By way of understanding and appraisal, it must first be asked what Wordsworth set out to do and then to what degree he succeeded. It has been remarked that he was one of the giants; almost single-handedly he revivified English poetry from its threatened death from emotional starvation. What Burns, Blake, and Cowper, his contemporaries, wanted to do and could not, he did.
The neo-classically oriented writers of the so-called Augustan Age (1701 to about 1750), Swift, Gay, Addison and Steele, Pope, and to a lesser extent Richardson and Fielding, chose Latin authors of the time of the Pax Romana (hence the name Augustan) as their models. They admired Virgil and Horace for correctness of phrase and polished urbanity and grace. By contrast, Shakespeare they found crude. They wrote and criticized according to what they considered the proper and acceptable rules of taste. Their relationship to the natural environment was one of cautious imitation. They did not hold with simple tutelage at the hands of nature; reason and good sense had to intervene. Reason, indeed, was the prime source of inspiration; emotion had to be subordinated to thought. Thematically, conditions in "high" society furnished many of the plots and characters, and humble life tended to be contemptuously ignored.
From about 1750 to 1790, literature came to be dominated indirectly by Doctor Samuel Johnson. Johnson, while no romanticist, was, like Voltaire in France, scornful of neo-classicism's aims and methods and, through ridicule, hastened its undoing. New forces were at work in England; change and vitality were coming to the front. The full emergence of the party system and cabinet government had taken place; the empire grew, trade increased, and the middle class asserted new power. But the rules and fetters of neoclassicism still bound literature. For Johnson, reason and common sense still prevailed over imagination and sentiment. His violent and neat literary opinions and his didactic prose and verse came to symbolize the retrenchment of reactionary forces and the kind of literary creation which amounted to a kind of "apology" for the old ways. In poetry, a break with traditionalism had begun. The so-called proto-romantics (transition poets), Cowper, Gray, Blake, and Burns, among others, balked at merely copying classical subjects and forms once more. They wrote instead about simple, natural things in plain language, though they retained many of the older poetic structures. And they still subscribed to the notion that poetry had to be "fancier" than prose — an idea Wordsworth was to denounce.
Poetic language was devitalized, and so was the thematic province of poetry: Neither any longer evoked feeling. The Romantics were compelled to look about for new ways of saying things. Before their arrival on the literary scene, the amount of jargon was astonishing: It was vulgar to call a man a man; he was commonly a swain. The elaborate and absurd similes and images had to be banished, and fresh and incisive poetic insights would have to replace the stereotyped and labored abstractions of their predecessors. Finally, the heroic couplet gave way to blank verse.
One of Wordsworth's finest achievements was that his simple childhood readied his mind to the value of the non-artificial, and he was not slow to appreciate the need for a reform of "poetic" language. Poetry became an immediate and intimate experience told by the experiencer. Beauty was to be admired for its own sake. Wordsworth's reliance on unaffected speech and action and his deep conviction that simplicity of living was a philosophy harmoniously in agreement with nature wrought a revolution in poetic values. His Preface to the Lyrical Ballads became the symbol and the instrument of romantic revolt.
Wordsworth's philosophy of life, his theory of poetry, and his political credo were all intricately connected. A change in one characteristically brought parallel changes in the others. In 1793, the poet found himself without a penny, banished from the homes of his relatives, embittered by the excesses of the Revolution in France, and beset by personal fears and uncertainties. He became a member of the so-called Godwin circle in London. William Godwin, the political philosopher and novelist, deplored the role of emotion in human affairs and claimed salvation lay only in reason perfected by education. Wordsworth began a serious reading of Godwin and soon determined to abandon his early naive reliance on intuition and subject all his beliefs to close scrutiny. For four years, he clung tenaciously to his Godwinian outlook until he nearly suffered a nervous breakdown. And his poetry suffered as a result of his philosophy. He said of some of Guilt and Sorrow that its diction was "vicious" and the descriptions "often false." The Borderers, from the same vintage, is so artificial in tone as to be depressing.
By 1798, Wordsworth turned back to nature and her wholesome teachings. "The Tables Turned" and "Expostulation and Reply" (both 1798) are both anti-intellectual in tone and mood, and signal the final break with Godwinism. It chanced that David Hartley, founder of the associationist school in psychology — his views were adapted afterward in the social philosophy of the Utilitarians — who at the moment absorbed Coleridge's attention, had expounded views which Wordsworth fancied matched his very own. Hartley put fundamental emphasis on environment in the shaping of personality. He was an empiricist in the tradition of Locke. He had won vogue for his skill in translating the theory of the association of ideas into a psychology of learning. Wordsworth had been looking for a satisfactory psychology, and this was it. Hartley taught that sensations (elemental ideas) produced vibrations in the nervous system. He held (with Locke) that the mind was a "blank slate" until sensation introduced simple ideas into it; hence, sensation was the basis of all knowledge.
