THE LITERARY WORK
A collection of 23 poems set in rural England during the late eighteenth century; first published anonymously in 1798.
Conveyed through the poems are emotional responses to the natural and supernatural in conversational verse. The initial poem, Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” concerns a supernatural curse; the final one, Wordsworth’s “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey,” features a changing relationship to the natural world.
Born in West Cumberland, England, in 1770, William Wordsworth was educated at a local school in Hawkshead in the heart of the English Lake District, and later at St. John’s College, Cambridge. In 1791 he traveled to France, where he became an ardent advocate of the French Revolution, then in its earliest and most idealistic stages. He also became romantically involved with a Frenchwoman, Annette Vallon, who bore him an illegitimate daughter. They planned to wed, but lack of money forced Wordsworth to return to England in December 1792. Guilt over the separation and disillusionment with the direction that the Revolution had taken drove Wordsworth to the brink of an emotional breakdown. Turning to poetry as an escape, he published Descriptive Sketches (1793), which recounts his tour of the Swiss Alps. In 1795 Wordsworth received a legacy from a friend that enabled him to pursue a career as a poet; he also met Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Born in Devonshire in 1772, Coleridge attended Jesus College, Cambridge. He was a voracious reader, devouring libraries of books, and was more a philosopher than a poet. Oppressed by debt and despondent over a brother’s death, he dropped out of Cambridge in his third year of college, served briefly in a cavalry regiment, and then met Wordsworth. He also became politically active, advocating Utopian schemes and promoting a sort of nonviolent revolution to eradicate social and political barriers in England. His radicalism was channeled into poetry as the 1790s progressed. In 1798 Coleridge and Wordsworth published—anonymously—a small volume of their work, Lyrical Ballads, with a Few Other Poems, which launched a revolutionary movement in poetry.
From Neoclassicism to Romanticism
From 1660 to the 1789 outbreak of the French Revolution, the type of literature dominating England was Neoclassicism; the term stems from the intense admiration that seventeenth-and eighteenth-century authors held for the “classical” writers of ancient Greece and Rome, who were considered models to imitate. Neoclassic poets shared:
1) A reverence for tradition, often paired with a distrust of innovation
2) The conception of literature as an art that could be perfected only by study and practice
3) The belief that poetry should hold a mirror up to nature and should provide instruction as well as aesthetic pleasure
4) An emphasis on shared human experiences
5) The acceptance of man as a limited being who must resign himself to his place in the natural hierarchy and submit to God’s superior wisdom and authority
A shift away from Neoclassicism became noticeable toward the end of the eighteenth century, after William Blake and Robert Burns published poems in a very different style than that employed by earlier eighteenth-century poets, such as Alexander Pope, and found a significant following among contemporary readers (see Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience and Pope’s Rape of the Lock, also in WLAIT3: British and Irish Literature and Its Times). Other poets soon followed Blake’s lead, breaking new literary ground.
In contrast to the Neoclassic poets, the “Romantics” developed a new school of writing with its own set of shared characteristics:
1) A preference for poetic innovation over adherence to tradition
2) The belief that the composition of poetry should be spontaneous and natural
3) An emphasis on landscape and nature, especially as they affect the poet’s perceptions
4) The choice of the self or social outcasts as poetic subjects
5) The conception of man as a being of limitless potential and aspirations whose failures could be considered as glorious as his successes
Many of these Romantic characteristics can be observed in the poems in Lyrical Ballads; Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and Wordsworth’s “The Mad Mother” both feature outcasts as their protagonists, while Wordsworth’s “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey” explores the emotional and spiritual effects that revisiting a well-loved landscape has upon the mind of the poet.
Politically, the Romantic movement has been linked to the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789. At first English liberals and radicals supported the popular revolution. A new age of “liberty, equality, and fraternity” seemed about to dawn and many young Englishmen, including William Wordsworth, eagerly lent their efforts to the cause. But the carnage of France’s 1792-94 Reign of Terror (in which the revolutionaries guillotined tens of thousands of alleged opponents) and the ascent of Napoleon Bonaparte as emperor diminished hopes of social equality in Wordsworth and his contemporaries. Still, the dream of fresh beginnings persisted, leading to a new literary tradition that would dominate the next three decades. This tradition was part and parcel of the revolutionary spirit in an age during which old idols were toppled, new ideas and doctrines introduced, and bold experiments performed.
The “Great Chain of Being.”
