Lyrical Ballads : A Romantic Movement Towards Contemporary Poetry

drawing of hand with a feather pen in style of an engraving

A rebellion against the Enlightenment and its emphasis on logic, politics, the church, and the like, the Romantic Movement focused on individualism, emotions, nature, and in the promotion of these concepts, broke many social conventions. Romantics viewed society and it’s constraints as the true malefactors of their time and had a passion for what is natural, whether it is an emotion, a person’s identity or the environment around them. Due to their aversion to the structure that society enforced, two of the major players in the Romantic Movement, William Wordsworth and Samuel Coleridge, decided to do something different. At the time, literature was written about kings, queens and nobles, and in a more advanced language than could be understood by much of the lower classes. In an attempt to inspire support of their values, and widen the scope of individuals with access to literature, Wordsworth and Coleridge put together a collection of poems that were written in a language and with subject matter that reached commoners. Their collection, titled Lyrical Ballads, not only exemplified the beliefs of Romanticism but was also one of the first steps towards contemporary poetry.

The first edition of Lyrical Ballads, published anonymously in 1798, was followed by another publication with added poems and a significant preface two years later, in 1800. The reason that Wordsworth states for adding the preface is that he felt a need to explain why, to an experienced reader of poetry, it may seem that he was not doing his duty as a writer. He felt a need to explain why the poems published in Lyrical Ballads were written so differently than traditional poetry. James Chandler from The University of Chicago explains Wordsworth’s reasoning by using Shakespeare’s King Lear as an example. He says that just as Cordelia refused to praise her father in response to a disapproval of the way in which her sisters’ praise was being used, the authors of Lyrical Ballads refused to use the standard form of poetry in response to a disapproval of the direction in which they perceived poetry to be heading. That direction being towards diction that was too lofty as well as subject matter that was both largely restricted and too distant from that which is “incorporated with the beautiful and permanent forms of nature.” (Wordsworth, Location 32) Furthermore, Wordsworth states in his preface that although neither he nor Coleridge was the first to use ballads, they constructed each of theirs with a “worthy purpose.” (Wordsworth, Location 47) That purpose being “to illustrate the manner in which our feelings and ideas are associated in a state of excitement,” (Wordsworth, Location 63) or more specifically, “to follow the fluxes and refluxes of the mind when agitated by the great and simple affectations of our nature.” (Wordsworth, Location 63)

As presented, the embracement of nature is a major component of Romanticism. During a time of significant industrialization and a societal move towards city life, the Romantics rediscovered the power and beauty in nature and held onto it desperately.  For some, it even replaced religion for they believed that anything to which God was given credit, was actually a result of nature. For Wordsworth, Nature became something of a source for answers, although the answers that it provided were less an articulated response and more of a transformation into the sublime.

Two of the most well-known poems in Lyrical Ballads are Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey” and Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”; both of these poems perfectly illustrate the values and messages of both the Romantic Movement and Lyrical Ballads. In “Tintern Abbey”, Wordsworth discusses the way in which human-kind changes over time and how the way that we perceive the world is altered post-youth. His vehicle for this discussion is a description of his return to the area around Tintern Abbey. He explains that five years prior, his perspective was different, and the experience included “bound[ing] o’er the mountains, by the sides/Of the deep rivers, and lonely streams,/Wherever nature led” (Wordsworth, lines 69-71) but that now he is more meditative. This has its benefits though, he points out. He remarks how simply remembering the greatness he experienced has brought him peace frequently since then, to the extent that it is as if Nature has provided him with an advanced state of being.

“…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,

Nor 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 of sublime

Of something far more deeply interfused.”

(Wordsworth, lines 89-98)

Furthermore, he states that even if this effect stems not from truth, but his imagination that it’s all the same as long as it works for him as an individual.

Finally, Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, while utilizing gothic elements (a result of the imagination stimulated by the breaking of conventions), tells the tale of a prophet of Nature. An old sailor pulls aside a guest at a wedding and entrances the man with his story that he is compelled to tell. The encounter resembles a religious conversion attempt but is actually a plea to appreciate Nature.

“Farewell, farewell! But this I tell

To thee, thou Wedding-Guest!

He prayeth well, who loveth well

Both man and bird and beast.

He prayeth best who loveth best

All things both great and small;

For the dear God who loveth us,

He made and loveth all.

(Coleridge, lines 610-617)

As one can see through the segments of these poems provided in this essay, the diction is more simplistic and lyrical than that of the majority of poems written at that time. As one can also see, both of these poems also contain messages encouraging a return to, and appreciation of nature for peace, knowledge, safety, and happiness as well as the support of emotional expression, and individuality. Poetry today is available and relatable to a large variety of people. The pieces in Lyrical Ballads played a vital part in both the Romantic Movement as well as in making poetry universally accessible.


Works Cited:

Coleridge, Samuel. “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” The Longman Anthology of British Literature, fifth edition. New York; Longman 1992 632-649 Print. “James Chandler – A Revolution in Poetry: Wordsworth and Coleridge, 1798.” Youtube. 22 December 2011. Web. 21 March 2014.

Wordsworth, William. “Lines written a few miles above Tintern Abbey.” The Longman Anthology of British Literature, fifth edition. New York; Longman 1992 429-433 Print.

Wordsworth, William. “Preface.” Lyrical Ballads. 2nd ed. 1800. Location 1-245. Kindle.


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