Wordsworth was primarily a poet and not a critic. He has left behind him no comprehensive treatise on criticism. The bulk of his literary criticism is small yet "the core of his literary criticism is as inspired as his poetry". There is the same utter sincerity, earnestness, passion and truth in both. He knew about poetry in the real sense, and he has not said even a single word about poetry, says Chapman, "which is not valuable, and worth thinking over".
Wordsworth's criticism is of far-reaching historical significance. When Wordsworth started, it was the Neo-classical criticism, which held the day. Critics were pre-occupied with poetic genres, poetry was judged on the basis of rules devised by Aristotle and other ancients, and interpreted by the Italian and French critics. They cared for rules, for methods, for outward form, and had nothing to say about the substance, the soul of poetry. Wordsworth is the first critic to turn from the poetry to its substance; builds a theory of poetry, and gives an account of the nature of the creative process. His emphasis is on novelty, experiment, liberty, spontaneity, inspiration and imagination, as contrasted with the classical emphasis on authority, tradition, and restraint. His 'Preface' is an unofficial manifesto of the English Romantic Movement giving it a new direction, consciousness and program. After Wordsworth had written, literary criticism could never be the same as before.
Wordsworth through his literary criticism demolishes the old and the faulty and opens out new vistas and avenues. He discards the artificial and restricted forms of approved 18th century poetry. Disgusted by the, "gaudiness and inane phraseology", of many modern writers, he criticizes poets who:
"… 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".
Discarding formal finish and perfection, he stresses vivid sensation and spontaneous feelings. He says:
"All good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings."
Scott James says:
"He discards Aristotelian doctrine. For him, the plot, or situation, is not the first thing. It is the feeling that matters."
Reacting against the artificiality of 18th century poetry, he advocates simplicity both in theme and treatment. He advocates a deliberate choice of subject from "humble and rustic life". Instead of being pre-occupied with nymphs and goddesses, he portrays the emotions of collage girls and peasants. There is a healthy realism in his demand that the poet should use, "the language of common men", and that he should aim at keeping, "the reader in the company of flesh and blood."
There is, no doubt, his views in this respect are open to criticism. Scott James points out, the flesh and blood and emotions of a townsman are not more profound. Besides, by confining himself wholly to rustic life, he excluded many essential elements in human experience. Thus, he narrowed down his range.
"His insistence on the use of a selection of language really used by men is always in danger of becoming trivial and mean."
There is also, no doubt, that he is guilty of over-emphasis every now and then, and that it is easy to pick holes in his theories. Coleridge could easily demolish his theory of poetic diction and demonstrate that a selection of language as advocated by Wordsworth would differ in no way from the language of any other man of commonsense.
All the same, the historical significance of his criticism is very great. It served as a corrective to the artificial and inane phraseology and emphasized the value of a simpler and more natural language. By advocating simplicity in theme, he succeeded in enlarging the range of English poetry. He attacked the old, outdated and trivial and created a taste of the new and the significant. He emphasized the true nature of poetry as an expression of emotion and passion, and so dealt a death blow to the dry intellectuality of contemporary poetry. In this way, he brought about a revolution in the theory of poetry, and made popular acceptance of the new poetry, the romantic poetry, possible.
Unlike other romantics, Wordsworth also lays stress on the element of thought in poetry. He has a high conception of his own calling and so knows that great poetry cannot be produced by a careless or thoughtless person. He says:
"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."
Poetic process is a complex one. Great poetry is not produced on the spur of the moment. It is produced only when the original emotion is contemplated in tranquility, and the poet passions anew.
Wordsworth goes against the neo-classic view that poetry should both instruct and delight, when he stresses that the function of poetry is to give pleasure, a noble and exalted kind of pleasure which results from increased understanding and sympathy. If at all it teaches, it does so only indirectly, by purifying the emotions, uplifting the soul, and bringing it nearer to nature.
The credit for democratizing the conception of the poet must go to Wordsworth. According to him, the poet is essentially a man who differs from other men not in kind, but only in degree. He has a more lively sensibility, a more comprehensive soul, greater powers of observation, imagination and communication. He is also a man who has thought long and deep. Wordsworth emphasizes his organic oneness as also the need for his emotional identification with other men.
We can do no better than conclude this account of the achievement of Wordsworth as a critic with the words of Rene Wellek:
"Wordsworth thus holds a position in the history of criticism which must be called ambiguous or transitional. He inherited from neo-classicism a theory of the imitation of nature to which he gives, however, a specific social twist: he inherited from the 18th century a view of poetry as passion and emotion which he again modified as … "recollection in tranquility". He takes up rhetorical ideas about the effect of poetry but extends and amplifies them into a theory of the social effects of literature … he also adopts a theory of poetry in which imagination holds the central place as a power of unification and ultimate insight into the unity of the world. Though Wordsworth left only a small body of criticism, it is rich in survivals, suggestions, anticipations and personal insights."