The Neoclassic poets and their eighteenth-century contemporaries subscribed to the theological concept of the Great Chain of Being, which stipulated that the universe held every possible kind and variety of life, that each species differed from the next by the least possible degree, and that all of creation was arranged in a hierarchy, extending from the least to the greatest species, all the way up to God Himself. According to this model, humans occupied a middle position, above the animals but below the angels: all creatures—especially humanity—were expected to accept their divinely allotted place in God’s scheme and not attempt to reach beyond their position with vain aspirations.
In Lyrical Ballads, these tenets are subtly but continually challenged, most notably in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” The Mariner’s thoughtless and wanton shooting of the albatross results in as rigorous a punishment—for him and his shipmates—as if the bird were indeed the “Christian soul” to which the sailors have compared it (Coleridge, “Rime,” line 65). Moreover, the Mariner’s redemption does not begin until he learns to reverence what he has formerly despised—the “thousand thousand slimy things” of the deep, which are nonetheless God’s creatures, too (“Rime,” line 238). In his final injunction to his captive listener, the Mariner implicitly dismisses the belief that one form of life is superior to another, in the lines, “He prayeth well, who loveth well / Both man and bird and beast” (“Rime,” lines 611-12).
Religious temper of the times
During the 1740s, a new religious movement developed in opposition to the Anglican Church. Called the Methodist movement, it was led by John Wesley, an English theologian educated at Oxford, and it emphasized the importance of faith over good works as the road to salvation. Although Anglican clerics and members of the upper classes were often repelled by the emotionalism and zeal aroused by Methodist preachers, the new religious awakening flourished, reinvigorating both the Anglican Church and some of the Dissenters’ sects, which diverged from it. During the 1780s and 1790s, Methodism was growing among university students, especially at Cambridge.
Many of these students objected to the Test Acts, which stipulated that scholars who wished to receive a university degree had to subscribe to the Thirty-nine Articles of the Anglican faith. Rejection of Anglican doctrines contributed to a resurgence of Unitarianism around this time, a creed that emphasized the role of reason in religion and presented an increasingly scientific view of the universe. Main tenets of eighteenth-century Unitarianism stressed the oneness or unipersonality of God, the humanity—rather than divinity—of Jesus, and the importance of man’s rational faculty.
Many young intellectuals embraced Unitarianism, including Coleridge early in his university career. To be a Unitarian at the time implied certain other traits pertaining to the follower, namely that one sympathized with the French Revolution and opposed aristocracy. “Radicalism in politics and rationalism in religion went hand in hand” (Willey, p. 16). In 1794 Coleridge made a full conversion to Unitarianism, enthusiastically supporting—even propagandizing—its agenda. For a time, he and the poet Robert Southey planned to found a democratic community based on Unitarian ideals in the United States. The scheme fell through, but not before Coleridge had committed himself to marrying Sara Fricker, the sister of Southey’s own finacée. The marriage later foundered, as did Coleridge’s belief in Unitarianism, but at the time that Lyrical Ballads was being composed, Coleridge’s faith was still intact.
In general, Coleridge developed a concept of nature as an entity comprised “of living intelligent forces, seen sometimes as parts of a divine mind which transcend [s] them and sometimes as agents of that mind, but always as working to fulfill divine purpose” (Piper, pp. 86-87). Scholars trace this concept to his Unitarianism. In “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” even the spirits of the polar region are presented as thinking beings with clearly defined purposes, a view that the Mariner, despite his delirium, acknowledges and understands: “Under the keel nine fathom deep / From the land of mist and snow / The spirit slid: and it was he / That made the ship to go” (“Rime,” lines 377-80).
Rural and industrial England
Lyrical Ballads struck a chord with contemporary readers for several reasons, in part because it evoked the natural world and a rural way of life that was rapidly vanishing. Since the mid-eighteenth century, the Industrial Revolution had been ushering in dramatic economic and social changes. James Watt’s invention of the steam engine in 1765 introduced a power source that would replace wind and water. In the textile and other industries, machines began to replace manual labor. Mill towns and factories arose in northern and central England, where a new laboring population gathered in search of work, inhabiting slums and tenements that sprang up to shelter the newly arrived workers.
The advance of technology, as well as other changes, impinged on the lives of many rural dwellers. New machines led to the end of home and cottage industries. Meanwhile, enclosures of open-field and communally worked lands, creating new private holdings, drove many small farmers out of rural areas. Such enclosures had been taking place for centuries, unofficially, but the pace quickened from 1761 to 1801. Parliament passed 1,1479 acts that legislated the errclosure of some 2.4 million acres, threatening to wipe out small farmers and rural laborers in the designated areas (Mahoney, p. 67). As stone walls and hedges partitioned off lands that had once been cultivated by communities, many rural dwellers were left with two choices: to migrate to the industrial towns or to eke out a living as farm workers on subsistence wages.
