Lyrical Ballads, William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Lyrical Ballads William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge
The following entry presents criticism of Coleridge and Wordsworth's poetry collection, Lyrical Ballads (1798). For further information on Samuel Taylor Coleridge see also, Rime of the Ancient Mariner Criticism and “Kubla Khan” Criticism.
Literary historians consider the Lyrical Ballads (1798) a seminal work in the ascent of Romanticism and a harbinger of trends in the English poetry that followed it. The poetic principles discussed by Wordsworth in the “Preface” to the 1800 edition of Lyrical Ballads constitute a key primary document of the Romantic era because they announce a revolution in critical notions about poetic language, poetic subject matter, and the role of the poet.
At the time that Wordsworth and Coleridge were planning the Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth had already published two works, Descriptive Sketches and An Evening Walk, in 1793. Coleridge left Oxford University without finishing his degree but had already published several works, including a play, The Fall of Robespierre (written with Robert Southey in 1794), and Poems on Various Subjects (1796). Coleridge, however, had no steady income and contemplated becoming a Unitarian minister when he unexpectedly received an annuity from Thomas and Josiah Wedgwood, enabling him to continue to work on his writing. Coleridge and Wordsworth had first met in Bristol in 1795 and maintained their correspondence over the next two years. Coleridge came to visit Wordsworth at Racedown in 1797, and the two discovered a powerful mutual admiration and rapport. Soon after Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy moved to Nether Stowey to be closer to Coleridge. Coleridge became Wordsworth's mentor, encouraging him and helping to shape his poetry. The two became inseparable companions. Their intellectual discussions and critiques of one another's poetry led to the idea of collaborating on a volume of poetry that became the Lyrical Ballads.
The first edition of Lyrical Ballads was published anonymously in 1798. It contained four poems by Coleridge, including The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, which opened the collection, with the remainder of the poems written by Wordsworth. This edition sold out in two years, and Wordsworth published a new edition, under his own name, in 1800. This second edition included the now-famous “Preface,” as well as another volume of poems. Wordsworth published a third edition in 1802 with an enlarged “Preface,” and a final edition in 1805.
In the “Advertisement” to the 1798 edition of Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth and Coleridge state that the poems in the collection were intended as a deliberate experiment in style and subject matter. Wordsworth elaborated on this idea in the “Preface” to the 1800 and 1802 editions which outline his main ideas of a new theory of poetry. Rejecting the classical notion that poetry should be about elevated subjects and should be composed in a formal style, Wordsworth instead championed more democratic themes—the lives of ordinary men and women, farmers, paupers, and the rural poor. In the “Preface” Wordsworth also emphasizes his commitment to writing in the ordinary language of people, not a highly crafted poetical one. True to traditional ballad form, the poems depict realistic characters in realistic situations, and so contain a strong narrative element. Wordsworth and Coleridge were also interested in presenting the psychology of the various characters in the Lyrical Ballads. The poems, in building sympathy for the disenfranchised characters they describe, also implicitly criticize England's Poor Laws, which made it necessary for people to lose all material possessions before they could receive any kind of financial assistance from the community. Wordsworth also discussed the role of poetry itself, which he viewed as an aid in keeping the individual “sensitive” in spite of the effects of growing alienation in the new industrial age. The poet, as Wordsworth points out, is not a distant observer or moralist, but rather “a man speaking to men,” and the production of poetry is the result of “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings,” recollected in tranquility, not the sum total of rhetorical art.
