Study Guide

Lyrical Ballads

by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Lyrical Ballads Summary

Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads first appeared in 1798 and was expanded in 1800. The 1800 edition includes new poems and Wordsworth’s now-famous “Preface.” Lyrical Ballads contains some of the early treatments of subjects and themes by Wordsworth and Coleridge that would occupy the bulk of each poet’s oeuvre. These subjects and themes include the relationship between humanity and nature, the psychology of the human heart, the fascination with the supernatural, and the sympathetic presentation of the plight of old hunters, insane mothers, and the victims of England’s various wars abroad.

Lyrical Ballads, especially the 1798 version, has long been regarded as a major influence on the poetry of the Romantic period in England. Many consider its influence to have been not unlike that of Edmund Spenser’s The Shepheardes Calendar (1579) on Elizabethan poetry or T. S. Eliot’s Prufrock, and Other Observations (1917) on modern poetry. The 1798 edition of Lyrical Ballads contains twenty-three poems, most famous among them Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey” and Coleridge’s only major contribution to the volume, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” Both poems explore one man’s difficult attempts to understand who he is in relation to the natural world. Other well-known poems from 1798 are lyrical ballads: “Simon Lee, the Old Huntsman,” “The Thorn,” “Goody Blake and Harry Gill,” and “The Idiot Boy.” Poems that are not lyrical ballads include “Tintern Abbey,” “Expostulation and Reply,” and “The Tables Turned.”

The second volume of Lyrical Ballads (1800) comprises new poems—almost all of them by Wordsworth—while the first volume essentially reprints the poems of 1798. Among the well-known works in the second volume is Wordsworth’s great pastoral poem “Michael.” The volume also includes the enigmatic Lucy poems as well as “Hart-Leap Well,” “The Brothers,” “There Was a Boy,” “Nutting,” and “The Old Cumberland Beggar.”

Initially, Lyrical Ballads was seen as a welcome break from eighteenth century poetry, which—dominated by class bias and the concept of poetic diction—was far removed from the language of everyday speech. However, in the 1950’s, examinations of English poetry published in the 1790’s revealed that, in terms of language and subjects, Lyrical Ballads was hardly groundbreaking. Later analyses argued that the collection was a reaction, but not against the poetry of the earlier eighteenth century; the collection was a reaction against the poetry written in the latter half of the eighteenth century—the poetry produced in what is now known as the age of sensibility. The originality of Lyrical Ballads is now believed to...

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Lyrical Ballads Bibliography (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Ashton, Rosemary. The Life of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 1996. An excellent one-volume biography as well as an examination of Coleridge’s poetic achievements. Part of the Blackwell Critical Biographies series.

Bate, Walter Jackson. Coleridge. New York: Macmillan, 1968. Though dated, this brief study remains a classic in its field and one of the best introductions to Coleridge’s life and literary career. Bate, one of the premier literary scholars of the late twentieth century, was known for his insight and clarity of style.

Blades, John. Wordsworth and Coleridge: “Lyrical Ballads.” New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004. Part one of this study analyzes the poems’ themes, including childhood, the imagination, and social issues. Part two examines the political and literary backgrounds of the late eighteenth century and Wordsworth’s and Coleridge’s literary theories. Also includes summarized responses to Lyrical Ballads by modern scholars I. A. Richards, Robert Mayo, Geoffrey H. Hartman, and Paul de Man.

Gill, Stephen. William Wordsworth: A Life. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989. An excellent biography of Wordsworth, based on an extensive reexamination of the primary and secondary records of his life. In contrast to earlier opinions, Gill portrays Wordsworth as a dedicated, lifelong poet, rather than as a person who betrayed his abilities and beliefs in exchange for a conservative life of retirement. Includes a discussion of Wordsworth’s role in producing Lyrical Ballads.

Jordan, John E. Why the “Lyrical Ballads”? Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976. The subtitle of this influential study states precisely what the book is about: “The Background, Writing, and Character of Wordsworth’s 1798 Lyrical Ballads.” Although Jordan’s focus is primarily on Wordsworth, there is also extensive commentary on Coleridge’s contribution to Lyrical Ballads.

Richey, William, and Daniel Robinson, eds. William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge: “Lyrical Ballads” and Related Writings. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2002. In addition to the text of the 1798 edition of Lyrical Ballads, this book provides background information on the poems. Also has examples of late eighteenth century poetry and prose, which place Wordsworth and Coleridge’s collection in the context of its time.

Sisman, Adam. The Friendship: Wordsworth and Coleridge. New York: Viking Press, 2006. A dual biography of Wordsworth and Coleridge, with an emphasis on their relationship—both personal and artistic. Contains an extensive discussion of the creation of Lyrical Ballads.