Meanwhile, the war between England and France—which had begun in 1793—helped drive up the cost of living. “Between 1790 and 1795 the price of oats rose 75 percent, that of a loaf of bread doubled in the country and tripled in London, and that of a pound of potatoes quadrupled.... These economic factors … were catastrophic for the rural poor” (Johnston, p. 478). At the time, Wordsworth was setting up a household with his sister Dorothy in the rural town of Racedown. “The country people here,” he told his friend William Mathews, “are wretchedly poor” (Wordsworth in Johnston, p. 478). Perhaps because of their wretched poverty, the “country people” of Racedown and, later, Somersetshire attained a powerful hold on Wordsworth’s imagination, as manifested in Lyrical Ballads. “Simon Lee” tells of an old huntsman and his wife who have fallen on hard times since the death of his master:
A scrap of land they have, but they
Are poorest of the poor.
This scrap of land he from the heath
Enclosed when he was stronger;
But what avails the land to them,
When they can till no longer?
(Wordsworth, “Simon Lee,” lines 59-64).
Lyrical Ballads is prefaced with an “Advertisement” that identifies the collected poems 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” (Wordsworth and Coleridge, Lyrical Ballads, p. 7). The poems themselves concentrate on humble subjects and rustic settings, although a few explore the mythical and supernatural. Of the total 23 poems, Coleridge contributed only four. Framing the initial 1798 edition are Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and Wordsworth’s “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey.”
“The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”
The poem begins as an ancient mariner approaches a guest at a wedding and begins to tell him a tale. Although the wedding guest tries to fend the mariner off, he mesmerizes the guest into submission: “He holds him with his glittering eye— / The Wedding Guest stood still / And listens like a three year’s child; / The Mariner hath his will” (“Rime,” lines 17-20).
The mariner continues with his tale, relating how his ship sailed to the equator, then was driven toward the South Pole by a storm, where it drifted through freezing mists, past arctic wastelands. An albatross flies toward the ship, and the crew, taking the bird’s appearance as a good omen, receives it hospitably. When the ice breaks, allowing the ship to pass through and resume a northward course, the albatross follows. The mariner shoots the bird with his crossbow.
Fearing an ill omen, the crew initially cries out against the mariner’s killing of the albatross, but when the wind holds and the sun rises, they agree that the killing was justified, making themselves complicit in the deed. As they near the equator, the wind dies down and the ship is becalmed. Parched with thirst and convinced that they are being pursued by a vengeful spirit, the angry crew hangs the body of the albatross around the mariner’s neck, as a sign of his guilt.
Sometime later, the mariner spies a shape approaching them and manages to call out to his shipmates. Hoping for rescue, all are horrified when they behold a ghostly ship drawing near, with only two spectral inhabitants on board—a man who looks like Death himself and an even more terrifying woman: “Her skin was white as leprosy, / The Night-Mare LIFE-IN-DEATH was she, / Who thicks man’s blood with gold” (“Rime,” lines 192-94). Death and Life-in-Death throw dice for the ship’s crew, the latter winning the mariner. The ghost-ship vanishes at sunset and as the moon rises, the mariner’s shipmates drop dead, leaving him the sole survivor: “And every soul, it passed me by, / Like the whizz of my crossbow!” (“Rime,” lines 222-23).
In the present, the wedding guest fears he is being held captive by a spirit, but the mariner reassuringly affirms that he is a living man and continues his story. On board ship, surrounded by the corpses of his comrades, the mariner experiences agonies of loneliness and self-loathing: “The many men, so beautiful! / And they all dead did lie: / And a thousand, thousand slimy things / Lived on; and so did I” (“Rime,” lines 236-39). Desolate, the mariner tries in vain to pray and yearns for death, but to no avail. After seven days and nights, he sees two water snakes swimming in the deep and is struck by their beauty:
A spring of love gushed from my heart,
And 1 blessed them unaware …
The self-same moment I could pray;
And from my neck so free
The Albatross fell off, and sank
Like lead into the sea.
(“Rime,” lines 284-85, 288-91)
Exhausted, the mariner sinks into a healing slumber, awakening to find himself drenched in rain: the drought has ended. Suddenly, the ship’s sails fill and the ship, so long becalmed, begins to move. To the mariner’s astonishment, the bodies of his shipmates arise and begin to pilot the vessel. The mariner realizes that spirits have inhabited the corpses of the dead crew. The ship sails smoothly on until it reaches the equator, then stops abruptly; the mariner swoons, falling to the deck. Returning gradually to consciousness, he hears “two voices in the air” discussing his situation and learns that he has been given a long, heavy penance by the Spirit of the South Pole for shooting the albatross, and his punishment is not yet over (“Rime,” line 397).
