Home  »  Volume XI: English THE PERIOD OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION  »  § 7. Lyrical Ballads

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XI. The Period of the French Revolution.

V. William Wordsworth

§ 7. Lyrical Ballads

But, during his stay with Coleridge in Somersetshire, Wordsworth did not only lay the foundations of his Recluse. The same intercourse gave birth to less ambitious and more immediate verse, to the famous Lyrical Ballads of 1798, a small volume of short poems by Coleridge and himself. It is well known how, after some fruitless attempts at collaboration, the two friends agreed to divide the field of poetry. To the share of Coleridge fell such subjects as were supernatural, or, at any rate, romantic, which he was to inform with a human interest and a semblance of truth. Wordsworth’s part was to be the events of everyday life, by preference in its humblest form; the characters and incidents of his poems “were to be such as will be found in every village and its vicinity where there is a meditative and feeling mind to seek after them, or to notice them when they present themselves.” Thus did Coleridge sing The Ancient Mariner, while Wordsworth told the tales Goody Blake and Simon Lee. Nothing can better show Wordsworth’s minute realism, how necessary it was to him to hold a little of his mother earth within his fingers. His homely ballads are so many humble practical illustrations of the philosophy he was at this very time promulgating in lofty blank verse, for instance, in his lyrical hymn of thanks to nature, Tintern Abbey. The ballads have “a something corporeal, a matter-of-factness,” which Coleridge could not help lamenting. They are not only clad in humble garb, but, to a certain extent, are more scientific than poetic in their aim. There survived so much of Wordsworth’s former rationalism that he almost gave the precedence to psychology over poetry in these experiments. The preface of the 1800 edition of the Ballads really looks like the programme of a man of science. He is inspired by a wish to know more, and make more known, of the human heart. He goes so far as to call poetry “the history and science of the feelings.”

Perfect unity is not characteristic of this period so much as a gladsome energy exerted in several directions. “He never wrote with such glee.” His new reading of nature and of man fills him with delight—together with the life he now leads between the most wonderful of friends and the most devoted of inspired sisters. He had such superfluous joy that “he could afford to suffer with those he saw suffer,” that he was “bold to look on painful things.” He believed in “the deep power of joy,” by means of which “we see into the life of things.” He made joy the chief attribute of poetry, proclaimed poets “the happiest of men.” He rejoiced in his own boldness, found vent for his surviving republicanism in a sweeping, democratic reform of poetical style—putting down the time-honoured hierarchy of words, abolishing the traditional distinction between high and low, in subjects and diction.

These trustful feelings, this spontaneous optimism, expressive of his unimpaired vitality, sustained him throughout the years from 1798 to 1805, during which period his best and most original poetry was written, whether at Alfoxden, or in Germany, where he stayed with his sister from September, 1798, to April, 1799, or in the glorious humility of Dove cottage, at Grasmere, in the lake country, where he settled with Dorothy in the last days of the century and where Coleridge was again his frequent visitant, or in his wanderings over Scotland, with both Coleridge and Dorothy, from August to October 1803. A period of “plain living and high thinking,” made famous by great verse.

One may fix on 1805 as the year in, or about, which this period of Wordsworth’s poetical life closes. He had now, if not published, at least written, nearly all that is supreme in his works—his only book of The Recluse, all The Prelude, the best parts of The Excursion, besides many of the best and boldest of his short poems, ballads and sonnets. His great Ode on Immortality was all but finished. Had he died then, in his thirty-sixth year, having lived as long as Byron and much longer than Shelley or Keats, he would have left a fame almost as high as he was to attain, though of a different character. His freshness of thought and style being taken together, his works would have stamped him as one of the most daring among the poets of his day. The sedate and sometimes conventional moralising which has been associated with his name comes into existence in his later productions. But it should be added that, for ten years, he was to achieve, in a new direction, some verse that “one would not willingly let die.”

Outward events and the circumstances of his own life had something to do with the change that took place in him about 1805. Politically, it was caused by the beginning of the French empire, the crowning of Napoleon by the pope, “a sad reverse for all mankind”; hence, the final overthrow of Wordsworth’s sympathies for the revolution, the decisive proof (so he thought) that his former ideal was false and treacherous. This led him to suspect more and more all that, in his ideas, still savoured of revolt; it caused him to rally more closely round the principles of order and repent his former wishes of social change. The grey tints of mistrust slowly overlaid the glowing enthusiasms of yore. It is true that Wordsworth’s feelings were roused, chiefly by the Spanish war, to a patriotic fervour that found expression in many a vigorous sonnet and even turned him into a pamphleteer. His eloquent and ponderous Convention of Cintra (1809) shows the fighting spirit that was in him. But it had the inconvenience of leading him from verse to prose, from poetry to dialectics, and thus generated an oratorical habit that was to infect many parts of his Excursion.