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 Great Britain 1798

Generally speaking, the poetry of any period attempts to express the thoughts and aspirations of that period in durable form. It is a reaction to and product of the social conditions that produced the poet, reflecting his vision of the world and his view of the function of poetry in society.

Huge changes had taken place in the social, religious, cultural, economic and political landscape of Great Britain during the two and a half centuries preceding the turn of the nineteenth century. The important moments of political change can be fairly easily summarised: the break with the Roman Catholic Church that occurred under Henry VIII, and the subsequent establishment of an independent Church of England with the King of England at its head; the execution of King Charles I in 1649, and the ensuing Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell; the deposition of King James II in the Glorious Revolution of 1688; and the choice of George of Hanover as king in 1714. In a long process, political power passed increasingly from the Court, the Church and the landed aristocracy to a Parliament representing broader interests, including commerce, science and manufacture. Greater freedom of thought won against religious oppression allowed the development of observation based speculation, fact recording and science, and scientific development allowed the growth of new industrial processes, manufacture and commerce. By the end of the eighteenth century a whole new class of citizen had arisen aware that the ideals and aspirations of the early Georgian period were no longer their own.       

 Lyrical Ballads was the product of a collaboration between Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1843) and William Wordsworth (1770-1850).

Portrait of Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Wordsworth as a young man

William Wordsworth

Lyrical Ballads : a break with the past

As young men, both Coleridge and Wordsworth had espoused idealistic, not to say revolutionary ideas about society and the need for change. Coleridge had proposed establishing an ideal community in the Americas with his poet friend Robert Southey (1774-1843) and their wives, and he had toured England to preach the non-conformist gospel. Wordsworth had visited France for a year at the time of the French revolution, and sympathised with the revolutionary ideas of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Thomas Paine. Even though their youthful ardour for change had considerably cooled by 1798, due in part at least to the bloody aftermath of the French revolution which culminated in the Reign of Terror of 1793/94, liberal and / or revolutionary political ideas nevertheless formed an important part of the inspiration for their poetry by informing their attitudes, particularly towards inequality, class, and privilege.

Both poets had close links with and were partly financed by some of the people who represented the new moneyed classes. From 1798, Thomas Wedgewood, known for his pottery, provided an annuity for Coleridge of 150 a year (in 2010 terms, around 7,500): Tom Poole, a Somerset tanner, philanthropist and literary enthusiast provided him with accommodation at Nether Stowey in Somerset. John and Azariah Pinney, Bristol based sons of a rich sugar plantation owner, provided accommodation for Wordsworth and his sister at Racedown Lodge on the Devon / Somerset border, and Raisley Calvert left Wordsworth a legacy of 900 in 1795. These people clearly had an enthusiastic appreciation of the work of the two poets, and wanted to enable them to continue.

 

Etruria pottery works

Josiah Wedgewood
Josiah Wedgewood (founder of Wedgewood pottery, father of Thomas) 

Lyrical Ballads, with a few other poems was published anonymously in October 1798. The Advertisement of two pages which preceded the poems expressed succinctly Wordsworth's intentions with regard to his poetry, forming a brief manifesto for the poems, which were presented as 'experiments' to establish how far the language and subject matter from the 'lower and middle orders' of society could be used for poetic purposes.

Title page of Lyrical Ballads
Title page of Lyrical Ballads from 1798

The publication sold out reasonably quickly, and met with a largely favourable press. Wordsworth brought a second edition to publication in late 1800 under his own name, adding a second volume of poems entirely his own, and moving Coleridge's Ancient Mariner from the head of the first volume to a position near the end. Coleridge's intended contribution to the second volume (Cristabel) was omitted entirely.

Title page of Lyrical Ballads 1800 

Titlepage of Lyrical Ballads with other poems (1800).
'Quam nihil ad genium, Papiniane, tuum' means 'something not at all to your taste, Papinian', and is taken from John Selden's Introduction to Michael Drayton's Poly Olbion (1613).
Papinian was a prominent Roman jurist, but Wordsworth is probably here humourously intending 'Papiniane' to mean 'follower of Alexander Pope'.

