Friday, October 9, 2009

He read, and read, and read 'till his brain turned - a return to Lyrical Ballads

First, Randall Jarrell recommends the second book of The Excursion.

Second, reading The Prelude of 1850 - no, writing about it - sent me back to, or near, the beginning, to the 1798 Lyrical Ballads, with A Few Other Poems, in which two energetic anonymous youths revolutionize English poetry.

Or so I am told. As with so many "first books," the revolutionary force of Lyrical Ballads has been so throughly absorbed and diffused that there is little hope of finding it again. Even compared to earlier poets, the books does not seem so unique, hardly as radical as anything William Blake had already done.

And it's not even a collection of the Best of Wordsworth and Coleridge. A few of their finest poems are in the book, but there's lots of more ordinary stuff. Ordinary for them, at least. Nevertheless, it's a wonderful poetry book, a work that functions as a book, a treat to revisit.

Lyrical Ballads begins with "The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere," more old-timey than the later, anthologized version. The "Rime" takes up a fair chunk of the book, and I think only three other poems belong to Coleridge. But all of the poems seem to talk to each other. "The Rime" is followed by another Coleridge poem, a fragment, "The Foster-Mother's Tale," which describes a boy who "never learnt a prayer" but "knew the names of birds," until, "poor wretch!", he unfortunately became educated, and "read, and read, and read, \ 'Till his brain turned." A sad story. Variations on this fellow will show up again, perhaps, occasionally, in the form of William Wordsworth. This poor lad goes to sea and escaped into the wilds, where he "lived and died among the savage men."

Sailors, that's one theme. Children and mothers; children and fathers; dying children and grieving mothers. "We Are Seven," about a child's innocent view of death, is insipid on its own. But it gains strength in the company of "The Female Vagrant" and "The Thorn" (a story, perhaps, of infanticide), and "The Mad Mother," and others.

Lyrical Ballads ends with "Tintern Abbey," The Prelude in miniature, an attempt to understand the move from a time when nature "was all in all" to a more mature or grander:

                                     a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused.
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man;
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things. (96-103)

 Plenty vague, still. "All thinking things," that's key. Wordsworth was never really a nature poet, not like John Clare or William Cullen Bryant. His subject was people in their landscape, not just the landscape itself. Coleridge was something else entirely. Strange how well they meshed here. I don't know another book like this one.


  1. The more I read over the years about Wordsworth and Coleridge, the more baffled I am about their stormy on-again-off-again friendship. Their collaboration on Lyrical Ballads was one of the great intersections of genius in literary history; few other collaborations produced anything quite so singular and important. As for Wordsworth, he always impresses me as someone who I would very much enjoy meeting but would soon grow weary of knowing. As for Coleridge, I would be extremely wary of him initially but would be reluctantly drawn to his bizarre personality (which would probably be something like the moth to the flame). As for their poetry (and as for me), reading Lyrical Ballads more than suffices as time well spent with both poets.

  2. The oddest thing is that at the exact same time that Wordsworth and Coleridge were collaborating, another one of these unlikely pairings was taking place in Weimar. But there's no book to point to to show what Goethe and Schiller were doing together.

  3. I am not familiar with the Goethe and Schiller collaborations; however, let us hope they got along better than Wordsworth and Coleridge in the subsequent years. And I would assume that neither Schiller nor Goethe fell prey to the kind of debilitating addictions that so addled Coleridge (and probably exacerbated his strained friendships).

  4. I've just been studying that myself--Schiller's Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man and Goethe's The Green Snake and the White Lily. Funny.

  5. With research and ponderation, I've concluded that I'm not quite right about the lack of a Goethe-Schiller book. The Aesthetic Letters, although under Schiller's name, are in some sense collaborative, and there are other examples, mostly from the journals they worked on.

    I haven't read the Schiller, by the way - are you going to write about them, nicole? Or that Goethe story? Is that one of the most difficult texts ever? Or one of the easiest? What the heck is it?

    The Goethe-Schiller relationship was complicated, but without the personality-driven nonsense of Wordsworth-Coleridge. It ended with Schiller's early death, age 45, so there was no room for a falling out.

    Maybe I should do some re-reading and do a big Goethe roundup.

  6. I wasn't going to write about any of it...I haven't read all of the Aesthetic Letters, yet. I also read "On Naive and Sentimental Poetry," and its quasi-philosophy is really Not My Sort of Thing. I was scrawling "you're making this up!!!" all over the essay. Not that it's not worth's interesting and all, but, you know, "So long as we were merely children of nature, we were happy and perfect; we have become free and have lost both." I guess it's hard when you don't buy the premise.

    Goethe's fairy tale is crazy. Both one of the easiest and one of the most difficult. But it's so mannered...more like an intellectual exercise than anything else, you can't miss the self-consciousness. There's a ton of stuff going on and it's clearly the sort of thing that's probably inexhaustible with re-reading, but also sort of ridiculous.

    Ah, I have such a love-hate relationship with the Romantics. And I'm liking ETA Hoffman WAY better than either of these guys.

  7. Making it all up, what do you mean? I think it's all Kant and Fichte and such esoteric creatures. Schiller's not making it up; someone else already did. (I actually have read "On Naive and Sentimental Poetry").

    That's the key to reading philosophy, isn't it? DO NOT argue with the premise. File away your objections for later. See where the premise takes you. If only I possessed this key.

    Hoffmann is so good, mostly. A thousand stories were launched off of that Goethe fairy tale, all more enjoyable. But Goethe's art is only coincidentally related to such mundane concepts as "enjoyment."

  8. DO NOT argue with the premise. File away your objections for later. See where the premise takes you. If only I possessed this key.

    Yeah, I often don't have that key either, but I also felt like Schiller was being so unrigorous about seeing where the premise took him, too. So much feeling. Oops, Romanticism!

    A thousand stories were launched off of that Goethe fairy tale, all more enjoyable. But Goethe's art is only coincidentally related to such mundane concepts as "enjoyment."