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Nicola Trott and Seamus Perry, eds. 1800: The New "Lyrical Ballads." Romanticism in Perspective: Texts, Cultures, Histories

Monday, March 20, 2006 - 10:13
Nicola Trott and Seamus Perry, eds. 1800: The New "Lyrical Ballads." Romanticism in Perspective: Texts, Cultures, Histories, gen. eds. Marilyn Gaull and Stephen Prickett. Basingstoke/New York: Palgrave/St. Martin's, 2001. x + 245 pp. £60.00 (US$70) (Hdbk.; ISBN 0-333-77398-5).

Reviewed by
Alison Hickey
Wellesley College

"'1800' is not one of the most famous dates in English literary history, but it should be" (1), declares the Introduction to this outstanding collection of essays. The idea that the literary-historical importance of the 1800 Lyrical Ballads equals or even surpasses that of its "more celebrated rival of 1798" is not itself new, but it has never before been so convincingly borne out by sustained, multifaceted, and rigorous critical inquiry.

The essayists, among the most highly respected Wordsworth and Coleridge scholars now writing in the UK and the US, define 1800's "newness" in various ways, and their approaches range from "revisiting the title" (Zachary Leader) to delving into "Wordsworth's Loves of the Plants" (Nicola Trott). Yet the volume as a whole, for all its diversity, possesses a coherence not often found in collections of essays by multiple authors. The tension between unity and multeity, comparable to tensions in Lyrical Ballads itself (or "the" Lyrical Ballads "themselves"), gives the critical volume a rare integrity.

Several themes recur: singleness, doubleness, multiplicity, and their shifting relations to each other (including the perennial, still pertinent, question of the Ballads' "unity"); ambivalence about solitude and community; uncertainty, conflict, "dissension and disquiet" (4) as elemental constituents of Wordsworth's verse; the "hidden" Wordsworth of danger, desire, and buried depths; accidents, contradictions, bafflement, self-checkings, and about-faces; continuities and inevitabilities; lyric, narrative, and history; and the symbiotic relationship between "art" and "nature." The contextually informed close readings at the heart of almost all the pieces reinforce the sense of a shared endeavor. Whereas the recent collection 1798: The Year of the Lyrical Ballads, edited by Richard Cronin, was "not a bicentenary reading of Lyrical Ballads, but an exploration of their context,"[1] its 1800 counterpart (featuring several of the same contributors) brilliantly combines both modes. The "1800" of the title refers variously to the second edition of Lyrical Ballads, to the year, and to a longer biographical or cultural "moment."

As the Wordsworthian burden of the above inventory suggests, The New "Lyrical Ballads," with its overmastering emphasis on Wordsworth, brings home with particular force the salient difference between the anonymous 1798 edition and 1800, subtitled "Poems by W. Wordsworth." None of the present authors has felt the need to revisit the oft-told tale of Coleridge's marginalization, a story whose human drama has contributed to the marginalization of the second edition by drawing attention away from its other interesting aspects. Most of the essays treat 1800 as, essentially, the first Collected Poems of Wordsworth. Coleridge remains an important presence, but less often for his poems than for his thinking, so integral to Wordsworth's Wordsworthianism through and beyond 1800. More surprising is the paucity of references to Dorothy Wordsworth, despite her distinct influence on 1800. Were there no compelling "new" perspectives from which to consider her role in the making of the Ballads?

The first four essays in the volume consider the 1798 and 1800 editions together. John Beer discerns in 1798 a "unity" that dissipates before 1800. Wordsworth's and Coleridge's 1798 poems, Beer argues, solicit "a kind of double reading" that acknowledges the tension between "a previous state of disillusionment and hopelessness" and "some kind of positive stance" (10, 11-12) toward which the volume gradually builds. This shared "doubleness" unites the poets as long as the "positive" pole remains an incipient sense. When, however, they begin to define the "positive forces" (12) in distinct ways—with Wordsworth's "human heart" branching off from Coleridge's "One Life"—the special magnetism is lost. Since Beer's point is that the unity of 1798 depends on vaguely formulated ideas that leave out the particulars, the vague formulations in his own writing may be necessary to his argument. But they leave the reader unable to engage the essay's critical judgments except on a general level.