Meanwhile, the ship has sped northward while the mariner lay unconscious; the speed slackens when he regains his senses, but the mariner can nonetheless see that the ship is approaching his own land and safe harbor and is overjoyed. Just as the ship nears the bay, the mariner sees that his shipmates’ bodies have again collapsed on the deck, but “[a] man all light, a seraph man / On every corse [corpse] there stood” (“Rime,” lines 490-91). The sound of oars breaks the silence; the mariner sees a boat carrying a pilot, the pilot’s boy, and the local hermit, who lives in the wood by the sea. When the ship suddenly sinks, casting the mariner into the water, the pilot comes to the rescue, pulling him into the boat. The mariner’s presence, however, disturbs his rescuers, sending the pilot into a fit and the pilot’s boy into a mad frenzy. Once on land, the mariner pleads with the hermit to shrive his soul. Compelled by a “woeful agony” to relate his tale of misfortune to the hermit, the mariner at last finds himself free, but only for the present: “Since then, at an uncertain hour, / That agony returns:/And till my ghastly tale is told / This heart within me burns” (“Rime,” lines 582-85).
The mariner informs the wedding guest that he always knows the person to whom he must tell his tale and, before taking his leave, urges him to love and honor all God’s creatures: “He prayeth best, who loveth best / All things both great and small; / For the dear God who loveth us, / He made and loveth all” (“Rime,” lines 614-17).
Alone and much shaken by what he has heard, the wedding guest leaves the festivities: “He went like one that hath been stunned, / And is of sense forlorn: / A sadder and a wiser man, / He rose the morrow morn” (“Rime,” lines 622-25).
“Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey.”
The poem begins as Wordsworth revisits—after a 5-year absence—one of his favorite places, the banks of the Wye River, a few miles above the ruins of Tintern Abbey:
Do 1 behold these steep and lofty cliffs
Which on a wild secluded scene impress
Thoughts of a more deep seclusion: and connect
The landscape with the quiet of the sky.
(Wordsworth, “Tintern Abbey,” lines 4-8)
Traces of civilization intrude on the serene scene, not all of them happy.
These hedge-rows; hardly hedge-rows, little lines
Of supportive wood runs wild; these pastoral farms
Green to the very door; and wreathes of smoke
Sent up, in silence, from among the trees,
With some uncertain notice, as might seem,
Of vagrant dwellers in the houseless woods,
Or of some hermit’s cave, where by his fire
The hermit sits alone.
(“Tintern Abbey,” lines 18-23)
The scene stimulates Wordsworth’s memory. Recalling his recent sojourns “in lonely rooms, and mid the din / Of towns and cities,” he reflects on how his memories of nature brought him “sensations sweet, / Felt in the blood and felt along the heart” (“Tintern Abbey,” lines 25-26, 27-28).
Returning to the present, Wordsworth gazes on the scene before him, storing up memories for the future. He thinks back to the time when he first visited this spot as a boy and “bounded o’er the mountains, by the sides / Of the deep rivers, and the lonely streams, / Wherever nature led … / I cannot paint / What then 1 was” (“Tintern Abbey,” lines 68-70, 75-76). Despite having outgrown the “aching joys” and “dizzy raptures” of boyhood, the adult Wordsworth nonetheless believes that he has received “abundant recompense” through a more mature appreciation of what nature has to offer:
For I have learned
To look on nature, not as in the hour
Of thoughtless youth, but hearing oftentimes
The still, sad music of humanity,
Not harsh nor grating, though of ample power
To chasten and subdue.
(“Tintern Abbey,” lines 88-93)
THE BALLAD STANZA
The publication of Bishop Thomas Percy’s Reliques of Ancient Poetry (1765) revived the ballad as a poetic genre and inspired countless modem imitators, including Wordsworth and Coleridge. Popular ballads were generally written in quatrains in alternating four-and three-stress iambic (an unstressed syllable preceding a stressed syllable) lines. Generally, the second and fourth lines—and occasionally, the first and third—rhymed. While not all of the Lyrical Ballads use the ballad stanza, the form can be seen in Wordsworth’s “We Are Seven” and Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”: “Alóne, alóne, all, áll alóne, / Alóne on a wíde wide séa! / And néver a sáint took píty ón / My sóul in ágony!” (“Rime,” lines 232-35)
Grateful for this heightened understanding, Wordsworth hails nature as “the anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse, / The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul / Of all my moral being” (“Tintern Abbey,” lines 109-11).
