Lyrical Ballads (1800): Publication and Reviews

Lyrical Ballads, with Other Poems (1800)

On their return from Germany, and after visiting their friends the Hutchinsons at Sockburn in Yorkshire for several months, the Wordsworths install themselves at Dove Cottage, Grasmere in the Lake District, where William sets about putting together a second edition of Lyrical Ballads.

Great Britain
Great Britain

Faithful to his resolution, Wordsworth moves Coleridge's Ancient Mariner (with spelling modernised) from its position at the head of the work, replacing it with his own Expostulation and Reply and The Tables Turned. He also publishes the volume with his own name on the title page and with no reference to Coleridge, writes a Preface which expresses more exactly and in more detail his own views about poetry, and adds a second volume of entirely his own work, excluding Christabel which had been intended as Coleridge's contribution to the second volume on the basis that he

... found that the Style of this Poem was so discordant from my own that it could not be printed along with my poems with any propriety.

His own style is, in fact, moving away from the ballad (ie story-telling) form to a form where

... the feeling therein developed gives importance to the action and situation and not the action and situation to the feeling.

In the new Preface, Wordsworth also writes

For the sake of variety and from a consciousness of my own weakness I was induced to request the assistance of a Friend, who furnished the ANCIENT MARINER, THE FOSTER MOTHER'S TALE, THE NIGHTINGALE, THE DUNGEON and the Poem entitled LOVE. I should not, however, have requested this assistance, had I not believed that the poems of my Friend would in great measure have the same tendency as my own ... as our opinions on the subject of poetry do almost entirely coincide.

In a note to the Ancient Mariner, Wordsworth writes further:

I cannot refuse myself the gratification of informing such Readers as may have been pleased with this poem, or with any part of it, that they owe their pleasure in some sort to me; as the Author was himself very desirious that it should be suppressed. This wish had arisen from a consciousness of the defects of the Poem, and from a knowledge that many persons had been much displeased with it. The poem of my Friend has indeed great defects...

and he goes on to enumerate the defects. 

He thus succeeds in marginalising Coleridge's work, and can now occupy himself with defining his own purpose in writing poetry, without regard to Coleridge's contribution, viz

The principal object then which I proposed to myself in these Poems was to make the incidents of common life interesting by tracing in them, truly though not ostentatiously, the primary laws of our nature: chiefly as far as regards the manner in which we associate ideas in a state of excitement. Low and rustic life was generally chosen because in that situation the essential passions of the heart find a better soil in which they can attain their maturity, are less under restraint, and speak a plainter and more emphatic language, because in that situation our elementary feelings exist in a state of greater simplicity and consequently may be more accurately contemplated and more forcibly communicated, because the manners of rural life germinate from those elementary feelings; and from the necessary character of rural occupations are more easily comprehended; and are more durable; and lastly, because in that situation the passions of men are incorporated with the beautiful and permanent forms of nature. The language too of these men is adopted (purified indeed from what appear to be its real defects, from all lasting and rational causes of dislike and disgust) because such men hourly communicate with the best objects from which the best part of language is originally derived; and because, from their rank in society and the sameness of the narrow circle of their intercourse, being less under the action of social vanity they convey their feelings and notions in simple and unelaborated expressions. Accordingly such a language arising out of repeated experience and regular feelings is a more permanent and a far more philosophical language than that which is frequently substituted for it by Poets, who think that they are conferring honour upon themselves and their art in proportion as they separate themselves from the sympathies of men, and indulge in arbitrary and capricious habits of expression in order to furnish food for fickle tastes and fickle appetities of their own creation.

He goes on to elaborate on what he believes poetry, or rather, good poetry to be:

For all good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: and though this be true, Poems to which any value can be attached were never produced on any variety of subjects but by a man who, being possessed of more than usual organic sensibility, had also thought long and deeply. For our continued influxes of feeling are modified and directed by our thoughts, which are indeed the representatives of all our past feelings; and, as by contemplating the relation of these general representatives to each other, we discover what is really important to men, so, by the repetition and continuance of this act, our feelings will be connected with important subjects, till at length, if we be originally possessed of much sensibilty, such habits of mind will be produced, that, by obeying blindly and mechanically the impulses of those habits, we shall describe objects, and utter sentiments, of such a nature, and in such connexion with each other, that the understanding of the Reader must necessarily be in some degree enlightened, and his affections strengthened and purified.


I have said that poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings; it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity; the emotion is contemplated till, by a species of reaction, the tranquillity gradually disappears, and an emotion, kindred to that which was before the subject of contemplation, is gradually produced, and does itself actually exist in the mind. In this mood successful composition generally begins, and in a mood similar to this it is carried on; but the emotion, of whatever kind, and in whatever degree, from various causes, is qualified by various pleasures, so that in describing any passions whatsoever, which are voluntarily described, the mind will, upon the whole, be in a state of enjoyment.



The contents of volume I


The contents of volume II



John Stoddart in the British Critic (February 1801) writes that Wordsworth has

..adopted a purity of expression which, to the fastidious ear, may sometimes sound poor and low, but which is infinitely more correspondent with true feeling than what, by courtesy of the day, is usually called poetical language.

and further

The author has thought for himself: he has deeply studied human nature, in the book of human action: and he has adopted his language from the same sources as his feelings.

The Preface, he observes,

... though written in some parts, with a degree of metaphysical obscurity, conveys much penetrating and judicious observation, important at all times, but especially when, as it is well observed, 'the invaluable works of our elder writers are driven into neglect by frantic novels, sickly and stupid German tragedies, and deluges of idle and extravagant stories in verse'.