Early critical reception of The Lyrical Ballads was mostly negative and at times even hostile. Reviewers cited uninteresting subject themes and the unreadability of The Ancient Mariner, with its archaic style and murky philosophical theme. Francis Jeffrey, one of the chief reviewers for the influential Edinburgh Review, was so offended by Wordsworth's flaunting of poetic convention in the Lyrical Ballads that he engaged in a long and vitriolic campaign against what he termed the “Lake School of Poetry.” While this initial critical response impeded acceptance of the Lyrical Ballads and its authors, acknowledgment did come eventually. Other reviewers praised the earnestness and simplicity of the poems in Lyrical Ballads and their focus on the usually neglected subject of the rural poor. In the latter part of the nineteenth century, Victorian critics demonstrated a special interest in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner as a moral and philosophical puzzle, and Wordsworth and Coleridge already figured as preeminent English poets, the leaders of the first wave of Romanticism. Critical interest in the Lyrical Ballads has continued into the twentieth century, with scholars fully recognizing the role of the collection in bringing about new ideas regarding poetry and society. The language and style of the Lyrical Ballads remains a central focus of criticism, with such scholars as Marjorie Latta Barstow, W. J. B. Owen, and Stephen Maxfield Parrish probing Wordsworth's and Coleridge's experimental form. Mary Jacobus and Heather Glen, among others, have explored the handling of specific themes in the Lyrical Ballads, while Stephen Prickett and James H. Averill have addressed questions of unity in the collection as a whole. The interplay between natural and supernatural imagery in the individual poems has recently been studied by Roger N. Murray and Susan Eilenberg. Scholars have investigated some of the influences on the Lyrical Ballads as well, including those of Horace, the events of the French Revolution, and contemporary anti-Jacobin satire. Many critics have studied the collection in terms of Wordsworth's and Coleridge's artistic and intellectual development and have highlighted paradoxes and inconsistencies in their critical thinking as evidenced by the “Preface.”
Descriptive Sketches (poetry) 1793
An Evening Walk: An Epistle in Verse (poetry) 1793
*Lyrical Ballads [with Samuel Taylor Coleridge] (poetry) 1798
Poems (poetry) 1807
The Excursion, Being a Portion of the Recluse (poetry) 1814
Poems (poetry) 1815
The White Doe of Rylstone; or, The Fate of the Nortons (poetry) 1815
Peter Bell: A Tale in Verse (poetry) 1819
The Waggoner (poetry) 1819
The River Duddon: A Series of Sonnets, Vaudracour and Julia, and Other Poems (poetry) 1820
Ecclesiastical Sketches (poetry) 1822
Memorials of a Tour on the Continent, 1820 (poetry) 1822
Yarrow Revisited and Other Poems (poetry) 1835
The Sonnets of William Wordsworth (poetry) 1838
†Poems, Chiefly of Early and Late Years; Including The Borderers (poetry and a play) 1842-54
‡The Prelude, or Growth of a Poet's Mind: Autobiographical Poem (poetry) 1850
The Recluse (unfinished poem) 1888
The Letters of William and Dorothy Wordsworth. 8 vols. to date (letters) 1967-
The Cornell Wordsworth. 19 vols. to date (poetry, prose, plays)...
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SOURCE: “Lyrical Ballads.” The Spectator 64 (April 5, 1890): 479-80.
[In the following review, the anonymous author praises Edward Dowden's reprint edition of Lyrical Ballads, asserting that Wordsworth's literary influence has been more enduring than that of Coleridge.]
This reprint of the first edition of the joint production of Wordsworth and Coleridge is valuable, of course, more as setting up a visible monument of a great era in the history of English literature, than for its restoration of a few obsolete readings of some of the most remarkable poems in the English language. There is something gratifying in possessing and physically handling a volume identical with that which our grandfathers or great-grandfathers read without in general being at all aware that it was the signal of a greater change in the tendencies of English poetry, and (one may almost say) of English faith so far as faith is affected (as it is often very greatly affected) by English poetry, than any other which the century has produced. Scott and Byron, whose fame blazed out soon afterwards, and blazed out so brilliantly as to eclipse for a time both Coleridge and Wordsworth, were mere passing literary meteors, in comparison with Wordsworth and Coleridge; not that Scott's poems, at least, are ever likely to lose their hold on English minds and hearts, but that there was a good deal less in them of that which...
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SOURCE: “Lyrical Ballads.” The Athenæum 95 (May 10, 1890): 599-600.
[In the following review, the anonymous author notes that Lyrical Ballads did not meet with the critical response it deserved when originally published and recommends a closer study of the poems to highlight their merit.]