In the new Preface (of seventeen pages) Wordsworth set out a detailed justification of his poetry, his objects and his ideas about poetic taste and poetic diction, commenting that, for subject matter:

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 plainer 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...

This idea, and other similar 'levelling' ideas, brought a vigorous rebuttal from Francis Jeffrey. Writing in the Edinburgh Review in October of 1802, he attacked this 'new school of poetry', which he called 'the Lake Poets', identifying Wordsworth, Coleridge and Southey as its chief exponents. He realised that the ideas expressed by Wordsworth in the Preface were a direct and far-reaching challenge to poetic orthodoxy, and also, by extension, to the accepted social order.

Lyrical Ballads thus served to focus attention on a new type of poetry written in a style in opposition to what was until that point the accepted orthodoxy. It defined a break with the past, and paved the way for the acceptance of poetry with an emphasis not on order and rationality, harmony and balance, but rather on nature and feeling, the individual, subjectivity, passion and imagination, and, to a certain extent, the ordinary man.

The development of Romanticism

Personally, of course, Wordsworth very quickly sold out his youthful opposition to the established order, becoming himself a part of that order, on oracle, a Great Poet, an institution, and a distributor of stamps. It was Byron (1788-1824), Shelley (1792-1822) and Keats (1795-1821) who carried forward the banner of Romanticism, enshrining in their own lives the Romantic ideals of doomed youth, poisoned genius, and disaffection with society, though their poetry nowhere shook the foundations of the established order. Their challenge, if indeed challenge it was, being more superficial, less serious, and less threatening even though more extravagant and, in Shelley's case, more extreme in revolutionary intent.

Lord Byron in eastern costume 
Lord Byron in Eastern costume

Two other poets who were writing during the period offer an interesting comparison to Wordsworth because, while Wordsworth himself was a university educated member of the middle classes who chose to write about the rural poor, Robert Burns (1759-1796) and John Clare (1793-1864) really were part of the rural poor, and produced poetry of exceptional quality from unlikely beginnings, Burns being the son of a tenant farmer, and Clare the son of a farm labourer. Burns probably approaches closer to achieving the goal of all great poetry in speaking to everyman, everywhere. His poems become at times anthems for the ordinary man, his feelings and his rights, and Burns' life and early death fit well with the romantic ideal of blighted genius, though he himself was a Customs officer at the time of his death. John Clare can perhaps be seen as England's answer to this gifted Scot, the most astonishing product of inauspicious beginnings. This self educated man was able to master poetic form and produce poetry of thrilling brilliance on everyday subjects and on nature in particular, passing later to express with uncanny exactitude psychological conditions which were to become more and more common as the century progressed, and as more and more people were thrown from the land which their ancestors had inhabited from time immemorial to become rootless wanderers in urban environments stripped of all nature.

Finally, there is William Blake (1757-1827), the visionary, whose profoundly imaginative poetry was matched by his artistic ability as an engraver, and who produced arguably some of the most interesting, lasting, and astonishing works in the English language, who was dismissed during his lifetime as 'an unfortunate lunatic whose personal inoffensiveness secures him from confinement'. It may be said that Coleridge visited the realm of the imagination from time to time, aided perhaps by his addiction to laudanum (opium mixed with alcohol), and that Wordsworth tried to get there through intense observation and reflection, but Blake seems to have lived in his imagination permanently.

The Tyger by William Blake

The Tyger - William Blake

 

Links to Biographies of the Romantic Poets

Samuel Taylor Coleridge 

William Wordsworth

George Gordon, Lord Byron

John Keats

Bysshe Bysshe Shelley

John Clare

Robert Burns

William Blake

 

The poet biographies, criticism, translations, commentary and textual notes on this site are the copyright of Paul Scott
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