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The Lyrical Ballads Of William Wordsworth English Literature Essay

In his Preface to Lyrical Ballads, William Wordsworth states his intent to redefine poetry in a way that would make it more accessible, and more interesting, to common people. Thus, Lyrical Ballads should be read as Wordsworth’s attempt to write poetry, which is in the language of common men and, to write, in an interesting way, about incidents and situations from common life. [1] In this way he could write imaginatively about ordinary things in order that they may appear as interesting. On the other hand, Scott McEathron points out that although Wordsworth is often accepted to have succeeded in confronting embedded authority of neoclassicism, it is important to consider that by “imitating” the language of the common people, Wordsworth can also be seen as invading the domain of peasant writers and supplanting them of their own artistic authority. [2] Wordsworth had of course chosen to write, in particular, about “low and rustic life” because he believed that the passions of such a life were better expressed using common language. [3] Andrew Abbott argues that Wordsworth wrote in this way because of his belief that there are certain places in the world where human emotion and behaviour rise closest to the surface. [4] Wordsworth wanted lyric to discern in simple things the primary laws of our nature. [5] In this way, Lyrical Ballads is the type of literature that a common man might have read and is written in the kind of language he might have used.

Douglas Berman, in a dissertation analysing the critical reception of Wordsworth’s Preface questions Wordsworth’s success in achieving the rhetoric set out in the Preface to Lyrical Ballads. He questions whether Lyrical Ballads was truly revolutionary in its defiance of neoclassicism and revaluing of poetic language or if it remained on par with other late eighteenth century poetry? [6] In effect, he is asking whether or not Wordsworth succeeded in his “experiment” to bring, to the forefront of poet diction, the common “language of men”, or was his work too similar to other works of the day to be considered truly revolutionary? Berman points out that Lyrical Ballads could be considered successful for establishing a platform that married the importance of common language with the value of rural people and the simple ballad form. Challenges to this argument are that Lyrical Ballads did not differ significantly in subject and theme from other popular poetry of Wordsworth’s day and thus is less original than he advocated. [7] Robert Mayo championed this view in his 1954 essay “The Contemporaneity of Lyrical Ballads”. He argued that Lyrical Ballads did not represent any sort of “radical departure” for poetry. [8] So perhaps it is Wordsworth’s rhetorical stance in the Preface, and not his poetic writings, which should be examined when considering whether or not his proposition, to adopt common language into the appreciation of poetic value, was a success.

Wordsworth sought to redefine poetry and in consequence, would have been working against established writings of the day. McEathron points out that the ideas expressed forth in the Preface marked a radical break in British literary history. [9] Juan Christian Pellicer, in a 2004 article, likens the 1798 publication of Lyrical Ballads to the revolutionary “storming of the Bastille”, and the Preface of 1800 as a “manifesto” marking the ousting of an old regime in favour of a more modern “republic of letters along enlightened and egalitarian lines”. Pellicer is in agreement with the consideration that Lyrical Ballads, and in particular the Preface, were instigators of “radical literary change”. [10] Wordsworth, himself, spoke against the writings of his predecessors, saying that they had “become proud of a language, which they alone had invented and, which they alone spoke.” [11] Wordsworth’s strong belief in the merits of “low and rustic life” can be seen to be at odds with established literary conventions that did not warrant the inclusion of common language associated with rural classes. He believed that the original function of poetry was to convey complex emotions, which had been naturally inspired by common events. Moreover, he chose the language of the common people because of its already established usage in communicating within the rural context from where the “best part of (English) language” had originated. [12] He further argues the importance of a return to rural literary tradition, citing that it was the language of the earliest poets who had written “naturally, and as men”. [13] Thus, Lyrical Ballads can be read as a challenge to established traditions and as a return to more simplistic forms of poetic diction in order to better explore human emotions and behaviours.

Despite a sense of simplicity, the Ballads are complex in their understanding of human life and, in particular, of human emotion. Abbott argues that Wordsworth had in mind to propagate an emotional imagination, which could juxtapose strong images and powerful feelings to awaken in the reader the emotion originally felt by the poet. [14] Moreover, Wordsworth himself wrote that poetry is a spontaneous outflow of powerful feeling and emotion, which are consciously contemplated, and then calmly recollected, before being written into verse. [15] Such is the case in Wordsworth’s ballad Strange fits of passion have I known, which was included in the 1800 edition of Lyrical Ballads. While writing in simple form, Wordsworth, nonetheless, succeeds in conveying a complex understanding of love and loss. The ballad contains just seven stanzas, containing alternating lines of iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter, and employs an ABAB rhyming scheme. It is because of this simple form that the ballad may also be considered lyrical in form because of its melodic and song-like rhythm. The poem’s simple form is congruent with Wordsworth’s decision, examined in the Preface, to write poems about common occurrences involving common people.

