William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge Lyrical Ballads Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.”