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Lyrical Ballads

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Lyrical Ballads has been called a poetic revolution, the true beginning, (In British poetry) of the literary, philosophical and artistic movement known as “Romanticism”. The Romantics were concerned with feeling. In his preface of the Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth wrote that “all good poetry is a spontaneous overflow of feelings” The above passage is from Lines written at a small distance form my house whereby the poem very much centres on “it is the hour of feeling”.

In this poem Wordsworth wants his sister to experience the blessed pervasiveness of this “one moment” which fifty years of reason cannot substitute for, in which he finds himself connected to the earth and mankind through love. I shall use the underlined statement as the definition for “the hour of feeling” and imminently discuss the success of the poets in accomplishing this in the Lyrical Ballads. The Romantic Movement was a reaction to the classical literature of the Augustan age, which was classic, impersonal and formal, championing rationality as opposed to feelings and used a large number of literary cliche and overblown phrases.

The readers of poetry in the eighteenth century were largely educated men with a classical upbringing who had been conditioned to reflect in verse. The acme of classical elegance would be Thomas Gray’s An elegy written in a Country Churchyard, it is the reflections of a man seated in a country churchyard, but nothing can conceal the fact that it is a series of solemn thoughts, marshaled in logical sequence and clearly infers a classical restrained background. The poem speaks of emotions but does not convey them.

Wordsworth asserted that “Poetry is passion: it is the history and science of feelings” and that the word “passion” is derived from a word that signifies suffering. Most of the characters in Lyrical Ballads are suffering. Some characters suffer from the effects of the American and French Wars- Wordsworth stated that “The Female Vagrant” was in part inspired by watching a fleet prepare to sail to engage the French in 1793. Enclosures and irresolute Poor Laws led to the destitution of many agrarian workers, a situation outlined in “The Last of the Flock”.

A lack of provision for the elderly (Simon Lee), the stigma of unmarried motherhood and the need for penal reform (The convict, The dungeon) – all shape the poems. Lyrical Ballads was very much inspired by real events and real people written “in a selection of language really used by men” making it identifiable and invocative to the readers who share the common plight with the characters in the poem; thus creating a spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.

Mothers who have lost their children (which was a common phenomenon at the time due to famine and sickness) would respond emotionally to “We are Seven” and “The Thorn”; families who have lost their men to war, would sympathize with “the female vagrant” and to the readers who never experience those plights, they were given a deeper and emotional understanding to the suffering of others. However, the poems were not merely limited to minute observations of suffering, though these were written with “an ardent wish to promote the welfare of mankind”.

The major traits of the Romantic Movement are well-represented by the poems. These include the primacy of feeling over reason (“it is the hour of feeling”); interest in the power of imagination (“I must think, do all I can”); the value of the insight of a child (‘we are Seven’, ‘Anecdote for Fathers’); and therefore also in the primary adult/child relationship, that with its mother (‘The Idiot Boy’, ‘The Thorn’); the value of Nature as a moral guide, healer, and fulfillment (‘Tintern Abbey’, ‘Lines written in Early Spring’, The Tables Turned’); the goodness of the pastoral contrasted to the corruption of the urban; the developing science of psychology (‘The Mad Mother’, ‘The Complaint’); alternative ways of expressing spiritual and religious conviction; life as a journey or process, a state of flux rather than a fixed course ( ‘The Old Man Travelling’, ‘ Ancyent Marinere’) sexual freedom; humanitarian political views ( ‘The Dungeon’, ‘The Convict’, ‘The Last of the Flock’, ‘The Female Vagrant’) and an interest in the aesthetic guidelines of painting

The poets were chiefly concerned with bringing back their readers to the “Natural State” of mind and feeling, uncorrupted by the influences of social vanity; just like children; “the child is the father of the man”. In his preface, Wordsworth wrote of their choice subject Humble and rustic life was generally chosen because in that condition: the essential passions of the heart find a better soil in which they can attain maturity and are less under restraint- our elementary feelings coexist in a state of greater simplicity and, consequently more accurately contemplated and more forcibly communicated; because the manners of rural life germinate from those elementary feelings; and lastly because in that condition, the passions of men are incorporated with the beautiful and permanent forms of nature”

Keeping in line with this vision and objective, the poems in Lyrical Ballads was predominantly set in the countryside and rural areas and the language used is simple , the diction plain, almost deceptively so: “sturdy he seemed, though he was sad/ And in his arms a lamb he had” At night, at morning, and at noon ‘Tis all the same to Harry Gill; Beneath the sun, beneath the moon, His teeth they chatter, chatter still. The diction is doggedly unpoetic by Augustan standards, and the subject matter ordinary to the point of perversity: old men, idiot boys, abandoned village women, unmarried pregnant mothers.

