Wordsworth, Coleridge, and British Romanticism

Article 1: summarise in 10 short points.

Wordsworth, Coleridge, and British Romanticism


After a brief introduction of the period that will contrast the Romantics with the century that preceded them, we shall move on to analyze the great poetic, theoretical experiment that most consider the Ur text of British Romanticism: “Lyrical Ballads”. We shall explore both the unique plan of “Lyrical Ballads”, and the implications of that plan for literary theory. In this elaborate introductory summary, we shall consider the contributions of the British Romantic poets. Our texts will be:

Wordsworth’s Preface to the “Lyrical Ballads”,
Coleridge’s “Biographia Literaria”,
Shelly’s “Defense of Poetry”,
Keats’ Letters.

After this initial lecture on “Lyrical Ballads” itself, we’ll then devote one talk to Wordsworth. Coleridge, and Shelly. Rather than devote an entire lecture to Keats, we’ll consider Keats’ theories in relation to those of Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Shelly. So he will be fitted in the additional talks.

Like Pope and Dryden, all four of our theorists were poets before they were critics. Thus their theory is a reflection of their own poetic technique. Because the four Romantics were poets, when they wrote their criticism, they were doing so out of their own experience. So this gives a little more practicality or pragmatic touch to their theory.

Now the difference is that they’re like Pope and Dryden in the sense that they’re poets, however, there’s a big difference. The Romantics treated the poet, rather than the rules of decorum, as a source and touchstone of art. When we look at Pope and Dryden, especially the former, we notice that they were theorists very interested in decorum, following those rules. Yet we’ll see our poets/critics following the idea of the poet. In addition, we’ll find they fashion a new social role for the poet, very different from the 18th century (mainly to delight and teach or more precisely to teach and delight).

Another introductory matter is all four of our Romantics altered the epistemological theories of the Germans. Now the Romantics are epistemologists[1], but there’s a difference. Whereas the German epistemologists were stillpragmatic theorists and interested in the relationship between the poem and the audience, the British Romantics were what we might call expressive epistemologists, interested in the relationship between the poem and the poet.

Another different is that whereas the theorists of the last century portray an 18th century or Enlightenment orientation, particularly true in the case of Burke and Kant, as proto- or pre-Romatics, yet still very much interested in reason and analysis. The Romantics often define themselves in opposition to the Age of Reason. They borrow some ideas from it, but basically they are a kind of revolution, a reaction against what was going on in the age before.

Now although they are still interested in mental faculties, like epistemology, they replace the 18th emphasis onanalysis, with a new focus on synthesis[2]. In addition, they privilege imagination over reason and judgment. Of course, we talked about this in quite some detail in the last unit.12

Origins of Romanticism

So before moving on to “Lyrical Ballads”, we’ll survey one more thing. There are three competing events for the cause or origin of Romanticism, that we’ll just run-through quickly.

Rousseau’s “Confessions”

The first possible origin is the publication of Rousseau’s “Confessions” in 1781, with its championing of the individual and its radical notion that the personal life and ideas of a single individual, is matter worth of great art.

So the great Jean Jacques Rousseau, although he lived and died in the 18th century, really is one of the great origins of Romanticism. He was one of the first people to dare to write an autobiography.

Rousseau is writing an autobiography because he thinks that he himself is matter worthy of great literature.That is a radically new idea, that you could spend a whole book, writing about yourself. Rousseau actually delight sin his individuality, saying he is unique, no one is like him, when they made him, they broke the mold! This is a radical, Romantic notion, which says that the individual, rather than society or God or anything else, should be at the center. So that’s an origin or cause of Romanticism.

French Revolution

The second one often discussed, is the start of the French Revolution, the storm of the Bastille in 1789. That event offered the hope of not only internal and external freedom, but promised more radically that internal dreams could affect and even alter the external world. In other words, the French Revolution not only showed that we can throw off our chains, that we can change the world, but more radically, that an internal vision that people have, of freedom, can be taken and projected onto the world, changing it in accordance with their dreams. That’s very Romantic, as we’ll see in this unit.

“Lyrical Ballads”

Finally, the third origin, which we are most interested in, is the publication of “Lyrical Ballads” in 1798, and what it was followed within 1800, when a second edition was published, to which Wordsworth added a preface.

Now in this lecture we’ll look at the “Lyrical Ballads” of 1798, while the next lecture looks at the preface itself because the preface in some ways, really caused the revolution, even more than “Lyrical Ballad”, but we’ll split them up.

So why is “Lyrical Ballads” a third source? It championed new subjects for poetry, and a new approach to those subjects that changed literary theory forever. So that’s what we’ll do in this lecture, by showing how “Lyrical Ballads” did just that.