The debt to Hartley is apparent throughout Lyrical Ballads. Nature, Wordsworth reasoned, teaches the only knowledge important to humanity. The human beings who possessed this vital knowledge would be those closest to nature — the farmers and shepherds of the countryside. So it was to describing the visions of people like this that he turned in Lyrical Ballads. The critics immediately pounced upon him, saying, in effect, he did not know poetry from agronomy, whereupon he reissued the poems and added his notorious Preface, which informed the critics (though not in certain terms) that it was they who were absolutely ignorant of the real nature of poetry.
In late 1797, Coleridge, Wordsworth, and his sister Dorothy planned a trip from Alfoxden, where they lived, to the Valley of Stones, near Lynmouth, in Devon. They proposed meeting expenses for the modest trip by writing a poem, "The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere," and submitting it to the Monthly Magazine in the hope of getting five pounds. Wordsworth early had misgivings and withdrew from authorship because he feared that he would botch the poem. He was in the process of writing his own poems, and the two men constantly aired their views on the nature of poetry and the poetic faculty.
The two men complemented each other. Coleridge thought in terms of quick and brilliant generalizations and Wordsworth thought somewhat ploddingly and provided a valuable devotion to detail. Jointly, they conceived the romantic formula which was to enliven poetry from that day to this, Coleridge with his vast knowledge of German transcendental philosophy in which traces of romanticism were already evident, and Wordsworth with his cunning awareness of the magic of the commonplace. They induced a mutual flood of creativity. It was Coleridge who afterward urged Wordsworth on with The Prelude and persuaded him to undertake The Recluse. Coleridge's contemporaries alleged it was impossible not to plan on a vast and abstract scale while under his influence.
Out of the discussions between the two men about what poetry ought to be and how it should affect its audience came a growing desire on the part of the two poets to collaborate on a volume of verse. They adopted a division of labor in which Coleridge would endeavor through poetic means to make the uncommon (supernatural) credible; Wordsworth would attempt to make the common uncommon — through simple but meticulous descriptions of everyday things. The decision to be guided by these tenets amounted to the fanfare announcing the romantic revolt in English literature. Lyrical Ballads became both the symbol and instrument of that revolution. Thus was disclosed the prescription which was to carry poetry and prose through romantic, realist, and modern phases, and which invests them to this very day; the evocation of emotion and inculcation of transcendental awareness through the artistic examination of immediate experience.
The spearhead and chief mechanism for this process was going to be a revolutionary type of poetic diction for which Wordsworth was to become famous. The original formulation was rather crude, and it underwent transformation at the hands of the poets as they proceeded. Coleridge became less and less convinced of its power as an artistic tool and finally disclaimed it altogether, saying that he and Wordsworth might have subscribed to it in theory but fell far short of exploiting it in actuality. Wordsworth himself felt that his work was a shining embodiment of the doctrine — as well as a vindication — and never completely abandoned it.
The second edition of Lyrical Ballads appeared in two volumes in 1800 in Wordsworth's name alone. In the anonymous 1798 edition, there had been a mere "advertisement" to orient the reader to the poems; in 1800, the famous "Preface" took its place. Wordsworth notes that friends had urged him to write a defense of the collection, but he preferred to write instead a "simple" introduction. This turned out to be a somewhat long explanation of the poet's attempt to write in a manner hitherto unknown.
He describes poetry as the spontaneous overflow of emotions. Poetry is not dependent upon rhetorical and literary devices, but is the free expression of the poet's thought and feeling. The poet is a teacher and must strive to reveal truth, not through scientific analysis and abstraction, but through an imaginative awareness of persons and things. He may broaden and enrich our human sympathies and our enjoyment of nature in this way. He must communicate his ideas and emotions through a powerful re-creation of the original experience. For this, he must have a sensibility far beyond that of the ordinary individual. He tells how he weeded out the dead expressions from the older poetic vocabulary and substituted the flesh-and-blood language of the common person. Poetry and prose, he says, differ only as to presence or absence of rhyme; they do not differ as to language. For Wordsworth, the important thing was the emotion aroused by the poem, not the poem itself (hence his lukewarm regard for form). In the last analysis, a poem re-stimulated past emotion in the reader and promoted learning by using pleasure as a vehicle.
Coleridge remarked that half the Preface was in fact the child of his own brain. Yet, he felt that there was much that was inadequate in the document. He felt that Wordsworth's conception of poetry relied too much on Hartley's theories and did not adequately explain Wordsworth's poems. Coleridge says in the Biographia Literaria 1814) that he was convinced Wordsworth's work was not the product of simple fancy, but of imagination — a creative, and not a mere associative, faculty. Furthermore, he thought the difference between poetry and prose was substantial, and it lay in the different ways they treated the same subject. He agreed with Wordsworth's idea of plain poetic diction but felt his colleague had not given enough thought to selecting from the language of everyday life. He thought Wordsworth's poetry reached a true sublimity when he most forgot his own ideas.
Wordsworth's position in his later work grew closer to that of Coleridge. But the poetic doctrines elaborated in the Preface solidly underlay Lyrical Ballads and were the springboard to the expanded philosophy of art throughout The Prelude.