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The Prelude

William Wordsworth
In The Prelude, or, Growth of a Poet's Mind, England's greatest Romantic poet, William Wordsworth,
recounts his own intellectual, artistic, and philosophical growth from his youthful days in the Lake Country
through his experiences with the French Revolution and the English government's reactions to it.
Wordsworth's epic autobiographical poem embodies a romantic philosophy of nature — tempered by reason
— that treats Mother Nature as man's greatest teacher and trusts in the Good within man.

Poem Summary

The Prelude affords one of the best approaches to Wordsworth's poetry in general and to

the philosophy of nature it contains. However, the apparent simplicity of the poem is

deceptive; comprehension is seldom immediate. Many passages can tolerate two or more

readings and afford new meaning at each reading. Wordsworth, it will be recalled, likened

his projected great philosophical work to a magnificent Gothic cathedral. And he

explained (in the Preface to The Excursian) that The Prelude was like an antechapel

through which the reader might pass to gain access to the main body of the structure.

The poem begins in his boyhood and continues to 1798. By the latter date, he felt that

his formative years had passed, that his poetic powers were mature, and that he was

ready to begin constructing the huge parent work. Alternating with his almost religious

conviction, there is an unremitting strain of dark doubt through the poem. The poem

itself therefore may be considered an attempt to stall for time before going on to what

the poet imagined would be far more difficult composition. As he tells the reader

repeatedly, his purpose was threefold: to provide a reexamination of his qualifications, to

honor Coleridge, and to create an introduction to The Recluse.

It was actually finished in 1805 but was carefully and constantly revised until 1850, when

it was published posthumously. It had been remarked that Wordsworth had the good

sense to hold back an introductory piece until he was certain that what it was to

introduce had some chance of being realized. Moreover, The Prelude contained passages

which promised to threaten the sensibilities of others, as well as himself, during the

rapidly changing course of events after 1805. The year 1805 is the approximate date of

his conversion to a more conservative outlook. However, his later-year recollection was

that this change occurred some ten years earlier, and he tries in his revisions to push the

date back.
The 1805 original draft was resurrected by Ernest de Selincourt and first published in

1926. A comparison of it with the 1850 (and final) version shows the vast change the

work underwent. Some passages in the earlier version do not appear at all in the later;

others are altered almost beyond recognition. The 1805 draft contains the clearest

statement of Wordsworth's philosophy and is fresher and more vigorously written. The

toned-down work as published in 1850 represents the shift of his thought toward

conservatism and orthodoxy during the intervening years. The student is likely to find the

1850 version much more accessible for the purpose of reading the whole poem. Yet on

the whole, critics tend to prefer the 1805 version when citing actual lines from the poem.

The only action in the entire poem is an action of ideas. Similarly, it would be inaccurate

to speak of the poem has having a plot in any standard sense. Its "story" is easily

summarized. The poem falls rather naturally into three consecutive sections: Books 1-7

offer a half-literal, half-fanciful description of his boyhood and youthful environment;

Book 8 is a kind of reprise. Books 9-11, in a more fluid and narrative style, depict his

exciting adventures in France and London. Books 12-14 are mostly metaphysical and are

devoted to an attempt at a philosophy of art, with the end of the last book giving a little


Each of these three "sections" corresponds roughly to a phase in Wordsworth's poetic

development and to a period in his life. The first dates from the time of his intuitive

reliance on nature, when he wrote simple and graceful lyrics. The second represents his

days of hope for, and then disappointment with, the Revolution, and his adoption of

Godwinian rationalism, during which he wrote the strong and inspiring sonnets and odes.

The last coincides with his later years of reaction and orthodoxy, when he wrote dull and

proper works such as The Excursion and Ecclesiastical Sonnets. The Prelude is critically

central to his life work because it contains passages representing all three styles.

In the last analysis, The Prelude is valuable because it does precisely what its subtitle

implies: It describes the creation of a poet, and one who was pivotal in English letters. In

fact, The Prelude was so successful in its attempt that there was nothing left to deal with

in The Recluse. Wordsworth could reach the high level of abstraction needed for a true

philosophical epic only sporadically, in some of the shorter lyrics and odes, and could not

sustain the tone.

