Wordsworth, Coleridge and the Lyrical Ballads: the beginning of the Romantic Era

Ott 26, 2022

In 1798 William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge joined together to publish the first edition of the Lyrical Ballads, a collection of poems that is considered by many to be the definitive starting point of the Romantic Era in England. Indeed the two poets are considered to be the fathers of English Romanticism. Furthermore, along with Robert Southey they are also known as Lake Poets – which was at first used as a derogatory term to identify writers who came from the Lake District. 

Introduction to the authors of the Lyrical Ballads

Life and works of Wordsworth (1770 – 1850)

Born on 7 April 1770 in Cumberland, part of the scenic region in northwestern England known as the Lake District, William Wordsworth was the second of five children. William was particularly close to his younger sister, the poet and diarist Dorothy Wordsworth. In 1790 he went on a walking tour of France and the Alps that changed his life and his political beliefs: visiting revolutionary France, he became enchanted with the Republican movement. Later, the failure of revolution led him to the edge of nervous breakdown, which was healed by the contact of nature in Dorset, where he lived with Dorothy.

During this period he also met Samuel Taylor Colerdige and the poet’s belief in the existence of a powerful “life consciousness” in all individuals rescued Wordsworth from the depression into which recent events had cast him and made possible the new approach to nature that characterized his contributions to Lyrical Ballads. In 1801 Wordsworth married his childhood friend Mary Hutchinson, who published the poet’s main work, The Prelude, after his death. Wordsworth was Poet Laureate from 1843 until his death on 23 April 1850. 

Wordsworth made his debut as a writer in 1787 when he published a sonnet in The European Magazine;  his first collection of poems was published in 1793. While living with Dorothy, in 1795 Wordsworth became friends with a fellow poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge. They formed a partnership that would change both poets’ lives and the course of English poetry. Stimulated by Coleridge and under the healing influences of nature and his sister, Wordsworth began in 1797–98 to compose the short lyrical and dramatic poems for which he is best remembered by many readers today.

At the same time, he began what will become his longest work: The Prelude. Conceived as an autobiography tracing his life from school days up to 1799, it took 40 years to be completed and was finally published in 1850 as The Prelude; or, Growth of a Poet’s Mind. At about this time Wordsworth also wrote the lyrics that were assembled in his second verse collection, Poems, in Two Volumes (1807). This collection included the popular “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” (also known as “Daffodils”). All of these poems were produced in what is now recognized as his great decade, stretching from his meeting with Coleridge until 1808. 

Life and works of Coleridge (1772 – 1834)

Born on 21 October 1772, Samuel Taylor Coleridge was the son of the headmaster of the local grammar school of Ottery. As a result, during his childhood Coleridge was already a prodigious reader. At both school and university he continued to read voraciously, particularly in works of imagination and visionary philosophy. Coleridge was also a political thinker. While he began his life as a political radical, and an enthusiast for the French Revolution, over the years he developed a more conservative view of society. This change was seen as cowardly treachery by the next generation of Romantic poets.

In the last decade of the XVIII century Coleridge’s intellect flowered, as he embarked on an investigation of the nature of the human mind, joined by William Wordsworth, which produced the Lyrical Ballads. Throughout his adult life, Coleridge had crippling bouts of anxiety and depression and he was physically unhealthy. He was treated for these conditions with laudanum, which fostered a lifelong opium addiction. In April 1816, with his addiction and depression worsening, took residence in the Highgate homes, where he lived for eighteen years until his death, on 25 July 1834

In 1796 Coleridge released his first volume of poems entitled Poems on Various Subjects. The years 1797 and 1798, during which he lived in Somerset, were the most prolific of Coleridge’s life. Besides The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Coleridge composed the symbolic poem Kubla Khan, written – as Coleridge himself claimed – as a result of an opium dream. During this period, he also produced his collection of “conversation poems“, among which figured: Frost at Midnight, To William Wordsworth and The Nightingale.

In addition to poetry, Coleridge also wrote influential pieces of literary criticism including Biographia Literaria (1817), a collection of his thoughts and opinions on literature. The collection contained an analysis of a broad range of philosophical principles of literature ranging from Aristotle to Immanuel Kant and applied them to the poetry of his peers. 

The Lyrical Ballads

Lyrical Ballads is a collection of poems written by William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, which is generally considered to have marked the beginning of the English Romantic movement in literature. The work presents three different editions: the first one was published in 1798 and most of the poems were written by Wordsworth; the second edition (1800) contains additional poems and a Preface written by Wordsworth in which the poet explained his and Coleridge’s poetical principles; to the third edition, published in 1802, Wordsworth added an appendix titled Poetic Diction, in which he expanded the ideas introduced in the second edition’s preface. 

With their works, Wordsworth and Coleridge wanted to challenge what they saw as the elitist and pretentious forms of 18th-century poetry in England. They wanted to create poetry that was closer to ordinary human speech and could be read and appreciated by ordinary people. As part of this, in their poems they emphasized rural life and the natural world, which they saw as restorative and the answer to the corrupting influences of society. The most famous poems included in this collection are Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Wordsworth’s Tintern Abbey.

