Why Lyrical Ballads?


 1. Lyrical Ballads, and a few other Poems (1798)

Lyrical Ballads was the product of a collaboration between Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1843) and William Wordsworth (1770-1850).


Samuel Taylor Coleridge


William Wordsworth

In 1795, William Wordsworth moved with his sister, Dorothy, to Racedown Lodge, Dorset. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who was at that time living not far away at Nether Stowey, visited in June 1797, and a friendship began which was consolidated when Wordsworth moved to Alfoxden House, about three miles to the west of Nether Stowey, in July 1797.

Frequenting each other almost daily, the two engaged in long and in depth conversations concerning poetry and philosophy during the course of many rambles over the surrounding countryside. In 1798 they proposed making a trip together to Germany, and, in need of money to finance the venture, approached Joseph Cottle, a Bristol publisher and bookseller who had already published some of Coleridge's poetry. Several options were canvassed for material, the two poets finally deciding to publish a collection of 'ballads', along with other material that they had ready for the press. The volume was 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 agreed to pay Wordsworth thirty guineas (about £1500 in today's terms) for the copyright for his share.


Edward Dayes, Tintern Abbey

The collection was largely inspired by the perception that poetry in general had suffered a decline into sophisticated and artificial forms characterised by a stylised 'poetical' language, a decline that was plainly evident on re-reading the 'greats' of previous centuries (ie Shakespeare and Milton), and on browsing the more vigorous sentiments expressed in the older vernacular poetry, often in the form of 'ballads', available to the poets in Percy's Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, first published in 1765. It is from these ballads that the inspiration for the form at least of Coleridge's Ancyent Marinere is to be found, though there is added to it some reading in the travel journals of the period, and a good dose of Coleridge's own fertile imagination. Part of Wordsworth's poetic contribution can also be related to the same ballad genre, but, in his case, it has been purged of its archaisms and poetic diction, and reduced in its subject matter to the presentation of 'low and rustic life'. The work was, in effect, a composite of these two very different styles of 'lyrical ballad', with significant other material (the 'few other poems' of the title) which had nothing to do with the ballad form, but which contributed to the launch of a programme of change in direction for poetry, a programme which was subsequently vigorously contested, even by Coleridge himself.

Concerning the composition of the Ancyent Marinere, Wordsworth writes later (in his Autobiographical Memoranda dictated at Rydal Mount in November 1847) :

Coleridge, my sister, and I, set off on a tour to Linton, and other places in Devonshire; and in order to defray his part of the expense, Coleridge on the same afternoon commenced his poem of the Ancient Mariner; in which I was to have borne my part, and a few verses were written by me, and some assistance given in planning the poem; but our styles agreed so little, that I withdrew from the concern, and he finished it himself.

Coleridge himself later explains (in his Biographia Literaria) the intentions with regard to Lyrical Ballads as follows:

During the first year that Mr Wordsworth and I were neighbours, our conversations turned frequently on the two cardinal points of poetry, the power of exciting the sympathy of the reader by a faithfull adherence to the truth of nature, and the power of giving the interest of novelty by the modifying colours of imagination. The sudden charm which accidents of light and shade, which moonlight or sunset diffused over a known familiar landscape, appeared to represent the practicability of combining both. These are the poetry of nature. The thought suggested itself (to which of us I do not recollect) that a series of poems might be composed of two sorts. In the one the incidents and agents were to be, in part at least, supernatural; and the excellence aimed at was to consist in the interesting of the affections by the dramatic truth of such emotions as would naturally accompany such situations, supposing them real... For the second class, subjects were to be chosen from ordinary life: the characters and incidents were to be such as will be found in every village and its vicinity, where there is a meditative and feeling mind to seek after them, or to notice them when they present themselves......It was agreed that my endeavours should be directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic; yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith. Mr Wordsworth, on the other hand, was to propose to himself as his object, to give the charm of novelty to things of every day, and to excite a feeling analogous to the supernatural, by awakening the mind's attention to the lethargy of custom, and directing it to the loveliness and the wonders of the world before us; an inexhaustible treasure, but for which, in consequence of the film of familiarity and selfish solicitude, we have eyes, yet see not, ears that hear not, and hearts that neither feel nor understand. 

