An Essay on William Wordsworth’s Preface to Lyrical Ballads

So, I’ve been doing a lot of writing for school lately, which has honestly left me pretty drained for doing much writing outside of school. So here is an essay I wrote for my Brittish Lit after 1800 class.

Only a Poet…

            According to William Wordsworth, poetry is “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings,” and “emotion recollected in tranquillity”(p 212). These two statements seem to be opposites—that is, in order for one to be true, the other must be false; why then does he make these two statements as if they are true? The argument could be made that Wordsworth simply spoke out of his ass, but perhaps he was on to something; perhaps he had uncovered a deeper truth in poetry, setting the art on a new path and creating the guidelines for modern poets. While the two statements about what poetry “is” seem to be contradictory, through close reading, they are proven to actually be complementary to each other, and instead of one being truth in spite of the other, they must both be truth in order to create good poetry. However, good poetry can only be created by a true poet.

            Early in Wordsworth’s Preface to Lyrical Ballads, he states that “[A]ll good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings”(p 207) This sounds like a very strong statement about the essence of poetry—and it is. He uses the quantifying “good” to show that not all poetry must be a “spontaneous overflow,” but if it does not come from powerful emotions, it will not, and cannot be good poetry. This is not all of what Wordsworth states; in fact, in the very same sentence, he goes on to say “…by a man who, […] had also thought long and deeply.”(p 207) This requirement stems from his description of a poet.

            The following is Wordsworth’s explanation of what a poet is:

A man endued with more lively sensibility, enthusiasm, 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.(p 210)

He goes on to describe a poet, saying that a poet possesses “The ability to be affected more than other men by absent things,” and to “conjure up in himself passions” which “more nearly resemble the passions produced by real events” (p 210). Wordsworth’s descriptions of what a poet is coincide with his requirements for creating poetry when he states that poetry is an “overflow of powerful feelings,” because according to his description of a poet, only a poet can truly feel such powerful emotions. The poet must also be “impelled to create them where he does not find them.” The ability to “think long and deeply” on powerful emotions is a talent that only a poet has, and a poet “delight[s] to contemplate similar volitions and passions.” Therefore, only a poet “endued with more lively sensibility, enthusiasm, tenderness, who has a greater knowledge of human nature, and a more comprehensive soul” can create good poetry after much contemplation.

            Poetry “takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity,” even though poetry is a “Spontaneous overflow of powerful emotion.” The feeling must first be felt, then contemplated by a poet, (a “man endued with […] a more comprehensive soul”) and then finally “recollected in tranquillity.” The process of a poet recollecting emotion is explained by Wordsworth: “the emotion is contemplated til 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” (p 212). This is another example of what Wordsworth means when he says “a spontaneous overflow of powerful emotion”; by recollecting the powerful emotion, the poet begins to actually feel that emotion, suddenly, and powerfully. This ability to make emotions “arise in him without immediate external excitement” (p 210) is an ability specific to a poet, a “being elevated above another, in proportion as he possesses this capability” (p 208), and is essential to creating good poetry—to “recollecting emotions in tranquility” and inspiring these emotions to “exist in the mind” (p 212).

            Throughout his Preface to Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth explains the essence of creating poetry, and all of its requirements. First, he explains the language which must be used. Then, he explains what a poet is, and what capabilities a poet possesses. Finally, he explains what—exactly—poetry is; the following sentence is a perfect definition of poetry:

Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity: the emotion is contemplated til 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. (p 212)

On first reading this, one might find Wordsworth’s explanation to be confusing, however, after taking into account his definition of a poet, and the various skills required in order to create poetry, this statement begins to make perfect sense, and his definition becomes truth. If a man does not have the ability to recollect emotions and bring them fully to his mind from a calm state, he cannot accurately inject those feelings into his words; while it is still possible to create poetry without possessing this ability, it is not possible to create “good” poetry, for it is “In this mood [that] successful composition generally begins.”

            In order for poetry to exist, powerful emotions must exist, but in order to create the poetry, one must have the ability to recollect those emotions in a peaceful state when the time comes for composition. Wordsworth is very clear though, when he says that “whatever passions he communicate[s] to his Reader, […] should always be accompanied with an overbalance of pleasure.” This is one last requirement that Wordsworth proposes for good poetry, and reminds the reader what the overall purpose of poetry is: to “give immediate pleasure to a human Being”(p 211).

Works Cited

Wordsworth, William. From Lyrical Ballads (1800, 1802) from Preface. The Longman  Anthology British Literature Volume B. 2nd ed. Ed. David Damrosch. Pearson Education, Inc, 2004. 206-212. Print.

           

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