The Lake Poets Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

The Lake Poets

William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Robert Southey became known as the Lake Poets in the early years of the nineteenth century when critic Francis Jeffrey conferred this designation on them. In an 1817 article published in The Edinburgh Review, Jeffrey referred to the three poets as belonging to the "Lake School." The term refers to the Lake District of England, where all three poets resided for a time.

Jeffrey began writing about the group of poets as early as 1802. In a review of Southey's Thalaba (1801), Jeffrey began his harsh criticism of a "sect" of poets that included Southey, Coleridge, and Wordsworth. Attributing a number of characteristics to the writings of the Lake Poets, Jeffrey argued that their work was based on anti-social principles and that while it reflected the simplicity and energy inspired by nature, it was also both harsh and quaint in its use of "ordinary" language and themes. Other critics, including Thomas De Quincey, have argued that there existed no such "school" of poetry. According to these critics, the Lake Poets shared only friendship and brief periods of collaboration, not similar philosophies or poetic styles.

Southey and Coleridge met in 1794, at Balliol College in Oxford. There they hatched a plan to create a Utopian community in America called "Pantisocracy." They collaborated on works that reflected their radical political beliefs, such as the drama The Fall of Robespierre (1794). Southey soon gave up on their political agenda, and Coleridge terminated the friendship. The two were married to sisters, however, and these familial bonds soon encouraged the poets to reconcile.

By 1797, Coleridge had begun a close friendship with Wordsworth. They worked together closely in and near both the Lake District home that Wordsworth shared with his sister Dorothy and Coleridge's nearby residence. Together they wrote Lyrical Ballads (1798), a collection of poetry that was prefaced by a statement of Wordsworth's poetic theory and that helped define the Romantic Movement. During this period, the two poets influenced each other greatly, with Coleridge encouraging Wordsworth to explore philosophic poetry and Wordsworth offering Coleridge his insights and perspectives on nature.

As Coleridge's relationship with Wordsworth continued to develop, Southey's and Coleridge's friendship cooled. Even so, Southey and his wife took up residence with Coleridge and his family in Keswick, a part of the Lake District, in 1803. This was a time of increasing marital discord for Coleridge. During this period, Coleridge traveled extensively and lived with the Wordsworths for several years. Meanwhile, Southey helped raise Coleridge's children, frequently admonishing Coleridge to stop using opium and to write with some regularity in order to provide for his family.

Despite their distinctly different styles and philosophies, Coleridge, Southey, and Wordsworth are all considered Romantic poets. The Romantic fascination with the unusual and the supernatural is reflected in many of the works of Coleridge and Southey, most notably in Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1798). Wordsworth and Coleridge both possessed an active imagination as well as a strong sense of perception. While Wordsworth used his imaginative powers to idealize the familiar, Coleridge explored the philosophical aspects of poetry. Southey's Romantic efforts centered on travel and adventure. He used exotic historical settings, such as Spain and the Orient, in his examination of the mythic and supernatural, but on the whole he was regarded more for his prose and literary criticism than for his poetry.

The connection of the Lake Poets to Romanticism also encompassed a love of liberty and radical political convictions. The poets had, to varying degrees, sympathized with the French Revolution, believing that France was Europe's champion of liberty. Immersed in their love and worship of nature, the Lake Poets also believed in the spirit of reform through revolution, while maintaining that the union of the soul with nature was of primary importance. During the end of the eighteenth century and the early years of the nineteenth century, they were sheltered from the affairs of the world in their Lake Country homes. But in the aftermath of the French Revolution they began to regain interest in worldly events, and their attitudes became increasingly conservative. Their early revolutionary fervor was severely diminished and their hopes for France dashed as the nation, under Napoleon's rule, began conquering other countries. Their love of liberty was transformed into nationalism as they became convinced that England's constitutional monarchy and the guiding force of the Protestant Church were the only guarantors of freedom.

This transition of the Lake Poets to conservatism has been a major focus of study by twentieth century critics. Hoxie Neal Fairchild and others have attributed the change primarily to the Lake Poets' reaction to the French Revolution and its aftermath. Fairchild has also suggested that the transition was part of a greater maturation process and that personal events in each of the poets' lives may have influenced their growing conservatism. These incidents include the death of Wordsworth's brother and Coleridge's immersion in German philosophy as well as his battle with opium addiction. While nineteenth-century critics such as George Brandes have condemned the Lake Poets as traitors to liberty, most recent critics have found a number of justifications for the shift from liberalism to conservatism.

Another area of interest for recent scholars has been the relationship of the Lake Poets to each other and to their contemporaries. Critics such as Earl Leslie Griggs, Malcolm Elwin, and Raimonda Modiano have focused their attention on the Lake Poets' opinions of each other, and on the intense collaboration between Wordsworth and Coleridge. The debate centering on Wordsworth's and Coleridge's relationship continues, with scholars questioning which poet more strongly influenced the other.