The ballad is a personal story and as such expresses the emotional feelings of the storyteller, whom one could assume is Wordsworth. The poet provocatively engages the reader with the opening line, “Strange fits of passion have I known” [16] . The reader is to be drawn into the narrative and engaged to wonder what, indeed, happened to the narrator and what was so strange about it? Furthermore, by writing that he “will dare to the Lover’s ear alone” [17] , the reader feels invited to hear a tale that they may not, necessarily, be privy too. However, what is so strange about the tale is only revealed in the final stanza when the “strange fits of passion” are revealed to be the narrator’s fantasy that, “Lucy (his lover) should be dead!” [18] On the other hand, it would seem that by the end of the story, the narrator is also suggesting that his “strange fits of passion” are actually “fond and wayward thoughts (that) slide into a Lover’s head” [19] . This effect is simply achieved by producing a line in the last stanza, which is similar to the opening line from the first stanza. The suggestion that his “strange” thoughts are also “fond” thoughts invites the reader to understand that the narrator knows, very well, that his imagining “if Lucy should be dead” is only a fantasy and not, indeed, strange at all; it could have happened to anyone. This perceived acknowledgement allows for the reader to identify and sympathise with the narrator of the story. Moreover, it would seem the Wordsworth succeeded in imagining a tale in poetic verse that dealt with an incident from common life. [20] 

The poet emphasizes the familiarity of the rustic landscape in his poetic narrative. This familiarity is juxtaposed with the strangeness and assumed ‘unfamiliarity’ of his feelings. In fact, his surroundings are so familiar that he fixes his eye “upon the moon” and not on the area around him. The definite article “the” is used to emphasise the familiarity of objects such as “the wide lea; [21] the orchard plot; [22] and the hill”. [23] This familiarity further juxtaposes the “strange fits of passion” with the context of the narrator who seems, at odds, quite at ease. On the other hand, the narrator’s description that the “sinking moon to Lucy’s cot came near, and nearer still” [24] elicits a sense of foreboding in the mind of the narrator. Furthermore, the narrator explains that at another time or “in one of those sweet dreams” [25] he might have thought well of “Nature’s gentlest boon.” [26] However, he is weary and so “all the while” keeps his eyes “on the descending moon” [27] . It is here that the narrator is revealing his feeling that something ‘strange’ is, in fact, afoot. Next, the narrator, on his horse, “hoof after hoof” [28] , implies the plodding nature of his journey, whilst also further seeking to build suspense for the reader. Then, all of a sudden, “the bright moon dropped”. [29] The narrator is finally plunged into the “strange fit of passion” by this sudden setting of the moon. The familiarity of his surroundings is replaced by the cry, “O mercy!”, [30] as the fantasy of his lover’s death befalls him. The narrator does not seek to clarify his “strange fit of passion”, but leaves the poem open-ended, perhaps as an attempt to allow further speculation as to the fantasy’s strangeness. It might seem apparent that there is no reasoning to be found in such a “wayward thought” and a reader might understand that therein lays its strangeness. Perhaps, the irrationality of such a thought is the common element with which a reader is to identify.

Charles Ryskamp writes that “few moments of literary history have been so frequently described, or so thoroughly worried, as the year which gave birth to Lyrical Ballads.” [31] Considering why this is the case has been the focus of this essay. Berman pointed out that Ryskamp was attempting to differentiate between “Wordsworth’s revolutionary and traditional achievements” and suggests that it is our task to differentiate between what is original and what is not. [32] Likewise, so it is our task to consider whether or not Wordsworth succeeded in “imitating, and, so far as possible, adopting the very language of men.” Rhetorically, this statement, from the Preface to Lyrical Ballads, was groundbreaking, as it sought to redefine poetry. Nevertheless, as Berman further suggests, the Preface is open-ended, so it is not surprising that it has given rise to numerous conflicting interpretations. [33] Wordsworth, himself, “ended” the Preface by stating that it is the “Reader” who will determine his success and, more importantly, “whether (success) be worth attaining’. [34] 

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