There were many who felt that these types of lines were so turgid and ordinary that they had found it hard to believe that Wordsworth wrote it. However Robert Mayo in his essay The Contemporaneity of the Lyrical Ballads opposes this opinion: “The real novelty of these poems lies not in the subject matter and forms, but in sheer poetic excellence- in their vastly superior technical mastery, their fullness of thought and intensity of feeling, the air of spontaneity which they breathe, and their attention to significant details which seem to the reader to have been observed for the first time. ”

The well thought out structure of the whole compilation plays a significant role in capturing “the hour of feeling”. There was a hint in a letter from Coleridge to Cottle that the poems were meant to be taken as a whole: that what was important was their accumulative effect upon the reader. Lyrical Ballads was, he wrote, “one work, in kind tho’ not in degree, as an ode is one work; and… our different poems are as different stanzas”. Beginning the book with the ‘Ancyent Mariner’ sets the mood for a journey into “wise passiveness”, where the reader is invited to feel, contemplate and experience sublimity and imagination.

Subsequently the reader is transported into the lives of the characters, where we are exposed to issues we rarely give attention to, like capital punishment, whereby in The Convict, Wordsworth focuses on the fact that no proper restitution can be made by a convict subjected to this harsh punishment. (“the fetters that link him to death”) He makes the readers realise that prison is an awful place not because it twists a man’s soul, but because it is hard to repent in the “comfortless vault of disease” Cleverly Wordsworth does not have the prisoner speak, allowing him only a questioning look.

Were he to speak, it would raise the question whether his crime actually deserved capital punishment or not; instead the poem challenges the whole notion of capital punishment because the convict is kept a mute object for our consideration. The voice crying out for change, the poem suggests, must be the reader’s, rather than the convict’s or the poet’s. Wordsworth believed that transportation should replace capital punishment (“would plant thee where yet though might’st blossom again”) and that the only emotion we should feel for the transported convict is compassion.

The ‘Last of the Flock’ too, has a humanitarian purpose. Based on a real incident reported to him by a friend, he uses the tale of a poor shepherd losing his flock to attack the stupidity of the system of poor relief which insisted that a man had to sell all of his property before any financial support could be given to him. He is victimized by social forces beyond his control, his pride and mental health leeched away “drop by drop” by the stupidity of society.

This is seen to damage our human relationships: “I loved my children less” By not offering any solution to the situation, the poet is inviting readers to come up with their own emotional response. It is up to (the largely middle-class) reader to re-make the world to avoid such distress. Lyrical Ballads is filled with such characters and their sad stories throughout; the perfect ending to these poems would have to be an explosive one to complement the ‘Ancyent Mariner’, and indeed ‘Tintern Abbey’ was not only explosive but reflective and quite personal to the poet.

The reader will get a glimpse into the poet’s heart, to identify with him and be forever marked with the beautiful verses in ‘Tintern Abbey’, perhaps even respond to nature just like the poet has hoped for in his readers. ‘Tintern Abbey’ is Wordsworth’s most complete expression of his philosophical and poetical viewpoints. The poem is divided to five sections. The first describes the view, offering the reader a chance of sharing his perception of Nature. The second section describes the effect that that perception has on him.

The third section recounts his journey (and journeys of all kinds are a running theme in Lyrical Ballads) to his current state of mind. It charts the development of his love of Nature from his earliest boyhood “to look on nature, not as in the hour of thoughtless youth, but hearing oftentimes, The still, sad music of humanity”. The fourth section is dedicated to his sister who is also his “friend”, and to the readers, exhorting us to look on Nature as our “friend” “knowing that Nature never did betray the heart that loved her”. Nature is personified here.

Wordsworth brings the poem and the book to a close with a personal message to all the readers “if solitude, or fear, or pain, or grief, should be thy portion, with what healing thoughts of tender joy wilt thou remember me, and these my exhortations! ” and finally “this green pastoral landscape, were to me more dear, both for themselves and for thy sake” Early critical reception of The Lyrical Ballads was mostly negative and at times even hostile. Reviewers cited uninteresting subject themes and the prolixity of the Ancyent Marinere, with its archaic style and murky philosophical theme.

