8. Lyrical Ballads – Collaborative Creation
In our chronicle of English literature, we’re now at the turnover between the 18th and 19th century. Something very interesting and important happened in this period, conventionally called the Romantic revival.
Now the term revival, should sound gently to the ear, like the kind of thing one can imagine dusty scholars doing, digging in archives, reviving things, bringing them back to life, revisiting forgotten styles and subject matters, in a spirit not of fury, but of nostalgia. “How charming that old romance is, by the way, what was his name again, by Mallare, how charming they are!” We can just imagine a revivalist saying this!
Yet what we actually see happening in literature at this period, could much more accurately be called the Romantic Revolution. The latter word carries with it all the ferocity and danger that we associate, say, with Robespierre. Old orders are falling and with it, the new orders are emerging. Yet there’s a certain kind of violence.
Now historically in the real world, not literature, the period from 1796-1798 is an age of revolution. That’s what the historians called it. One can go back further to the American Revolution of 1776. Europe, in these turbulent decades, seized with upheaval, so at the time, for the people living through these events, it must have seemed like chaos come again.
Now we, with the advantage of historical hindsight, see it as the emergence of irresistibly reshaping energies of reform and renewal. We can see the architecture, while they couldn’t. The most famous revolutions were of course those in North America and France. The reverberations of those cataclysms, 1776-1799, would shape the whole globe for half a century. Their effects are still major features of our political landscape.
As we’ll see, English literature too, partook in the upheaval and was reshaped by it. Now the literary timeline we’re looking at in these lectures was materially bent and redirected by what happened in the years, 1170-1830.
As a general observation, revolution presume certain conditions and share certain features. These may be listed as:
Intolerable oppression, finally and often violently resisted. Revolutions are not polite events.
Revolutions are typically a movement of the people, populist in essence, coming from below, not in high.
Revolutions have a program, a vision, typically Utopian relating to some idealized, future state of perfect existence.
Revolutions are in effect prophetic and millenarian. Often they’re secular in motivation, offering a paradidal vision of the future which is not orthodox Christian or religious.
Now bear those three elements in mind, for as we shall seem they help to understand what happened to English literature with explosive effect around 1800. All three of these conditions we’ve mentioned are relevant.
Yet first, something about the revolutionaries we’ll be looking at themselves, in this case, William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Now it’s significant that what these two writers achieved, was their most ascendary and effective volume, Lyrical Ballads, is that rarest of things in English literature, a team effort, a collaborative work of creation.
Now literature from the modern period, From Chaucer forward in our terms, is normally invariably rooted in individual sensibility. The author is a single entity, a single voice, creating highly individual literary artifacts.
Literature expresses, at its highest level of articulation, the self, not the collectivity. If one takes the longest of views, single authors have not always existed of course. It’s doubtful that Beowulf was so composed. We talk of a Beowulf poet, but he was probably a they.
Nor, as one looks far into the future, may single-authorship be a permanent affect of our culture in time to come. Yet from our point of view, and our millennium and a half of English literature, single, individual authorship is the rule. The writer writes, as we all dream, alone. Also, as we all read, of course, alone.
Nevertheless, in the breakthrough Romantic text we’re looking at today, two geniuses merge their genius, gloriously. They’re also part of a larger group, or a revolutionary cohort, called the Lake Poets at the time. That label derives from the mountainous, beautiful, eatery wilderness of NW England. “My native alps,” Wordsworth liked to call the region around his village of Grasmere.
Nature and redefinitions of nature, what it is, are at the heart of the Romantic revival.
Nature, the English countryside, is no more beautiful than in Cumbria and Northumberland, Derbyshire, the Lake country
Now let’s briefly summarize the lives of these two writers, Wordsworth and Coleridge, and the ways in which their poetry is intricately interwoven at the period of their maximum creativity in 1800. William Wordsworth was born in 1770 in the Lake District, the son of a lawyer, to whom he seems not to have been very close, particularly after the death of his mother, when he was only 8 years old. His father died just 5 years later.
Now according to the account given of his early life in his autobiographical poem, The Prelude, the young William was allowed to run wild in nature, which became for him, a kind of mother. This is a refrain in his poetry, which is, to use a technical term, pantheistic. God adheres in the natural world around one, so God is in nature. Now Wordsworth’s Prelude opens:
“Fair seed-time had my soul, and I grew up
Fostered alike by beauty and by fear:
Much favoured in my birthplace.”
