Preface: Experimentation in the Lyrical Ballads



To begin, I shall repost an entry authored by yours truly in Erik Simpson’s Romantics Seminar as it relates to my inspirited attempt at a poetry blog. I shall term it a “Preface,” though it was not written directly for an audience with the intent to introduce. Yet it offers a glimpse into the writer that I was in college, and by revisiting this entry I have been provoked to consider the intent and purpose of poetry and art. And so I begin with this in mind:

“Experimentation in the Lyrical Ballads” February 15, 2011

In reading Wordsworth’s Preface (though I guess I’d rephrase that to be “Wordsworth’s account of what Coleridge wanted us to hear”),  I couldn’t help but think of Ezra Pound’s ABC of Reading, which we are currently covering in the short course poetry class that I am taking. Specifically, pages 174 and 175 of the Preface in Lyrical Ballads offer what I believe to be very important insights into the craft of poetry: “Feelings exist in a state of greater simplicity and consequently may be more accurately contemplated and more forcibly communicated,” “Accordingly such a language arising out of repeated experience and regular feelings is a more permanent and a far more philosophical language,” “Poems in these volumes will be found distinguished at least by one mark of difference, that each of them has a worthy purpose,” and “my descriptions of such objects as strongly excite those feelings.”

Unfortunately, after feeling like I had read something very insightful and wise in Wordsworth’s Preface, my opinions about the Preface were completely destroyed by Gamer. Well, maybe “completely destroyed” isn’t the right phrase, because Gamer does raise an interesting question. How is literature valued? How do the audiences and events of the time shape those values? And how is literature experimented with? In the article, Gamer discusses Alan Liu’s claim that “Wordsworth’s experimentalism of 1798 is at least in part forced by the literary landscape he inhabits” (107). Wordsworth begins the Preface saying, “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 please may be imparted, which a Poet may rationally endeavour to impart” (171, Italics are mine). This idea that Wordsworth is experimenting seems important in my opinion. Though Gamer suggests that we reread the Preface “as a strategic rather than wholesale rejection of gothic sensationalism, as “defence” of the first volume of Lyrical Ballads rather than as manifesto, as response to reviewer criticism rather than revolution against it” (126), I believe that the Preface can also be seen as an artist contemplating art. Ezra Pound states, “The proper METHOD for studying poetry and good letters is the method of contemporary biologists, that is careful first-hand examination of the matter, and continual COMPARISON of one ‘slide’ or specimen with another” (17). In this way, Wordsworth appears to be studying poetry in Lyrical Ballads. Furthermore, throughout his writing career it seems as though Wordsworth was comparing both the gothic and the more “natural” and “low” forms of writing.

Wordsworth’s later retraction of the Preface to me suggests that he battles with the question “what is valuable literature?” To me it seemed as though Wordsworth enjoyed writing gothic pieces, but found more artistic qualities in more natural, realistic forms of poetry. The Preface suggests that Wordsworth at one point may have believed that natural forms of poetry were better than gothic when measuring artistic value and form. However, pleasure is also a means of valuing literature, and while the form of meter offers pleasure, so too do feelings derived from the natural and from the supernatural. Therefore, though gothic works may have seemed contrived due to the popularity and abundance of “frantic novels,” perhaps Wordsworth felt that there was literary value within the gothic genre, but for some reason he felt as though he could not prove such a hypothesis to a critical audience.

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