Revisiting the title of Lyrical Ballads, Zachary Leader finds that "[t]he 'known habits of association' of the words 'lyrical' and 'ballad' make their conjunction problematic" (38). Leader invokes Prometheus Unbound, proposing that the tension between the lyrical and the theatrical in Shelley's "Lyrical Drama" can help us to understand the analogous problematic conjunction of genres in Lyrical Ballads. The sublime or lyrical moments in the drama "[take] the subject out of time" (28) and turn the action inward. Despite Leader's awareness that "for some critics" (he cites Marjorie Levinson and Alan Liu) such ideas of lyric are associated with a "denial of history" (36, quoting Liu), he nevertheless emphasizes "static and inward" (30) lyric moments without acknowledging the vital relationship in Shelley between such moments and historical action, a relationship that depends on Shelleyan ideas of imagination as an agent or instrument of historical forces. Such ideas about history and imagination need to be interrogated, but to disregard them is, in its own way, to leave out history. Leader is on firmer ground when, returning to Lyrical Ballads, he acknowledges that "lyric intrusions" (37) into narrative do not necessarily repress "the social or the communal, or history": that, in fact, "halting or disrupting the story can be a way of facing social reality" (36).

This explicit substitution of a positive association between lyric and history for the notion of lyric as escapism is the nearest that any of these essays comes to mounting a polemical response to the (no longer new) "New Historicism." In the undefensively post-new-historical New "Lyrical Ballads," detailed attention to poetic texts coexists with, and is usually inextricable from, consideration of their cultural contexts.

Tim Fulford's "Primitive Poets and Dying Indians" examines one such context, the  literature by and about North American Indians that fed the public hunger for the "exotic" and the "primitive" in the eighteenth century. Fulford shows that factual narratives (some of which included Indian songs) and poems such as Joseph Warton's "Dying Indian" influenced Wordsworth's "Ruth" and "The Complaint of a Forsaken Indian Woman" and Coleridge's "Foster-Mother's Tale"; Wordsworth and Coleridge, in turn, influenced not only other poets but, Fulford suggests, "the ideology of British colonialism," by perpetuating and promulgating a paternalist vision (69). That Fulford does not attempt to show how, precisely, this ideological influence worked allows the focus to remain on the poems themselves, both the Lyrical Ballads (seen in a new light) and the less familiar poems and travel narratives that make up a hitherto rarely examined aspect of the Ballads' cultural milieu. Fulford touches upon the ways in which discourses of colonialism, race, and gender operate in these texts, but his survey never slows down enough to provide a full reading of the complex interactions of these multiple discourses in any particular text. His essay performs a useful function in presenting this interesting "new" material, which merits further revisiting.

A different version of the primitive—that of folklore and the folktale—is the subject of Marilyn Gaull's "Wordsworth and the Six Arts of Childhood." Gaull's classifying impulse (reminiscent of Renaissance treatises such as George Puttenham's Arte of English Poesie) is somewhat perplexingly belied by her readiness to break down "artificial" boundaries. The only distinction she treats at length is that between the fifth art of "children's literature" (moral and didactic tales, histories, and adaptations) and the more exciting, perilous sixth art of the "lawless tales" (Prelude [1805], 5.548, qtd. p. 88) that profoundly influenced Wordsworth's childhood: Arabian Nights, fairy tales, adventure stories, folktales and folk songs. Invoking an array of well-known studies of the role these often cruel and violent forms of literature play in children's psychological development, Gaull examines the element of fear. Against the grain of scholars who view childhood fears as part of an education in sublimity, she emphasizes the equal importance of fear as a "socializing force" (83), reminding us that Wordsworth became known to the Victorians not through his evocations of sublime childhood experiences but through his artificial, formulaic, sentimental writings on children. In making this corrective Gaull risks downplaying the connection that persists between the "lawless tales" and forces of power, danger, and desire that are not "socializing." Her excerpt from the "lawless tales" passage omits the lines explaining that the writers of these tales are "friends" not because they wield "socializing force" but because they make us "feel / With what, and how great might they are in league, / Who make our wish our power, our thought a deed, / An empire, a possession" (Prelude [1805], 5.551-53).[2] Gaull's apparent ambivalence reflects Wordsworth's own as he attempts to attach social feelings to solitary experiences of power.

