William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge Lyrical Ballads Essay - Critical Essays

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Textual History

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.

Major Themes

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.

Critical Reception

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.”

Principal Works

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) 1975-

The Fall of Robespierre [with Robert Southey] (play) 1794

Poems on Various Subjects (poetry) 1796; revised as Poems, 1797

Ode on the Departing Year (poetry) 1797

Osorio (play) 1797; revised as Remorse, 1813

Fears in Solitude (poetry) 1798

*Lyrical Ballads [with William Wordsworth] (poetry) 1798

Poems (poetry) 1803

Christabel. Kubla Khan: A Vision. The Pains of Sleep (poetry) 1816

Biographia Literaria; or, Biographical Sketches of My Literary Life and Opinions (essays) 1817

Sybelline Leaves (poetry) 1817

The Complete Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. 7 vols. (poetry, plays, translation, and essays) 1853

Collected Letters. 6 vols. (letters) 1956-71

The Notebooks of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. 3 vols. (notebooks) 1957-73

*Enlarged editions of Lyrical Ballads were published in 1801 and 1802. A final edition was published in 1805.

The Borderers was written in 1795.

‡This work was written during the period of 1799-1805.


The Spectator (essay date 1890)

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...

(The entire section is 1812 words.)

The Athenæum (essay date 1890)

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...

(The entire section is 2861 words.)

Marjorie Latta Barstow (essay date 1917)

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...

(The entire section is 12752 words.)

Roger N. Murray (essay date 1967)

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...

(The entire section is 3714 words.)

Donald Davie (essay date 1969)

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...

(The entire section is 10220 words.)

Stephen Maxfield Parrish (essay date 1973)

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 entire section is 13866 words.)

Stephen Prickett (essay date 1975)

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...

(The entire section is 11974 words.)

Mary Jacobus (essay date 1976)

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,

(The entire section is 9915 words.)

Heather Glen (essay date 1983)

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...

(The entire section is 15046 words.)

Stephen Parrish (essay date 1985)

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...

(The entire section is 6888 words.)

Susan Eilenberg (essay date 1988)

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...

(The entire section is 7740 words.)

Patrick Campbell (essay date 1991)

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.]


‘Up to 1820 the name of Wordsworth was trampled under...

(The entire section is 14465 words.)

Susan Eilenberg (essay date 1992)

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...

(The entire section is 11962 words.)

Thomas Pfau (essay date 1993)

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...

(The entire section is 9452 words.)

Yu Liu (essay date 1996)

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...

(The entire section is 5852 words.)

Jane Stabler (essay date 1998)

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...

(The entire section is 9765 words.)

Scott McEathron (essay date 1999)

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...

(The entire section is 9116 words.)

Further Reading


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...

(The entire section is 749 words.)