In September 1798 the two poets left England accompanied by Wordsworth's sister on a tour of Germany. Lyrical Ballads, with a few other poems was published anonymously in the October of that year, during their absence. The Advertisement of two pages which preceded the poems expressed succinctly Wordsworth's intentions with regard to his poetry, forming a sort of brief manifesto for 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. 

Coleridge's contribution amounts to four poems (sixty-five pages): viz The Ryme of the Ancyent Marinere, The Foster Mother's Tale, The Nightingale and the Dungeon. Wordsworth is responsible for the remainder amounting to nineteen poems (one hundred and forty pages).

As far as the Advertisement is concerned, it will be remarked that Wordsworth's comments have little to do with Coleridge's main contribution to the work (The Ancyent Marinere), while Coleridge's synopsis of the intentions of the poets does cover the work of both. Coleridge conceived his own contribution as relating to

... incidents and agents, ... in part at least, supernatural; and the excellence aimed at was to consist in the interesting of the affections by the dramatic truth of such emotions as would naturally accompany such situations, supposing them real...

While, in Wordsworth's contribution,

.... subjects were to be chosen from ordinary life: the characters and incidents were to be such as will be found in every village and its vicinity, where there is a meditative and feeling mind to seek after them, or to notice them when they present themselves.

This expresses clearly what is contained in the anthology of poetry that was actually produced, whereas Wordsworth's Advertisement speaks only of his own contribution. This divergence was to become even more pronounced with the second edition, and the appearance of a seventeen page Preface, written by Wordsworth.

The publication sold out reasonably quickly, and met with a largely favourable press, though Coleridge's Ancyent Marinere was generally criticised: for example, as 'absurd or unintelligible' by Southey in The Critical Review; as demonstrating 'the extravagance of a mad german poet' by The Analytical Review; and as 'the strangest story of cock and bull that we ever saw on paper' by Charles Burney in The Monthly Review.  


2. Lyrical Ballads (1800)

On his return from Germany in May 1799, Wordsworth moved with his sister first to Sockburn in County Durham to stay with their friends, the Hutchinsons (he was to marry Mary Hutchinson in 1802), and then, in December, to Town-end (Dove Cottage), Grasmere in the Lake District, where he began work on preparing a second edition of Lyrical Ballads. He writes:

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.

For the second edition, he therefore moved the poem from its position at the head of the volume to a position near the end, and Coleridge further obliged him by deleting some forty-five lines from the poem and modernising the spelling.

It was intended that Coleridge should supply one new poem for the second volume, but Wordsworth comments:

... the Style of this Poem (Christabel) was so discordant from my own that it could not be printed along with my poems with any propriety.

Wordsworth also proposed changing the title of the book, but the publisher (Longman's) insisted on Lyrical Ballads for reasons of continuity, though the few other poems of the title was changed to simply other poems implying, perhaps, that, in fact, the 'few' had become 'many'. (The title was to change once again in 1802 to Lyrical Ballads, with Pastoral and Other Poems.)

Coleridge had returned from Germany in July 1799, and, after visiting Wordsworth at Sockburn, and spending three weeks during the autumn walking with him in the Lake District, returned to London, where he began writing for the Morning Post and translating Wallenstein.

The second edition of Lyrical Ballads was published dated 1800, but in fact first issued in January 1801. It appeared under Wordsworth's sole name. The publication included five poems (sixty-five pages) by Coleridge (viz The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, The Foster Mother's Tale, The Nightingale, the Dungeon and Love) and fifty-six poems (three hundred and sixty-six pages) by Wordsworth, who explains in the Preface that the poems of a 'Friend' are included as a means of giving 'variety' to the collection. He also criticises Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner (as it is now called, with spelling modernised) in a note for its 'many defects'.