The Monthly Mirror (June 1801) enthuses

Energy of thought, pathos of sentiment, and exquisite discrimination in selecting whatever is picturesque in imagery, or interesting in nature, are the distinguishing characteristics of these poems; yet an obscurity too often arises, from a romantic search for simplicity, and there is a studied abruptness in the commencement and termination of several pieces, which makes them assume the appearance of mere fragments.

but regrets that

these volumes are marked by a querulous monotony of woe, which we cannot applaud: for a wayward spirit of discontent has lately been let loose upon the world, and seems calculated to diffuse the seeds of general dissatisfaction, by libelling all mankind.

The Portfolio (December 1801) observes that William Wordsworth is

... a genuine poet, who judiciously employs the language of simplicity and NATURE, to express the tones of passion; who has forsaken the necromantic realms of German extravagance, and the torrid zone of Della Cruscan ardour, and has recalled erring readers 'from sounds to things, from fancy to the heart'.

The American Review and Literary Journal (January 1802) comments that the volume contains

... a long, but ingenious and well written preface, by the author...

but that the process which Wordsworth proposes of eliminating poetic diction

... is indeed stripping poetry at once of half her plumage... The laws prescribed by Mr W may suit a particular species of poetry like his own, but we apprehend that their authority will not be acknowledged by the lovers of poetry in general.

and, generally,

Many of the pieces display a lively sensibility to the beauties of rural scenery; but they are particularly distinguished for the delicate and affecting manner of pourtraying the sensations of the mind, when agitated, as the author expresses it, by the great and simple affectations of our nature - of nature, however, as she appears in the walks of low and rustic life.

The Monthly Review (June 1802) hopes that the current volume will not be the last meeting with

... this natural, easy, sentimental Bard, in his pensive Rambles through the wilds and groves of this truly poetic, though somewhat peculiar imagination.

Francis Jeffrey, writing in the Edinburgh Review (October 1802) of Robert Southey's Thalaba, the Destroyer launches a general attack on the 'Lake Poets', ie Southey, Coleridge and Wordsworth. He begins

Poetry has this much, at least, in common with religion, that its standards were fixed long ago, by certain inspired writers, whose authority it is no longer lawful to call in question..

He then launches his attack

One of their own authors indeed has very ingeniously set forth (in a kind of manifesto that preceded one of their most flagrant acts of hostility) that it was their capital object to 'adapt to uses of poetry the ordinary language of conversation among the middling and lower orders of the people'. What advantages are to be gained by the success of this project we confess ourselves unable to conjecture. The language of the higher and more cultivated orders may fairly be presumed to be better than that of their inferiors: at any rate it has all those associations in its favour by means of which a style can ever appear beautiful or exalted, and is adapted to the purposes of poetry by having been long consecrated to its use. The language of the vulgar, on the other had, has all the opposite associations to contend with; and must seem unfit for poetry (if there were no other reason) merely because it has scarcely ever been employed in it.

and further

Now the different classes of society have each of them a distinct character as well as a separate idiom; and the names of the various passions to which they are subject respectively have a signification that varies essentially according to the condition of the persons to whom they are applied. The love, or grief, or indignation of an enlightened and refined character is not only expressed in a different language but is in itself a different emotion from the love of, or grief, or anger of a clown, a tradesman or a market-wench.

He continues by asserting concerning the 'poor and vulgar' that

The truth is that it is impossible to copy their diction or their sentiments correctly, in a serious composition; and this, not merely because poverty makes men ridiculous, but because just taste and refined sentiment are rarely to be met with among the uncultivated part of mankind; and a language fitted for their expression can still more rarely form any part of their 'ordinary conversation'.

He further observes that

... it must be admitted, that there is a class of persons ... to whom the representation of vulgar manners, in vulgar language, will afford much entertainment. We are afraid however, that the ingenious writers who supply the hawkers and ballad singers, have very nearly monopolized that department, and are probably better qualified to hit the taste of thier customers, than Mr Southey, or any of his brethren, can yet pretend to be.

Turning to the content of the poems, he remarks

Some poets are sufficiently described as the flatterers of greatness and power, and others as the champions of independence. One set of writers is known by its antipathy to decency and religion: another, by its methodistical cant and intolerance. Our new school of poetry has a moral character also...

and he concludes that that moral character is

A splenetic and idle discontent with the existing institutions of society ... Instead of contemplating the wonders and the pleasures which civilization has created for mankind, they are perpetually brooding over the disorders by which its progress has been attended. They are filled with horror and compassion at the sight of poor men spending their blood in the quarrels of princes, and brutifying their sublime capacities in the drudgery of unremitting labour.

Their poetry is seen by Jeffrey as part of an egalitarian political philosophy, threatening to the class order of society.

...the arts that aim at exciting admiration and delight do not take their models from what is ordinary, but from what is excellent; and .. our interest in the representation of any event, does not depend upon our familiarity with the original, but on its intrinsic importance, and the celebrity of the parties it concerns.

Finally, he apostrophises

If it be natural for a poor man to murder and rob, in order to make himself comfortable, it is no less natural for a rich man to gormandize and domineer, in order to have full use of his riches. Wealth is just as valid an excuse for the one class of vices, as indigence is for the other.

Wordsworth, of course, did not agree with any of this. He writes to a friend:

...he (Jeffrey) is a depraved Coxcomb; the greatest Dunce, I believe, in this Island, and assuredly the Man who takes most pains to prove himself so.

Not that this in any way answers Jeffrey's criticisms.

At all events, Jeffrey's review put Wordsworth's theories about poetry at the forefront of an interesting debate about what poetry is, or should be, a debate which continued throughout the nineteenth century and beyond.

Lyrical Ballads (1798)

copyright Paul Scott, Adnax Publications all rights reserved