History: E300_Etext_Wordsworth_Fall_12

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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 endeavour 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 I have pleased a
greater number, than I ventured to hope I should please.

For the sake of variety and from a consciousness of my own weakness
I was induced to request the assistance of a Friend, who furnished me
with the Poems of the ANCIENT MARINER, the FOSTER-MOTHER'S TALE, the
NIGHTINGALE, the DUNGEON, and the Poem entitled LOVE. I should not,
however, have requested this assistance, had I not believed that the
poems of my Friend would in a great measure have the same tendency
as my own, and that, though there would be found a difference, there
would be found no discordance in the colours of our style; as our
opinions on the subject of poetry do almost entirely coincide.

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
multiplicity and in the quality of its moral relations: and on this
account they have advised me to prefix a systematic defence of the
theory, upon which the poems were written. But I was unwilling to
undertake the task, because I knew 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 my opinions and fully to enforce my arguments
would require a space wholly disproportionate to the nature of a
preface. For to treat the subject with the clearness and coherence,
of which I believe it 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 react 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 defence; yet I am sensible, that there would be
some 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 apprizes 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 aeras 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 I am certain it will appear to many persons that I
have not fulfilled the terms of an engagement thus voluntarily
contracted. I hope therefore the Reader will not censure me, if I
attempt 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 the most
dishonorable accusation which can be brought against an Author,
namely, that of an indolence which prevents him from endeavouring to
ascertain what is his duty, or, when his duty is ascertained
prevents him from performing it.

The principal object then which I proposed to myself in these Poems
was to make the incidents of common life interesting by tracing in
them, truly though not ostentatiously, the primary laws of our nature:
chiefly as far as regards the manner in which we associate ideas in
a state of excitement. Low and rustic life was generally chosen
because in that situation the essential passions of the heart find a
better soil in which they can attain their maturity, are less under
restraint, and speak a plainer and more emphatic language; because
in that situation our elementary feelings exist in a state of
greater simplicity and consequently may be more accurately
contemplated and more forcibly communicated; because the manners of
rural life germinate from those elementary feelings; and from the
necessary character of rural occupations are more easily comprehended;
and are more durable; and lastly, because in that situation the
passions of men are incorporated with the beautiful and permanent
forms of nature. The language too of these men is adopted (purified
indeed from what appear to be its real defects, from all lasting and
rational causes of dislike or disgust) because such men hourly
communicate with the best objects from which the best part of
language is originally derived; and because, from their rank in
society and the sameness and narrow circle of their intercourse,
being less under the action of social vanity they convey their
feelings and notions in simple and unelaborated expressions.
Accordingly such a language arising out of repeated experience and
regular feelings is a more permanent and a far more philosophical
language than that which is frequently substituted for it by Poets,
who think that they are conferring honour upon themselves and their
art in proportion as they separate themselves from the sympathies of
men, and indulge in arbitrary and capricious habits of expression in
order to furnish food for fickle tastes and fickle appetites of
their own creation.1

Footnote 1: It is worth while here to observe that the affecting
parts of Chaucer are almost always expressed in language pure and
universally intelligible even to this day.

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
began 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_. If in
this opinion I am mistaken I can have little right to the name of a
Poet. 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. For our continued influxes of feeling
are modified and directed by our thoughts, which are indeed the
representatives of all our past feelings; and as 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.