The next section of the book comprises essays that address the contents of 1800 more directly. Kenneth Johnston's admiring observation about Wordsworth in the Preface aptly describes his own depth of inquiry: "He often starts much further 'down', at the foundations of his subjects, than he needs to, or than most readers would expect" (114). In keeping with the theme of revisionary revisiting that the critical collection shares with its subject, Johnston's essay builds on his own great books. Like other contributors to this volume, he recognizes Wordsworth as a "dialectically contrary poet" (99) and attends to the poet's "ability to admit doubts and qualifications" (109). He reads Wordsworth at the "deepest autobiographical level," where the verse, the Preface, and the life come together in uncanny ways. Thus the minor local-color poem "The Idle Shepherd-Boys" anticipates the two crucial visionary self-recognition scenes [Simplon Pass and Snowdon] of The Prelude" (108), and Michael sounds like "The Mad Mother" or like the father in "The Last of the Flock"—"or like Wordsworth himself at the end of 'Lines written above Tintern Abbey', pleading with Dorothy to keep his life in her mind forever: 'save me', is the message" (120). In other hands, such connections might seem superficial or forced, but Johnston makes us feel that he has found hitherto undiscovered secret passages.

Michael O'Neill's "Lyrical Ballads and 'Pre-Established Codes of Decision'" (the quoted phrase, from the 1798 Advertisement, refers to contemporary assumptions about poetic value) locates the interest and value of the Ballads in their resistance to such codes, their overturning of expectations, and their ways of "involving the reader in what he or she cannot wholly comprehend" (124). The satisfying readings that result examine the play between the many and the single, the communal and the solitary, the general and the specific, the public and the private.  In his memorable discussion of "Michael," O'Neill singles out the devastating line "And never lifted up a single stone." "'Truly expressive' the line may be," he writes, taking up Matthew Arnold's appreciative judgment, "yet what it is truly expressive of is the screened-off unreachability of specific experience" (133), an unreachability found in many other Wordsworth poems. O'Neill's analysis of this and kindred "singular" lines in Wordsworth stands alone in its power to move, yet it also gains power from and lends power to the many other readings in the book that acknowledge a similar dynamic. Johnston's essay, immediately preceding O'Neill's, ends by touching on the same line. Such resonances, which the editors wisely allow to speak for themselves, bring the pieces closer together.

Trott's fascinating piece analyzes Wordsworth's "complicating resistance" to the totalizing, optimistic, Coleridgean view of nature expressed in  the plan of The Recluse (144). Trott identifies two natures straining against each other in the "hybrid form" (155) of the Lyrical Ballads: an innocent nature "immersed in Coleridgean theology" and "another, racier, love of plants" (146), a sexualized, sometimes violent, nature influenced by Erasmus Darwin. Delving into the fertile cultural soil of 1790s botany (which as she notes was involved in "the ongoing ideological crossfire" of that decade [148]), Trott shows how the Ballads sprang from this ground. The co-presence of two natures, she explains, is not generally recognized because Wordsworth soon "marginalizes or moralizes one of them almost out of existence" (156)—though clandestine traces of the sexual content remain. The fecundity of Trott's subject is matched by the vitality of her writing, its sentences sprouting with metaphors, its rhythms expressing potent intellectual charge and release.

Bringing to a close the middle group of essays and interweaving strands from several of them (Johnston, O'Neill, Trott), Perry examines the idea of "accident" in Coleridge's critique of Wordsworth in the Biographia, according to which Wordsworth fails to live up to the Aristotelian principle "that poetry as poetry is essentially ideal, that it avoids and excludes all accident" (qtd. 170). Perry traces a "secret Coleridgean history of inevitability as a criterion of poetic excellence, and accidence as a mark of poetic failure" back to its roots in Coleridge's "theological-cum-political thought of the 1790s" (172), specifically his enthusiasm for the doctrine of historical inevitability. This enthusiasm, communicated by the "always-contagious" Coleridge to his friend (173), forms an important background for Wordsworth's lyrical experiments in the last years of the eighteenth century and the first years of the nineteenth (171).

The story (like those told by Johnston and Trott) is intertwined with that of The Recluse: as Wordsworth continued to fail to write the epic that Coleridge had proposed for him, "[t]he millennial confidence that Coleridge had hoped to enjoy vicariously through his friend's epic was fraying into a new kind of lyric art which explored instead the counter-forces of accidence, contingency, and circumstance" (177). Interesting and insightful as always, Perry traces the uninterrupted path from Coleridge's idea of historical inevitability to his subsequent, more "purely aesthetic" criterion of "the necessity of poetry" (191), the standard by which Wordsworth is repeatedly judged and found wanting in the Biographia. But Coleridge himself is, not surprisingly, inconsistent on the matter: although he continues to criticize Wordsworth for failing to attain the ideal, he sometimes celebrates the characteristically Wordsworthian "hybrid art" of ideal and real, poetic and unpoetic, necessary and accidental (193).

