VII. LYRICAL BALLADS: 1798

Another stimulant came to Coleridge in January, 1798: Josiah and Thomas Wedgwood—sons and heirs of the Josiah Wedgwood (1730–95) who had made his pottery famous throughout Europe—offered the almost penniless poet an annuity of one hundred fifty pounds ($3,750) on condition that he devote himself wholly to poetry and philosophy. Coleridge welcomed the gift in a letter of January 17, and proceeded, in an ecstasy of creation, to complete The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

Armed with this proof of potency, he proposed to Wordsworth that they should pool their new poems in collaborative volumes that would earn them enough money to finance a trip to Germany. He hoped that a year in Germany would teach him enough of the language and the culture to let him read in the original, and with understanding, those masterpieces which, from Kant to Goethe, had given Germany the unquestioned lead in European philosophy, and had brought it at least to rivalry with England and France in literature. Wordsworth was not enthusiastic about Germany, but France and north Italy were controlled by the Revolution; he fell in with Coleridge’s plan.

In April, 1798, they invited publisher Cottle to come over from Bristol to hear their latest verses. He came, listened, and advanced thirty pounds for the copyright. He wished to publish also the names of the authors, but Coleridge refused. “Wordsworth’s name,” he said to Cottle, “is nothing, and mine stinks.”24

Eighteen years later Coleridge explained the theory behind the collaboration:

It was agreed that my endeavours should be directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic;… 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, and to excite a feeling analogous to the supernatural, by awakening the mind’s attention to the lethargy of custom, and directing it to the loveliness and the wonders of the world before us…. With this view I wrote “The Ancient Mariner,” and was preparing, among other pieces, “The Dark Ladie” and the “Christabel,” in which I should have more nearly realised my ideal.25

Probably the theory took form after the poems had been written. So with Wordsworth’s explanation, prefixed to the first edition:

The majority of the following poems are to be considered 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. Readers accustomed to the gaudiness and inane phraseology of many modern writers, if they persist in reading this book to its conclusion, will perhaps frequently have to struggle with feelings of strangeness and awkwardness; they will look round for poetry, and will be induced to inquire by what species of courtesy these attempts can be permitted to assume that title. It is desirable that such readers… should not suffer the solitary wordPoetry, a word of very disputed meaning, to stand in the way of their gratification….

Readers of superior judgement may disapprove of the style in which many of these pieces are executed…. It will appear to them that, wishing to avoid the prevalent faults of the day, the author has sometimes descended too low, and that many of the expressions are too familiar and not of sufficient dignity. It is apprehended that the more conversant the reader is with our elder writers,… the fewer complaints of this kind will he have to make.26

Prose interfered with their poetry: the owner of the Alfoxden house notified the Wordsworths that their lease could not be renewed beyond June 30, 1798. On June 25 William and Dorothy left for Bristol to negotiate with Cottle. On July 10 they took a ferry across the River Severn, and walked ten miles in Wales to Tintern Abbey. Near this “very beautiful ruin,” and on the way back to Bristol, Wordsworth composed the first draft of the poem that was added as the concluding piece of the Lyrical Ballads.

The little book was published on October 4, 1798, nineteen days after the unavowed authors had left for Germany. The title was fitting: Coleridge’s main contributions were lineal descendants of old English ballads—tales in songlike verse; and most of Wordsworth’s contributions were simple lyrics of simple life, in the almost monosyllabic language of the English peasantry. The book opened with The Rime of the Ancient Mariner; this occupied fifteen of the 117 pages; it was the longest entry, and perhaps the best, though England came only slowly to realize this, and Wordsworth never.

The Rime has indeed many faults, but we must not stress, among these, the absurdity of the tale; Coleridge had entered a realm of mystery and imagination in which anything could happen, and mighty events might flow from trifling incidents. He had to depend upon imagination, for he had never been to sea,27 and he had to borrow from travel books for maritime terms and moods. Nevertheless he caught the mystic aura of old legends, the marching rhythm of old ballads; and the old mariner carries us with him almost to the end. It is, of course, one of the greatest lyrics in the English language.

