The Lyrical Ballads: Wordsworth and Coleridge

The Lyrical Ballads, first published in 1798, were a collection of poems collected and collaborated by William Wordsworth (1770-1850) and Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834). This pair of writers made one feel and wonder in different ways. Coleridge would take the mysterious and wondrous, and bring them down to ordinary life. Wordsworth had the opposite effect, he made one wonder about the ordinary world we see in the scenic, rustic route. My first reading in the Lyrical Ballads will be The Rhime of the Ancient Mariner. For Wordsworth I will read his Tintern Abbey. However, first, I believe I should read the preface to the Lyrical Ballads to get a basic understanding of the project. Coleridge let Wordsworth write the preface to the Lyrical Ballads in a later edition when people wanted to know more about what these poems were about. Later on, he believed this to be a mistake and wrote his Biographia Literaria, often criticizing Wordsworth’s philosophy on poetry. It would do me well to take a brief look at that also.


In the Preface to the Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth writes that:

I hoped, might be of some use to ascertain, how far, by fitting to metrical arrangement a selection of the real language of men in a state of vivid sensation, that sort of pleasure and that quantity of pleasure may be imparted, which a poet may rationally endeavor to impart.

When he wrote “the real language of men” he meant to write to the common man. This is no unique task. Virgil broke from Greek to write The Aeneid in Latin. Dante broke from Latin to write in Italian. What was happening with the English languish was a flourishing that was peaking over the centuries. The common man had trouble understanding the great masterworks of the English language such as Shakespeare and Milton. What Wordsworth hoped to accomplish was to touch the hearts of every man and to bring them out of the ordinary, mundane world, that was becoming ever more industrialized, into a more wondrous one that they haven’t seen yet.

[A]ll good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: but though this be true, Poems to which any value can be attached, were never produced on any variety of subjects but by a man, who possessed of more than usual organic sensibility, had also thought long and deeply. For out continual influxes of feelings are modified and directed by our thoughts, which are indeed the representatives of all our past feelings.

This spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings is what drives and motivates the sensitive soul Wordsworth believes. But this man must also have good taste, a taste that speaks to the people. It is sympathy that unleashes this capacity, and taste which elevates. Sympathy allows us to have a deep attachment to the world and the people around it. Furthermore, we see a dialect between thoughts and feelings and how they are interdependent, and how crucial our childhood development is, for our past feelings towards the world will impact the feelings we will have in the present moment. To be brought up in an industrialized city, away from nature, would be a most unnatural thing would it not? Daniel thought. How would man see the world if only seen through the lens of the industrial revolution and its pollution?

Wordsworth goes on to say in his aesthetic creed that with the friction of what is really important to man we can gradually ‘if he be in a healthful state of association, must necessarily be in some degree enlightened, and his affections ameliorated , or otherwise, improved. On the Lyrical Ballads, he continues:

I should only mention one other circumstance which distinguish these Poems from the popular Poetry of the day; it is this, that the feeling therein developed gives importance to the action and situation, and not the action and situation to the feeling.

What this means is that these poems are not directed by irrational feelings. They are directed by actions and situations found in the word of the imagination of Coleridge and the world of Wordsworth.

For the human mind is capable of being excited without application of gross or violent stimulants; and he must have a very faint perception of its beauty and dignity who does not know this, and who does not further know, that one being is elevated above another, in proportion as he possesses this capability. It has therefore appeared to me, that to endeavor to produce or enlarge this capability is one of the best services in which, at any period, a Writer can engage [However] a multitude of causes are now acting with combined forces to blunt the discriminating powers of the mind, and the unfitting it for all the voluntary exertion to reduce it to a state of almost savage torpor.

The mind is the most sensitive organ we have. All the senses feed into it and it interprets it all. What we see, hear, and read has a profound impact on our soul. Plato rebels against the profane for what is True, Beautiful, and Just. The Music we listen to, David warned me, only deafens us to the harmonious. And what of this world we live in, this age of information and the computer, where what we can see is at our fingertips and all that rhymes with the computer bit. This is the dangerous world Wordsworth warns us about when he speaks of savage torpor.