The latter was the Lake District, as we said. Note the use of the term fostered in that opening. Mother Nature was to him a foster parent, an important conception for him. Now more formally, young William was educated at grammar school. There was much loneliness in his childhood, something he again swells on in the Prelude. It’s a kind of like what Keats called the “egotistic sublime.” Wordsworth is obsessed with himself, yet this of course is part of the Romantic project itself.
Wordsworth’s early circumstances, rendered him extraordinarily introverted, so that solitude is a vital element in his psychological makeup. Another of Wordsworth’s most famous poems, Daffodils, a schoolteacher’s favorite, opens as follows:
“I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.”
Now if he’d been in company, that wouldn’t have been as significant to him. Loneliness and creativity are at the heart of Wordsworth’s poetry. Loneliness for him is a creative state.
Now how to reconnect with society is one of the great problems in the Wordsworthian view of the poetic role, because the poet of course, cannot stay forever outside, forever by themselves.
Well, to return to the sort of brisk profile of the man himself, Wordsworth attended Cambridge University, which taught him little, but where he learned much and had his first major intellectual stimulus from a visit to France, at the crest of the early revolutionary period in 1790. Bliss it was, he said, to be alive in that year, but to be young was very heaven.
In France over the next couple of years, he had a relationship with a young French woman, Annette Vallon, of whom we know little, except that it was very important to the young, revolutionary Wordsworth. There was a child, so who knows. French people today, unbeknownst themselves, may have the blood of Britain’s great Romantic poet coursing through their veins. The child of course, was illegitimate.
In the opening years of the new century, the 1800s, Wordsworth settled in the Lake District with his sister, and in some sense, his muse, Dorothy. He began to seriously devote himself to poetry, a poet by profession. It’s quite interesting that he had no other role in life than being a poet.
By 1795, he’d met Samuel Taylor Coleridge, whose muse was both more philosophical and wilder than Wordsworth’s. Opium and Immanuel Kant, in fact, came together in Coleridge’s makeup. The two men traveled in Germany together in the late 1790s, which meant a lot more to Coleridge than to Wordsworth.
Now as for the opium connection, this would appear in history when the drug was in fact prescribed very freely as medicine, also available without a prescription, usually in the form of laudium, opium mixed with alcohol. Coleridge became addicted to it.
Now the fruit of this relationship between Wordsworth and Coleridge, was the collaborative volume, Lyrical Ballads in 1798, It was reissued with a manifesto preface by Wordsworth in 1800, and again with an expanded introduction in 1802. These were called forth, because it was a very influential volume.
Now it’s arguably, although a classically slim volume of poetry, the most influential such book in the whole of English literature. It was a bomb under the sedate establishment of verse, which had been erected so formally and so carefully by Dryden, Pope, and Johnson, those Augustans that we looked at.
Now, Lyrical Ballads was originally published with a name, as if it were a literary production, not of individual talent, but of the spirit of the time, the zeitgeist, as they say in Germany.
Now Coleridge was, also at this time, living in the Lake District, close by Wordsworth. His personal life, unlike Wordsworth’s, was sexually chaotic! So Wordsworth was always the stable one in this partnership, the good cop! Wordsworth’s famous one-line definition of poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings, from emotions recollected in tranquility.
Now Coleridge, we may say, supplied the spontaneous power, while Wordsworth the tranquility, the thinking, the reflection, so they were a perfect team. Yet there are not many perfect teams, so they couldn’t stay together too long, and broke up. Wordsworth would never have (like Coleridge) created one of the greatest short poems in the language, Kubla Kahn, under the influence of a narcotic dream, a drug. Yet then unlike Coleridge, Wordsworth would probably finish the thing once so magnificently started. Coleridge simply couldn’t end it, because the drug or dream wore off, and he couldn’t get around to finding the ending, as the inspiration was gone. Just to recall the magnificent opening of that poem we’re talking of:
“In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree :
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round :
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree ;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.”
Well, he’s really tripping there!
Among Coleridge’s more Utopian projects, was his “pantisocratic” community, based on free love and philosophical ideas. The idea for this was derived in large part, from Mary Shelly’s father, Godwin. It failed utterly, as such communities typically do.