I have said that each of these poems has a purpose. I have also
informed my Reader what this purpose will be found principally to be:
namely to illustrate the manner in which our feelings and ideas are
associated in a state of excitement. But speaking in less general
language, it is to follow the fluxes and refluxes of the mind when
agitated by the great and simple affections of our nature. This
object I have endeavoured in these short essays to attain by various
means; by tracing the maternal passion through many of its more
subtle windings, as in the poems of the IDIOT BOY and the MAD MOTHER;
by accompanying the last struggles of a human being at the approach
of death, cleaving in solitude to life and society, as in the Poem
of the FORSAKEN INDIAN; by shewing, as in the Stanzas entitled WE
ARE SEVEN, the perplexity and obscurity which in childhood attend
our notion of death, or rather our utter inability to admit that
notion; or by displaying the strength of fraternal, or to speak more
philosophically, of moral attachment when early associated with the
great and beautiful objects of nature, as in THE BROTHERS; or, as in
the Incident of SIMON LEE, by placing my Reader in the way of
receiving from ordinary moral sensations another and more salutary
impression than we are accustomed to receive from them. It has also
been part of my general purpose to attempt to sketch characters
under the influence of less impassioned feelings, as in the OLD MAN
TRAVELLING, THE TWO THIEVES, &c. characters of which the elements
are simple, belonging rather to nature than to manners, such as
exist now and will probably always exist, and which from their
constitution may be distinctly and profitably contemplated. I will
not abuse the indulgence of my Reader by dwelling longer upon this
subject; but it is proper that I should mention one other
circumstance which distinguishes these Poems from the popular Poetry
of the day; it is this, that the feeling therein developed gives
importance to the action and situation and not the action and
situation to the feeling. My meaning will be rendered perfectly
intelligible by referring my Reader to the Poems entitled POOR SUSAN
and the CHILDLESS FATHER, particularly to the last Stanza of the
latter Poem.

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 being is 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. The invaluable works of our elder writers, I
had almost said the works of Shakespeare 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.

Having dwelt thus long on the subjects and aim of these Poems, I
shall request the Reader's permission to apprize him of a few
circumstances relating to their _style_, in order, among other
reasons, that I may not be censured for not having performed what I
never attempted. Except in a very few instances the Reader will find
no personifications of abstract ideas in these volumes, not that I
mean to censure such personifications: they may be well fitted for
certain sorts of composition, but in these Poems I propose to myself
to imitate, and, as far as possible, to adopt the very language of
men, and I do not find that such personifications make any regular
or natural part of that language. I wish to keep my Reader in the
company of flesh and blood, persuaded that by so doing I shall
interest him. Not but that I believe that others who pursue a
different track may interest him likewise: I do not interfere with
their claim, I only wish to prefer a different claim of my own.
There will also be found in these volumes little of what is usually
called poetic diction; I have taken as much pains to avoid it as
others ordinarily take to produce it; this I have done for the
reason already alleged, to bring my language near to the language of
men, and further, because the pleasure which I have proposed to
myself to impart is of a kind very different from that which is
supposed by many persons to be the proper object of poetry. I do not
know how without being culpably particular I can give my Reader a
more exact notion of the style in which I wished these poems to be
written than by informing him that I have at all times endeavoured
to look steadily at my subject, consequently I hope it will be found
that there is in these Poems little falsehood of description, and
that my ideas are expressed in language fitted to their respective
importance. Something I must have gained by this practice, as it is
friendly to one property of all good poetry, namely good sense; but
it has necessarily cut me off from a large portion of phrases and
figures of speech which from father to son have long been regarded
as the common inheritance of Poets. I have also thought it expedient
to restrict myself still further, having abstained from the use of
many expressions, in themselves proper and beautiful, but which have
been foolishly repeated by bad Poets till such feelings of disgust
are connected with them as it is scarcely possible by any art of
association to overpower.

If in a Poem there should be found a series of lines, or even a
single line, in which the language, though naturally arranged and
according to the strict laws of metre, does not differ from that of
prose, there is a numerous class of critics who, when they stumble
upon these prosaisms as they call them, imagine that they have made
a notable discovery, and exult over the Poet as over a man ignorant
of his own profession. Now these men would establish a canon of
criticism which the Reader will conclude he must utterly reject if he
wishes to be pleased with these volumes. And it would be a most easy
task to prove to him that not only 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. The truth of this
assertion might be demonstrated by innumerable passages from almost
all the poetical writings, even of Milton himself. I have not space
for much quotation; but, to illustrate the subject in a general
manner, I will here adduce a short composition of Gray, who was at
the head of those who by their reasonings have attempted to widen
the space of separation betwixt Prose and Metrical composition, and
was more than any other man curiously elaborate in the structure of
his own poetic diction.

