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It having been determined to re-publish the Earlier Poems of William Wordsworth separately from his collected Works, some prefatory observations, specially applicable to these earlier productions, may probably be deemed acceptable by many readers.
A new generation has grown up since these poems were first given to the public, and many will perhaps require to be told that in the first ten years of the present century it was a common matter of literary controversy whether Wordsworth was to be regarded as an extravagant experimentalist in poetical composition, or as a great poet ? That question has long since been determined by the good sense and good feeling of his countrymen. His pure and lofty conceptions, and the majestic beauty of his verse, are now the admiration of all virtuous and cultivated minds. But his advance to fame was slow, and though he had from the beginning some enthusiastic admirers, the great body of the reading public were, for a good many years, more apt to remember those passages of his poetry which they had been taught to consider puerile and ridiculous, than to relish the truth and beauty of his minor poems, or to reverence the noble simplicity and austere grandeur of those which were more elaborate and ambitious.
When he first began to publish,—which was about the beginning of the present century,*—he took up, with considerable boldness, the position of an antagonist of the established “poetic diction,” to the use of which almost all writers of verse had been accustomed for some time to consider themselves restricted. The principal object, he said, which he proposed to himself was “to choose incidents and situations from common life, and to relate or describe them, throughout, as far as was possible, in a selection of language really used by men.” of He carried this theory to such an extreme in several of the poems of the editions of 1798, 1800, and 1802, that some of the expressions and allusions were so familiar and prosaic as to be unsuitable to his own theory of the nature of poetry,-namely, that "poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.” When a writer describes a pond as “three feet long and two feet wide,” and uses other expressions of a similar kind, we must admit that in such
* The first edition of the Lyrical Ballads was published in 1798, and the second, with the famous preface, was published in 1800.
Preface to Lyrical Ballads. Mr. Coleridge in his “Biographia Literaria,” says : “The Lyrical Ballads were presented by Mr. Wordsworth, as an experiment whether subjects which from their nature rejected the usual ornaments and extra-colloquial style of poems in general, might not be so managed in the language of ordinary life as to produce the pleasurable interest, which it is the peculiar business of poetry to impart. To the second Edition he added a preface of considerable length, in which, notwithstanding some passages of apparently a contrary import, he was understood to contend for the extension of this style to poetry of all kinds, and to reject as vicious and indefensible, all phrases and forms of speech that were not included in what he (unfortunately adopting an equivocal expression) called the language of real life."
instances, though he expresses himself in the language really used by men, he does not use the language of poetry; for we cannot associate such language with the overflow of powerful feelings. But these blemishes, which occurred only here and there in the poetry of Wordsworth, were eagerly seized upon and held up to ridicule by critics who hated the simple yet elevated sentiment and the pure moral philosophy of his writings; and who were moreover exceedingly angry with what they described as his “ open violation of the established laws of poetry.” Thus the portions of Mr. Wordsworth’s verses which could easily be made the subject of a sneer, were brought prominently into view, while the truth, simplicity, and exquisite beauty of far more numerous passages, were scarcely noticed : and as the common crowd generally love caricature and sarcasm better than pure feeling, and delicate perception of the good and beautiful in nature, the more general opinion of Wordsworth's poetry for a long time was that it was characterised by “ babyish incidents and fantastical sensibilities.” f A good many years had passed away before this popular delusion was dissipated, and a juster conception of the profound thought and exalted beauty of Wordsworth's poetry had been generally diffused.
The difficulties which a champion of the natural style in poetry had to contend with at the beginning of the nineteenth century can only be estimated by those whose reading has made them acquainted with the taste, which then had long prevailed, for an ornate
+ Edinb. Rev, vol. xi. p. 231,
Ibid. p. 228.
and artificial mode of expression. Dr. Johnson, who thought upon such subjects rather as a scholar than as a poet, had laid it down that poetry was distinguished from prose by certain combinations of fine words— certain elegancies or flowers of speech, and by artful selections of those phrases which had not been rendered familiar by ordinary use.* The poetic soul of Wordsworth, obtaining continual inspiration from the pure fountains of nature amid which he lived, revolted from such a theory, which was as little in harmony with the just principles of poetic composition, as it was with the practice of Shakspeare and the other truly great poets of our land. Had Johnson's theory been true, the politest age would have been also the most poetical, and Homer himself would necessarily have been deposed from his ancient sovereignty of the poetic realm. The notion, however, long remained among critics that a certain polish and elevation of language, rather than
* “Every language of a learned nation necessarily divides itself into diction scholastic and popular, grave and familiar, elegant and gross : and, from a nice distinction of these different parts, arises a great part of the beauty of style. But, if we except a few minds, the favorites of nature, to whom their own original rectitude was in the place of rules, this delicacy of selection was little known to our authors: our speech lay before them in a heap of confusion; and every man took for every purpose what chance might offer him.
“There was therefore, before the time of Dryden, no poetical diction, no system of words at once refined from the grossness of domestic use, and free from the harshness of terms appropriated to particular arts. Words too familiar, or too remote, defeat the purpose of a poet. From those sounds which we hear, on small or on coarse occasions, we do not easily receive strong impressions, or delightful images; and words to which we are nearly strangers, whenever they occur, draw that attention on themselves which they should transmit to things.
“Those happy combinations of words, which distinguish poetry from prose, had been rarely attempted: we had few elegancies or flowers of speech; the roses had not yet been plucked from the bramble
; or different colours had not been joined to enliven one another.”—Johnson, Life of Dryden.