Moreover, Wordsworth contends, he can experience vicariously the childlike joy his companion and younger sister, Dorothy, still feels: “In thy voice I catch / The language of my former heart, and read / My former pleasures in the shooting lights / Of thy wild eyes” (“Tintern Abbey,” lines 116-19). Wordsworth enjoins Nature to bestow upon his sister the same blessings and teachings he has received, then maintains that not even his death can sunder him and Dorothy, who are connected through their love of nature as well as blood. He concludes his address to her by stating that “these steep woods and lofty cliffs, / And this green pastoral landscape, were to me / More dear, both for themselves, and for thy sake” (“Tintern Abbey,” lines 157-59).
Beginning with the “Ancient Mariner” and ending with “Tintern Abbey” infused the 1798 Lyrical Ballads with a progression. Haunted by his experience, the mariner endures alienation from society (the wedding party) that he imposes on his listener, the wedding guest, who is rendered “sadder” but “wiser” by this encounter. The collection builds from this alienation to “Tintern Abbey,” in which the speaker, who, since the first edition was anonymous, might easily be presumed to be the same for both poems, finds consolation and joy in nature and in his satisfying intimacy with his sister.
Nature and the supernatural
Several years after the publication of Lyrical Ballads, Coleridge described in his Biographia Literaria the creative decisions that he and Wordsworth made while compiling their project:
It was agreed that my endeavours should be directed to persons and characters supernatural … 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.
(Coleridge in Abrams, II, p. 388)
Despite this seemingly polarized division of labor, the natural and the supernatural continually intertwine in the poems of both Wordsworth and Coleridge. While “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is undeniably a tale of imagination and the supernatural, Coleridge nonetheless maintains a connection to the everyday world and its wonders. Before the mariner’s adventure takes on its nightmarish cast after his shooting of the albatross, for example, he witnesses nature’s stark beauty while voyaging through the polar seas: “And now there came both mist and snow, / And it grew wondrous cold: / And ice, mast-high, came floating by, / As green as emerald” (“Rime,” lines 51-54).
While Coleridge provides a wealth of sensory details in mapping out a supernatural landscape, Wordsworth uses a minimum of detail to convey an overall impression of peace and tranquility; his description of the natural landscape is as serene as Coleridge’s is restless. However, Wordsworth too reveals a sense of the interconnection of nature and the supernatural. “Tintern Abbey” may lack the ghostly apparitions of “Rime,” but Wordsworth imbues nature itself with a living spirit that has the power to teach and inspire:
And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things.
(“Tintern Abbey,” lines 93-102)
Although the terms “Romantic poet” and “nature poet” seem to be synonymous, Wordsworth and Coleridge were indebted to such pre-Romantic poets as William Cowper (1731-1800), Oliver Goldsmith (1730-74), Thomas Gray (1716-71), and James Thomson (1700-48). Often called the “poets of sensibility” for their intense responsiveness to extremes of beauty and ugliness, these writers set the trend of eighteenth-century nature poetry. Thomson, who grew up in the Scottish countryside and did not see London until he was 25, was considered the first and most popular nature poet of his time. His poem “The Seasons” became an emulated model: “Generations of readers learned to look at the external world through Thomson’s eyes and with the
WREATHES OF SMOKE AND VAGRANT DWELLERS
An atmosphere of tranquil solitude hangs over the Tintern Abbey of Wordsworth’s poem. But the air harbors disturbing traces of contemporary history, too. Adversity prompts beggars and the miserable poor—the vagrants of Wordsworth’s poem—to take respite in the abbey’s ruins, intruding also on the peace are wreathes of smoke, traces of an encroaching industrialization. Wordsworth lamented the intrusion of factories, railroads, and the like into rural areas such as his Lake District. As for the poem’s reference to beggars, when read in conjunction with the other Lyrical Ballads—points out Peter Manning—one perceives the sense of “social injustice” that the vagrant brings to “Wordsworth’s meditative landscape” (Manning, p. 24). England was witness to many social injustices connected to events of the time, from the French Revolution, to the enclosure acts, to the American Revolution. As a result of this last revolution, poor rural dwellers, such as the husband of the “Female Vagrant” (in the Lyrical Ballads poem of that name), were conscripted into the British army to put down the rebellion. Wordsworth’s and Coleridge’s feelings about contemporary events found their way into Lyrical Ballads, under less-than-ideal conditions. In 1797, the British government feared a naval invasion by the French. Coleridge, who had published political pamphlets and preached in Unitarian pulpits, became known for his republican and socially liberal sympathies, and the government jumped to conclusions. It assumed, mistakenly, that Coleridge and his friends were helping France to plan such an invasion, and so “dispatched its own spy to keep track of their doings.” (Fry, p. 6)
emotions which he had taught them to feel. The eye dominates the literature of external nature during the eighteenth century as the imagination was to do in the poetry of Wordsworth” (Abrams, I, p. 2471).
