Lyrical Ballads (1798)


Samuel Taylor Coleridge  (1772-1834)

William Wordsworth (1770-1850)


In 1798 Wordsworth and Coleridge collaborated on the publication of a group of poems that would revolutionize English poetry. Lyrical Ballads is a collection of poems by both authors that take two different forms. First, the poets hearkened back to the earliest poetic expressions in the English oral tradition: the narrative ballad with its simple quatrain form, its hypnotic story telling, and its supernatural themes. They also included in their collection meditative, first person, lyrical poems that describe the growth of the poet’s imagination. Rather than seeing the world in scientific terms as determined by natural laws, Wordsworth and Coleridge sought to portray a sublime vision of nature as an organic life form. God is not transcendent. God did not set a mechanical universe in motion at the beginning of time and then step back (as the Deists believed). God is immanent, present in nature at each and every moment, and his creation is on going. God is a vital force flowing and rolling through all things.


To describe this powerful life force that flows through all things and unites the creation, Wordsworth and Coleridge needed to develop a new poetic vocabulary which made use of evocative symbols, accessible language and melodic musical forms They sought to inspire the reader to see nature with new eyes. Their primary goal is to give form to that spirit in nature that sustains life and drives forward history.


They turned to the Old English Ballad for inspiration. (Read “The Wife of Usher’s Well” or “Lord Randall”)


The typical ballad is written in the vernacular, the simple language of the common people. Ballads are suffused with the song tradition of folk tales and legends. Instead of being generalized comments upon Man or Human Nature, the ballad deals with individual characters that invariably act in ways which display their emotions in simple, pure ways. The particular flavor of the ballad is characterized by its repetitious use of natural images that evoke unconscious, universal reactions from any reader. The sea, running water, wind, the moon, and the sun draw an instinctual reaction from an irrational sphere of the mind. Symbols such as these are perfect tools for exploring the intuitive realm of the spirit. An insistent, song-like meter propels the tales, and inevitable the stories skirt the boundaries of reason and probe the supernatural. Coleridge chose to write about the supernatural while Wordsworth chose to focus the events of everyday life when common people encounter the sublime. He chose as his subjects characters and incidents that could be found in the simplest English hamlet or village, and he used the simplest language possible consciously avoiding the over rationalized cant of the sophisticated urban elite.


Over the next few classes we will be reading poems from Lyrical Ballads. The whole collection is framed by two great poems, Coleridge’s terrifying ballad, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and Wordsworth’s meditative masterpiece, “Lines Written by Tintern Abbey”. The action of the whole work describes a journey from the breakthrough to the unconscious achieved in the “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” to the maturity of the imagination realized in “Tintern Abbey”.


Oxford History of English Literature: Wordsworth and Coleridge



 sublime: Of things in nature and art: Affecting the mind with a sense of overwhelming grandeur or irresistible power; calculated to inspire awe, deep reverence, or lofty emotion, by reason of its beauty, vastness, or grandeur.