Titlepage of Lyrical Ballads with other poems (1800).
'Quam nihil ad genium, Papiniane, tuum' means 'something not at all to your taste, Papinian', and is taken from John Selden's Introduction to Michael Drayton's Poly Olbion (1613).
Papinian was a prominent Roman jurist, but Wordsworth is probably here humourously intending 'Papiniane' to mean 'follower of Alexander Pope'.


The contents of Volume I


Contents Volume II Page I


Contents Volume II Page II

In the Preface Wordsworth writes:

The principal object .. which I proposed to myself in these Poems was to make the incidents of common life interesting by tracing in them, truly though not ostentatiously, the primary laws of our nature: chiefly as far as regards the manner in which we associate ideas in a state of excitement. Low and rustic life was generally chosen because in that situation the essential passions of the heart find a better soil in which they can attain their maturity, are less under restraint, and speak a plainer and more emphatic language; because in that situation our elementary feelings exist in a state of greater simplicity and consequently may be more accurately contemplated and more forcibly communicated: because the manners of rural life germinate from those elementary feelings: and from the necessary character of rural occupations are more easily comprehended: and are more durable: and lastly, because in that situation the passions of men are incorporated with the beautiful and permanent forms of nature. The language too of these men is adopted (purified indeed from what appear to be its real defects, from all lasting and rational causes of dislike or disgust) because such men hourly communicate with the best objects from which the best part of language is originally derived; and because, from their rank in society and the sameness and narrow circle of their intercourse, being less under the action of social vanity they convey their feelings and notions in simple and unelaborated expressions. Accordingly such a language arising out of repeated experience and regular feelings is a more permanent and a far more philosophical language than that which is frequently substituted for it by Poets, who think that they are conferring honour upon themselves and their art, in proportion as they separate themselves from the sympathies of men, and indulge in arbitrary and capricious habits of expression, in order to furnish food for fickle tastes, and fickle appetities, of their own creation.

He then goes on to provide a definition of good poetry:

For all good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: and though this be true, Poems to which any value can be attached were never produced on any variety of subjects but by a man who, being possessed of more than usual organic sensibility, had also thought long and deeply. For our continued influxes of feeling are modified and directed by our thoughts, which are indeed the representatives of all our past feelings; and, as by contemplating the relation of these general representatives to each other, we discover what is really important to men, so, by the repetition and continuance of this act, our feelings will be connected with important subjects, till at length, if we be originally possessed of much sensibilty, such habits of mind will be produced, that, by obeying blindly and mechanically the impulses of those habits, we shall describe objects, and utter sentiments, of such a nature, and in such connexion with each other, that the understanding of the Reader must necessarily be in some degree enlightened, and his affections strengthened and purified.

and

I have said that poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings; it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity; the emotion is contemplated till, by a species of reaction, the tranquillity gradually disappears, and an emotion, kindred to that which was before the subject of contemplation, is gradually produced, and does itself actually exist in the mind. In this mood successful composition generally begins, and in a mood similar to this it is carried on; but the emotion, of whatever kind, and in whatever degree, from various causes, is qualified by various pleasures, so that in describing any passions whatsoever, which are voluntarily described, the mind will, upon the whole, be in a state of enjoyment.

Coleridge writes to Southey at the end of July 1802:

... altho' Wordsworth's Preface is half a child of my own Brain and so arose out of Conversations, so frequent, that with few exceptions we could scarcely either of us perhaps positively say, which first started any particular thought .... -- yet I am far from going all lengths with Wordsworth. He has written lately a number of Poems (82 in all) some of them of considerable Length (the longest 160 Lines) the greater number of these to my feelings very excellent Compositions, but here and there a daring Humbleness of Language and Versification, and a strict adherence to matter of fact, even to polixity, that startled me ... on the contrary, I rather suspect that some where or other there is a radical Difference in our theoretical opinions respectiing poetry.

That difference was to become clearer as Coleridge moved from his position of adulation for Wordsworth's poetic genius to one much more critical of, in particular, the move towards low subject matter and diction which was increasingly evident.