Francis Jeffrey, one of the chief reviewers for the influential Edinburgh Review, was so offended by Wordsworth’s flaunting of poetic convention in the Lyrical Ballads that he engaged in a long and vitriolic campaign against what he termed the “Lake School of Poetry. ” While this initial critical response impeded acceptance of the Lyrical Ballads and its authors, acknowledgment did come eventually. Other reviewers praised the earnestness and simplicity of the poems in Lyrical Ballads and their focus on the usually neglected subject of the rural poor.

In the latter part of the nineteenth century, Victorian critics demonstrated a special interest in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner as a moral and philosophical puzzle, and Wordsworth and Coleridge already were already figures of pre-eminent English poets, the leaders of the first wave of Romanticism. Robert Southey in his contribution to the Critical Review, October 1799, wrote that “of these experimental poems, the most important is “The Idiot Boy” of nearly 500 lines, no tale less deserved the labour that appears to have been bestowed on this”.

He reflects the general confusion caused by the blending of lyric and ballads “The other ballads of this kind are as bald in story, and are not so highly embellished in narration”. The Acyent Marinere, Southey notes, claims to be in the style of the elder poets. He confesses he thinks the style is rather original, in a rather pejorative use of the term, although he finds many of the stanzas… laboriously beautiful” he goes on to add that they are “in connection… absurd or unintelligible… we do not sufficiently understand the story to analyse it”.

Dr Burney’s comment on the Monthly Review is similarly dismissive. He calls the Ancyent Mariner “the strangest story of a cock and a bull that we ever saw on paper” although, for a “rhapsody of unintelligible wildness” it does have “poetical touches of an exquisite kind” However there are poems that Southey likes: ‘The Foster Mother’s Tale is “in the best style of dramatic narrative” and ‘The Dungeon’ and ‘Lines left upon a Seat’ are “beautiful”. ‘The Female Vagrant’ is also “admirable”.

He goes on to say: The ‘experiment’ we think has failed, not because the language of conversation is little adapted to the ‘the purpose of poetic pleasure’ but because it has been tried upon uninteresting subjects”. Even so he concludes that the authors rank with “the best living poets” As for Dr. Burney, he wonders if the ‘Female Vagrant’ doesn’t cast unnecessary and unpatriotic aspersions on the War effort. ‘The Old Man Travelling’ is criticised for the same, unpatriotic feeling. As for the ‘Last of the Flock’ Burney concludes that it is a “gloomy” poem, and that “No oppression is pointed out” implying that it was the shepherd’s own fault.

Property, and patronizing pity, lies behind these words: moved, but not educated, Burney goes on to add that “if the author be a wealthy man, he ought not to have suffered this poor peasant to part with the last of his flock”. Likewise, Burney finds ‘The Dungeon’ pushing “candour and tenderness for the criminal… to excess”, while ‘The Convict’ “misplaced commiseration’. He finds ‘The Idiot Boy’ merely distressing, ‘The Thorn’ dark, and ‘Tintern Abbey’ although “the reflections of no common mind: poetical, beautiful and philosophical”, is nevertheless “gloomy”.

On the whole, he concludes, it would have been better had the poets chosen “more elevated subjects and in a more cheerful disposition”. It is precisely to the likes of Dr. Burney, that the Romantics were revolting against. The objective of the Lyrical Ballads was precisely to speak about the less “elevated” and “cheerful” subjects which are also known as Reality. Doubtless there will be many readers like Dr. Burney who do not feel anything towards the issues raised by the romantics, who would prefer to be fed with cheerful, superficial and restrained classical subjects whereby “unnecessary” feelings and thoughts will not be provoked.

However this should not be mistaken as the general reception. Lyrical Ballads raised issues that was not explicitly discussed especially in the literary sense; because of its “aukwardness and strangeness”, the immediate reception in the times of the poets was Rejection, understandably so; however this positive change in Literature, thanks to the Romantics, will forever change the course of posterity, who will be free to express their thoughts and ideas against the modes of convention.

When reading this collection, the reader is transported to that “one moment” where he will be connected to earth and mankind through the united feeling of love. However I believe that the Lyrical Ballads will only appeal to those who have a heart that cries out for change. Overall, I believe the poets achieved their objective in capturing “the hour of feeling”, and sometimes even “feelings of strangeness and aukwardness” for the likes of Dr. Burney.

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