Lyrical Ballads (1798): Publication and Reviews

 

Lyrical Ballads, with a few other Poems (1798)

William Wordsworth moves with his sister, Dorothy, to Racedown Lodge, Dorset in 1795. It would appear to be at this point that he decides to make a career of poetry. Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834), who was at that time living not far away at Nether Stowey, visits Wordsworth in June 1797, and a friendship begins which is consolidated when Wordsworth moves to Alfoxden House, closer to Nether Stowey, in July 1797.

Frequenting each other almost daily, the two engage in long and in depth conversations concerning poetry and philosophy during the course of many rambles over the North Devon countryside. In 1798 they propose making a trip together to Germany, and, in need of money to finance the venture, approach Joseph Cottle, a Bristol publisher and bookseller who has already published some of Coleridge's poetry. Several options are canvassed for material, the two poets finally deciding to publish a collection of 'ballads', including Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Wordsworth's The Thorn and The Idiot Boy along with other material that the two authors have ready for the press. The volume is to be published anonymously as, according to Coleridge in a letter to Cottle, 'Wordsworth's name is nothing - to a large number of persons, mine stinks'. Cottle agrees to advance them thirty guineas, but, in the event, sells the rights to publish the anthology to J and A Arch. 

In fact, the publication of Lyrical Ballads in October 1798 marks a new departure for English poetry. Wordsworth takes the opportunity to express some of his / their ideas in defence of the style and content of the poetry the two men are presenting. He writes in the Advertisement prefaced to the poems:

The majority of the following poems are to be considered as experiments. They were written chiefly with a view to ascertain how far the language of conversation in the middle and lower classes of society is adapted to the purposes of poetic pleasure. Readers accustomed to the gaudiness and inane phraseology of many modern writers, if they persist in reading this book to its conclusion, will perhaps frequently have to struggle with feelings of strangeness and awkwardness: they will look round for poetry, and will be induced to enquire by what species of courtesy these attempts can be permitted to assume that title. It is desirable that such readers, for their own sakes, should not suffer the solitary word Poetry, a word of very disputed meaning, to stand in the way of their gratification; but that, while they are perusing this book, they should ask themselves if it contains a natural delineation of human passions, human characters, and human incidents; and if the answer be favourable to the author's wishes, that they should consent to be pleased in spite of that most dreadful enemy to our pleasures, our own pre-established codes of decision.

Contents of Lyrical Ballads (1798)

 

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The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere - Coleridge

The Foster-Mother's Tale, A Dramatic Fragment - Coleridge

Lines Left Upon a Seat in a Yew Tree Which Stands Near the Lake of Esthwaite - Wordsworth

The Nightingale, a Conversational Poem, Written in April, 1798 - Coleridge

The Female Vagrant - Wordsworth

Goody Blake and Harry Gill, A True Story - Wordsworth

Lines written at a small distance from my House, and sent by my little Boy to the person to whom they are addressed - Wordsworth

Simon Lee, the Old Huntsman - Wordsworth

Anecdote for Fathers - Wordsworth

We Are Seven - Wordsworth

Lines Written in Early Spring - Wordsworth

The Thorn - Wordsworth

The Last of the Flock - Wordsworth

The Dungeon - Coleridge

The Mad Mother - Wordsworth

The Idiot Boy - Wordsworth

Lines Written near Richmond, upon the Thames, at Evening - Wordsworth

Expostulation and Reply - Wordsworth

The Tables Turned; an Evening Scene, on the Same Subject - Wordsworth

Old Man Travelling; Animal Tranquillity and Decay, A Sketch - Wordsworth

The Complaint of a Forsaken Indian Woman - Wordsworth

The Convict - Wordsworth

Lines Written a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, on Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour, July 13, 1798 - Wordsworth

Reception and reviews of Lyrical Ballads, the first edition (1798)

The take-up of the first edition of 1000 copies is reasonably brisk, and several reviewers dedicate considerable space to the poems.

The first review to appear (in October 1798, in the Critical Review), written by Coleridge's friend and fellow poet, Robert Southey, begins by objecting to the lack of 'story' in the Idiot Boy, concluding that:

No tale less deserved the labour that appears to have been bestowed upon this. It resembles a Flemish picture in the worthlessness of its design and the excellence of its execution. From Flemish artists we are satisfied with such pieces: who would not have lamented if Corregio or Rafaelle had wasted their talents in painting Dutch boors or the humours of a Flemish wake?

He objects to The Thorn for its 'tiresome loquacity' and the fact that it might be taken to 'promote the popular superstition of witchcraft'.

He likes Coleridge's Rime of the Ancyent Marinere no better.

Many of the stanzas are laboriously beautiful; but in connection they are absurd or unintelligible...We do not sufficiently understand the story to analyse it.... Genius has here been employed in producing a poem of little merit.

But

The Foster-Mother's Tale is in the best style of dramatic narrative. The Dungeon, and the Lines upon the Yew-Tree Seat, are beautiful... the author seems to discover still superior powers in the Lines written near Tintern Abbey...In the whole range of English poetry, we scarcely recollect any thing superior than parts of the following passage.

and he quotes lines 66-112 of the poem.

In conclusion, he writes:

The 'experiment', we think, has failed, not because the language of conversation is little adapted to 'the purposes of poetic pleasure', but because it has been tried upon uninteresting subjects. Yet every piece discovers genius; and ill as the author has frequently employed his talents, they certainly rank him with the best of living poets.

Interestingly, Southey treats the poems as the product of a single poet. He was surely close enough to Coleridge and Wordsworth to know that they had collaborated on the project, each supplying certain poems. We can only surmise that he had agreed to respect the anonymity of the two men.