Book 1: Introduction — Childhood and School-Time

• Summary and Analysis

It is a magnificent autumn day. The poet has, by his own account, been too long pent-up

in London and only now has managed to return to the beloved Lake District where he

spent his childhood and adolescence. It is difficult to fix his age as the poem opens

because time constantly shifts backward and forward throughout the narrative. The start

of Book 1 finds Wordsworth speaking from a mature point of view. The body of the poem

employs flashbacks to describe the development of the poetic mind during youth. This

material is amalgamated with the poet's adult views of philosophy and art (those views

held during the writing and endless revision of The Prelude, roughly from 1799 until


Wordsworth experiences relief in coming back to nature. He immediately identifies

spiritual freedom with the absence of the encumbrances of civilization. Feelings of

irresponsible freedom and lack of purpose quickly give way to a prevision of an impending

period of optimism and creativity. In the delicious quiet, Wordsworth suddenly sees in his

mind's eye the cottage of the landlady with whom he stayed as a schoolboy. He recalls

that even then he had intimations of his future greatness.

His wish to create some profound work of art calls for a re-disciplining of his mind, which

has recently been dulled by the artificiality of society. He mentions in passing the typical

moodiness of the poet in likening him to a lover. In assessing his faculties, Wordsworth

finds he has the three necessary ingredients for creativity: a vital soul; knowledge of the

underlying principles of things; and a host of painstaking observations of natural

phenomena. He rejects historical and martial themes, as well as mere anecdotes from his

personal history. He is searching instead for "some philosophic song that cherishes our

daily life." He is next assailed by doubts about the maturity of his views. If such views

change radically after he has recorded them, his analysis of them will be worthless. In his

indecision, he feels that if he reviews the ideas he formed in childhood and traces their

history up until early manhood, he will find whether they have had any lasting truth and


He recollects some of his childhood activities, among them river-bathing (he sported like

a naked savage) and climbing and robbing of birds' nests while wandering at night. In a
discussion of simple education, he stresses the importance of reaction on the part of the

child to every action upon it by its natural environment. In this way, nature develops

morality in the child. Wordsworth sets the tone of the poem by speaking religiously of

nature. He sees it as a great and awesome intelligence. Occasionally he communicates his

mood to the reader by employing natural objects as symbols of his feelings.

In a celebrated passage filled with much color, the poet describes how as a youth he stole

a boat and rowed one night across Ullswater Lake. At the climax of this experience, he

imagined that a peak beyond the lake became a presence which reared up and menaced

him because of his misdeed in taking the boat. He confides that for some time thereafter

he struggled to clarify a conception of pantheism which had been teasing his brain. He

addresses what he terms the spirit of the universe. He decries the artifacts of civilization

and praises enduring things — life and nature.

In a more literal section, he tells of his youthful pastimes and mentions winter ice games

with a group of companions and games of cards and tick-tack-toe in front of the peat fire.

But above all, he tried to be outdoors at all times of the year so that nature could be

unstinting in its education of him. He is particularly troubled when he remembers that

certain vistas in Westmoreland — particularly the sea — brought him great pleasure,

though he had no prior experience of the same kind of joy. Since beauty is eternal, he

may have learned to love such sights during a previous existence of his soul. He then

proceeds to develop a romantic theory of aesthetics. He maintains that certain individuals

create great art because, in the midst of mundane events, they sense the magical

urgency in everyday objects. Insignificant things take on a critical meaning over and

above their common and instrumental role. They suggest to the practitioner of the fine

arts, the clergyman, and the idealistic philosopher that the universe is of vast and

harmonious design. The layman, on the other hand, is insensible to this oneness of all

things, and the idea must be communicated to him.

Critical Essays
Analysis of The Prelude
"The Prelude is the greatest long poem in our language after Paradise Lost," says one

critic. Its comparison with the great seventeenth-century epic is in some respects a

happy one since Milton was (after Coleridge) Wordsworth's greatest idol.

The Prelude may be classed somewhat loosely as an epic; it does not satisfy all the

traditional qualifications of that genre. The epic is customarily defined as a long narrative

poem which recounts heroic actions, commonly legendary or historical, and usually of one

principal hero (from whence it derives its unity). The Prelude takes its unity from the fact

that the central "hero" is its author.

The poem is written in blank verse, unrhymed lines of iambic pentameter with certain

permissible substitutions of trochees and anapests to relieve the monotony of the iambic

foot and with total disregard for the stanza form. In the middle of the eighteenth century,

there was an eclipse of interest in the rhymed heroic couplet. A revival of interest in

Milton led to the establishment of Miltonic blank verse as the standard medium for

lengthy philosophical or didactic poetical works. The resulting form came to be called the

"literary" epic as opposed to heroic and folk epics. To this type, Wordsworth, with his

unconventional ideas of diction, brought a natural and conversational tone.

