William Wordsworth on the creative process in poetry

By Dennis Mellersh

The concept of the creative process was occupying the mind of one of the world’s most famous poets, William Wordsworth (1770 – 1850), when he wrote his preface to the second edition of the poetry collection, Lyrical Ballads, in 1778.

In this preface, which essentially comments on the nature of poetic creativity, Wordsworth asked, “What is a poet?”

He answered that a poet is someone “endowed with more lively sensibility, more enthusiasm and tenderness, who has greater knowledge of human nature, and a more comprehensive soul, than are supposed to be common among mankind.”

Wordsworth described all good poetry as being “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” and that poems “to which any value can be attached were never produced on any variety of subjects” except by a poet “who being possessed of more than usual organic sensibility, had also thought long and deeply”

In stating the purpose of the Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth stated in the Preface:

“The principal object then, which I proposed to myself in these poems 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; and at the same time, to throw over them a certain coloring of imagination, whereby ordinary things should be presented to the mind in an unusual way…”

In a short essay preceding Wordsworth’s Preface to Lyrical Ballads, The editors of the Norton Anthology of English Literature commented, “Wordsworth’s assertions about the materials and diction of poetry have been immensely influential in expanding the range of serious literature to include the common man and ordinary things and events, as well as justifying a poetry of sincerity rather than of artifice, expressed in the ordinary language of its time. ” (*)

He believed that the powerful feelings in good poetry originated with a process involving “emotion recollected in tranquility” in which that tranquility disappears, and “an emotion , kindred to that which was before the subject of contemplation, is gradually produced, and does itself actually exist in the mind. In this mood successful composition generally begins, and in a mood similar to this, it is carried on…”

In terms of “emotion recollected in tranquility” Wordsworth is particularly noted for his recollections of the strong visuals and experiences of childhood. This is particularly evident in his poem Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood.

I explore this aspect in a post I did on this topic on this blog at the following url:”


Wordsworth was a poet of the Romantic Period, and in the Anthology, Romantic Poets Blake to Poe, the editors describe Wordsworth and his creativity as follows:

“Wordsworth is an exceptional figure in that, like Dante, in addition to and quite distinct from his poetic gift, ,he was granted an extraordinary vision. The peculiar experience of nature which came to him in childhood would have made him an exception even if he had never written a line. Whether or no similar experiences have befallen other poets, they have seldom informed us. ” (1)

Wordsworth was remarkably creative, yet there was a deliberate, methodical aim behind his poetic creativity in that he was trying to free poetry from its existing approach. This is detailed by way of background in the introduction to a book of poems by Percy Bysshe Shelley, edited by Isabel Quigly:

“It took a major poet, not merely to  break with the past, but to establish canons for the future. And this Wordsworth, in the Lyrical Ballads, set out very deliberately to do. IN his famous preface to the second edition, he plainly put down his beliefs and objects [objectives] in relation to poetry. ‘All good poetry, he wrote, ‘is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings”…to anyone taught in a more classical school…the very notion of spontaneity as a virtue much have seemed astonishing.” (2)

As with many poets, literary criticism often alludes to the observation that Wordsworth’s creative powers waned somewhat as he grew older, ,as noted in the online edition of Encyclopedia Britannica:

“Today many readers discern two Wordsworths, the young Romantic revolutionary and the aging Tory humanist, risen into what John Keats called the “Egotistical Sublime.” Little of Wordsworth’s later verse matches the best of his earlier years.”

An interesting comparison of Wordsworth’s harkening back to the imagination-driven time of childhood can be made with the poetry of Dylan Thomas, particularly in his poem Fern Hill, in which Thomas recalls the feelings of his early youth.

Following are some lines from Fern Hill:

Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs
About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green,
The night above the dingle starry,
Time let me hail and climb
Golden in the heydays of his eyes…

And as I was green and carefree, famous among the barns
About the happy yard and singing as the farm was home,
In the sun that is young once only,
Time let me play and be
Golden in the mercy of his means…

(*) The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Third Edition, Volume 2, M.H. Abrams, General Editor, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., New York, Copyright 1974.

(1) Romantic Poets Blake to Poe, Edited by W.H. Auden and Norman Holmes Pearson, The Viking Portable Library, 1961

(2) Shelley: A Selection by Isabel Quigly, Penguin Books, 1956.

About Dennis Mellersh

Dennis Mellersh is an independent writer, journalist, editor, and editorial consultant.
This entry was posted in Creative thinking in literature and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to William Wordsworth on the creative process in poetry

  1. Pingback: Creative process: Poetry and the imagination of childhood | Creative thinking and the creative process

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