Lyrical Ballads & Romanticism

Wordsworth and Coleridge – Some thoughts, and a few notes

Alternate title: I just really love Rousseau

This is not the first time that I’ve read Lyrical Ballads, but perhaps the first time that I’ve been able to read it critically. All I can remember about the last time reading it was feeling exactly how Wordsworth and Coleridge wanted me to feel – connected to nature, and free as an individual. Well, maybe that’s pushing it a little bit, but I think that inevitably everyone who reads Lyrical Ballads is overwhelmingly struck by their humble use of humble language, and their profound respect for nature.

The Romantic movement (if it was, indeed, a movement at all), can be attributed in part to the influence of authors such as Rousseau, who stressed the importance of the return to thinking of ourselves as part of nature (some of my colleagues might be aware of the fact that I have a particular soft spot for anything concerning Rousseau). Many disparate elements permeate the poems, including the supernatural (such as in “The Rime of The Ancient Mariner”), and death (such as in “We Are Seven” and “Lucy Gray”), however I still feel an overwhelming sense of connectedness to nature, and to the poems themselves. Certainly, the deliberate use of vocabulary that was relatively commonplace, while at the same time thoughtful and deliberate, did a great deal to influence that. However what is also obvious is that all of the poems deal with the individual, and the impact that an individual can have. These are not poems of grandeur, nor of ecclesiastical significance, but rather poems that the average person is supposed to be able to relate to, linguistically and emotionally.

It is perhaps for this reason that I find myself so profoundly fond of Wordsworth and Coleridge (although to use them as the only two spokespeople of the Romantic ‘movement’, and to dismiss authors such as Byron and Shelley, would be, I think, blasphemous). Especially when I compare these writers to authors of prose such as Jonathan Swift, and Alexander Pope, I find that I am almost able to have more respect for the ones who are not trying to use fancy vocabulary and hyperbolic rhetoric for the sole purpose of calling it ‘heightened poetry’, or something along those lines. Reading Lyrical Ballads again has done nothing if not reinforced my appreciation for the poets of the Romantic ‘movement’, and of all of those who influenced it (talking to you, Rousseau…

[The following are notes that I had from the last time I read Lyrical Ballads and studied the words of Wordsworth and Coleridge, which was sometime within the space of a year ago. As far as I can remember, these are actually my notes, and I tried searching for them on the internet and in my textbook but didn’t get anywhere. So I think I came up with them all on my own, but just in case, I won’t quite take credit for their insight. I thought that they might be helpful to share anyways though, so voilà.]

  • William Wordsworth was a young man from the Lake district, educated at Cambridge.  he lived in France when the French Revolution was happening and was happy for a while then became disillusioned
  • Samuel Taylor Coleridge was born in Devonshire, attended school in London when he was ten, and went to Cambridge, but dropped out because he thought the university confining and uninteresting
  • when they met in 1795, their dark and disillusioned lives became brighter, and Coleridge, who had been reading some Wordsworth poems when he was in college, labelled him “the best poet of the age”
  • Lyrical Ballads was published in 1798, and a second edition was published in 1800 with an extensive preface (written by Wordsworth, but planned with Coleridge)
  • Romanticism is best described as ideals that embrace opposite things.  Coleridge says that the power of poetic imagination “reveals itself in the balance or reconciliation of opposite or discordant qualities”
  • the poems in the lyrical ballads are fit “to metrical arrangement a selection of the real language of men in a state of vivid sensation.”  Romantic poets use the common language of people, but they pick words carefully to carry lots of emotion.  this is in contrast to the 18th century poets, who used a “poetic” language which was artificial
  • “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 their maturity, are less under restraint, and speak a plainer and more emphatic language” says Coleridge
    • Rime of the Ancient Mariner breaks away from this, but Coleridge justifies it by saying that the Rime still dealt with the supernatural and romantic (romantic as in describing knights rescuing dames, not the tenets), and requires the suspension of disbelief on part of the reader (imagination)
  • the natural/commonplace and the supernatural poems are put together in Lyrical Ballads.  they both invoke strong subjective emotion, and write about nature as it affects people
  • the poet’s personal life and emotion show through the Romantic poems, but poetry should not be written when the poet is experiencing the raw emotion – it must be written after pondering (primary and secondary imagination)
  • a poet is distinguished by everyone else not “in kind from other men, but only in degree”.  poets are gifted with powers of observation and verbalization, but that doesn’t make them superior to everyone else as a human
  • romanticism is often defined in contrast with the preceeding ideas of 18th century, of Swift, Johnson, and Pope, who stressed reason and sweeping generalizations as being the most important.  Romantic writers (wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, Byron, Shelley) emphasized the personal experience and the subjective experience more important than reason.
    • romantic writers strove for freedom while the 18th century people wanted rules
    • took inspiration from the medieval rather than ancient greek and roman authors
    • individualism


3 thoughts on “Lyrical Ballads & Romanticism

  1. that’s an interesting definition of romanticism- as the expression of ideals that embrace opposite things. I’m not exactly sure what this means, but it sounds a lot like what Wordsworth say in the preface about all passions come from ‘finding similitude in dissimilitude’

  2. Thanks for the notes! I hadn’t really thought much before seminar and then reading your blog post about how these poems focus on the individual and what impact individuals can have. But I can see that in these poems, certainly, particularly in the fact that they focus mainly on specific individuals, most of them. We see particular characters in their particular circumstances, rather than, as you say, “poems of grandeur, nor of ecclesiastical significance.” Good to point out, and it fits with their emphasis on everyday language and situations–the lives of individuals, of many different walks of life, are important.

    I didn’t realize your strong fondness for Rousseau! How did I miss that? Or maybe I knew and then forgot (really, my memory these days is embarrassingly bad!).

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