This reprint should be received as a welcome gift by the poor scholar. It is not called by the much-abused name of “facsimile,” but it possesses all the advantages which could attach to that unattainable ideal. The little book is simply a neat, well-edited reprint, following its original line for line and page for page. The chief virtue of a reprint is to be correct, and how faithfully Prof. Dowden has endeavoured in this direction is indicated by his offering a sort of apology for venturing to leave the proper space between two words which the printer of the original had inadvertently run together in ‘Simon Lee,’ thus,—
Could leave both man and horsebehind.
The emendation carries a useful lesson to editors. When making reprints such as this of books produced in the leisurely days of the hand-press, it is well to examine more than one copy—desirable, even, to examine a dozen, if so many are available—for the text often varies more or less in copies of the same edition. The author, editor, or corrector seems to have been in the habit of examining the...
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SOURCE: Barstow, Marjorie Latta. “The Lyrical Ballads.” In Wordsworth's Theory of Poetic Diction, pp. 141-82. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1917.
[In the following excerpt, Barstow discusses Wordsworth's experimental use of the language of common individuals in Lyrical Ballads, noting that his attempt to reflect psychological states through diction was not successful.]
Although Wordsworth's theory of poetic diction had a sounder basis in literary tradition and in psychology than an ignorant world of letters was prepared to admit, his own application of it, in its first extreme form, was very limited in time and in extent. Only in the “Advertisement to the Lyrical Ballads” of 1798 does he say that he means to employ the ‘language of conversation in the middle and lower classes of society’; and only in this volume does he actually succeed in doing so. But even here he makes use of this language simply as an ‘experiment,’ and clearly indicates that the experiment applies only to a part—though a major part—of the collection.
The poems composing the minority, not included under Wordsworth's definition of his purpose, are easily determined. Apart from the contributions of Coleridge, and apart from “Tintern Abbey,” which, as Wordsworth himself indicates, was composed in the loftier and more impassioned strain of the ode,1 they prove...
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SOURCE: Murray, Roger N. “Paradox and Equivocation.” In Wordsworth's Style: Figures and Themes in the “Lyrical Ballads” of 1800, pp. 11-24. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1967.
[In the following excerpt, Murray explores Wordsworth's use of illusory imagery in the Lyrical Ballads of 1800, emphasizing that the poet employs this technique to make a connection between the real and supernatural realms.]
Every student of the English Romantic poets knows that Wordsworth's task in the Lyrical Ballads was “to give the charm of novelty to things of every day,” as Coleridge puts it,1 and he also knows of Wordsworth's predilection for exact description.2 Cleanth Brooks is one of the few critics since Coleridge who have explored in any detail, however, the matter of how Wordsworth pressed beyond the descriptive exactitude he cherished and attained a novelty that precise description alone cannot be depended on to supply.3 Because of the gentleness with which Wordsworth shocks us out of our habitual ways of seeing things, it is certainly possible to take many of his images not for what they are, but for earnest efforts at exact description. The secret of such images, however, where they succeed, is not in their exact description, but in the way they evince a “charm of novelty,” as in the lines
With many a wanton stroke Her feet...
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SOURCE: Davie, Donald. “Dionysus in Lyrical Ballads.” In Wordsworth's Mind and Art, edited by A. W. Thomson, pp. 110-39. Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1969.
[In the following essay, Davie discusses Wordsworth's emphasis on the pleasure of perception as the hallmark of his poetry, placing the poet's ideas in the context of classical and Romantic theories of composition.]
“I am myself,” said Wordsworth, “one of the happiest of men; and no man who does not partake of that happiness, who lives a life of constant bustle, and whose felicity depends on the opinions of others, can possibly comprehend the best of my poems.” It was thus that he delivered himself on 8 May, 1812, to Henry Crabb Robinson: and it is a good example of the frightening and repellent self-assurance with which Wordsworth contemplated the fact and the nature of his own genius, and communicated his sense of these to others. But this need not mean that Wordsworth was self-deluded, that there was nothing to contemplate, or that what was there was something different from what Wordsworth saw. It will be the contention of this essay that Wordsworth knew the facts of his own genius better than anyone.