Southey's review has been taken by later commentators to be negative. It is, in fact, nicely balanced between praise and criticism, and the criticism that he brings to bear is not unreasonable. The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere is no easier to fathom today than it was in 1798, though this fact probably makes it more rather than less interesting, The Idiot Boy does indeed lack 'story', and for 'spurious loquacity' there are few poets who can match Wordsworth. What Southey perhaps misses, and what is also singularly lacking in his own poetry, is mood, or feeling, which both Coleridge and Wordsworth supply in abundance. Lack of story is in fact an important ingredient in the achievement of this mood, a fact of which Wordsworth becomes increasingly aware in his preparations for the second edition of 1800 (see his comments later).

The Monthly Mirror also reviews the publication in October 1798. The reviewer affirms that the author has succeeded in his 'experiment', producing poetry that

...instead of the pompous and high-sounding phraseology of the Della Cruscan School, has produced sentiments of feeling and sensibility, expressed without affectation, and in the language of nature.

The Analytical Review of December 1798 professed not to be happy with the Ryme of the Ancyent Marinere since

..in our opinion it has more of the extravagance of a mad german poet, than of the simplicity of our ancient ballad writers.

but found nevertheless

... poems which particularly pleased us from their character either of simplicity or tenderness, or both...

citing The Nightingale, The Thorn, The Mad Mother, The Idiot Boy, and The Tale of Goody Blake and Harry Gill as examples.

The New Annual Register for 1798 (published 1799) finds the poems to be

...the production of an author of considerable talents

though the reviewer adds that there were some poems which he considered to be

...unfortunate experiments, on which genius and labour have been misemployed.

Poetry, Monthly Magazine (Supplement, January 1799) thinks the author had

...attempted to imitate the style of our old English versifiers with unusual success

though he excepts The Ancyent Marinere from his praise.

The New London Review (January 1799) finds that

Some of the poems are so far removed from the rudeness they affect, that their entire texture is brilliant and rich, and there are many passages of perfect beauty. Our poet seems to want nothing, but more fortunate topics than those he has, at times, unhappily selected.

and concludes with the thought that

We hope that, by this time, he is convinced of the failure of these 'Experiments'; but we recommend them to the curious, as failures of a man of genius.

Charles Burney in the Monthly Review (June 1799) writes

Though we have been extremely entertained with the fancy, the facility, and (in general) the sentiments of these pieces, we cannot regard them as poetry, of a class to be cultivated at the expence of a higher species of versification, unknown in our language at the time when our elder writers, whom this author condescends to imitate, wrote their ballads.

He finds the Rime of the Ancyent Marinere

... the strangest story of cock and bull that we ever saw on paper..

but continues

yet though it seems a rhapsody of unintelligible wildness and incoherence ... there are in it poetical touches of an exquisite kind.

He finds that The Nightingale

...sings a strain of true and beautiful poetry;- Miltonic, yet original. reflective, and interesting, in an uncommon degree.

He is clearly impressed with the poet's ability to paint pictures, likening him to Michelangelo for his depiction of the Mad Mother, and enthuses

The Idiot Boy leads the reader on from anxiety to distress, and from distress to terror, by incidents and alarms which, though of the most mean and ignoble kind, interest, frighten, and terrify, almost to torture, during the perusal of more than a hundred stanzas.

Finally, Lines written near Tintern Abbey, he considers

The reflections of no common mind; poetical, beautiful, philosophical: but somewhat tinctured with gloomy, narrow, and unsociable ideas of seclusion from the commerce of the world: as if men were born to live in woods and wilds, unconnected with each other!

Francis Wrangham, writing in the British Critic (October 1799) feels

The attempt made in this little volume is one that meets our cordial approval: and it is an attempt by no means unsuccessful. The endeavour of our author is to recall our poetry, from the fantastical excess of refinement, to simplicity and nature.

His assessment of the poems is generally favourable, except insofar as they can be interpreted as complaining about social injustice.

The reviewer in the Naval Chronicle (October and November 1799) writes:

We trust the author will ere long gratify the public with his name, since he promises to rank among the first of our poets: not only for the various harmony of the Rhythm, but also for the bold efforts of a mind that has dared to think for itself - yet portrays with diffidence its own original impressions in quaint but simple language.

The Antijacobin Review (April 1800) opines that the volume

...has genius, taste, elegance, wit, and imagery of the most beautiful kind. 'The Ancyent Marinere' is an admirable 'imitation of the style as well as the spirit of the elder poets'. 'The Foster Mother's Tale' is pathetic, and pleasing in the extreme - 'Simon Lee the Old Huntsman' - 'The Idiot Boy' and 'The Tale of Goody Blake and Harry Gill' are all beautiful in their kind; indeed the whole volume convinces us that the author possesses a mind at once classic and accomplished...

Daniel Stuart writing in the Morning Post (April 1800) observes that

... the whole Collection, with the exception of the first Piece (the Ancyent Marinere) which appears manifestly to have been written by a different hand, is a tribute to genuine nature.

The Portfolio (17 January 1801) comments that the volume contains

...a collection remarkable for originality, simplicity, and nature...

From all of this, Wordsworth extrapolates 

From what I can gather the Ancyent Marinere has upon the whole been an injury to the volume. I mean that the old words and the strangeness of it have deterred readers from going on. If the volume should come to a second edition I would put in its place some little things which woud be more ikely to suit the common taste.

This is, in fact, what he does for the second edition of 1800, at the same time expanding the Advertisement to a full blown Preface in which he sets out more particularly his views on poetry. He also adds a second volume of exclusively his own work. 

Lyrical Ballads, second edition (1800)