Preface of the Lyrical Ballads

The Preface to the Lyrical Ballads is a manifesto of the Romantic movement. Wordsworth uses this essay to declare the new ideas of Romantic poetry, which is presented as having different preoccupations from the Neoclassical poetry of the previous period. While Neoclassical poets emphasized intellectualism, formality and stylistic rigidity over emotion, Wordsworth claims that “poetry is the spontaneous overflow of emotion“. The poet argues that in order to compose an impactful poem, the poet must immerse themselves in a sort of process for poetic creation, which includes observing the subject matter and only later create the poem, because emotions must be recollected “in tranquility”. 

Moreover, Wordworth emphasizes the importance of depicting ordinary life using everyday language in a poem. According to him, using ordinary life as subject matter allows the poet to better explore human nature. 

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

This is the most famous poem of the Lyrical Ballads. It begins by introducing the Ancient Mariner, who, with his “glittering eye,” stops a Wedding Guest from attending a nearby wedding celebration. The Mariner stops the young man to tell him the story of a ship. The story begins with his ship leaving harbor and sailing southward: a storm blows the ship even further to the South Pole, where the crew encounters mist, cold, and giant glaciers. An Albatross breaks the lifelessness of the Antarctic and the sailors greet it as a good omen, because a new wind rises up. Day after day the albatross appears, but then the Mariner kills the creature. It is then that the wind ceases, and the ship becomes trapped on a vast, calm sea.

In this terrible calm the Mariner sees what he believes is a ship approaching, but on its deck Death and Life-in-Death gamble with dice for the lives of the Sailors and the Mariner. After Life-in-Death wins the soul of the Mariner, the Sailors begin to die. Surrounded by the dead Sailors, the Mariner tries to turn his eyes to heaven to pray, but fails. It is only when he notices beautiful Water Snakes swimming beside the ship that he has a spiritual realization: all of God’s creatures are beautiful and must be treated with respect and reverence. With this realization, he is finally able to pray. The Mariner concludes his tale by explaining that as he travels from land to land he is always plagued by the compulsion to tell his tale

The main themes of the poem are: 

  • The growing concern of the Romantics about man’s relationship with nature during the Industrial Revolution; 
  • The sublime and its connection to nature; 
  • The concepts of sin and penance

This poems is highly symbolic and its main symbols are: 

  • The Albatross: historically, birds were often seen as having the ability to move between the earthly and spiritual realms, and this albatross in particular seems to be both natural and supernatural. Thus the albatross can be seen as symbolizing the connection between the natural and spiritual worlds. 
  • The eyes: firstly, the Mariner holds the Wedding Guest with his story, but also with his “glittering eye.” The eye then symbolizes both a means of control and of communication. They also symbolize the means of communication between humans and the natural world, and through it, God. In fact, it is through the eyes that we observe God’s creatures. 
  • The Sun and Moon: the sun is associated with blood, heat, dryness, and the thirst that ultimately kills the Sailors. It symbolizes both the majesty and the terror of the natural world. The moon, as it is responsible for shaping the tides, symbolizes the supernatural and divine influences on nature.

Tintern Abbey

Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, commonly known as Tintern Abbey, is a poem composed by William Wordsworth in 1798 and included as the last poem of Lyrical Ballads (1798). One of the main topics of this poem is the restorative power of nature. In fact, the poem was written during the Industrial Revolution, when rural areas throughout Europe were being transformed into centers of manufacturing and production. 

In the poem, the speaker visits a natural, rural place not yet altered by industrialization. The work implicitly suggests that urban life is lonely and that the natural world has the power to restore the human soul. So powerful is nature that even the memories of time spent in such rural landscapes can be healing. In Tintern Abbey, the speaker suggests that nature offers access to the sublime. The awe that the speaker feels upon being in this natural setting grants him greater insight into the connection and unity between humanity, the natural world and the universe. 

Nature is also described as inspiring and crucial to poets’ creativity and the writing of poems: the speaker says that the human “eye, and ear” both “half create” and “perceive”. In other words, the imagination works in a kind of back and forth between observing the world and creating it – interpreting what’s being observed, and turning those interpretations into art. The creative mind then works actively and dynamically in relationship with nature. 
Tintern Abbey doesn’t specifically identify the poem’s speaker by name, age, or gender. At the same time, there are several elements of the poem that suggest the speaker of the poem is the poet, or rather, a crafted representation of the poet, William Wordsworth. First, the title, “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, On Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour. July 13, 1798,” connects the poem to specific biographical details about the poet: William Wordsworth did  go on a walking tour of the Wye Valley with his sister, Dorothy Wordsworth, in July 1798. At the same time, the speaker of the poem might be understood as a kind of mythical version of the poet, a romanticized version of the human poet.

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