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Continued Influxes of Feeling and Directions of Thought, “Preface” to the second volume of Lyrical Ballads (1800)

The Preface of Lyrical Ballads (1800) is best known and most quoted for its declaration that all good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings. This is often taught mistakenly as if it were a definition of poetry (it’s not intended as a definition of what poetry is, but as a description of how good poetry is supposed to be composed). It’s also usually mentioned as a sort of campaign-button slogan for literary Romanticism, and in particular for the Romantics’ tilt toward the indulgence of emotion or raw passion over thought and consideration. But re-read it in context: the Writer of the Preface[1] really first introduces the phrase to make quite a different point, — if not exactly the 180-degree opposite point, then at least one at a very obtuse angle, — to the usual English lesson-plan take on Romanticism’s literary manifesto:

I cannot be insensible of the present outcry against the triviality and meanness both of thought and language, which some of my contemporaries have occasionally introduced into their metrical compositions; and I acknowledge that this defect where it exists, is more dishonorable to the Writer’s own character than false refinement or arbitrary innovation, though I should contend at the same time that it is far less pernicious in the sum of its consequences. From such verses the Poems in these volumes will be found distinguished at least by one mark of difference, that each of them has a worthy purpose. Not that I mean to say, that I always begin to write with a distinct purpose formally conceived; but I believe that my habits of meditation have so formed my feelings, as that my descriptions of such objects as strongly excite those feelings, will be found to carry along with them a purpose. For all good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings; but though this be true, poems to which any value can be attached, were never produced on any variety of subjects but by a man who being possessed of more than usual organic sensibility had also thought long and deeply. . . .

— Preface (1800) to Lyrical Ballads, Vol. II. (Boldface mine.)

The Writer goes on to argue for a nuanced view of the interrelation of thought and feeling under the influence of long-cultivated habits:

. . . For our continued influxes of feeling are modified and directed by our thoughts, which are indeed the representatives of all our past feelings; and by contemplating the relation of these general representatives to each other, we discover what is really important to men, so by the repetition and continuance of this act feelings connected with important subjects will be nourished, till at length, if we be originally possessed of much organic sensibility, such habits of mind will be produced that by obeying blindly and mechanically the impulses of those habits we shall describe objects and utter sentiments of such a nature and in such connection with each other, that the understanding of the being to whom we address ourselves, if he be in a healthful state of association, must necessarily be in some degree enlightened, his taste exalted, and his affections ameliorated.

— Preface (1800) to Lyrical Ballads, Vol. II.

He believed that it was necessary to assert this view against a problem of over-stimulation and over-indulgence, and that a great deal of the problem was down to cities and down to nations (or, down to urban ways of living and down to the absorbing clamor of national politics):

I will not suffer a sense of false modesty to prevent me from asserting, that I point my Reader’s attention to this mark of distinction far less for the sake of these particular Poems than from the general importance of the subject. The subject is indeed important! For the human mind is capable of excitement without the application of gross and violent stimulants; and he must have a very faint perception of its beauty and dignity who does not know this, and who does not further know that one is being elevated above another in proportion as he possesses this capability. It has therefore appeared to me that to endeavour to produce or enlarge this capability is one of the best services in which, at any period, a Writer can be engaged; but this service, excellent at all times, is especially so at the present day. For a multitude of causes unknown to former times are now acting with a combined force to blunt the discriminating powers of the mind, and unfitting it for all voluntary exertion to reduce it to a state of almost savage torpor. The most effective of these causes are the great national events which are daily taking place, and the encreasing accumulation of men in cities, where the uniformity of their occupations produces a craving for extraordinary incident which the rapid communication of intelligence hourly gratifies. To this tendency of life and manners the literature and theatrical exhibitions of the country have conformed themselves. . . .

— Preface (1800) to Lyrical Ballads, Vol. II.

He had some opinions on what this meant for contemporary trends in popular entertainment, but remained hopeful:

. . . The invaluable works of our elder writers, I had almost said the works of Shakespear and Milton, are driven into neglect by frantic novels, sickly and stupid German Tragedies, and deluges of idle and extravagant stories in verse. — When I think upon this degrading thirst after outrageous stimulation I am almost ashamed to have spoken of the feeble effort with which I have endeavoured to counteract it; and reflecting upon the magnitude of the general evil, I should be oppressed with no dishonorable melancholy, had I not a deep impression of certain inherent and indestructible qualities of the human mind, and likewise of certain powers in the great and permanent objects that act upon it which are equally inherent and indestructible; and did I not further add to this impression a belief that the time is approaching when the evil will be systematically opposed by men of greater powers and with far more distinguished success.

— Preface (1800) to Lyrical Ballads, Vol. II.

  1. [1]William Wordsworth. The first volume of Lyrical Ballads was issued anonymously; the second was printed under Wordsworth’s name, with an acknowledgement of Coleridge’s contribution of poems.
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