The general procedure in The Prelude is to record an experience from the poet's past and

then to examine its philosophical and psychological significance and relate it to nature

and society at large. Unfortunately, this results in a certain definite unevenness in the

development of the narrative. At times, particularly in the latter half of the work, the

narrative dries up altogether, and the reader must pick his way through a welter of

disconnected disquisitions. Frequently verbose, diffuse, and bathetic, the verse is carried

by those rare moments when it flashes fire or reaches a resounding note of rich poetic

song. The unwavering strength and unity of purpose which underlie it also help it to soar.

Only a mere fraction of the whole poem may be said to be great, but it is this fraction

that has continued to secure it a place high in English literature.

Another drawback of the verse is its blatant repetition. Wordsworth will describe an

intellectual experience again and again with only minor variations. Much of this repetition

may be due to the poet's episodic efforts to show his shifting point of view in connection

with certain basic ideas.

Most of the imagery, as well as the diction, reflects the natural environment, especially

the English countryside, and manages to capture much of the wildness and beauty of that
terrain. The influence of the English character may be traced in many of the ideas behind

the poem. Just as Wordsworth never got far or was long from his native regions

physically, so they continued to color his emotional reactions throughout his life. It is

doubtful that he would have created an inimitable philosophy of nature had he been

reared in London's slums. In his lifetime, his mental outlook swung from youthful

radicalism to ultraconservatism. Politically, the fierce independence of character the poet

admired in the yeoman of the North Country came to be symbolized by the French

patriot; later he felt that conservative British institutions were the bulwark of true

freedom. Artistically and religiously, he found youthful inspiration in the hills and vales of

the Lake District; he responded to them with his simple ballads and a joyous mysticism.

In maturity, it was the high Anglican Church tradition to which he turned, for a personal

faith and as a source for many of his later poetical ideas. Of course, we do not witness

the entire spectrum in The Prelude. That poem is basically democratic in spirit. Only at

the very end do we feel the impending onset of conservatism.

The work seems deceptively free of learned allusions, but the reader is sure to find many

obscure classical references. In addition, there are quite a few local place names which

are difficult to trace. The poem employs symbols in a somewhat unsophisticated way so

that language and feeling tend to be indistinguishable. When Wordsworth puts aside his

tendency to pamphleteer, mood and form tend to merge in highest harmony; the words

perfectly evoke feeling. In the best instances, there is such mastery of the medium that

the true goal of poetry is achieved: There is so perfect a communication of experience

that the language as a vehicle is forgotten. From this harmony, a great poetic power

emerges; with the very simplest of words and images, Wordsworth creates the

impression of terrible intensity.

For many readers, the aesthetic problem may be solved by adopting the fragmentary

approach of picking favorite passages singular for their strength or beauty. But the

reputation of The Prelude does not stand or fall as measured against the canon of

uninterrupted beauty alone. Fortunately, it is the thematic framework behind the poem

that holds the greatest lasting reward for the reader. The outstanding virtue of The

Prelude is its imaginative interpretation of nature. For Wordsworth, nature forms a cosmic

order of which the material world is one manifestation and the moral world is another.

Usually, in such a view, either mind or matter must have the upper hand. From the

fanciful, mechanistic interpretation of nature in his youth, he moved in maturity to a

vitalist view in which mind transcended the physical world and in which a universal spirit

provided the ultimate motivation for all things, as exemplified in universal, natural law.

This is as close as he comes to building a philosophical system. And it is just this long

and painful transition that is related in The Prelude. What Wordsworth offers is not a

great philosophical system. He presents an emancipatory attitude toward life and toward

art. He forever examines experience. Nothing in the world is so trivial or commonplace

that it cannot be a stimulus for the mind. No thought, no matter how pedestrian or

contemptuous it may at first seem, is to be excluded from the realm of poetry.

Wordsworth's Literary History

Even the very earliest of Wordsworth's poetic efforts were addressed to his "dear native

regions." They remained a lifelong source of inspiration for him even though, in his later

years, he tended to forsake nature as a direct source for subject matter. Perhaps his

favorite pursuit at Cambridge was the reading of contemporary poetry, so much so that

he learned modern languages so that he was able to read such poetry in the original. His

Italian master was professedly fond of Gray, and we find many echoes of Gray in the

early poems. Indeed, the Juvenilia smacked of much of the somewhat sterile poetry

turned out with such abundance following 1700.

