Wordsworth was primarily a poet and not a formal critic. He became a critic of contemporary poetry out of sheer necessity of his creative, poetic urges. The experiment which he had made in the Lyrical Ballads (1798) called forth a systematic defence of the theory upon which the Poems were written.He was first greeted by the reviewers with scathing criticism, and he chose to demolish the conventionalized public taste which had hitherto been nurtured by neo-classical conventions which judged poetry on the basis of rules devised by Aristotle and other ancients, and interpreted by the Italian and French critics. They cared 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 form of poetry to its substance, he is the first critic who builds up 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 critical output is not much. It is confined only to the Prefaces of 1800 and 1815, the Appendix of 1802, the Supplementary Essay of 1815 and the three essays upon epitaphs and the correspondence besides the 1798 Preface to Lyrical Ballads written jointly with Coleridge. "Though Wordsworth left only a small body of criticism, it is rich in suggestions, anticipations, and personal insights." (Rene Wellek). Wordsworth is the author of a new Poetics dealing with the origin of poetry, the problem of communication and its final effect.
His contribution to English literary criticism is manifold. He pioneered Romanticism; he gave a new theory of poetic diction based on simple language "really used by men;" he demolished the neo-classical canons of correctness, accuracy, authority, rule, artificial language, and instead put emphasis on spontaneity, imagination, intuition and inspiration. Discarding formal finish and perfection, he says, "All good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings." He discards Aristotelian doctrine. 'For him, the plot, or situation is not the first thing. It is the feeling that matters'. (Scott James).
Reacting against the artificiality of 18th century poetry, he advocates simplicity both in theme and treatment. He advocates a deliberate choice of subjects from "humble and rustic life." Instead of being pre-occupied with nymphs and goddesses,he portrays the emotions of village girls and peasants. There is a healthy realism in his demand that the poet should use the language of common men. He removes poetry away from the fetters of urban life of fashionable society of his age. By advocating simplicity in theme, he enlarged the range of English poetry. He also dealt a death blow to the dry intellectuality of contemporary poetry and filled it with lively emotions and passions. In this way he brought about a revolution in the theory as well as the practice of poetry.
The credit of having democratised the conception of the poet should also go to Wordsworth. According to Wordsworth, the poet is essentially a man who differs from other men not in kind, but only in degree. He is essentially a man speaking to men. He has certain gifts in a higher degree than others. 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. Others also have these gifts, but the poet has them in a higher degree. Wordsworth emphasizes his organic oneness as also the need for him of emotional identification with other men. It will not do for him to sit high and alone in his ivory tower; he must come out into the light of common day, and write of their sorrows and pleasure.
Wordsworth also argued against the morality of eighteenth century poetry, by saying that the function of poetry was not to instruct with delight but to please.
There are no doubt, some deficiencies and pitfalls in his views. As Scott-James points out, flesh and blood of a rustic is not more human than the flesh and blood of a townsmen, and his emotions are not profound. Besides, by confining himself, exclusively to rustic life, he excluded many essential elements in human experience. In this way, 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". His theory of diction has rightly been criticised by Coleridge. Coleridge has demonstrated simply that a selection of poetic language as advocated by Wordsworth would differ in no way from the language of any other man of common sense.
In fact, Wordsworth's claim to eminence as a critic is not due to his sustained and political critical statement but due to suggestive and controversial nature of his critical statements. Whereas earlier critics had tried to rule with the sceptre authority in their hands, Wordsworth gives liberty to the reader to trust his own emotions.
In this way he has extended the frontiers of appreciative criticism. His real position as a critic is summed up by Rene Wellek in the following words:
"Wordsworth thus holds a position in the history of criticism which must be called ambiguous or transitional. He inherited neo-classicism a theory of the limitation of nature to which he gives, however, a specific social twist; he inherited from the eighteenth century a view of poetry as passion and emotion which he again modified by his description of the poetic process as "recollection in tranquillity." He takes up rhetorical ideas about the effect of poetry but extends and amplifies them into a theory of the social effect of literature, binding society in a spirit of love. But he also adopts, in order to meet the exigencies of his mystical experiences, 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."