It is remarkable, to begin with, how readily Wordsworth proceeds to oppose his happiness, or his own sense of it, to “a life of constant bustle”. Did it not occur to him that many men...
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SOURCE: Parrish, Stephen Maxfield. “The Ballad as Pastoral.” In The Art of the “Lyrical Ballads,” pp. 149-87. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1973.
[In the following excerpt, Parrish maintains that in the Lyrical Ballads of 1798 and 1800, Wordsworth combined eighteenth-century traditions of the ballad and pastoral genres.]
One nearly forgotten episode in the history of Lyrical Ballads points up with wonderful irony the tensions of that unequal balance between poetry of the supernatural and poetry of common life: if Coleridge had been able to finish “Christabel” Wordsworth would never have written “Michael.” The episode sprawled over the spring, summer, and autumn of 1800, coming to a climax in the first week of October. By this date Wordsworth had mailed off in a series of letters to his printer all his copy for the second volume of 1800, together with the celebrated “Preface” to be printed with Volume I.1 While waiting for Coleridge to furnish the rest of “Christabel,” Wordsworth commenced work on the critical essay he intended to print with Volume II. Meanwhile, Coleridge had come to the end of his inspiration, “stricken,” as he shortly put it, “with barrenness” by the disgust which he had suffered in completing his translation of Wallenstein. His own account of his failure is probably half candid, half fanciful. “I tried &...
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SOURCE: Prickett, Stephen. “Unity and Diversity.” In Wordsworth and Coleridge: The “Lyrical Ballads,” pp. 22-50. London: Edward Arnold, 1975.
[In the following excerpt, Prickett highlights several key poems of the Lyrical Ballads as contributing to the unity of this collection.]
So much for the barebones story of the Lyrical Ballads. But what of the poems themselves? We have already seen how hard it was for contemporary readers and reviewers to grapple with the central paradox of this immodest collection of verses: that this diversity of themes and styles had a life and unity which depended on the very tensions of a tight-rope act in which the safety-net was first removed. If their point was to be made at all, ‘The Idiot Boy’, ‘The Mad Mother’, or ‘Simon Lee’ had to be about people or incidents that were trivial, trite, or grotesque. Moreover, they had to be part of the same grand design that included The Ancyent Marinere as its starting point, and ‘Tintern Abbey’ as its conclusion. It is my argument in this book that there is such a ‘life’ and ‘grand design’ to the Lyrical Ballads even while it can be shown that it was never fully present in either of its authors' heads at the same time—if at all. To show this unity with diversity it would not be possible (nor even desirable) to discuss every one of the shifting group of poems which...
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SOURCE: Jacobus, Mary. “‘The Tragic Super-Tragic’ and Salisbury Plain.” In Tradition and Experiment in Wordsworth's “Lyrical Ballads” (1798), pp. 133-58. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1976.
[In the following excerpt, Jacobus provides a detailed reading of Wordsworth's Salisbury Plain, noting that the poem is pivotal because it signals the poet's growing awareness of the realities of human suffering.]
Wordsworth's earliest attempts to portray suffering are clumsy and overstated, ‘The tragic super-tragic’, in contrast to the effective understatement of his later narrative poetry:
Then common death was none, common mishap, But matter for this humour everywhere, The tragic super-tragic, else left short. Then, if a Widow, staggering with the blow Of her distress, was known to have made her way To the cold grave in which her Husband slept, One night, or haply more than one, through pain Or half-insensate impotence of mind The fact was caught at greedily, and there She was a Visitant the whole year through, Wetting the turf with never-ending tears, And all the storms of Heaven must beat on her.(1)
Long before he wrote these lines, he had adopted a technique of moving restraint. With ‘The Ruined Cottage’, the drama of distress sketched in The Prelude becomes a tragedy of disrupted relationships, humane in its assumptions yet transfigured by the...