The impetus toward this type of poetry that would come to be uniquely Wordsworth's

during the ambitious walking tours he began while in college and continued long after. On

jaunts at home and abroad, he derived inspiration for some of his lofty lyrics. Descriptive

Sketches of a Pedestrian Tour in the Alps, his first collection, commemorates the summer

walking tour through France and Switzerland in 1790. It was published in 1793, along

with An Evening Walk. The latter volume was written in the eighteenth-century manner

and was dedicated to his sister Dorothy. The former work contained crude expressions of

revolutionary sympathies in isolated passages; it also occasionally exhibited as a tone of

moral dejection and even moods of religious disbelief. There was considerable haste in

getting both these early volumes printed, and as a consequence quite a few errors

appeared, which were, of course, rectified in future editions. Unfortunately, much of the

youthful fire that animated the earlier volume was at the same time edited out because of

the change in the poet's political thinking during the intervening years.
As for the quality of this early poetry, it was somewhat uncertain. There was much of the

plain language that Wordsworth was to become famous for, but it was used awkwardly

and self-consciously. There was great borrowing, both of poetic device and of image. In

all, clearly the rambling phrase was meant to be a departure from the snug couplet in

vogue at the time, an intention which indicated the independence and daring of the poet.

Lastly, the poems definitely did not please Wordsworth's guardian; in fact, they pleased

scarcely anyone but Coleridge.

By the autumn of 1793, amid the menace of war, Wordsworth had settled in southwest

England, explored (as was his wont) the countryside on foot, and composed as he went.

In the vicinity of Stonehenge, in Wiltshire, he was inspired to the conception of On

Salisbury Plain. In 1794, this effort was amalgamated with a poem called "The Female

Vagrant" (the latter was to appear alone in Lyrical Ballads in 1798). As Guilt and Sorrow,

this volume was much revised and finally published in 1842. The poetry reflected the

strong grip which the rationalistic philosophy of Godwin had on the poet's mind in the

early 1790s. As poetry, Guilt and Sorrow marked a great and momentous change in style

and featured chiefly a sophisticated attempt at narration which replaced the naive

description of nature in the earlier poems. As close inspection reveals, tighter

versification — not so many liberties were taken as earlier — and the Spenserian stanza

appear. Amid this evenness and control are the visions of humble life couched in plain

language (with a political tinge).

The early poems had been published by one Joseph Johnson. His shop was a favorite

meeting place for republicans and freethinkers, such as Thomas Paine and Godwin, with

whom Wordsworth mingled and conversed. The Bishop of Llandaff (Wales), a former

liberal turned conservative, had recently delivered a strong anti-republican attack and a

defense of the constitution. Wordsworth undertook a long written rebuttal which justified

the Reign of Terror and seizure of Church property in France, and extolled the superiority

of popular sovereignty over monarchy. The poet was twenty-three at the time. The

treatise was not published until 1876, after which it was ranked as one of the best

philosophical works to come out of England at the time of the revolutionary movement.

In 1795-96, in the midst of his deepest period of depression, he wrote his only verse

play, the gloomy tragedy, The Borderers. The play attempted to demonstrate the

impotence of common sense in the face of life's great mishaps and signifies Wordsworth's

struggle to free himself from Godwin's philosophy.

He was helped from this crisis by the staunch friendship of his sister and of Coleridge,

both of whom constantly reassured him as to his promise as a poet. He started in earnest

to write splendid little lyrics of homely wisdom and simple tragedy which, through

arousing strong compassion, would inculcate in readers a yearning to see the reform of

all social injustice. His first truly characteristic piece, beginning "Nay, traveller, rest,"

marked his victory over Godwinism. From the highly stimulating association with

Coleridge came the plan for the Lyrical Ballads.

Between 1798 and 1807, he wrote some of his finest and most successful lyrics; many

found their way into later editions of Lyrical Ballads. For the most part, these took their

departure from English rural scenery; native flora and fauna were treated in the poet's

growing style of sober realism.

Wordsworth's Poetic Theory — "Preface"

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


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.

Wordsworth's Poetic Theory — "Preface"

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


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


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


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.