Ever been a bit short of cash? If so, consider getting together with a close friend and revolutionising poetry. It worked for Wordsworth and Coleridge.
The Lyrical Ballads were knocked up to fund a holiday in Germany. Poets have never been known for their financial prowess, but this pair seem to have hit on a winning formula. They were unknown at the time but pretty savy in the growing romantic movement. The financial partnership was just a means to an end and when they got to Germany they split up. Creative differences led to Coleridge staying on to soak up German philosophy, while Wordsworth came to a deeper appreciation of the English countryside and returned home to write poems about it.
The bulk of the poems were contributed by Wordsworth, who was probably the main driving force behind the collection. But the poem that dominates the collection is the epic Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Coleridge. This has become so iconic that some of its imagery has passed into the English language. We all know what it is like to have an albatross around our neck. And who hasn’t at some stage been surrounded by water everywhere, but not have a drop to drink.
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is a tour de force that once read is never forgotten, and if there were no other poems in this collection it would be enough to secure its place in history.
But although none of the other poems stand out in the same way, most of the rest of them are at the very least worth reading and some are very good indeed. They no longer seem particularly revolutionary, but at the time they were very much a departure from verse that had gone before. They are about thoughts and observations about real people. A typical one is We Are Seven. A man meets a small girl and asks how many brothers and sisters she has. She replies that there are seven in the family – but includes two of her siblings that have already died and are buried.
That probably sounds a bit sentimental and Victorian. It’s the skill of Wordsworth as a poet that you don’t get that feeling from his telling of it. The repetition of we are seven has just the rhythm of a slightly annoyed small girl having to patiently explain the obvious to a rather dense grown up. He later explained that it was indeed as it feels – an account of an actual meeting with a real person. Most of the poems are of that ilk, snapshots from the poet’s travels. Many are in a rural setting. Britain at the time was well on the way to becoming industrialised but was still a long way from being urbanised. The lives of people in the countryside were nonetheless being turned upside down.
The Lyrical Ballads are in one way a valuable source of information about what it was like to actually live through the time when it was written. All the statistics in the world can’t tell you what a particular era looked and felt like in a way that reading a poem can. History is full of people who had lives much like we do.
But the poems are only incidentally social commentary. They are much more about the inner workings of the poet’s mind. She dwelt among the untrodden ways is just three verses about a woman the the poet loved, but who has died. There is no detail of what happened, just what he felt about it. The minimalist approach makes it universally applicable.
The language used is plain and simple. In the foreword to a later edition Wordsworth puts this approach into the form of a manifesto for how poetry should be. The collection was published in a revolutionary year – 1789. The French Revolution had turned the world upside down and inspired hope everywhere including our young poets. As Wordsworth himself put it “Bliss it was to be alive in that dawn, but to be young was very heaven.” And this collection of remarkable poems in their remarkable style was just as revolutionary. Robespierre’s Committee of Public Safety was soon to take the gloss off the political revolution. But the literary one has endured and continues to give pleasure even if it no longer feels radical.