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SOURCE: Glen, Heather. “Morality through Experience: Lyrical Ballads 1798.” In Vision and Disenchantment: Blake's “Songs” and Wordsworth's “Lyrical Ballads,” pp. 224-59. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983.
[In the following excerpt, Glen compares selected poems from the 1798 Lyrical Ballads with William Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience.]
But since a certain inequality of situation is necessary, and the present inequality, apparently more than that necessity requires, I am only desirous that the shade of distinction should rather be relieved than darkened; that in the picture of human life, the poor should not be ignominiously degraded in the background, merely to render the drawing picturesque, but that they should generously be represented on the canvas, with that dignity and importance to which they are really entitled.
(From The Cabinet, by a Society of Gentlemen, no. 1, October 1794)
However disconcerting their original readers may have found them, the poems of Lyrical Ballads seem much more straightforward in their moral intention than do those of Songs of Innocence and of Experience. They contain none of that mocking play with paradox and ambiguity which marks Blake's collection, and none of his ironic awareness of the double-edgedness of the moral terms they...
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SOURCE: Parrish, Stephen. “‘Leaping and lingering’: Coleridge's Lyrical Ballads.” In Coleridge's Imagination: Essays in Memory of Pete Laver, edited by Richard Gravil, Lucy Newlyn, and Nicholas Roe, pp. 102-16. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.
[In the following essay, Parrish examines Coleridge's understanding of the ballad form, both as seen through his collaboration with Wordsworth in Lyrical Ballads and through his notion of the supernatural.]
One of the most colourful volumes of literary scholarship ever given to the world is a study of the working of Coleridge's imagination, ‘an absorbing adventure along the ways which the imagination follows in dealing with its multifarious materials—an adventure like a passage through the mazes of a labyrinth, to come out at last upon a wide and open sky’. Now more than half a century old, The Road to Xanadu was composed in a style that has rather fallen out of fashion. Hardly any smart critics today write even like G. Wilson Knight, and post-structuralism has cultivated its own arcane splendours of language to overshadow the rococo magnificence of Xanadu's mesmerizing rhetoric. Celebrated for a generation at Harvard with a Gilbertian tribute—
My name is John Livingston Lowes; I'm a dealer in magical prose—
Lowes offered accounts of the poet's...
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SOURCE: Eilenberg, Susan. “‘Michael,’ ‘Christabel,’ and the Poetry of Possession.” Criticism XXX, no. 2 (1988): 205-224.
[In the following essay, Eilenberg examines the substitution of Wordsworth's “Michael” in place of Coleridge's “Christabel” as the last poem in the 1800 edition of Lyrical Ballads. The author then evaluates the interrelationship between “Michael” and “Christabel,” as well as that of their authors.]
Literary history suggests a significant intertextual relation between two poems not ordinarily read together, Wordsworth's “Michael” and Coleridge's “Christabel.” “Michael” was written during the autumn of 1800 in order to provide a conclusion to the second volume of the 1800 Lyrical Ballads after Coleridge's “Christabel,” earlier intended for that position of honor, was expelled from the volume. “[I]f Coleridge had been able to finish ‘Christabel’ Wordsworth would never have written ‘Michael,’” Stephen Parrish remarks,1 and indeed there would have been no reason for the hasty composition of “Michael” had not the removal of the perhaps unfinishable “Christabel” left such a hole in the volume. “Michael” is a poetic stopgap, a literary placeholder. It acts simultaneously to suppress and to supplant, to revise and to memorialize Coleridge's poem, thematizing the displacement in which it participates and...
(The entire section is 7740 words.)
SOURCE: Campbell, Patrick. “Lyrical Ballads: The Current of Opinion,” and “Criticism in Context, 1797-98.” In Wordsworth and Coleridge: “Lyrical Ballads,” pp. 1-14, 15-34. Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1991.
[In the following excerpt, Campbell provides an overview of critical reaction to Lyrical Ballads from earliest responses to the 1990s. Campbell then sketches the social and political context in which the collection was published and explores the philosophical aspects of the collaboration between Wordsworth and Coleridge.]