“MY DEAR, DEAR SISTER!”
Dorothy Wordsworth (1771-1855), the only girl among the five Wordsworth children, was born 21 months after William, to whom she was devoted. The Wordsworths’ mother died when Dorothy was seven, and the children were separated, the boys attending boarding school while Dorothy lived with various relatives, seeing her brothers only during their summer vacations. After William received a bequest from his friend Raisley Calvert in 1795, the 24-year-old Dorothy set up housekeeping with her brother. They soon became fast friends with Coleridge, forming a familiar threesome. Dorothy herself had writing talent. For several years, she kept journals, one at Alfoxden in 1798—the year Lyrical Ballads was published. Modern scholars consider her journals invaluable for various reasons, including their record of natural scenes that would later be immortalized in her brother’s poetry and the intimate details they provide of his daily life.
Now black and deep the night begins to fall,
A shade immense! sunk in the quenching gloom,
Magnificent and vast, are heaven and earth.
Order confounded lies, all beauty void,
Distinction lost, and gay variety
One universal blot....
Drear is the state of the benighted wretch
Who then bewildered wanders through the dark....
(Thomson in Abrams, Autumn, lines 1138-46)
There is a thorn; it looks so old,
In truth you’d find it hard to say,
How it could ever have been young,
It looks so old and grey.
Now would you see this aged thorn …
You must take care and chuse your time …
… for oft there sits …
A woman in a scarlet cloak,
And to herself she cries,
“Oh misery! oh misery!
“Oh woe is me! oh misery!”
(Wordsworth, “The Thorn,” lines 1-4, 57-69)
While the nature poetry of Thomson and his contemporaries concentrated on accurately conveying the beauties of the external world, that of Wordsworth and Coleridge dealt more with the poet’s response to the external world: “Romantic ‘nature poems’ are in fact meditative poems, in which the presented scene usually serves to raise an emotional problem or personal crisis.… In addition, Romantic poems habitually imbue the landscape with human life, passion, and expressiveness” (Abrams, II, p. 8). Wordsworth and Coleridge’s achievement was to transform the poetry of natural description by turning the eye, previously trained upon the external world, inward upon the soul. By connecting the natural world to human responses to it, nature became an extension of the poet’s own imagination or, as Wordsworth was later to describe it, “that inward eye / Which is the bliss of solitude” (Wordsworth in Abrams, II, p. 207).
While history does not record the exact details of the first meeting between Wordsworth and Coleridge, after making each other’s acquaintance in 1795, the two men quickly became indispensable to each other. Their personalities and temperaments were complementary:
Coleridge, with his enormous reading, his scholarship, his religious enthusiasm, his knowledge of classical and European literatures, his scientific interests, his emotional approach to politics, was a man of speculation, restless enquiry and self-questioning. While Wordsworth, with his passionate response to the natural world, was a man of physical experience and steadily accumulating moral certainties by which ideas might be judged and settled.
(Holmes, p. 151)
Coleridge’s wide-ranging intellectual interests at first made him the dominant partner in the relationship with Wordsworth, although their positions would eventually reverse themselves. Both, however, had an unerring sense of what the other needed most. Coleridge supplied Wordsworth with unfailing admiration for his writing, and helped shape its direction, while Wordsworth provided emotional support by validating Coleridge’s sense of himself and his own genius.
In the three years between their first meeting and the publication of Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth and Coleridge spent much of their time together. Often accompanied by Wordsworth’s sister, Dorothy, the two men took long walks through the countryside, picnicked, read poetry aloud, and avidly discussed their own potential contribution to literature. Coleridge believed Wordsworth to be the premier poet of the era, though Coleridge himself was more prolific in 1797 “and his conversational style of writing influenced Wordsworth rather than the other way around” (Fry, p. 5).
With the fervor of high-minded youth, they talked of making the world better through their poetry. They hoped in that time of national crisis and pessimism to bring to men, disillusioned by the French Revolutionary idea, the secret they had discovered of the principle of joy in the universe. They would preach no political or social reform; and, in order to reach men, they would cast out of their writing all poetic diction and return to directness, sincerity, and basic human emotions.