In vain to me the smiling mornings shine,

And reddening Phoebus lifts his golden fire:

The birds in vain their amorous descant join,

Or chearful fields resume their green attire:

These ears alas! for other notes repine;

_A different object do these eyes require;

My lonely anguish melts no heart but mine;

And in my breast the imperfect joys expire;_

Yet Morning smiles the busy race to cheer,

And new-born pleasure brings to happier men;

The fields to all their wonted tribute bear;

To warm their little loves the birds complain.

_I fruitless mourn to him that cannot hear

And weep the more because I weep in vain._

It will easily be perceived that the only part of this Sonnet which
is of any value is the lines printed in Italics: it is equally
obvious that except in the rhyme, and in the use of the single word
"fruitless" for fruitlessly, which is so far a defect, the language
of these lines does in no respect differ from that of prose.

Is there then, it will be asked, no essential difference between the
language of prose and metrical composition? I answer that there
neither is nor can be any essential difference. We are fond of
tracing the resemblance between Poetry and Painting, and, accordingly,
we call them Sisters: but where shall we find bonds of connection
sufficiently strict to typify the affinity betwixt metrical and
prose composition? They both speak by and to the same organs; the
bodies in which both of them are clothed may be said to be of the
same substance, their affections are kindred and almost identical,
not necessarily differing even in degree; Poetry 2 sheds no tears
"such as Angels weep," but natural and human tears; she can boast of
no celestial Ichor that distinguishes her vital juices from those of
prose; the same human blood circulates through the veins of them both.

judgment) as opposed to the word Prose, and synonomous with metrical
composition. But much confusion has been introduced into criticism
by this contradistinction of Poetry and Prose, instead of the more
philosophical one of Poetry and Science. The only strict antithesis
to Prose is Metre." rel="">Footnote 2: I here use the word "Poetry" (though against my own
judgment) as opposed to the word Prose, and synonomous with metrical
composition. But much confusion has been introduced into criticism
by this contradistinction of Poetry and Prose, instead of the more
philosophical one of Poetry and Science. The only strict antithesis
to Prose is Metre.

If it be affirmed that rhyme and metrical arrangement of themselves
constitute a distinction which overturns what I have been saying on
the strict affinity of metrical language with that of prose, and
paves the way for other distinctions which the mind voluntarily
admits, I answer that the distinction of rhyme and metre is regular
and uniform, and not, like that which is produced by what is usually
called poetic diction, arbitrary and subject to infinite caprices
upon which no calculation whatever can be made. In the one case
the Reader is utterly at the mercy of the Poet respecting what
imagery or diction he may choose to connect with the passion,
whereas in the other the metre obeys certain laws, to which the
Poet and Reader both willingly submit because they are certain,
and because no interference is made by them with the passion but
such as the concurring testimony of ages has shewn to heighten
and improve the pleasure which co-exists with it. It will now
be proper to answer an obvious question, namely, why, professing
these opinions have I written in verse? To this in the first place
I reply, because, however I may have restricted myself, there is
still left open to me what confessedly constitutes the most valuable
object of all writing whether in prose or verse, the great and
universal passions of men, the most general and interesting of
their occupations, and the entire world of nature, from which I am
at liberty to supply myself with endless combinations of forms and
imagery. Now, granting for a moment that whatever is interesting in
these objects may be as vividly described in prose, why am I to be
condemned if to such description I have endeavoured to superadd the
charm which by the consent of all nations is acknowledged to exist
in metrical language? To this it will be answered, that a very small
part of the pleasure given by Poetry depends upon the metre, and
that it is injudicious to write in metre unless it be accompanied
with the other artificial distinctions of style with which metre is
usually accompanied, and that by such deviation more will be lost
from the shock which will be thereby given to the Reader's
associations than will be counterbalanced by any pleasure which he
can derive from the general power of numbers. In answer to those who
thus contend for the necessity of accompanying metre with certain
appropriate colours of style in order to the accomplishment of its
appropriate end, and who also, in my opinion, greatly under-rate the
power of metre in itself, it might perhaps be almost sufficient to
observe that poems are extant, written upon more humble subjects,
and in a more naked and simple style than what I have aimed at,
which poems have continued to give pleasure from generation to
generation. Now, if nakedness and simplicity be a defect, the fact
here mentioned affords a strong presumption that poems somewhat less
naked and simple are capable of affording pleasure at the present day;
and all that I am now attempting is to justify myself for having
written under the impression of this belief.

