Geoff Ward writes: In 1797, William Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy moved to Alfoxden House in the Quantock Hills of Somerset so as to be near Samuel Taylor Coleridge, then living in the village of Nether Stowey.
In the following year, the two poets, aged twenty-eight and twenty-six respectively, produced Lyrical Ballads with a few other poems, the key work which gave birth to the English Romantic movement and was to change everything, in literature, art and politics.
The book was published anonymously which, although not unusual for such works at the time, was at the insistence of Wordsworth, apparently in two minds about publication. Anonymity gave the impression of a single author with a unity of purpose. But Coleridge offered another possible reason, remarking sardonically: “Wordsworth’s name is nothing – to a large number of persons mine stinks.”
Most of the poems in Lyrical Ballads were written by Wordsworth (1770-1850): nineteen, to four by Coleridge (1772-1834). The most famous, Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and Wordsworth’s “Lines written a few miles above Tintern Abbey” opened and closed the volume, a turning point in the history of literature arising out of a desire to revolutionise English poetry.
It was a small book with a big influence. In this, Wordsworth’s achievement, especially, cannot be overestimated. Lyrical Ballads opened the way for writers to practise their art with new freedoms, to write about the human heart with power, passion and directness of language, evolving the conviction that the individual took precedence over everything. This was the essence, over time, of its cultural impact.
Wordsworth never again recaptured the same stark beauty, simplicity and evocation of elemental forces of so many of the poems in this early volume, or their concentrated intensity of vision. “The majority of the following poems are to be considered as experiments,” he wrote in the book’s “Advertisement” (preface); the experimentation evidently was concluded, for it was never repeated.
It was not just the use of language that was new but also the interest the poems took in people and how they dealt with pain and loss; it is this quality that continues to engage readers today. The poems remain “modern” to us.
A second edition, with the shortened title of Lyrical Ballads with other poems, published in two volumes in 1800, had Wordsworth alone named as the author, and included a new preface by him which was to be revised significantly for the next edition of 1802.
There was a different stylistic approach in his new poems which he added to the 1800 edition; already Wordsworth’s writing was becoming more complex and accomplished, more sophisticated in its execution.
In the preface, seen as an important work of Romantic literary theory, Wordsworth discusses the elements of a new type of verse, and how he has endeavoured “to bring my language near to the real language of men”. Both he and Coleridge reacted against the high-flown and artificial poetic diction of much eighteenth century verse and set out consciously to avoid it.
Wordsworth also gives his famous definition of good poetry as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity”. Indeed, for Wordsworth, feelings and ideas are deemed more important than the stories told in his poems, allowing us to understand why the collection has the apparently oxymoronic title Lyrical Ballads, and not just Ballads.
One also notes the combination of the traditional and the innovative in these poems, and that Wordsworth and Coleridge were creating an essentially hybrid genre which challenged readers of their day. Wordsworth was both encountering tradition and freeing himself from it, to achieve a permanently enduring poetry of his own.
Moreover, there were already signs of Romantic preoccupations in contemporary verse upon which Wordsworth and Coleridge were able to build, for example, in the works of Thomas Gray (1716-71), Thomas Chatterton (1752-70) and Joseph Warton (1722-1800).
For the Romantics, imagination was fundamental and part of a new belief in the individual and the experience of an extended freedom from rules and conventional forms, together with intense and (especially) authentic feeling, all linked with new notions of subjectivity, of the self.
However, by the time Wordsworth entered his forties, he had lost his visionary and revolutionary power and was on the path to becoming an establishment figure with an increasingly conservative outlook. In 1813 he took up the post of Distributor of Stamps for Westmoreland and the Penrith district of Cumberland (not postage stamps, first issued in 1840, but revenue stamps used in legal transactions).
The poet received criticism in his own time from those who saw him as “selling out” to the government purse and sacrificing his independence. Wordsworth “has chosen to live like a hermit and prefer a Government salary and the luxuries of poetical meditation”, wrote the critic and poet Leigh Hunt in 1831.
Early in their relationship, Coleridge urged Wordsworth to write a substantial philosophical poem, and an autobiographical work in blank verse; provisionally titled ‘Poem to Coleridge’, this was begun in 1798-99, a complete draft being arrived at in 1805. Eventually, this became The Prelude, the magnificent work on the growth of Wordsworth’s mind as a poet, notwithstanding the toning down of some of his early political opinions.
As it turned out, The Prelude was not the great philosophical poem for which Coleridge had hoped, but rather Wordsworth’s exploration of his ability to write it. Ironically, it was not published until after his death – it was Wordsworth’s long-kept secret, a work which otherwise surely would have reshaped the Romantic ethos profoundly in the nineteenth century.
“Tintern Abbey” foreshadowed, in much condensed form, the substance of The Prelude, while the celebrated “Immortality Ode” (written 1802-6, published 1807) distilled as experience the wisdom of the greater work while, like Lyrical Ballads, affirming the healing power of nature. But it was as if, with the “Ode” – less intellectually assured in its attempt to find “strength in what remains behind” – the “visionary gleam” was already fading, which, for Wordsworth, sadly, it was.