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What is a Poet?… He is a man speaking to men: a man, it is true, endued with more lively sensibility, more enthusiasm and tenderness, who has a greater knowledge of human nature, and a more comprehensive soul, than are supposed to be common among mankind [He has] an ability of conjuring up in himself passions, which are indeed far from being the same as those produced by real events he has acquired a greater readiness and power in expressing what he thinks and feels, and especially those thoughts and feelings which, by his own choice, or from the structures of his own mind, arise in him without immediate external excitement.

He goes on to say that it is the wish of the poet to imitate the passions so to sympathize, and to ultimately empathize with modern man and his sufferings for the specific purpose of bringing pleasure. However, I feel differently about this. I feel a deep connection with the dark world that brings me directly in touch with the suffering of modern man. I don’t need to imitate my passion for I feel them directly for I am modern man, and I feel it directly. Wordsworth went to Cambridge. I did not. I labor in the sun by summer and starve by winter. So in his poetry there might be a disconnect in its authenticity to empathy, however, I do not doubt his poetry of sympathy.

The Man of Science seeks truth as a remote and unknown benefactor; he cherishes and loves it in his solitude: the Poet, singing a song in which all human beings join with him, rejoices in the presence of truth as our visible friend and hourly companion. Poetry is the breath and finer spirit of all knowledge.

Science isn’t necessarily a practice of solitude, nor poetry one of constant companionship, but there is something mechanized by science that the humanities try to harmonize. Science doesn’t speak to the heart. So, the question is, which gets us further down the road? Science is an elusive term. There is political science, cognitive science, economic science, Christian science and many more. So, we have to determine a definition of science. First, it isn’t one simple method. “The” scientific method taught in school just isn’t so. There are a plurality of methods. However, its foundation is built upon empiricism. There is a dialectic between one’s mode of inquiry and one’s ontology (what has true existence), for one dictates the other. We see this same dialectic in what science is forever fated to discover. The age of enlightenment was an engine of reason and empiricism and promised much, however, there were perils, because it couldn’t answer the human problems. Just take a look at the novel Frankenstein, The creature was merely assembled by parts and created without love. Dr. Frankenstein left out the moral niceties, which haunted him to his last breath. So, where else does science fall short? First, science will never be able to explain the most intimate part of ourselves, which is consciousness, because you can’t objectively see consciousness on the butcher’s board or with a dissecting needle. It’s subjective not objective. Neither intentionality (motives, desires, ideas etc..) nor phenomenology (what we perceive with the sensations and feelings) can be objectively seen. These are intrinsic properties, and science can only hint at the extrinsic world. Instead, we must ask a person questions and make inferences. This is the explanatory gap that will remain theoretical. Second, it’s science’s domain to explain physical “causes”. However, in contrast, our minds create mental “reasons” that then must justify the physical causes. E=mc2 is an empty equation, because it doesn’t explain anything about why it is so. It’s just like asking, “why is smith at the bus station instead of taking a taxi?” We can explain the particles, the chemistry, the movements, but nowhere in there do we see a reason why he is taking the bus. Finally, science can’t explain what most moves us. To understand what moves us we must be liberated from the scientific eye. Part of ourselves is sublimated and moved by hidden forces that are better discovered through the expression of art and literature. The poets know this.

I would rather someone know what “Cans’t thou minister to a mind diseased?” means rather than memorize the diameter of the moon. (Matthew Arnold) I want to stress this point, because through the great tragedies one can come to find themselves in a big drama, and that their play needs to be worked out in a better way. Poetry and prose can speak to something deeper within our nature in such a way as to see something more real than reality in the emblems and icons on the stage of characters, or written on the page with metaphors and allegories. I’ve found science–when it comes to explaining the problem of knowledge, the problem of conduct, and the problem of governance–has built in limitations, and will forever bear the mark of its maker.

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