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Lyrical Ballads Summary

Lyrical Ballads is a collection of poems written by William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The first volume was released in 1798 and contained twenty-three poems, four of which were composed by Coleridge. Although Wordsworth wrote most of the poems, Coleridge is sometimes listed as the first author—either because his name comes first alphabetically or because his The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is the first poem in the volume.

The best explanation for the volume as a whole is the "Preface to Lyrical Ballads" that William Wordsworth wrote for the 1800 edition. In that work, he explains what he and Coleridge were attempting to do with the new type of poetry they introduced in Lyrical Ballads. They wanted to write poems that featured "the language of men," that is, everyday language used by everyday people rather than the stilted poetic diction that most poetry had used up until that time.

Their subject matter is various, yet all the poems display the poets' heightened imaginations. They also wanted the characters in their poems to be common people, not members of the aristocracy or ancient heroes. Yet they did not want to abandon the lyrical nature of poetry—the beauty of well-chosen words arranged in metrical fashion. "Lyrical ballads" is appropriate nomenclature for their new type of poetry because the poems maintain the lyrical nature of traditional poetry while adding the "common touch" of folk ballads.

The most famous of Coleridge's poems to appear in the collection is the first one: The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. This poem showcases all the elements the poetic duo wanted their poems to contain. The story is a highly imaginative gothic tale of a sailor who contends with supernatural punishments for killing an albatross. The main character of the ballad is a common man, the "ancient Mariner." The short-lined stanzas and simple word choices make the poem fully accessible to the average reader. Without a doubt, the beauty and rhythm of Coleridge's verse offers some of the most memorable lines written in English. Among them are these:

Day after day, day after day,
We stuck, nor breath nor motion,
As idle as a painted Ship
Upon a painted Ocean.

Water, water, every where
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.

Lyrical Ballads, as its two authors hoped, changed the style of English poetry forever.

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

(The entire section is 1,943 words.)