Wordsworth and Coleridge planned together “Lyrical Ballads”, wanting to make it a new kind of poetic volume. Now as some of you may know already, the friendship between Wordsworth and Coleridge is one of the most wonderful in all of literary theory. It was one of the most artistically stimulating friendships, perhaps of all time. It was unique and the two men really played off each other, helping the other in terms of strength and weaknesses, so that together they did some great things. It was fruitful in terms of poetry and theory.

Now the origin of “Lyrical Ballads” is described a little by Wordsworth in his Preface, but if you want to really learn of the origin, you want to read chapter 14 of Coleridge’s “Biographia Literaria”, his autobiography. It’s a wonderful reading and is excerpted in “Critical Reading Since Plato”.

In 1797, Wordsworth and Coleridge were neighbors in the beautiful Lake District in northern England. They spent many days discussing and talking about poetry and life, doing what British love to do up there, taking long walks along the beautiful grass they have there. They’d walk, talk, and let their mind run free.

So out of these conversations, they conceived the idea of composing a series of poems of two distinct but complementary kinds. Neither remembered who first came up with the idea, but they decided to both write different kinds of poems, yet they would complement each other in a special way.

These two kinds of poems and how they complemented each other is now discussed. The former kind of poem, from Wordsworth, would select its objects from nature, from the common, mundane, everyday world of the countryside and its inhabitants. In short, these poems would focus on things so familiar, that we often overlook them, things whose very commonness renders them invisible.

In other words, he would take everyday things of nature, rustic farmers living in the Lake District as subject matters not rich people, aristocrats, but common everyday things, people and objects on nature. That would be the source or object of the poetry.

However, what made these objects unique is rather than merely copy or record these things in a straight mimetic fashion, rather than simply describing the object, the poet would throw over them an imaginative coloring that would allow his readers to see them afresh.

In other words, the trouble with everyday things is that we see them so often, we take them for granted. We don’t even notice them anymore. They lose their mystery and wonder. We’ve got a sort of tired cliché, to “stop and smell the roses.” Well, here we might say, we need to “stop and SEE the roses.” We miss the mystery of it all.

The best example of this, comes from painting. The great Romantic painter Vincent van Gogh, we’ve all seen some of his pictures of sunflowers. Yet the first time you see any of them, you think to yourself, my God, I’ve never seen a sunflower before, I missed something all along.

Well the same thing van Gogh does in his painting, is what Wordsworth is going to do in his poems. By lending these objects, these common things, a charm of novelty, the poet wants to evoke a sense of child-like wonder in his reader, a feeling more often associated with the supernatural than with the natural. Again, he wants us to see it afresh, as if we’ve never seen it before, the way a child sees the world.

Every time a child sees the moon in the evening, it’s a whole new experience. It’s beautiful, it’s exciting, they grab their parents and say, look up there, isn’t it magical? Well that’s what Wordsworth wants to restore in us, not childish, but child-like.

Now this process by which the veil of familiarity is suddenly, mystically, ripped away from everyday objects, is known as defamiliarization. Now what do we mean by the veil of familiarity? We all can understand the veil of mystery. Certain mysteries like death, we can’t fully pierce through, because they’re a mystery. Yet the veil of familiarity means that when something becomes so familiar because we see it every day, we don’t see it anymore, so it’s as if a veil has covered it, we’re missing it. We’re not seeing it.

Defamiliarization means that suddenly through poetry, our familiarity is ripped away and we’re forced to look at it, as if for the first time. Coleridge says that most men are like what God says of the Jews in Isaiah VI, we have eyes but we do not see. Recall we have eyes but do not see, ears but do not hear. They are like their idols.

Well many times that happens to us as well. We see it, but we don’t really see it. Defamiliarization opens our eyes to the wonders around us. It’s apocalyptic, it rips away the veil or covering, to allow us to see the true mystery that lurks behind.

Now as we’ve said, Wordsworth was responsible for this portion of “Lyrical Ballads”, and he composed a series of poems centered around such humble, rustic characters, as Simon Lee, Goody Blake, and the Idiot Boy. Believe it or not, those are the titles of some of his rustic people, not the kind that an 18th century poet would think worthy of writing any kind of serious poem about. They are very simple, rustic characters, usually illiterate, or barely literate.

Yet despite their commonness, Wordsworth’s poems infuse them with dignity, power, and mystery. Romanticism is much more democratic. It sees the dignity in the common. The 18th century looked towards the aristocratic, to the refined. So that’s what Wordsworth does in his portion of “Lyrical Ballads”. One way to put it is that he takes natural objects and makes them seem almost supernatural.

The latter kind of poem, which Coleridge did, would select its object from the realm of the supernatural, so it goes the other way. Wordsworth takes the natural and makes it supernatural, while Coleridge takes the supernatural and makes it natural. His “Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner”, Coleridge’s main contribution to “Lyrical Ballads”, is richly suffused with supernatural characters and events. It’s a magical, mysterious sea journey that takes place in this world, but is really in another world. It’s a place of mystery, straight out of the Arabian Nights or something!