But I might point out various causes why, when the style is manly,
and the subject of some importance, words metrically arranged will
long continue to impart such a pleasure to mankind as he who is
sensible of the extent of that pleasure will be desirous to impart.
The end of Poetry is to produce excitement in coexistence with an
overbalance of pleasure. Now, by the supposition, excitement is an
unusual and irregular state of the mind; ideas and feelings do not
in that state succeed each other in accustomed order. But if the
words by which this excitement is produced are in themselves powerful,
or the images and feelings have an undue proportion of pain connected
with them, there is some danger that the excitement may be carried
beyond its proper bounds. Now the co-presence of something regular,
something to which the mind has been accustomed when in an unexcited
or a less excited state, cannot but have great efficacy in tempering
and restraining the passion by an intertexture of ordinary feeling.
This may be illustrated by appealing to the Reader's own experience
of the reluctance with which he comes to the re-perusal of the
distressful parts of Clarissa Harlowe, or the Gamester. While
Shakespeare's writings, in the most pathetic scenes, never act upon
us as pathetic beyond the bounds of pleasure--an effect which is in
a great degree to be ascribed to small, but continual and regular
impulses of pleasurable surprise from the metrical arrangement.--On
the other hand (what it must be allowed will much more frequently
happen) if the Poet's words should be incommensurate with the passion,
and inadequate to raise the Reader to a height of desirable
excitement, then, (unless the Poet's choice of his metre has been
grossly injudicious) in the feelings of pleasure which the Reader
has been accustomed to connect with metre in general, and in the
feeling, whether chearful or melancholy, which he has been
accustomed to connect with that particular movement of metre, there
will be found something which will greatly contribute to impart
passion to the words, and to effect the complex end which the Poet
proposes to himself.

If I had undertaken a systematic defence of the theory upon which
these poems are written, it would have been my duty to develope the
various causes upon which the pleasure received from metrical
language depends. Among the chief of these causes is to be reckoned
a principle which must be well known to those who have made any of
the Arts the object of accurate reflection; I mean the pleasure
which the mind derives from the perception of similitude in
dissimilitude. This principle is the great spring of the activity of
our minds and their chief feeder. From this principle the direction
of the sexual appetite, and all the passions connected with it take
their origin: It is the life of our ordinary conversation; and upon
the accuracy with which similitude in dissimilitude, and
dissimilitude in similitude are perceived, depend our taste and our
moral feelings. It would not have been a useless employment to have
applied this principle to the consideration of metre, and to have
shewn that metre is hence enabled to afford much pleasure, and to
have pointed out in what manner that pleasure is produced. But my
limits will not permit me to enter upon this subject, and I must
content myself with a general summary.