(Noyes, p. 23)
Although they shared similar goals, Wordsworth and Coleridge soon discovered they were incapable of collaborating on a single poem. At first, Wordsworth suggested the killing of the albatross and even penned a few lines of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” but he quickly sensed that Coleridge had his own ideas of how the poem ought to develop and so dropped out of the project. Nonetheless, the two poets continued to rely on each other’s feedback and suggestions. By the summer of 1798, most of the poems that comprise Lyrical Ballads had been completed and offered to Joseph Cottle of Bristol for publication. Wordsworth’s “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey,” however, was an exception, a last-minute contribution, added just as the other poems were going to press. Neither poet suspected that their poorly received literary experiment would ultimately lay the foundation for much of modern poetry.
Ironically, Lyrical Ballads marked both the beginning and the end of the poets’ literary partnership. Wordsworth, the more driven of the pair, even came to dislike “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” blaming it for the hostile reviews Lyrical Ballads received after its initial publication. He moved the poem to next-to-last in the 1800 edition and also convinced Coleridge to modernize its diction, then continued to do so himself for later editions. (Sometime after 1805, Coleridge wrote explanatory glosses for the poem, included in most editions today.) In 1810 the two quarreled bitterly over the married Coleridge’s doomed infatuation with Sara Hutchin-son—Wordsworth’s sister-in-law—and Coleridge’s growing addiction to opium, which interfered with his productivity as a poet; the breach was not mended until nearly 20 years later.
Sources and literary context
Wordsworth rarely attempted to disguise the autobiographical nature of his poems. Many of his contributions to Lyrical Ballads were based on real-life encounters; Wordsworth’s meetings with an old man who had been the huntsman to the squires of Alfoxden and a young girl living in the Wye Valley provided the inspiration for “Simon Lee” and “We Are Seven,” respectively. Of the deeply personal “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey,” Wordsworth wrote:
No poem of mine was composed under circumstances more pleasant for me to remember than this. I began it upon leaving Tintern, after crossing the Wye, and concluded it just as I was entering Bristol in the evening after a ramble of 4 or 5 days, with my sister. Not a line of it was altered, and not any part of it written down till I reached Bristol.
(Wordsworth in Abrams, II, p. 151)
Visiting architectural ruins was a favorite pastime of nineteenth-century British travelers. Tintern Abbey, to which Wordsworth refers in the title of his poem, was founded in 1131 by Walter de Clare for Cistercian monks who had emigrated from France. Like many small monasteries, the abbey was dissolved under Henry VIII in 1537, after England broke from the Roman Catholic Church. By Wordsworth’s time, the roofless, fourteenth-century church was all that remained of the original edifice. The building’s graceful proportions and attractive natural setting (Tintern Abbey was located south of Monmouth on the west bank of the Wye River) endeared it to Wordsworth. Although the poet never mentions the abbey itself in his poem, his title and praise of the surrounding region—the “steep woods and lofty cliffs” and “green pastoral landscape”—contributed to the ruin’s popularity as a tourist attraction. (“Tintern Abbey,” lines 158-59)
By contrast, Coleridge’s poems in Lyrical Ballads were based more on his own imaginings. While “The Nightingale” was similar in tone and subject to Wordsworth’s poems, “The Foster-Mother’s Tale” and “The Dungeon” were both taken from the unfinished play Osorio, on which Coleridge was working. “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” can be tied to several influences: John Cruikshank, a friend and neighbor of Coleridge’s, had told him of a dream he once had about “a skeleton ship, with figures on it” (Cruikshank in Bate, p. 51). Coleridge himself had meanwhile been thinking of outcast figures in literature, such as the Wandering Jew. Finally, Wordsworth had been reading Captain George Shelvocke’s Voyage Round the World by the way of the Great South Sea (1726), which mentioned that a man who killed an albatross—a bird of good omen—could incur the vengeance of the spirits who inhabited the Antarctic region. Also from Wordsworth came the idea of resurrecting the dead bodies to sail the ship.
“The 1798 Lyricall Ballads … is considered one of the most important turning points in English literary history, It was a challenge to conventional tastes both in politics and literature: the focus on rustic persons and themes, together with the implicit attack on the artificial poetic diction of most eighteenth-century poetry … presented the reading public with fare that seemed starkly new.” (Fry, p. 11)
Although the foundation for a new poetic tradition had been tentatively laid by the poets of sensibility mentioned above, Wordsworth and Coleridge were the ones to propel poetry in a new direction for the next 30 years. Rejecting ancient Greek and Roman models, they turned instead to rustic ballads—such as those found in Bishop Thomas Percy’s Reliques and the Scots dialect poems of Robert Burns—and to their own subjective experience for inspiration. In this, they were greatly influenced by John Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, which described sensation as the basis of knowledge, and by Addison and Steele’s periodical The Spectator, which popularized Locke’s notions about how the imagination interacts with the world to shape one’s experience of it (both works also in WLAIT3: British and Irish Literature and Its Times). All these influences led to the project, whose aims Wordsworth would clarify in his famous “Preface to Lyrical Ballads” of 1800. “All good poetry,” says the Preface, “is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” and the poet himself “is a man speaking to men” (Wordsworth in Abrams, II, pp. 160, 164).
