Essay on Poetic Theory

Observations Prefixed to Lyrical Ballads (1800)

by William Wordsworth


William Wordsworth was born in 1770 in Cumberland, England, near the center of the Lake District. Though profoundly affected by the countryside he grew up in, his youthful experiences were far from serene or bucolic. He was orphaned at a young age and separated from his siblings, including his beloved sister Dorothy. As a young political radical, he embarked on a walking tour of Europe which took him into the middle of the French Revolution. It was not until he befriended Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1795, following his return to England, that Wordsworth’s career began in earnest. Helped by an unexpected legacy, and tended to by Dorothy, Wordsworth entered into a remarkably productive period with Coleridge, which only increased after his return to the Lake District in 1799. Most of Wordsworth’s major works were written between meeting Coleridge and the completion of his masterpiece, The Prelude, in 1805. He married a childhood friend, Mary Hutchinson, in 1802 and his later life was sedate and secure, and some have argued that his poetry suffered as a result.

Still, at the time of his death in 1850, William Wordsworth was already a literary legend. Acknowledged as one of the main founders of English Romanticism, his long and tumultuous partnership with Samuel Taylor Coleridge produced the movement’s founding document, Lyrical Ballads (1798), and Wordsworth’s introduction to the second edition, “Observations Prefixed to Lyrical Ballads” (1802), succinctly states the revolutionary agenda the two pursued. Poetry before Lyrical Ballads was predominately epic or satiric—concerned with mythic heroes or literary Londoners—and it was usually written in heroic couplets and the highest possible diction. In his “Prefix,” Wordsworth proposes that poetry should in fact be something completely different: it should make ordinary life interesting, and it should do so in simple language, “the very language of men.” Wordsworth makes startlingly new and democratic claims regarding poetry’s subject matter, language, and style in the “Prefix,” but he also tries to assert the importance of poetry and poets in a newly industrialized and increasingly urban world. For Wordsworth, the right kind of poetry both “strengthens” and “purifies” the mind of its readers, and part of his project is to ensure that those readers can understand the poetry they need. Wordsworth’s “Prefix,” and Lyrical Ballads as a whole, altered the course of English poetry: together they opened poetry to everyday life, common language, psychology and individual personality. They ushered in an era that lasts to this day.

The first volume of these Poems has already been submitted to general perusal. It was published, as an experiment, which, I hoped, might be of some use to ascertain, how far, by fitting to metrical arrangement a selection of the real language of men in a state of vivid sensation, that sort of pleasure and that quantity of pleasure may be imparted, which a Poet may rationally endeavor to impart.

I had formed no very inaccurate estimate of the probable effect of those Poems: I flattered myself that they who should be pleased with them would read them with more than common pleasure: and, on the other hand, I was well aware, that by those who should dislike them, they would be read with more than common dislike. The result has differed from my expectation in this only, that a greater number have been pleased than I ventured to hope I should please.

Several of my Friends are anxious for the success of these Poems, from a belief, that, if the views with which they were composed were indeed realized, a class of Poetry would be produced, well adapted to interest mankind permanently, and not unimportant in the quality, and in the multiplicity of its moral relations: and on this account they have advised me to prefix a systematic defense of the theory upon which the Poems were written. But I was unwilling to undertake the task, knowing that on this occasion the Reader would look coldly upon my arguments, since I might be suspected of having been principally influenced by the selfish and foolish hope of reasoning him into an approbation of these particular Poems: and I was still more unwilling to undertake the task, because, adequately to display the opinions, and fully to enforce the arguments, would require a space wholly disproportionate to a preface. For, to treat the subject with the clearness and coherence of which it is susceptible, it would be necessary to give a full account of the present state of the public taste in this country, and to determine how far this taste is healthy or depraved; which, again, could not be determined, without pointing out in what manner language and the human mind act and re-act on each other, and without retracing the revolutions, not of literature alone, but likewise of society itself. I have therefore altogether declined to enter regularly upon this defense; yet I am sensible, that there would be something like impropriety in abruptly obtruding upon the Public, without a few words of introduction, Poems so materially different from those upon which general approbation is at present bestowed.

It is supposed, that by the act of writing in verse an Author makes a formal engagement that he will gratify certain known habits of association; that he not only thus apprises the Reader that certain classes of ideas and expressions will be found in his book, but that others will be carefully excluded. This exponent or symbol held forth by metrical language must in different eras of literature have excited very different expectations: for example, in the age of Catullus, Terence, and Lucretius, and that of Statius or Claudian; and in our own country, in the age of Shakespeare and Beaumont and Fletcher, and that of Donne and Cowley, or Dryden, or Pope. I will not take upon me to determine the exact import of the promise which, by the act of writing in verse, an Author in the present day makes to his reader: but it will undoubtedly appear to many persons that I have not fulfilled the terms of an engagement thus voluntarily contracted. They who have been accustomed to the gaudiness and inane phraseology of many modern writers, if they persist in reading this book to its conclusion, will, no doubt, frequently have to struggle with feelings of strangeness and awkwardness: they will look round for poetry, and will be induced to inquire by what species of courtesy these attempts can be permitted to assume that title I hope therefore the reader will not censure me for attempting to state what I have proposed to myself to perform; and also (as far as the limits of a preface will permit) to explain some of the chief reasons which have determined me in the choice of my purpose: that at least he may be spared any unpleasant feeling of disappointment, and that I myself may be protected from one of the most dishonorable accusations which can be brought against an Author, namely, that of an indolence which prevents him from endeavoring to ascertain what is his duty, or, when his duty is ascertained, prevents him from performing it.

Originally Published: October 13, 2009

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Audio Video Article
 William  Wordsworth


Discussing prose written by poets, Joseph Brodsky has remarked, “the tradition of dividing literature into poetry and prose dates from the beginnings of prose, since it was only in prose that such a distinction could be made.” This insight is worth bearing in mind when considering the various prose works of the poet William Wordsworth. For Wordsworth poetic composition was a primary mode of expression; prose was secondary. . . .

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