Wordsworth’s later life was tranquil, while Coleridge’s is disastrously, catastrophically unsettled and upheaved. Briefly, Wordsworth married in 1802 and thereafter in his career followed a much quieter track into fame, in a somewhat disillusioned and ultimate very conservative political view of the world which took him over. His lat years were passed as poet laureate, loaded with honors. His great autobiographical poem, the Prelude, was much revised and appeared in its final form a year after his death in 1850. It’s more properly a post-lude than a prelude. Born in the late Augustan era, he died an eminent Victorian. Yet literary history identifies him as a giant of the Romantic revival. This was when he lived most as a poet in the 1790s.
Coleridge life was, as we said, much more disordered. Few lives have been as disordered. He left in his chaotic wake, a magnificent collection of fragments, short works, and prolegomena. Like Wordsworth, inspired by the mysteries of his own ego, he compiled a magnificent autobiography, prose in his case, Biogrphia Literaria (1817), the biography of a literary sensibility. It’s a work that fuses Coleridge’s amazing sensibility, towering intellect, and his extraordinary powers of criticism and his feeling for poetry. Coleridge is, among his other achievements, the greatest theorist in English literature, and a great critic, which Wordsworth was not.
Coleridge died, wrecked by addiction, years before Wordsworth, in 1834. His greatest complete poem, which we’ll look at in a few moments, the Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner, was composed during his collaborative years with Wordsworth. It was completed, partly because of Wordsworth being there alongside him, unlike the tantalizingly fragmentary Kubla Kahn, which we read from a few minutes ago.
Wordsworth was very good for Coleridge, but in fact the relationship didn’t last for long, or at least not in its most creative kind of form, more than a few years.
Now lets look more closely at what we’ve been alluding to, that explosive volume, Lyrical Ballads. Now the title itself merits attention. Ballads, as discussed in the Scott lecture, are poetry of the folk, of the people. They do not historically have single authors, but are the product of a community, a communal voice. Now lyrics on the other hand, songs, (it’s called Lyrical Ballads), may be thought aboriginally to be similarly authorless.
Dig back for example, in the cultural subsoil which produced one of the richest harvest of ballad and song in North America (the blues). You don’t find composers, as it were, but you find an oppressed people. Now ballad revivals took fire across European in the late 18th century, as that period rediscovered the primal pre-literary energies of literature. It was if the poets of the time, sank shafts, like oilmen, into a new source of fuel, deep beneath the historical surface of their society.
Now the ballad revival also marked the desire to return to cleansing simplicities, a natural world of literature, away from the industrialization, the institutionalization, the bureaucratization, which were transforming, deforming their world. They wanted to get rid of the machine in the garden, and balance was one way of doing that.
Goethe and Schiller, the great German figures, were ballad revivalists as well. Significantly, Wordsworth and Coleridge were in Germany in the period running up to Lyrical Ballads. In Britain, ballad collectors like bishop Percy with his Reliques, and Scott with his minstrelsy of the Scottish border, had amassed a historical archive of British balladry. So there were traditions for poets like Wordsworth and Coleridge to draw on.
This belief, that at the dawn of the Industrial Age, poetry could return to the primal level of its history, the ballad was of course a fallacy. Yet Romanticism just thrives on fallacies, the most famous of course, being the pathetic fallacy. This is the pantheistic notion that nature cares about us.
Yet the idea that an untrammeled state of nature was recoverable, Coleridge’s endemic pantisocracy for example, along with certain other ways of writing, was another fallacy still. Nevertheless, these were fallacies that were, sort of ideologically necessary. These had the sublime literary results.
Take one of Wordsworth’s most loved and famous poems, the one which is also his greatest anthem to his pantheism, Tintern Abbey (1798). The scenario is that the poet is returned to the country around the river Wye, after five long years of absence. This return to nature is a homecoming, we apprehend. On his return, the poet Wordsworth has a moment of transcendent vision. He’s standing by a ruined abbey, and Romantics love ruins almost as much as they love nature, when he has an overpowering sense of what he calls:
“A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things…”
It’s wonderful, but hold on a second. Wordsworth is too honest a poet, not to notice something else in the landscape, although he doesn’t press the point, leaving the reader to pick it up. Let’s quote again:
“Once again I see
These hedge-rows, hardly hedge-rows, little lines
Of Sportive wood run wild; these pastoral farms
Green to the very door; and wreaths of smoke
Sent up, in silence, from among the trees!”