CONTEMPORANEOUS CRITICISM: THE MAGAZINES
‘Up to 1820 the name of Wordsworth was trampled under foot’, thundered De Quincey. While that is the over-emotional reaction of a friend, it is none the less true that Lyrical Ballads, aimed at the solar plexus of reader complacency, initially attracted some erratic counters. Cottle feared that such blows would destroy the entire enterprise: ‘the severity of most of the reviews’ was ‘so great that its progress to oblivion, notwithstanding the merits which I was quite sure they possessed, seemed ordained to be as rapid as it was certain’ (quoted in Smith, 1932, p. 29). These reactions say more about the prevailing state of periodical journalism and literary taste than about the actual poetry, but that in no way diminishes their significance both as cultural indicators and as first...
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SOURCE: Eilenberg, Susan. “The Haunted Language of the Lucy Poems.” In Strange Power of Speech: Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Literary Possession, pp. 108-35. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.
[In the following excerpt, Eilenberg focuses on Wordsworth's “Lucy” poems as they reflect his sense of loss and his relationship to nature and his own poetry.]
The economy of the Lucy poems involves neither property nor, in any obvious sense, possession. It figures no struggle for ground, no exorcism of previous inhabitants. For such loss as these poems record—emotional rather than financial or literary—there can be, it would seem, no recompense. The poems confound both poet's and critics' accounting.
But although issues of property never become explicit here, the economically-worded Lucy poems exhibit the same kinds of behavior and raise the same sorts of issues we have seen in the poems more openly concerned with possession and dispossession. Concerned with the uniqueness of his loss, the poet finds his own words turned against him, his voice usurped upon by its own simulacrum or by silence. Self-reduplicating, autoventriloquistic, and plagued by rivals who are also doubles, the poems generate an uncanniness that looks more Coleridgean than Wordsworthian. They rehearse the formal problems of The Ancient Mariner; they anticipate the difficult dynamics of “Michael” and...
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SOURCE: Pfau, Thomas. “‘Elementary Feelings’ and ‘Distorted Language’: The Pragmatics of Culture in Wordsworth's ‘Preface to Lyrical Ballads.’” New Literary History, no. 24 (1993): 125-46.
[In the following essay, Pfau provides a revisionist reading of the “Preface” to the Lyrical Ballads, looking past the traditional connotations of the Romantic verbiage that Wordsworth employs and finding “a landmark document in romantic cultural and social theory.”]
Few texts of the romantic period are more firmly anchored in the curricular and pedagogical agenda of current romantic studies than Wordsworth's “Preface to Lyrical Ballads,” a circumstance as commonplace as it is puzzling given what, for the past half century, criticism has found to say about that text. For notwithstanding its own, high-profile investment in a pedagogy concerned with reshaping the sensibility underlying both the production and reception of poetry, Wordsworth's text has almost universally been regarded as marked by internal tensions, inconsistencies, discontinuous argument, and a confused sense of purpose.1 Many of the obstacles that seem to compromise the recovery of a “unified” argument in Wordsworth's text are significantly rooted in Coleridge's criticisms of Wordsworth's “theory.”2 The impact of Coleridge's critique, however pertinent or misguided it may be...
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SOURCE: Liu, Yu. “Revaluating Revolution and Radicalness in the Lyrical Ballads.” Studies in English Literature 36, no. 4 (autumn 1996): 747-61.
[In the following essay, Liu examines the influence of the French Revolution on Wordsworth's poetry in Lyrical Ballads, suggesting that he attempted to work out his personal and political response to revolutionary ideas through his poetry.]
Wordsworth's Lyrical Ballads has been treated consistently in the past thirty years or so as both a consequence and an expression of deterministic history.1 In particular, the inspirational origin and the motivational impetus of that poetic project are now generally accepted as inextricably intertwined with a personal reversal from high hopes for the social and political upheavals of France in the early 1790s to bitter disappointment and even despair in the mid-1790s. Yet what is retrospectively so interesting and enlightening about the Lyrical Ballads of 1798 is how the poet did not come across as overwhelmed by history. Rather than being overpowered with a self-protective desire to escape from politics to poetics, Wordsworth was surprisingly and endearingly ingenious and efficient in using a rich variety of ambiguities to move beyond the potentially crippling tension of ideals and realities and to make an analogical revaluation of both the French Revolution and his own radical...
