose as to prevent the  most inexperienced Reader from judging for himself, (I have  already said that I wish him to judge for himself;) but merely to  temper the rashness of decision, and to suggest, that, if Poetry  be a subject on which much time has not been bestowed, the  judgment may be erroneous; and that in many cases it  necessarily will be so.

I know that nothing would have so effectually contributed to  further the end which I have in view as to have shewn of what  kind the pleasure is, and how that pleasure is produced, which  is confessedly produced by metrical composition essentially  different from that which I have here endeavoured to  recommend: for the Reader will say that he has been pleased by  such composition; and what can I do more for him? The power of  any art is limited; and he will suspect, that, if I propose to  furnish him with new friends, it is only upon condition of his  abandoning his old friends. Besides, as I have said, the Reader  is himself conscious of the pleasure which he has received from  such composition, composition to which he has peculiarly  attached the endearing name of Poetry; and all men feel an  habitual gratitude, and something of an honorable bigotry for  the objects which have long continued to please them: we not  only wish to be pleased, but to be pleased in that particular way  in which we have been accustomed to be pleased. There is a host  of arguments in these feelings; and I should be the less able to  combat them successfully, as I am willing to allow, that, in order  entirely to enjoy the Poetry which I am recommending, it would  be necessary to give up much of what is ordinarily enjoyed. But,  would my limits have permitted me to point out how this  pleasure is produced, I might have removed many obstacles, and  assisted my Reader in perceiving that the powers of language  are not so limited as he may suppose; and that it is possible that  poetry may give other enjoyments, of a purer, more lasting, and  more exquisite nature. This part of my subject I have not  altogether neglected; but it bas been less my present aim to  prove, that the interest excited by some other kinds of poetry is  less vivid, and less worthy of the nobler powers of the mind, than  to offer reasons for presuming, that, if the object which I have  proposed to myself were adequately attained, a species of poetry  would be produced, which is genuine poetry; in its nature well  adapted to interest mankind permanently, and likewise  important in the multiplicity and quality of its moral relations.

From what has been said, and from a perusal of the Poems, the  Reader will be able clearly to perceive the object which I have  proposed to myself: he will determine how far I have attained  this object; and, what is a much more important question,  whether it be worth attaining; and upon the decision of these  two questions will rest my claim to the approbation of the public.


Wordsworth's Note 1

It is worth while here to observe that the affecting parts of Chaucer are almost always expressed in language pure and universal intelligible even to this day.

Wordsworth's Note 2:

I here use the word "Poetry" (though against my own judgment)  as opposed to the word Prose, and synonymous with metrical  composition. But much confusion has been introduced into  criticism by this contradistinction of poetry and prose, instead of  the more philosophical one of Poetry and Matter of Fact, or  Science. The only strict antithesis to Prose is Metre; nor is this,  in truth, a strict antithesis; because lines and passages of metre  so naturally occur in writing prose, that it would be scarcely  possible to avoid them, even were it desirable.