Are they hermits, the poet says? Are they dwellers in the houseless woods alone, solitary people? Well no, as it happens they’re not. They’re charcoal burners. They are creating the fuel which would, as it were, kick-start the first wave of the Industrial Revolution. Wordsworth of course, knew that, but when he bought into the fallacy that the smoke was in fact innocent or natural, he was drawing or creating a magnificent fiction.
Now Lyrical Ballads, as we said, was first published in 1798, and in this first appearance, it was the poems and nothing else, including this poem, Tintern Abbey. So the poems were offered without any kind of apparatus or surrounding explanation. It was offered also namelessly, as true ballads which came from nowhere, from the people, without authorial ownership as it were.
Later editions of Lyrical Ballads do carry authorial names, and Wordsworth’s pugnacious poetic manifesto. We find in this, the three revolutionary elements we mentioned earlier, resistance to oppression, popularism, and utopianism.
What then was the oppression he and Coleridge were opposing? It was, as Wordsworth contemptuously puts it, “gaudy and inane phraseology.” In other words, the poetic diction of the Augustans! In an appendix, Wordsworth gives an example of what he means by this, in a poem which we’ve examined, and speaking for himself, which John has admired, Samuel Johnson’s The Vanity of Human Wishes (1749).
This is what Johnson writes:
“Turn on the prudent Ant thy heedless eyes,
Observe her labours, Sluggard, and be wise;
No stern command, no monitory voice,
Prescribes her duties, or directs her choice;
Yet timely provident she hastes away,
To snatch the blessings of a plenteous day;
From this hubbub if words, says Wordsworth (he despises it), passsed to the original. In the King James Bible, whose prose we’ve also admired in an earlier lecture, is what Johnson is drawing on in the passage from the Vanity:
6:6 “Go to the Ant, thou Sluggard, and consider her ways, and be wise:
6:7 which having no guide, overseer, or ruler,
6:8 provideth her meat in the summer, and gathereth her food in the harvest.
6:9 How long will thou sleep, O Sluggard? When wilt thou arise out of they sleep?
6:10 Yet a little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to sleep.
6:11 So shall they poverty come as one that travelleth and thy want as an armed man.”
-Proverbs, King James Bible
Now are Wordsworth’s objections and insults against Johnson fair? No, they are not. Yet when did a revolutionary worry about being fair?
Now to draw a broad distinction, in the Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth took on the political agenda, and Coleridge explored the primitive supernaturalism associated with that balladry. Wordsworth’s political poetics were, as he said in his mission, if you like:
“…to choose incidents and situations from common life, and to relate or describe them, throughout, as far as was possible in a selection of language really used by men.”
It’s a simple statement, but in literary terms it’s dynamite. Arguably the above example, from the King James Bible, is the language really used by men. Yet can poetry realistically straightjacket itself in this way? Are not compromises necessary? Wordsworth when pressed, wriggled somewhat, saying the poet is a man of more than usual organic sensibility, a man who has thought long and deep, an unusual man.
Now would such a man, really confine his poetic expression to the language of the streets of a rural village? Ballads might do so, yet sophisticated poetry of the present age of the 1800s? The poet is a man speaking to men, but a man:
“endowed with a more lively sense of sensibility, more enthusiasm and tenderness, who has a great knowledge of human nature”
That is, a man who is both common and uncommon, ordinary and extraordinary. Now gifted as he is with words, Wordsworth cannot entirely disentangle himself from this contradiction. Nor should we expect him to. The value of what he is doing, is not in his logic, but in the poetry which his illogical thinking produces.
At its best in the Lyrical Ballads, it’s a poetry of stunning purity and power. We’ll give just one example, from a group of poems included in a later reprint of the Lyrical Ballads, called the Lucy poems. We do not actually know who Lucy was, anymore than we know for example, who the girl was that ran away with the raggle-taggle gypsies in the traditional ballad.
What we do know however, is that the balladeer, Wordsworth of course loved her, and she is dead. This is the poem:
“A slumber did my spirit seal,
I had no human fears,
She seemed a thing that could not feel
The touch of earthly years.
No motion has she now, no force;
She neither hears nor sees;
Rolled round in earth’s diurnal course,
With rocks, and stones, and trees.”
