Preface to the Lyrical Ballads


William Wordsworth

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Preface to the Lyrical Ballads Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on William Wordsworth's Preface to the Lyrical Ballads. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of William Wordsworth

William Wordsworth was born in a raised in the scenic English Lake District, a rural paradise. His love for nature most likely came about as a result of this upbringing. Wordsworth attended St. John’s College, Cambridge University and took his degree without distinction. He spent a year in France (November 1791 to December 1792) after completing his studies and became an ardent supporter of the French Revolution. During this time, he fell in love with a Frenchwoman, Annette Vallon, and fathered a daughter, Caroline, with her. Lack of money forced him to return to England and war prevented him from rejoining his lover and child. This, combined with his disillusionment with the Revolution, led Wordsworth to the verge of an emotional breakdown. At this critical time, a friend died and left Wordsworth enough money to live by writing poetry. In 1795, he moved to Dorsetshire with his sister, Dorothy, befriended poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and began his own poetic career at the age of 27. A short period of collaboration between Wordsworth and Coleridge led to the publication of one of the most important books of the time: Lyrical Ballads. Over the years, he grew increasingly prosperous and famous, but settled into a religious and political conservatism that disappointed readers, like William Hazlitt, who once thought of him as a promoter of democratic change. By 1843, Wordsworth was poet laureate of Great Britain. He died in 1850 at the ripe age of eighty, and famed poet Alfred Lord Tennyson succeeded him as poet laureate.
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Historical Context of Preface to the Lyrical Ballads

Wordsworth wrote the “Preface to the Lyrical Ballads” during a time where England was experiencing profound urbanization, industrialization, and movement towards mass media and mass culture. In the essay, Wordsworth expresses fear that these factors can lead human minds to become dull, and thus advocates a poetic revolution. At the same time, Wordsworth is careful to say that poetry, though passionate, should still be the product of prior thought and acquired skill. His disappointment with the French Revolution a decade prior to writing the “Preface to the Lyrical Ballads” turned him away from the idea of thoughtless passion—emotions ought to be recollected and processed “in tranquility” prior to being expressed.

Other Books Related to Preface to the Lyrical Ballads

“Preface to the Lyrical Ballads” is an introduction to Wordsworth’s poetry collection, Lyrical Ballads, as well as a manifesto for the Romantic movement in England. In the process of composing the essay, Wordsworth had frequent conversations with Wordsworth’s close friend and fellow poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who also contributed a few poems of his own to Lyrical Ballads. Coleridge is most well-known for his long poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, but also penned shorter poems like “The Lime-Tree Bower My Prison.” Some of the ideas in “Preface to the Lyrical Ballads” had antecedents in the late eighteenth century, but on the whole, the preface is a rather revolutionary manifesto regarding about the essence of poetry. The essay’s discussion of the valid language of poetry follows the lead of chapters 14 and 17 of Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria—both Romantic poets attack the lofty diction of the Neoclassical poets. In his essay, Wordsworth also criticizes contemporary Gothic novels and German melodramas. For him, such nonimaginative and sensational literature threatens the acuity of the human mind. William Wordsworth’s sister, Dorothy, was also a Romantic poet and kept journals (The Grasmere Journal and The Alfoxden Journal) detailing her daily life, which often included spending time with Coleridge and William in nature.
Key Facts about Preface to the Lyrical Ballads
  • Full Title: Preface to the Lyrical Ballads
  • When Written: 1800-1802
  • Where Written: Grasmere, England
  • When Published: 1800 (2nd ed.), 1802 (3rd ed.)
  • Literary Period: Romantic
  • Genre: Essay, Manifesto
  • Antagonist: Late-Neoclassical writers
  • Point of View: First Person

Extra Credit for Preface to the Lyrical Ballads

Decline with Age. Wordsworth wrote prolifically throughout his life, but it appeared that after 1807, his poetic sensibility declined. Scholars have debated the reason for this decline. Some say that most of his poetry is based on the remembrance and reinterpretation of things he experienced as a youth, and memories of these experiences hardly forms an inexhaustible source for poetic inspiration.