Lyrical Ballads William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor ColeridgeThe 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.
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.
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.
Lyrical Ballads, William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge 1
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.
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.”
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