I have said that Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful
feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in
tranquillity: the emotion is contemplated till by a species of
reaction the tranquillity gradually disappears, and an emotion,
similar 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; but the emotion, of whatever kind
and in whatever degree, from various causes is qualified by various
pleasures, so that in describing any passions whatsoever, which are
voluntarily described, the mind will upon the whole be in a state of
enjoyment. Now if Nature be thus cautious in preserving in a state
of enjoyment a being thus employed, the Poet ought to profit by the
lesson thus held forth to him, and ought especially to take care,
that whatever passions he communicates to his Reader, those passions,
if his Reader's mind be sound and vigorous, should always be
accompanied with an overbalance of pleasure. Now the music of
harmonious metrical language, the sense of difficulty overcome, and
the blind association of pleasure which has been previously received
from works of rhyme or metre of the same or similar construction,
all these imperceptibly make up a complex feeling of delight, which
is of the most important use in tempering the painful feeling which
will always be found intermingled with powerful descriptions of the
deeper passions. This effect is always produced in pathetic and
impassioned poetry; while in lighter compositions the ease and
gracefulness with which the Poet manages his numbers are themselves
confessedly a principal source of the gratification of the Reader. I
might perhaps include all which it is _necessary_ to say upon this
subject 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 and the other in verse,
the verse will be read a hundred times where the prose is read once.
We see that Pope by the power of verse alone, has contrived to
render the plainest common sense interesting, and even frequently to
invest it with the appearance of passion. In consequence of these
convictions I related in metre the Tale of GOODY BLAKE and HARRY GILL,
which is one of the rudest of this collection. I wished to draw
attention to the truth that the power of the human imagination is
sufficient to produce such changes even in our physical nature as
might almost appear miraculous. The truth is an important one; the
fact (for it is a _fact_) is a valuable illustration of it. And I
have the satisfaction of knowing that it has been communicated to
many hundreds of people who would never have heard of it, had it not
been narrated as a Ballad, and in a more impressive metre than is
usual in Ballads.

Having thus adverted to a few of the reasons why I have written in
verse, and why I have chosen subjects from common life, and
endeavoured to bring my language near to the real language of men,
if I have been too minute in pleading my own cause, I have at the
same time been treating a subject of general interest; and it is for
this reason that I request the Reader's permission to add a few
words with reference solely to these particular poems, and to some
defects which will probably be found in them. I am sensible that my
associations must have sometimes been particular instead of general,
and that, consequently, giving to things a false importance,
sometimes from diseased impulses I may have written upon unworthy
subject; but I am less apprehensive on this account, than that my
language may frequently have suffered from those arbitrary
connections of feelings and ideas with particular words, from which
no man can altogether protect himself. Hence I have no doubt that in
some instances feelings even of the ludicrous may be given to my
Readers by expressions which appeared to me tender and pathetic.
Such faulty expressions, were I convinced they were faulty at present,
and that they must necessarily continue to be so, I would willingly
take all reasonable pains to correct. But it is dangerous to make
these alterations on the simple authority of a few individuals, or
even of certain classes of men; for where the understanding of an
Author is not convinced, or his feelings altered, this cannot be
done without great injury to himself: for his own feelings are his
stay and support, and if he sets them aside in one instance, he may
be induced to repeat this act till his mind loses all confidence in
itself and becomes utterly debilitated. To this it may be added,
that the Reader ought never to forget that he is himself exposed to
the same errors as the Poet, and perhaps in a much greater degree:
for there can be no presumption in saying that it is not probable he
will be so well acquainted with the various stages of meaning
through which words have passed, or with the fickleness or stability
of the relations of particular ideas to each other; and above all,
since he is so much less interested in the subject, he may decide
lightly and carelessly.

Long as I have detained my Reader, I hope he will permit me to
caution him against a mode of false criticism which has been applied
to Poetry in which the language closely resembles that of life and
nature. Such verses have been triumphed over in parodies of which
Dr. Johnson's Stanza is a fair specimen.

"I put my hat upon my head,

And walk'd into the Strand,

And there I met another man

Whose hat was in his hand."

Immediately under these lines I will place one of the most justly
admired stanzas of the "_Babes_ in the Wood."

"These pretty Babes with hand in hand

Went wandering up and down;

But never more they saw the Man

Approaching from the Town."