Wordsworth’s contributions were mostly examples of his finding wisdom in simple souls. Some of these poems, like “The Idiot Boy” and “Simon Lee,” were hilariously satirized by reviewers; but which of us has not sympathized with a mother’s patient love for her harmlessly feeble-minded child? (One line of that understanding poem tells of “the green grass—you almost hear it growing”;28 was this snatched from Dorothy?) Then, after lingering with his rural types, Wordsworth concluded the book with the meditative “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey.” Here he gave supreme expression to his feeling that nature and God (Spinoza’s Deus sive Natura) are one, speaking not only through the miracles of growth but also through those awesome and (to human short sight) seemingly destructive forces that Turner was then worshiping in paint. To his wanderings in woods and fields, his rowing on placid lakes and scrambling over massive rocks, to a thousand cries or whispers from a thousand forms of life, even from the supposedly inanimate world—

To them I may have owed… that blessed mood,

In which the burthen of the mystery,

In which the heavy and the weary weight

Of all this unintelligible world,

Is lightened…

While with an eye made quiet by the power

Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,

We see into the life of things.29

And then he rose to his finest profession of faith:

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. 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. Therefore am I still

A lover of the meadows and the woods,

And mountains; and… recognize,

In nature and the language of the sense,

The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul

Of all my moral being.30

Dorothy too had reached this healing, unifying creed, and found it not inconsistent with her Christian faith. At the close of his hymn Wordsworth added a paean to her as his sister soul, and bade her keep to the end

Our cheerful faith, that all which we behold

Is full of blessings. Therefore let the moon

Shine on thee in thy solitary walk;

And let the misty mountain winds be free

To blow against thee;… and, in after years,

When these wild ecstasies shall be matured

Into a sober pleasure, when thy mind

Shall be a mansion for all lovely forms,

Thy memory be as a dwelling place

For all sweet sounds and harmonies…31

Lyrical Ballads was not favorably received. “They are not liked by any,” reported Mrs. Coleridge—a wife forgivably envious of her husband’s Muse. The reviewers were so busy exposing loose joints in The Mariner, and loose sentiment in Wordsworth’s ditties, that none of them seems to have recognized The Mariner as a future fixture in all anthologies, though some noticed the devout pantheism of “Tintern Abbey.” The little book sold five hundred copies in two years, and Coleridge ascribed some of these sales to a sailor who thought, from the Rime, that the volume was a naval songbook. Wordsworth ascribed the tardiness of the sale to the inclusion of The Ancient Mariner.

In 1799, while Coleridge was in Germany, Wordsworth prepared a second edition of the Ballads. On June 24 he wrote to Cottle: “From what I gather it seems that The Ancyent Marinere has upon the whole been an injury to the volume. [This may have been true.]… If the volume should come to a second edition I would put in its place some little things which would be more likely to suit the common taste.”32 The Mariner was admitted to the second edition, with a (disarming?) note from Wordsworth admitting its faults but pointing out its excellences.

This edition (January, 1801) contained a new poem by Wordsworth, “Michael”—a tale leisurely told, in blank verse, of an eighty-four-year-old shepherd, loyal in labor, firm in morals, loved in his village, and of his son, who moved to the city and became a dissolute degenerate. A new preface by Wordsworth announced in detail, and in sentences now famous, his theory of poetry: Any object or idea may generate poetry if it is borne on feeling and carries significance; and any style or language can be poetic if it transmits such feeling and significance. “Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings; it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity”;33 the artist himself must have controlled his emotion before he can give it form. But such emotions are not confined to the literate or the elite; they can appear in the unlettered peasant as well as in the scholar or the lord; and perhaps in greater purity and clarity in the simpler soul. Nor does the expression need a special poetic vocabulary or style; the best style is the simplest, the best words are the least discolored with pretense or pomp. Ideally the poet should speak in the language of the common man; but even learned words may be poetic if they convey the feeling and the moral force.

For in the end it is the moral import that counts in every art. Of what use is our own skill with sound or form if it be not to seek readier acceptance of a clarifying, healing, or ennobling thought? “A great poet ought, to a certain degree, to rectify men’s feelings,… to render them more sane, pure, and permanent, in short, more consonant to nature—that is, to eternal nature and the great spirit of things. He ought to travel before men occasionally, as well as at their sides.”34 The ideal poet, or painter, or sculptor is a philosopher clothing wisdom in art, revealing significance through form.

That preface played a part in history, for it helped to put an end to the fancy language, the class prejudices, the classical references, the mythological frills that had often littered the poetry and oratory of the English Augustan Age. It declared the rights of feeling, and—in the most unromantic style—gave another welcome to romance. Wordsworth himself was of classic mold and mood, given to thought and rule; he provided the tranquillity of recollection, while Coleridge brought emotion and imagination. It was an excellent collaboration.

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