In his extended Preface to the 1802 edition of the Lyrical Ballads, William Wordsworth set out a manifesto for the composition and content of poetry which both evolved out of and rejected Enlightenment thought and which has continued to have a profound influence on creative Western literature for over two centuries. What he rejected was neo-classical formalism and artifice, the idea that poetry simply imitated or reflected reality (mimesis) and, by inference, the grounding of the basis of knowledge and the understanding of the nature of existence itself in reason. What he argued for in essence - and what the poetry of the Lyrical Ballads exemplified in practice - was firstly an understanding of the role of the artist and his/her felt intuitive experience in creating like nature rather than imitating its forms and, secondly, an artistic approach which is based upon sincerity and simplicity in both the subject matter and diction of poetry as a means of revealing general truths.
The Romantic Movement represented an extension of the growing scepticism, which had begun at the time of the Renaissance and which had been further deepened by Enlightenment rationalism, regarding theological and philosophical absolutism. It contained the seeds of 20th. Century Modernism and Postmodernism so that, for example, Coleridge’s and Blake’s concepts concerning polarity or contradiction can be seen as anticipating the work of poststructuralist thinkers such as Jaques Derrida, including the process of deconstruction.
But both Modernism and Postmodernism were, ultimately, counterideologies to Romantic thought. Modernism was initially an aggressive response to the butt-end of Romanticism following the fin-de-siècle. It overtly rejected Romanticism’s insistence upon the primacy of the individual ego of the artist. It also questioned, in particular, the Romantics’ conviction that works of art proceeded out of some kind of organic continuity with nature, so that the Modernist artwork was precisely about the discontinuity between the perceiver and the perceived and the resulting fragmentation of self and experience - T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land being its best-known example in terms of poetry.
Postmodernism moved further away still from the emphasis upon the individual and the synthesis of subject and object through the workings of the Imagination - which the Romantics saw as the highest level of human cognition. Relelativism - newly underpinned in the natural sciences by Einstein’s theories and Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle - and the neo-Marxist reworking of materialism separately undermined Romanticism’s epistemological idealism. More fundamentally still, post-Wittgensteinian theory led to a questioning of the nature of language in terms of perception and expression. Here language becomes a constantly shifting set of given but arbitrary signs with no truly understandable relationshipbetween the signifier and what is signified, and the principle medium through which ‘self’ continually constructs social reality and through which social reality constructs ‘self’. In literary terms, the author - in the sense of a perceiving ‘I’ - has to be seen in the context of his/her alter ego, the anonymous, socially constructed ‘me’… the author disappears. And if language constitutes the world and language is arbitrary, then the object as well as the subject is put in jeopardy. Where now is the certitude which Romanticism sought to ground in the subjective intuition of the universal in everyday experience?
And yet…deconstruct the poems and the Preface as we may, for reasons which may have more to do with basic human drives and psychology than the foundations of knowledge or metaphysics, the Lyrical Ballads continues to be an absolutely key document both in literary criticism, as I have indicated, and in broader cultural terms. It remains to be seen how much of the Modernist and Postmodernist theoretical, artistic and critical output will enjoy similar longevity!
So many modern critics have lost sight of what, in commonsense terms, Wordsworth understood very clearly: the strength of emotion that can be engendered by simple and direct lyrical forms of expression. At its most basic level it was unforgettably characterised by Noel Coward in his play Private Lives (“Extraordinary how potent cheap music is”), and it applies equally to the nursery rhyme, the traditional air and the various interpretations of the ballad form as exemplified by the Lyrical Ballads.
Of particular relevance in this context is an aspect of the Preface to the Lyrical Ballads which has been comparatively neglected by critics. This is the theme of ‘pleasure’, which runs through the whole document. Indeed, in the first paragraph of the Preface to the 1802 edition, Wordsworth states that the first volume “was published, as an experiment, which, I hoped, might be of some use to ascertain, how far, …that sort of pleasure and that quantity of pleasure may be imparted, which a Poet may rationally endeavour to impart”.
As is usually the case with Wordsworth, the subjective and the particular (in this case the sensation of pleasure) give access to a full apprehension of the objective and universal, so that literally the “necessity of producing immediate pleasure…is an acknowledgement of the beauty of the universe”. Modern critics may question this assertion, but they cannot very well deny the perennial pleasure-based popularity of the lyrical form in most of its manifestations across a myriad of advanced, developing and primitive cultures.
That critics still feel compelled to scrutinise them from time to time is testament to the enduring cultural influence of the Romantic perspective in general and Lyrical Ballads in particular. Since the Romantic ‘cannon’ is so well capable of looking after itself, the intention of this little book of poems is far from that it should be some kind of defence of or (much worse still) tribute to Romanticism. Rather, the poems are written - however inadequately - in the Romantic spirit, tempered no doubt by the various major critical perspectives which have been brought to bear over the last two hundred or so years.
The poems range over, and attempt to trace some of the complex interactions between, what Robert Frost speaks of in his poem Tree at My Window as outer and inner weather. This dialectic between object and subject is very much the crux of the philosophical and aesthetic differences between the movements and ideologies discussed in this brief Introduction. But it is Wordsworth’s “principle of pleasure” which - I now belatedly realise - has lain at the heart of my particular labours. The act of writing these poems made me very happy. My fulfillment will be complete if they even begin to excite this same emotion in those who read them. What could be more Wordsworthian?