Table of Contents
1 The Poets and Their Time
2 The Preface and the Defence in Comparison
2.1 The Language
2.2 The Role of the Poet
William Wordsworth and Percy B. Shelley – these names represent, more than any other does, the Romantic Period in England. Wordsworth’s Preface to Lyrical Ballads, the second version written in 1802, and Shelley’s Defence of Poetry (1821) are two basic documents of Romantic thought and aesthetics. I will here endeavour to compare them, showing both the similarities and differences between the demands and beliefs of the authors. Preparing for my paper, I was surprised to find so little literature that concentrated on this special topic. Articles and books on the relationship between these poets concentrate on biographical aspects and general differences in thought, but do not trace into their theory of poems. Much attention is paid to the generation gap, as in the book of G. Kim Blank, and I learned that it is impossible to treat my topic adequately without taking this aspect into consideration. Therefore I will first give a survey of the times and circumstances the essays were written in, then compare them, trying to apply the facts of the first chapter where it is possible.
1 The Poets and Their Time
When Wordsworth first published the Lyrical Ballads in 1798, aged 28 years, he had just recovered from a depression caused by his disappointment with the failure of the French Revolution. As a supporter of the Revolution and its ideals, he had still “defend[ed] the French Revolution, the execution of Louis XVI, and the September Massacres” (Puriton 29) in his Letter to the Bishop of Llandaff from 1793, but in the following years he became aware that these results did contradict the ideas of equality and democracy he had believed in. In the Prelude he talks about it clearly:
Frenchmen had changed a war of self-defence
For one of Conquest, losing sight of all
Which they had struggled for . . . (XI., 207-209)
The development in France may have raised doubts in him whether he still could uphold the radical idealism of his youth, and indeed the time between 1795 and 1799 can not be regarded as his most productive one. He seems to have thought about a new form of poetic expression that would be able to transport his thought without turning it into a program. According to Yu Liu, he managed to attain his aim:
Both imbibing and enacting the egalitarian ideal of the French Revolution while at the same time conducting and constituting a highly critical revaluation of the very activist impulses of not only the French revolutionaries but also his own former self, this new kind of radicalism anchored itself in a very different understanding of the relationship between him and the people whom he wanted to help. (Liu 13-14)
This estimation, also expressed by Marjean D. Puriton (26), marks the new understanding of Wordsworth’s poetry. Instead of abandoning his former ideals, he turns to the interior world, trying to show the motivation of his figures and refraining from abstract political concepts, “proving” the egalitarian ideal by psychological observation. If this can still be considered as a flight, it turns at least to be fertile for the evolution of modern poetry.
Wordsworth was not a man of politics. He liked to lead a relatively lonely life in the Lake District, like Coleridge, Southey and other poets of his generation. It seems that the experience of the French Revolution made him dislike this sphere and turned his thoughts to the more elementary things, as often found in his poetry.