In retrospect, Lyrical Ballads is a literary milestone, but the majority of critics hardly recognized this at the time. On its first appearance in print, the collection received some scathing reviews. Noting that Wordworth’s “Advertisement” for Lyrical Ballads revealed that the poems were intended as experiments, Robert Southey curtly declared in The Critical Review, “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 on uninteresting subjects” (Southey in Jones and Tydeman, p. 54). Southey singled out individual poems for blame or praise, remarking of Wordsworth’s “The Idiot Boy,” “No tale less deserved the labour that appears to have been bestowed upon this” (Southey in Jones and Tydeman, p. 53). He was similarly unenthusiastic about Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”: “Many of the stanzas are laboriously beautiful; but in connection they are absurd or unintelligible.… Genius has here been employed in producing a poem of little merit” (Southey in Jones and Tydeman, p. 53). Southey did admire what he saw as the “superior powers” of Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey”: “On reading this production, it is possible not to lament that he should have condescended to write such pieces as ‘The Last of the Flock,’ ‘The Convict,’ and most of the ballads” (Southey in Jones and Tydeman, p. 54). Finally, in the Edinburgh Review, Southey tied the ballads to the historical moment, reprovingly, it seems: “They are filled with horror and compassion at the sight of poor men spending their blood in the quarrels of princes, and brutifying their sublime capabilities in the drudgery of unremitting labour.... The present vicious constitution of society alone is responsible for all these enormities” (Southey in Manning, p. 24).
Charles Burney, writing for The Monthly Review, had somewhat warmer praise for Lyrical Ballads, noting of the authors’ use of the ballad form, “The style and versification are those of our ancient ditties but much polished, and more constantly excellent” (Burney in Jones and Tydeman, p. 56). While Burney expressed views similar to Southey’s on “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” calling it “the strangest story of a cock and a bull that we ever saw on paper,” he nonetheless conceded that “there are in it poetical touches of an exquisite kind” (Burney in Jones and Tydeman, p. 55). Burney also called “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey” the “reflections of no common mind; poetical, beautiful, and philosophical” (Burney in Jones and Tydeman, p. 57). Despite reservations about the authors’ choice of subjects—the rural poor, mad, and dispossessed—and the collection’s melancholy tone, Burney concluded, “So much genius and originality are discovered in this publication, that we wish to see another from the same hand, written on more elevated subjects and in a more cheerful disposition” (Burney in Jones and Tydeman, p. 57).
Significantly, neither Southey nor Burney perceived the appeal Lyrical Ballads would hold for readers, nor did they foresee the new direction that poetry would take as a result of this poetic experiment. But William Hazlitt, who would become one of the most influential critics of the Romantic period, recorded his own reaction to some of the poems in Lyrical Ballads after meeting Wordsworth at Alfoxden in 1798:
I was not critically or skeptically inclined. I saw touches of truth and nature, and took the rest for granted … [but] the sense of a new style and a new spirit in poetry came over me. It had to me something of the effect that arises from the turning up of the fresh soil, or of the first welcome breath of Spring. (Hazlitt in Noyes, p. 46)
—Pamela S. Loy
Abrams, M. H., ed. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 2 vols. 5th ed. New York: W. W. Norton, 1986.
Bate, Walter Jackson. Coleridge. New York: Macmillan, 1968.
Fry, Paul H., ed. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1999.
Holmes, Richard. Coleridge: Early Visions. New York: Viking, 1989.
Johnston, Kenneth R. The Hidden Wordsworth: Poet, Lover, Rebel, Spy. New York: W. W. Norton, 1998.
Jones, Alun R., and William Tydeman, eds. Lyrical Ballads: A Casebook. London: Macmillan, 1979.
Mahoney, John L. William Wordsworth: A Poetic Life. New York: Fordham University Press, 1997.
Manning, Peter J. “Troubling the Borders: Lyrical Ballads 1798 and 1998.” The Wordsworth Circle 30, no. 1 (winter 1999): 22-27.
Noyes, Russell. William Wordsworth. Boston: Twayne, 1991.
Piper, H. W. The Active Universe: Pantheism and the Concept of Imagination in the English Romantic Poets. London: Athlone, 1962.
Willey, Basil. Samuel Taylor Coleridge. New York: W. W. Norton, 1972.
Wordsworth, William, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Lyrical Ballads. 1798. Reprint, London: Methuen, 1968.