The Prelude by William Wordsworth

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The Prelude by William Wordsworth Critical Essays 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 revolt. Wordsworth's philosophy of life, his theory of poetry, and his political credo were all intricately connected. A change in...
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