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.