IN offering to the public of 1798 a volume called Lyrical Ballads, With a Few Other Poems, Wordsworth appealed to prospective readers not to approach it with their minds already made up about the sort of pleasure they ought to receive: if they did, they would almost certainly be disappointed. Let them rather try to forget the sort of poetry to which they were accustomed; it was not the only kind:
It is desirable that such readers, for their own sakes, should not suffer the solitary word poetry, a word of very disputed meaning, to stand in the way of their gratification; but that . . . they should consent to be pleased in spite of that most dreadful enemy to our pleasures, our own pre-established codes of decision.
Wise and temperate words, which I gladly appropriate here on behalf of that very poetry against which Wordsworth was warning the reader of 1798. It is, in fact, with pre-established codes of decision, in so far as they obstruct the modern reader's enjoyment of eighteenth-century poetry, that this book is chiefly concerned.
Readers are not to be argued into enjoyment. I hope that I have not made the mistake which Pope attributed to Dennis of trying to 'instruct the Town to dislike what has pleased them, and to be pleased with what they disliked'. I have tried, how ever, to remove some of the obstacles which impede the modern reader's enjoyment of eighteenth-century poetry, by indicating what the poets were doing and what they were not attempting to do, and by considering why their poetry often differs so sharply from that of other periods. With one or two notable exceptions, few modern critics (it seems to me) have written about eighteenth-century poetry with their eye fixed steadily on the object, or even with any apparent eagerness to study it. To those who have written at large on English poetry, the hundred years from the death of Dryden to the publication of Lyrical Ballads have usually appeared as a rather dull plain lying between two ranges of Delectable Mountains, to be hurried across with all convenient speed. Even those who have made a more special study of the period have too often reserved their praise for what is least characteristic of it. Their eyes have been fixed continually on the horizon; and any faint glimmerings of pre-romanticism have been extolled at the expense of the more characteristic and central achievements of the century. It is with these last that I have wished to deal, although in a final chapter some attention is given to those poets who, in one way or another, were unwilling to conform to the standards of the age.
Mr. Norman Callan was kind enough to read the book in manuscript, and I am indebted to him for advice on a number of points. While I was passing the page proofs of the first impression i was able to take advantage of some last-minute comments by Professor D. Nichol Smith, whose generous and unfailing interest in the work of his old students it is a pleasure to record. I should like, too, to record my obligations to those students, in London and Harvard, who listened to the lectures on which this book is based, and who helped me by their agree rnent or dissent, their encouragement and criticism, to
form with plastic care
Each growing lump, and bring it to a bear.— J.R.S.