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SOURCE: Stabler, Jane. “Guardians and Watchful Powers: Literary Satire and Lyrical Ballads in 1798.” In 1798: The Year of the “Lyrical Ballads,” edited by Richard Cronin, pp. 203-30. Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1998.
[In the following essay, Stabler discusses Lyrical Ballads in the context of British satirical writings against the perceived threat of Jacobinism.]
An enhanced sense of the dynamics of satire in the Romantic period may modify our understanding of the early reception of Lyrical Ballads. For a long time Lyrical Ballads was accepted uncritically as one of the originary texts of Romanticism. Readers followed William Hazlitt's ‘sense of a new style and a new spirit in poetry […] something of the effect that arises from the turning up of the fresh soil, or of the first welcome breath of Spring’.1 Hazlitt was, of course, looking back on the experiment of Lyrical Ballads with a desire to make its ‘breath’ part of the ‘spirit of the age’. But if we suspend, for a moment, Hazlitt's narrative of vernal growth, it may be possible to reveal the equally characteristic relationship between the Lyrical Ballads and the mud-slinging of contemporary satire. Robert Mayo placed Lyrical Ballads firmly in its literary context in his 1954 article ‘The Contemporaneity of Lyrical Ballads’.2 Mayo illustrated how in its...
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SOURCE: McEathron, Scott. “Wordsworth, Lyrical Ballads, and the Problem of Peasant Poetry.” Nineteenth-Century Literature 54, no. 1 (June 1999): 1-26.
[In the following essay, McEathron discusses Wordsworth's appropriation and reworking of the popular “peasant poetry” phenomenon for use in the Lyrical Ballads.]
One of the unwritten histories within Romanticism is that of the relationship between Wordsworth's rustic poetics and the so-called “peasant” and “working-class” poetry of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. That it remains unwritten is, in some ways, an indication that Wordsworth has continued to win the battle for historical self-positioning that was always so important to him. Though in recent years we have become increasingly wary of Wordsworth's passionate and vigorous declarations of originality, for the most part his own self-contextualizing essays—especially the 1800 “Preface to Lyrical Ballads”—continue to govern our sense that the appearance of his “levelling” Muse marked a radical break in British literary history.1
We might have a different sense of Wordsworth's relationship to his cultural moment if Francis Jeffrey's view had prevailed. Jeffrey's notorious attack in the 1802 Edinburgh Review on the Lake School of Poets contained a number of charges against Wordsworth's poetic program, including...
(The entire section is 9116 words.)
Averill, James H. “The Shape of Lyrical Ballads (1798).” Philological Quarterly 60, no. 3 (summer 1981): 387-407.
Explores the ways in which Coleridge and Wordsworth attempted to shape the structure and themes of the 1798 Lyrical Ballads through the placement of individual poems within the collection.
Bate, Jonathan. “Wordsworth and the Naming of Places.” Essays in Criticism 39, no. 3 (July 1989): 196-216.
Discusses the origin and thematic value of Wordsworth's use of specific locales in his poetry.
Benis, Toby R. “Martha Ray's Face: Life During Wartime in Lyrical Ballads.” Criticism 39, no. 2 (spring 1997): 205-27.
Draws an analogy between the situation of Martha Ray in “The Thorn” and the political situation in England during wartime.
Bialostosky, Don. “Genres from Life in Wordsworth's Art: Lyrical Ballads 1798.” In Romanticism, History, and the Possibilities of Genre: Re-Forming Literature 1789-1837, edited by Tilottama Rajan and Julia M. Wright, pp. 109-21. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
Discusses Wordsworth's experiment with language in Lyrical Ballads using linguistic theory.
Boehnen, Scott. “The ‘Preface to Lyrical Ballads’: Poetics,...
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