In both of these stanzas the words, and the order of the words, in
no respect differ from the most unimpassioned conversation. There
are words in both, for example, "the Strand," and "the Town,"
connected with none but the most familiar ideas; yet the one stanza
we admit as admirable, and the other as a fair example of the
superlatively contemptible. Whence arises this difference? Not from
the metre, not from the language, not from the order of the words;
but the _matter_ expressed in Dr. Johnson's stanza is contemptible.
The proper method of treating trivial and simple verses to which
Dr. Johnson's stanza would be a fair parallelism is not to say this
is a bad kind of poetry, or this is not poetry, but this wants sense;
it is neither interesting in itself, nor can _lead_ to any thing
interesting; the images neither originate in that sane state of
feeling which arises out of thought, nor can excite thought or
feeling in the Reader. This is the only sensible manner of dealing
with such verses: Why trouble yourself about the species till you
have previously decided upon the genus? Why take pains to prove that
an Ape is not a Newton when it is self-evident that he is not a man.

I have one request to make of my Reader, which is, that in judging
these Poems he would decide by his own feelings genuinely, and not
by reflection upon what will probably be the judgment of others. How
common is it to hear a person say, "I myself do not object to this
style of composition or this or that expression, but to such and
such classes of people it will appear mean or ludicrous." This mode
of criticism so destructive of all sound unadulterated judgment is
almost universal: I have therefore to request that the Reader would
abide independently by his own feelings, and that if he finds
himself affected he would not suffer such conjectures to interfere
with his pleasure.

If an Author by any single composition has impressed us with respect
for his talents, it is useful to consider this as affording a
presumption, that, on other occasions where we have been displeased,
he nevertheless may not have written ill or absurdly; and, further,
to give him so much credit for this one composition as may induce us
to review what has displeased us with more care than we should
otherwise have bestowed upon it. This is not only an act of justice,
but in our decisions upon poetry especially, may conduce in a high
degree to the improvement of our own taste: for an _accurate_ taste
in Poetry and in all the other arts, as Sir Joshua Reynolds has
observed, is an _acquired_ talent, which can only be produced by
thought and a long continued intercourse with the best models of
composition. This is mentioned not with so ridiculous a purpose as
to prevent the most inexperienced Reader from judging for himself,
(I have already said that I wish him to judge for himself;) but
merely to temper the rashness of decision, and to suggest that if
Poetry be a subject on which much time has not been bestowed, the
judgment may be erroneous, and that in many cases it necessarily
will be so.

I know that nothing would have so effectually contributed to further
the end which I have in view as to have shewn of what kind the
pleasure is, and how the pleasure is produced which is confessedly
produced by metrical composition essentially different from what I
have here endeavoured to recommend; for the Reader will say that he
has been pleased by such composition and what can I do more for him?
The power of any art is limited and he will suspect that if I propose
to furnish him with new friends it is only upon condition of his
abandoning his old friends. Besides, as I have said, the Reader is
himself conscious of the pleasure which he has received from such
composition, composition to which he has peculiarly attached the
endearing name of Poetry; and all men feel an habitual gratitude,
and something of an honorable bigotry for the objects which have
long continued to please them: we not only wish to be pleased, but
to be pleased in that particular way in which we have been
accustomed to be pleased. There is a host of arguments in these
feelings; and I should be the less able to combat them successfully,
as I am willing to allow, that, in order entirely to enjoy the
Poetry which I am recommending, it would be necessary to give up
much of what is ordinarily enjoyed. But would my limits have
permitted me to point out how this pleasure is produced, I might
have removed many obstacles, and assisted my Reader in perceiving
that the powers of language are not so limited as he may suppose; and
that it is possible that poetry may give other enjoyments, of a purer,
more lasting, and more exquisite nature. But this part of my subject
I have been obliged altogether to omit: as it has been less my
present aim to prove that the interest excited by some other kinds
of poetry is less vivid, and less worthy of the nobler powers of the
mind, than to offer reasons for presuming, that, if the object which
I have proposed to myself were adequately attained, a species of
poetry would be produced, which is genuine poetry; in its nature
well adapted to interest mankind permanently, and likewise important
in the multiplicity and quality of its moral relations. From what
has been said, and from a perusal of the Poems, the Reader will be
able clearly to perceive the object which I have proposed to myself:
he will determine how far I have attained this object; and, what is
a much more important question, whether it be worth attaining; and
upon the decision of these two questions will rest my claim to the
approbation of the public.


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