Now that is the entire poem, breathtakingly simple indeed. Yet the emotion compressed within its eight lines has a nuclear power it seems to me. You can see what Wordsworth was looking for in ancient balladry, this primal energy by which the simplest words come alive.
Yet was there not one word that stood out as we read it? Diurnal, that is the word of a scholar, not a balladeer! Now Wordsworth could very easily used the term daily, and would have meant the same, using the language of a man really talking to men. Yet he did not, and used gaudy and inane phraseology. He wanted his cake and to eat it too!
Now we forgive the contradiction in the face of the beauty of what is produced!
Coleridge’s agenda was different. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is the first work in the Lyrical Ballads, that he got the prime spot! In it, Coleridge compacts the short four-line stanzas, an amazingly mystical and pregnant narrative of the condition of man in an incomprehensible natural universe. It’s one with a religious order, yet one that is baffling, enigmatic, beyond reason’s capacity to understand, although mysteriously, meanings may be sensed.
Coleridge drew on Gothic fiction, at an extraordinary range of reading of theology, philosophy, and travel books. With reference to the last, let’s just quote a couple of quatrains describing the mariner’s voyage into the arctic region:
“Listen, Stranger! Mist and Snow,
And it grew wond’rous cauld:
And Ice mast-high came floating by
As green as Emerauld
Anf thro’ the drifts the snowy clifts
Did send a dismal sheen;
Ne shapes of men ne beasts we ken-
The Ice was all between
The Ice was here, the Ice was there,
The Ice was all around:
It crack’d and growl’d, and roar’d and howl’d
Like noises of a swound”
A swound is being swooned. Now the spelling is antique, cauld not cold, and there are archaisms like swound. Yet the vividness is not merely photographic but verbal technicolor, the quality of the poem.
The narrative of the rhyme is very simple, where the poet is going to church, as a happy wedding is in prospect. Yet what is this? He’s stopped along the way:
“It is an ancient Marinere,
And he stoppeth one of three:”
(Then the exchange between the two of them, as the poet asks)
“By thy long greybeard and they glittering eye
Now wherefore stoppeth me?”
It turns out he’s being stopped to hear an amazing story, how on a voyage past the line from the frozen north to the tropics, how a strange adventure occurred. He, the ancient Mariner, shot an albatross, the sea-bird which follows ships. With its huge wingspan, the albatross is often taken as a symbol of the crucified Christ. Sailor’s superstition also has it that very bad luck follows the killing of an albatross.
Why the Mariner shot the albatross with his crossbow, we never know! Yet it has terrible consequences. The ship finds itself marooned in a windless ocean, the sailors thirst terribly, the sun blazes, even the sea seems to rot around them:
“Day after day, after day,
We stuck, ne breath ne motion,
As idle as a painted Ship
Upon a painted Ocean.
Water, water, every where
And all the boards did shrink
Water, water, everywhere,
Ne any drop to drink.”
The very deeps dialogues rot; O Christ!
That every this should be!
Yea, slimy things did crawl with legs
Upon the slimy Sea.”
Well, the sailors curse the mariner. We never know his name or anything about him, other than what happened on his voyage, he went on a trip and shot an albatross. Eventually all the sailors die, except for the mariner, and of course the million slimy things in the ocean!
Finally, after strange visitations from spirits beyond man’s understanding, the mariner has himself a spiritual conversion, finally blessing these slimy sea things around the vessel, and miraculously he’s freed. The skeleton, the bones of the albatross the other sailors have put around his neck, they drop from him and he is reborn.
Yet he is reborn as aged and wisened, an older and wiser man. It’s on the point of death, we assume, when he has his exchange with the wedding guest. Yet nevertheless, before he dies, he must pass on his vision.
Here he becomes a kind of version of the Romantic poet, as no one will listen to him! That’s why he had to grab the wedding guest, almost by the lapels, and hold him while he tells the story! The wedding guest listens to him, and he too is described at the end of the poem as an older and wiser man. He’s learned from the poetry, in a kind of symbolic allegorization of how poetry works.
Yet if we ask what it all means, and we don’t know anyone who reads it, who doesn’t do so, well the answer is that the Rime of the Ancient Mariner means what it is. It’s a thing of huge power, indicating the new kinds of directions which poetry could, and thanks to Wordsworth and Coleridge, would take, over the next two centuries. A revolution had happened, arguably, and it is still happening. Lyrical Ballads changed English literature forever!