Creative process in poetry: William Wordsworth on poetic style

In his Preface to the Lyrical Ballads (1), William Wordsworth forcefully argued that the language and style of quality poetry differs little from the language and style of well written prose, except that poetry has a metrical structure.

Wordsworth took particular care in explaining that he viewed good poetry as having much in common with good prose. Accordingly, some of the Preface is devoted to explaining the absence of traditional “poetic” language devices that had long been associated with poetry.

He elaborates: “…the language of a large portion of every good poem, even of the most elevated character, must necessarily, except with reference to the metre, in no respect differ from that of good prose, but likewise that some of the most interesting parts of the best poems will be found to be strictly the language of prose when prose is well written.”

And, more emphatically, “We will go further. It may safely be affirmed, that there neither is, nor can be, an essential difference between the language of prose and metrical composition.”

Wordsworth notes therefore, for example, that “The reader will find that personification of abstract ideas rarely occur in these volumes; and are utterly rejected, as an ordinary device to elevate the style , and raise it above prose.”

Having made his argument of  his theory at length, Wordsworth then writes, “It will now be proper to answer an obvious question, namely, why, professing these opinions, have I written in verse?”

He answers that there is a “charm” that exists in metrical language which  gives poetry its staying power, and Wordsworth believes this is self-evident:

“All that is necessary to say, however, upon this subject, may be effected by affirming, what few persons will deny, that of two descriptions, either of passions, manners, or characters, each of them equally well executed, the one in prose, the other in verse, the verse will be read a hundred times where the prose is read once.”

(1) The Preface to the Second Edition of Lyrical Ballads is lengthy, more than 20 pages, depending upon the book publisher’s page formatting, and is often presented to readers in reduced, edited form. Quotations in this post are taken from a full unedited Preface published in the book Poets on Poetry, Collier Books, New York, 1962.

Dennis Mellersh

About Dennis Mellersh

Dennis Mellersh is an independent writer, journalist, editor, and editorial consultant.
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