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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 (1800) comprises new poems—almost all of them by Wordsworth—while the first volume essentially reprints the poems of 1798. Among the well-known works in the second volume is Wordsworth’s great pastoral poem “Michael.” The volume also includes the enigmatic Lucy poems as well as “Hart-Leap Well,” “The Brothers,” “There Was a Boy,” “Nutting,” and “The Old Cumberland Beggar.”
Initially, Lyrical Ballads was seen as a welcome break from eighteenth century poetry, which—dominated by class bias and the concept of poetic diction—was far removed from the language of everyday speech. However, in the 1950’s, examinations of English poetry published in the 1790’s revealed that, in terms of language and subjects, Lyrical Ballads was hardly groundbreaking. Later analyses argued that the collection was a reaction, but not against the poetry of the earlier eighteenth century; the collection was a reaction against the poetry written in the latter half of the eighteenth century—the poetry produced in what is now known as the age of sensibility. The originality of Lyrical Ballads is now believed to lie in the attempt to anatomize, as well as subvert, the approach to both life and literature espoused by the adherents of sensibility.
Sensibility was a late eighteenth century shift from using reason in matters of ethics and perception to relying instead on one’s artistic and benevolent feelings. Its focus on benevolence encouraged its followers to consider the plight of the less fortunate, like the poor, slaves, and women—in other words, the agenda of various radical movements of the day. Such an approach to life, though supported by the radical Wordsworth and Coleridge, could easily lead to sentimentality and mawkishness. It was this kind of simpleminded, extreme behavior that the two poets “attacked” in 1798.
An obvious influence on Lyrical Ballads was the increasing popularity of the ballad form in the latter half of the eighteenth century. The major impetus was Thomas Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765), a collection of English and Scottish folk ballads. The ballad’s popularity not only led to imitations of ballads written and published by late eighteenth century poets but also to a tendency to call poems of any species “ballads,” just to take advantage of the form’s popularity.
True ballads have their origins in folk tradition, though their influence on literate culture has been considerable. Lyrical Ballads is a prime example of this influence. The focus in a traditional ballad is on a single narrative, and the action is centered primarily on the climax of the story. Character traits and motivation are underplayed if not absent altogether. Though not the only stanzaic form found in ballads, the ballad stanza is the most common. It consists of four lines, the first and third having eight syllables, the second and fourth only six. The rhyme scheme is usually abcb. This is the stanza form used in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” as well as other poems in Lyrical Ballads.
What, then, is a lyrical ballad? First, it is a literary ballad rather than a folk ballad. It is a poem composed in a literate culture by a professional poet. In Lyrical Ballads, the term “lyrical” appears to refer to the experimental nature of some of the poems in the volume, a claim made in the “Advertisement” of the 1798 edition and developed in more detail in the “Preface” affixed to later editions. The term appears to indicate some significant changes that Wordsworth and Coleridge made to the traditional form. For example, there is a concern—implied or expressed—in the poems themselves, about how they should be read (“Simon Lee, the Old Huntsman” is a prime example). In some of the poems (like Wordsworth’s “The Thorn”), the first-person-narrator point of view is of great interest. More attention also is paid to the quality that is slighted in the folk ballad, a focus on individual characters’ motives, mental states, and so forth.
Wordsworth’s “Preface” to the 1800 edition of Lyrical Ballads replaced the short “Advertisement” of the 1798 edition. This preface was later revised to include Wordsworth’s observations on diction, the “Appendix” of 1802. The “Advertisement” (1798) claims that the “majority of the following are to be considered as experiments,” which use “the language of conversation in the middle and lower classes of society” as opposed to the “gaudiness and inane phraseology” of poetic diction. The “Preface” has two major aims. The first aim is to explain the claims of originality made for the poems of Lyrical Ballads in the “Advertisement.” Along with his defense of the use of “common” language, Wordsworth also staunchly defends the use of the lower ranks of society as subjects, claiming that in the common people one finds the universal passions of the human heart in a pure, untainted, state.
The second aim of the “Preface” is to deal with the crucial issue of how poetry that proposes to treat common life realistically—as Wordsworth claims his does—can employ the “unrealistic” poetic devices of rhyme and regular metrical patterns. Essentially, Wordsworth’s defense is that the pleasure that his poetry gives, in part because of the use of meter and rhyme, is faithful to the human experience. Therefore, he says, his poetry is realistic.
The “Preface” also contains some of Wordsworth’s well-known pronouncements on poetry and the poet: A poet is “a man speaking to men,” the language used in poetry does not differ from that used in prose, and poetry is “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings,” the result of “emotion recollected in tranquility.”