"There is a chaunt in the recitation both of Coleridge and Wordsworth, which acts as a spell upon the hearer, and disarms the judgment," writes Hazlitt in "My First Acquaintance with Poets" (qtd. 200). Lucy Newlyn fascinatingly explores the complex linguistic significance of chanting in Hazlitt's essay, contextualizing it within the politically-charged eighteenth-century dispute about the relative merits of chanting and "plain speaking." Chanting, Newlyn explains, "could claim kinship with the ballad tradition, and with a distinctly progressive notion of primitivism. But it could also attach itself to the more oracular authority of the Anglican church": this doubleness "accounts for the later divergence of Wordsworth's 'natural conversation of men under the influence of natural feelings'" from (that strain again) "Coleridge's Aristotelian belief that 'poetry is essentially ideal'" (202). For Hazlitt this divergence was secondary to the fact that both poets were chanters. Deeply suspicious of the mystifying power of such chanting—and, by extension, of the enchantments of poetry itself—Hazlitt suggests that the chanting and the mutual enchanting of Wordsworth and Coleridge are to blame for "each poet's relinquishment of an authentic radical voice" (200) and for their adoption, as conservative members of the Anglican Church, of increasingly exclusive language. Hazlitt, meanwhile, remained true to "the cause of 'colloquial freedom' in the unambiguously public forum of the periodical press and his medium was always prose" (220). Newlyn's absorbing essay makes two familiar issues new by examining their complex relationship in intriguing detail.

The closing essay by Nicholas Roe surveys Wordsworth's reception in popular editions, commentaries, and memoirs in the years since 1798/1800. Roe sees this varied, lively, and at times bizarre "low" tradition both as an index of the ballads' popularity and, even more important, as a key to their continued vitality. He laments the dwindling of this tradition  in the "high" Romantic criticism of Frank Kermode, Geoffrey Hartman, M.H. Abrams, and Harold Bloom, which bring about the ascendancy of Wordsworth as "poet-prophet of the Coleridgean tradition" (235). (Again Coleridge is held responsible for more than half-creating Wordsworth as we know him.) Roe expresses hope that the recent overturning of the Romantic canon, in calling attention to popular writing of the 1800 moment, will revive the debate over where to locate the life of Lyrical Ballads. He suggests not that the "low" can or should replace the "high" but that, if scholars wish to renew the Ballads for a third century of readers, they need to remember that "the most lively arena" of Wordsworth reception over the past two centuries has been the popular one. Roe sees continued life for the Ballads in renewed debate over the question of the "popular" versus the "artificial" Wordsworth.

Renewing this debate is not the same as restoring Lyrical Ballads to the popular "arena." To the extent that scholars can ever hope to revive the Ballads as (if not a "popular" text) a text capable of appealing to a general readership, we must help to create the taste by which this wider audience can appreciate them. In the undergraduate classroom, where encounters between "high" and "low" readers (in Roe's sense) most often take place, the upending of the canon and the inclusion of popular discourses contemporaneous with the Ballads (and, for that matter, current popular discourses) may help to create new interest. Too often, however, the language that is meant to give expression to the newly rediscovered "popular" aspect works more to exclude than to invite an audience beyond the high-academic one. To cultivate a new readership for Ballads (and even to renew it for an academic audience), scholars must embrace an accessible language. What could be a more fitting way to honor the Ballads as they enter their third century? The real language of reader speaking to reader, as this book so beautifully demonstrates, need not sacrifice newness, nuance, complexity, sophistication, depth, interest, or insight. Far from reducing the poems' difficulty, it can offer more direct access to their enduring opacity, a source of their power and their ability to generate new interpretations.

The hybrid approach of The New "Lyrical Ballads" will make it a boon to scholars and students alike. It revisits old questions and makes them new again. It provides stimulating new perspectives, contexts, and arguments. It extends, deepens, and refines critical understanding of the poems. At the same time, in its authors' eloquent articulation of bafflement in the face of  power or blankness, it reminds us that any attempt to transmit the poems can at best only approach, but never fully explain, the hiding places of their power.[3]

[1]. Tim Fulford, "Richard Cronin, ed. 1798: The Year of the 'Lyrical Ballads ,'" Romanticism On the Net 15 (August 1999), 18 January 2005.  <>
[2]. William Wordsworth, The Prelude: 1799, 1805, 1850, ed. Jonathan Wordsworth, M.H. Abrams, and Stephen Gill (New York: Norton, 1979), p. 180. [back]
[3]. See Peter J. Manning, "On Failing to Teach Wordsworth," Approaches to Teaching Wordsworth's Poetry, ed. Spencer Hall with Jonathan Ramsey (New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1986), pp. 39-53.