So just as Wordsworth presents his natural objects in such a way as to stimulate an almost supernatural response, so Coleridge presents his supernatural world in such a way as to render it almost natural. That’s what we mean when we say that they are complementary, as opposed to simply opposites.

Now, Coleridge accomplished this poetic feat, by uncovering behind the supernatural veil of his tale, dramatic and emotional truths. In other words, yes the story of the Mariner is supernatural, not really a part of our world, finally. Yet the dramatic and emotional truths, what’s going on in his psyche as he goes through the journey, are realistic. So we can identify with them, and they do seem very real and natural.

Also, our recognition of the psychological truth of the Mariner’s journey, compels us to give to the poem, our “willing suspension of disbelief.” Many of you have heard that phrase before. This famous Coleridgean phrase,signifies our ability to temporarily suspend the claims of reason and logic, and to enter, through the power of the sympathetic imagination, into the life and heart of the poem.

In other words, he writes it in such a way, that he gets us as readers to say all right, I know this is not real, I know it’s a fantasy. Yet I’m going to forget about that now, or I’m going to suspend that. I’m going to move into the poem, via sympathetic imagination, move toward the poem, just as when we’re in sympathy with a person, we move towards that person. So we are going to allow ourselves to just accept the poem as true. For in fact, dramatically and psychologically, it is true. So we’re going to suspend all that logical, mathematical-side of ourselves, and just enter into that world which Coleridge creates.

Now another aspects of this, is that Coleridge tells us, to inspire in its readers, this moment of what he calls “poetic faith,” the poem must invite them into a higher realm of illusion, rather than merely delude them with fanciful images and events. So the distinction between illusion and delusion. Illusion is when we are pulled into it and say, ah what a beautiful world, it’s not real and yet it is real. It’s an illusion, like that of the stage. Delusion is when we suddenly feel like we’re being manipulated and fooled.

The best way to get the distinction is to do so in terms of movies. The Star Wars films are the best example of illusion. They take us away to a long time ago in a galaxy far away. Now this is total fantasy, yet we buy-into their illusion because they’re so real, the relationships and whatnot going on, all seem so real to us, that we move into these movies and accept them as such.

The Batman movies are examples of delusion. If any of you have bothered to see them, they are so phony that you feel manipulated and deluded. Maybe some teenagers buy it, but we certainly do not buy those worlds as real. Perhaps even the director does not either, so how can we? You feel deluded, so you sit there and watch, perhaps entertained by special effects, yet we’re not being moved in any emotional level, as in Star Wars or other good movies.

Implications of “Lyrical Ballads”

Now with the idea of this basic plan, let’s tell you about the implications of “Lyrical Ballads”, to the history of literary theory. Why is it so important and central? “Lyrical Ballads”, calls for a new kind of mimesis. That rather than simply imitate or even perfect its object, it transforms it into something rich and strange.

That is to say, nature or supernature, is merely the occasion for the poem. The poetic act itself, the transformation, is the real point. In other words, the point of the poems in “Lyrical Ballads”is not the object itself, not merely to record the object. Although this is interesting and important, it isn’t not the key function in the poem.

So what the poem is really about, is what Wordsworth or Coleridge do with that object, how they transform it through their poetic imagination. They change it into something new. That’s what it’s about, the poetic process, rather than about the object. So it’s about the subject then, if you will, that’s the importance of epistemology.

In other words, it’s not the rules of decorum that control the art, but the imaginative vision of the poet that determines the shape and end of the poem. That’s why expressive theories are interested in the relationship between the poem and poet, because it’s the poet’s perceptive powers that determine what the poem is going to be like.

Even more radically, the plan or “Lyrical Ballads” carries out a supreme form of epistemology in which objects or things take their ultimate nature not from what they are, but from how they are perceived by the poet. This is radical, and since this is epistemological, perception is important. Yet now, really, the object is not even important at all. Now, the way we perceive the object, is what it becomes. The object now is a mix of what it is, and what we make it.

William Blake

This is very interesting and needs further explaining. Wordsworth and Coleridge were certainly influenced – even more than they were by the Germans – by a great poet named William Blake with his masterpiece, “The Songs of Innocence and Experience”. In this work, Blake demonstrates how the same images and events, take on a different coloring, form, and reality, when viewed through the eyes of innocence and experience. The subtitle of his work, “Shewing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul,” captures perfectly the radical Romantic belief that things are as they are perceived, and that we half-create the world around us.

Let’s explain further once again. The “Songs of Innocence and Experience” have two volumes of poetry, meant to be linked together. Often, there will be a poem in the “Songs of Innocence”, which has a parallel in the “Songs of Experience”. For instance, there are two poems called the “Chimney Sweeper”, on in Innocence, one in Experience.
They’re both about the horrible reality of these little boys who were forced to clean chimneys. It was a terrible job involving social manipulation, and many died young from cancer and all kinds of diseases.