In summary, Wordsworth had effectively distanced himself from Coleridge in this edition of the poems. The vast preponderance of the poetry was his, and the Preface applied to his poetry, and certainly not to Coleridge's main contribution, The Ancient Mariner, even with lines deleted and spelling updated. There may have been some of Coleridge's thoughts in the theory, and there may have been some aspects of the theory that could be applied to some of Coleridge's poetry, but the synthesis and expression of the ideas belonged to Wordsworth, and the theory applied very exactly to his poetry. 

The critical response continued largely as before until the publication in October 1802 of Francis Jeffrey's review of Robert Southey's Thalaba the Destroyer, in which he spent several pages criticising the 'Lake poets', by which he meant Wordsworth, Coleridge and Southey, and, in particular, Wordsworth and his Preface. It was this review that effectively created the new school of poetry, and turned it into a cause célèbre.


Francis Jeffrey by John Linnell

Probably the following lines from the Poet's Epitaph in Volume II did not endear Wordsworth to Jeffrey, who was himself a lawyer:

A Lawyer art thou? - draw not nigh:
Go, carry to some other place
The hardness of thy coward eye,
The falsehood of thy sallow face. 

Coleridge observes later (in his Biographia Literaria Ch IV, published in 1817) that it is was neither his own poetry nor Wordsworth's that gave rise to the 'fiction of a new school of poetry, and to the clamors against its supposed founders and proselytes', but that it was:

in the critical remarks ... prefixed and annexed to the Lyrical Ballads, I believe that we may safely rest, as the true origin of the unexampled opposition which Mr Wordsworth's writings have been since doomed to encounter. The humbler passages in the poems themselves were dwelt on and cited to justify the rejection of the theory. What in and for themselves would have been either forgotten or forgiven as imperfections, or at least comparative failures, provoked direct hostility when announced as intentional, as the result of choice after full deliberation.

He goes on to wonder that

... a downright simpleness, under the affectation of simplicity, prosaic words in feeble metre, silly thoughts in childish phrases, and a preference of mean, degrading, or at best trivial associations and characters, should succeed in forming a school of imitators, a company of almost religious admirers, and this too among young men of ardent minds, liberal education, and not 'with academic laurels unbestowed'; and that this bare and bald counterfeit of poetry, which is characterised as below criticism, should for nearly twenty years have well-nigh engrossed criticism, as the main, if not the only, butt of review, magazine, pamphlet, poem, and paragraph;- this is indeed matter of wonder!

and, finally, that Wordsworth's Preface is tantamount to arguing that his readers

... had been all their lives admiring without judgement, and were now about to censure without reason.

Coleridge clearly disapproves of the 'affectation of simplicity' and the 'preference of mean, degrading, or ... trivial associations and characters' which he sees as characteristic of some at least of Wordsworth's poetry, but it is precisely these qualities that give the work as a whole its subversive power, undermining the established poetic canon at the very foundations. No other Romantic poet comes close to challenging the established order to the same degree.  

Wordsworth's project is, in fact, where the future lies. The Lyrical Ballads supplies the thesis, Jeffrey's review supplies the antithesis, and everybody else jumps on the band-waggon on one side or the other to battle it out.

Wordsworth writes that he chooses his subject matter from low and rustic life because:

... in that situation the essential passions of the heart find a better soil in which they can attain their maturity, are less under restraint, and speak a plainer and more emphatic language.


George Clausen, December (1882)

while Jeffrey the critic counters:

Now the different classes of society have each of them a distinct character as well as a separate idiom; and the names of the various passions to which they are subject respectively have a signification that varies essentially according to the condition of the persons to whom they are applied. The love, or grief, or indignation of an enlightened and refined character is not only expressed in a different language but is in itself a different emotion from the love of, or grief, or anger of a clown, a tradesman or a market-wench.


Painting c1750

As the century progresses, and society moves towards increasingly democratic political institutions, and wider and wider enfranchisement and education, clowns, tradesmen and market wenches begin to come into their own, and the sentiments of Jeffrey appear more and more problematical and out-dated. The simple idea of depicting the ordinary in ordinary language becomes more and more relevant, though it also very clearly requires considerable poetic genius to make it work.

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