The Preface to “Lyrical Ballads,” written by William Wordsworth in the late 18th century, is a landmark document in the history of English literature for several reasons:
Foundation of Romanticism: The Preface is often regarded as the manifesto of the Romantic Movement in English literature. It signalled a dramatic shift from the classical ideals of order, harmony, and rationality that dominated 18th-century literature to a new focus on individual emotion, imagination, and the beauty of the natural world. This shift was not just literary but also philosophical, reflecting broader changes in how people viewed themselves and their relationship with the world.
New Definition of Poetry: Wordsworth’s Preface redefined poetry as the “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.” He argued that poetry should originate from emotions recollected in tranquillity, a concept that was revolutionary at the time. This redefinition moved away from the ornate and structured forms of the past and suggested that poetry could be a more personal, introspective, and expressive medium.
Language and Subject Matter: One of the most radical aspects of the Preface was Wordsworth’s advocacy for using the language of common people in poetry. He believed that the most effective language was that spoken by the average person, which was a stark departure from the ornate and often elitist language used in poetry of earlier periods. Additionally, Wordsworth emphasized the importance of ordinary subjects, believing that the lives of common people were worthy of poetic representation.
Influence on Later Literature: The ideas set forth in the Preface had a profound impact on the development of English literature. Wordsworth’s emphasis on individualism, emotional depth, and appreciation of nature became hallmarks of Romantic literature and influenced many poets and writers in the 19th century and beyond. This influence extended into the Victorian era and even into modern literary movements.
Cultural and Historical Context: The Preface should also be understood within the context of its time. The late 18th and early 19th centuries were a period of significant social, political, and industrial change. The Romantic Movement, with its emphasis on emotion, nature, and individuality, can be seen as a response to the Enlightenment’s focus on reason and to the dramatic transformations of the Industrial Revolution.
Impact on Literary Criticism: The Preface not only influenced poets and writers but also had a significant impact on the field of literary criticism. Wordsworth’s ideas about poetry, language, and the role of the poet prompted new ways of thinking about and analyzing literature, contributing to the development of modern literary theory.
In summary, the Preface to “Lyrical Ballads” is historically significant for its role in initiating the Romantic era in literature, changing perceptions of poetry and language, influencing a wide range of subsequent literature and literary criticism, and reflecting the broader cultural and historical changes of its time.