Yet in the world of Innocence, even though there is horrible exploitation, the focus of that poem is innocence. It’s on how the child-like faith and innocence can rise above the horrors of social exploitation. The version in experience though, we always see the exploitation and manipulation.

In other words, the world, the reality, the event, is exactly the same, but because the perceptive point of view in each poem is different, it makes everything else different. So things are not as they are, but as they are perceived. We create the world around us.

Example for perceptive point of view

You are somewhere.  It’s around 9 in the evening, and you’re about to walk out to go home, and it’s raining.

Now the same exact setting, yet a different background now. Just before one walks out to go home in the rain, her friend of many years is visiting, and they’re excited because they’ve been waiting for this meeting, so it’s a beautiful rain, and you’re just on top of the world.

On the other hand, before the other girl walks out into the rain, her friend of four years has just died. You are just horrified by that.

You both walk into the rain, and now each is to write a poem/fiction/nonfiction about the rainstorm. It’s the same rain, same time of day, same place.


So what are we saying here? It’s the exact same rain, so shouldn’t their poems be the same then? Why instead are their poems so different? Each is working out of a different perceptive mood. The state of their soul is different.

One girl is in a state of innocence, while the other is in a state of experience, a more cynical state. So their world in which they see the storm, is now colored by what’s going on in their soul. Another example is whenever you’re mad, we always say that you’re seeing red! It’s as if everything you see is covered by that color. That is what it means for things to be as they are perceived.

This is what it sometimes called the externalization of the internal, because what happens is you take something inside you, and externalize or project it onto the world. Now this concept lies behind the Romantic faith that:

“if the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear as it is, infinite.”

That’s something Blake says, and he was most radical in this idea. In other words, if we could just see it right, everything would be beautiful.

Now we should say that this Romantic thing has a dark side to it as well. It very easily can fall into what we like to call the abyss of solipsism[3]. What is the latter? It’s the belief that the entire world is a projection of you. It’s kind of like a child that’s autistic, where they live in their own little world, as if the world is the way they see it. When a child plays peek-a-boo they cover their eyes and figure if they can’t see you, then you can’t see them. That egocentrism is very dangerous to fall into, like this solipsism where you think the world is a reflection of yourself.

Many don’t realize that the religion of Christian Science, though most perhaps don’t follow this and are just like regular Christians, their real doctrine is actually a bit more eastern than western. Pure Christian Science, Mary Baker Eddy, believed that disease is not really a physical thing, that it’s bad perception. So if we can just think of ourselves as being well, then we’ll actually be well. For even sin, disease, and evil, all are just bad perceptions. We don’t see the world right, which is almost a kind of Hindu concept.

Again, most Christian Scientists probably don’t strictly follow that, so are more like regular Christians. Yet interestingly, this system is very close to Blake, this idea that you can change the world by the way you perceive it.

Now this new, more radical epistemology, places the poet and his perceptions at the center of literary theory. Poetry is now to be regarded as self-expression, as a journey of the unique perceptions of an individual. Now what poetry really is, is self-expression. It’s what’s inside that’s coming out. So now, when we read a poem, what we want to read about, is his poem and his unique perceptions of the world.

A break in decorum

One more thing that “Lyrical Ballads” changed is that it shifted old 18th century notions of decorum, which declared certain subjects unfit for serious poetry. Recall that for the neo-Classicists, and also for the Classicists as well, poetry should be written about serious people, aristocrats, kings, knights, princes, all of that stuff. Well, the rustics treated by Wordsworth would have been subjects for comedy in the 18th century!

Yet Wordsworth ennobles them to tragic heights! No one in the 18th century would write a serious tragic poem about Goody Blake or the Idiot Boy. They might write a comedy about that, but not anything serious. So this is a big change in the subjects for poetry.

“Lyrical Ballads” also breaks with the neo-Classical world, by mixing the realms of the real and ideal. Indeed, it often sees the ideal in the real, the supernatural, the natural, and vice versa. In other words, a break in decorum, so that we’re mixing things. We shouldn’t be mixing real and ideal, supernatural and natural, but should keep those things separate. Wordsworth and Coleridge have no problem breaking decorum, which is one aspect of Romanticism.

Finally, not only does “Lyrical Ballads” often take children as its subject, but it privileges their naïve sense of wonder, their freshness and innocence, over the refined urbanity and studied wit of the 18th century. Let’s move away from this elitist idea of refinement and urbanity. The whole city court-life of the 18th century is in many ways rejected by the Romantics. They want to move to a new way of seeing the world. So it’s not childish, but child-like. They want to see the world afresh and with wonder like a child does. Again, that’s a big break from the 18th century, which for the Romantics was artificial and unnatural.

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