A new species of poetry: The making of Lyrical Ballads

by Jonathan Kerr
The Lyrical Ballads (1798) – Wordsworth and Coleridge’s first major literary undertaking and a pioneering work of English Romanticism – came into being at a tumultuous moment in England’s history.

The 1790s was an immensely difficult period for most people throughout Europe. Through this decade, Britain sustained major economic recession, and crop failures further threatened the economic and political stability of the country. By 1798, Ireland was in the throes of large-scale rebellion. And following the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789, England entered into a long and costly war with the new renegade French republic. To make matters worse, the British state had to contend with the legions of reformers within its own borders, those who sympathized with France and wanted to import its republican and democratic model. Many Christians believed that these tumultuous times meant that the apocalypse was near, and some even suggested that the anti-Christ was no less than England’s Prime Minister, William Pitt the Younger. Not since the English Revolution had the country faced such alarming upheaval and discord within its borders.

On first glance it might not seem like the little collection authored by Wordsworth and Coleridge has much to do with this heady and factional atmosphere. Lyrical Ballads came about in the spring and summer of 1798, when the Coleridge and Wordsworth families lived as neighbours in the secluded village of Holford, Somerset. Wordsworth and Coleridge had only known one another a short time, but they became quick friends and mutually-admiring colleagues. The small village provided both poets with a break from the spirited goings-on of cities like London and Bristol, which could often be dangerous places for young men with unorthodox opinions. Coleridge and Wordsworth, both committed reformers through the early years of the French Revolution, knew this is as well as anybody, and their retreat into the country was motivated as much by concerns for their personal security as anything else.

The time at Alfoxden House (as the Wordsworth residence has come to be called) was one of great production for the poets: both had found in the other a like mind with whom to engage on some of the matters they both saw as most important for the vocation of an aspiring poet. The two met nearly every day, conversing at Alfoxden or on the long walks which both of them enjoyed; their circle (which included William’s sister Dorothy and fellow poet John Thelwall) was small, but over time the poets and their friends began to develop a bold and distinctive new artistic vision.

efore long the two began to discuss collaborating on a volume of “experimental” poems, as Wordsworth insisted on calling them. As Wordsworth later explained, the goal was to write poetry which reflected seriously on the lives of humble, rustic people. The collection would also be written in a style of language which imitated the way these people actually spoke, which according to Wordsworth was less artificial and more impassioned. Both poets believed that the language and subject-matter of modern poetry had become ornate, formulaic, and phony, and the two of them offered their collection as a kind of manifesto, which if successful might completely renovate the sphere of English art and letters.

But Wordsworth and Coleridge also had different roles to play in this experiment which would determine just how far the language and events of common life could be adapted to poetry and art. Wordsworth would primarily write about the extraordinary in the ordinary, about the “powerful feeling” which accompanies what seems, on initial glance, to be perfectly commonplace and trivial life circumstances: think, for example, of the overwhelming joy which Betty Foy experiences on simply observing her mentally disabled son in The Idiot Boy. Meanwhile, Coleridge would focus on the ordinary in the extraordinary, exploring how the mind functions in exceptional circumstances: The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere explores (among a great many other things) the familiar sensations of faith, guilt, cruelty, obsession, and endurance, experienced by a man stuck upon a ghost ship (literally!) and hounded by supernatural forces. And so it was truly a collection of ‘lyrical ballads’, a book of poetry consisting of both the lyric poem’s serious study of character and subjectivity, and the ballad`s embrace of the supernatural, comic, and adventurous.

Together, Wordsworth and Coleridge wanted to pen a collection which would lead people both to rethink poetry (what it was or should be written about, for instance, as well as itsproper audience), and to challenge its readers to think about the remarkable similarities which exist between persons, in spite of differing class, regional, or educational backgrounds – to consider our common humanity, in other words.

By the turn of the century this was certainly a bold undertaking, especially since the commitment to “common” life and language could be (and often was) taken as a sign of solidarity with republican France. Many early reviewers of Lyrical Ballads thought that its authors must surely be French sympathizers – how else to account for this interest in uneducated labourers?

Whether or not Wordsworth and Coleridge continued to sympathize with the revolution abroad, there can be little doubt that with Lyrical Ballads the two were committed to one kind of revolution at least, a revolution in the sphere of poetry and art. Lyrical Ballads is among other things an attempt to purify poetry of the cold conventions which had come to dominate the literary scene, at least according to both poets; in place of this, Wordsworth and Coleridge wanted to bring poetry back to what is most common and recognizable, and also most important, within our emotional, social, and imaginative lives. If this doesn’t seem like such an extraordinary undertaking today, this might owe to the remarkable success of Wordsworth and Coleridge’s quiet revolution on the literary front.

Jonathan Kerr

Jonathan Kerr is a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto. His research is on Romanticism and various forms of human “difference” – cognitive, cultural, and anthropologic. He can be reached at j.kerr@mail.utoronto.ca.