Wordsworth and the Well-Hidden Corpse

Marilyn Butler

  • The Lyrical Ballads: Longman Annotated Texts edited by Michael Mason
    Longman, 419 pp, £29.99, April 1992, ISBN 0 582 03302 0
  • Strange Power of Speech: Wordsworth, Coleridge and Literary Possession by Susan Eilenberg
    Oxford, 278 pp, £30.00, May 1992, ISBN 0 19 506856 4
  • The Politics of Nature: Wordsworth and Some Contemporaries by Nicholas Roe
    Macmillan, 186 pp, £35.00, April 1992, ISBN 0 333 52314 8

‘The best-known publication date in English literature,’ says Michael Mason of 1798. But the terse, intelligent Introduction to his new edition of the Lyrical Ballads seems out to disperse the sense of unique significance sticking to the year. Mason points out that the original version of 1798, which was anonymous, caught on less well than the second (1800), twice as long, and firmly attributed to Wordsworth alone. The two authors worked on four editions, appearing over seven years, further proof that there was no ‘historical moment but a sequence of moments’. Mason passes over the innovative 1798 and 1800 and chooses as his text 1805. A revolution, even a sense of historical occasion, is not what he is after.

Facts are one thing, perceptions another, and as Mason also remarks, the date 1798 has acquired resonance partly as a numerical anagram of 1789. Hazlitt exploited the coincidence in the political direction he favoured, by afterwards suggesting that the Lyrical Ballads was to English poetry what the Fall of the Bastille was to the Ancien Régime. Yet the volume was not so interpreted by contemporaries on its appearance in September 1798, when it may actually have disappointed radical expectations.

The first name on the title page was that of the out-of-town publisher Joseph Cottle of Bristol. It’s an odd fact that Cottle authors – the youthful Southey and Coleridge alone, together, or in conjunction with friends such as Lamb – account for most of the modern English poets lampooned for their radicalism in the Government-funded satirical magazine, The Anti-Jacobin, from November 1797 to July 1798. By adding the implicitly genteel ‘Lyrical’ to the plebeian ‘Ballad’, the new partnership of Wordsworth and Coleridge signalled that the series was changing direction. The categories of poem occurring in their 1798 volume – ballad, ‘eclogue’ or pastoral dialogue, inscription, dramatic monologue, rustic character sketch or extract from a verse drama – are standard Cottle fare, but the poems themselves have lost the theme of social or political protest that gives consistency to the contents of Southey’s Poems of 1797, such as his celebrated ‘Botany Bay eclogues’, his sonnets against the slave trade, or his Inscriptions raising notional monuments all over the countryside to eminent dead republicans.

Judged a little less locally, the Wordsworthian lyrical ballad is poetry of its time: that is, poetry of the last decades of the 18th century, not of the early 19th. Within a few years, most, though not all, of the big-selling poems were on public themes, such as history, war and politics, and elaborate historical pastiche was more fashionable than simplicity. As long ago as 1954, in an article still treated as authoritative, R.D. Mayo compared the poems of the Lyrical Ballads with the run of contemporary poetry appearing in the newspapers, journals and literary miscellanies of the day. The drift of the Lyrical Ballads in the direction of nature, simplicity, humanitarianism and sentimental morality was, says Mayo, a cliché, and so far from being Wordsworth’s invention that it could be seen as the ‘excess of a new orthodoxy’.

Mason falls in with both Mayo and Coleridge when he guesses that the Ballads would never have come to seem rebellious if Wordsworth had not added his confusingly worded Preface in 1800. Here he represents the poems as an experiment to replace over elaborate literary language with an idiom he variously describes as ‘the real language of men in a state of vivid sensation’, ‘a selection of language really used by men’, or (in the most obfuscating and questionable version) the language of men in ‘low and rustic life’ who ‘hourly communicate with the best objects from which the best part of language is originally derived’, and hence ‘convey their feelings in simple and unelaborated expressions’. Earlier the Advertisement to Lyrical Ballads (1798) had defined the idiom aimed at as ‘the language of conversation in the middle and lower classes of society’.

Reviewing Southey’s oriental romance, Thalaba the Destroyer, late in 1802, Francis Jeffrey in the first number of the Edinburgh Review brings up the Cottle connection for the first time. Recalling Southey’s earlier political notoriety and Wordsworth’s Preface, he turns the latter by selective quotation into the democratic manifesto of a ‘sect’, the so-called Lake poets. Wordsworth the prose-writer had undone Wordsworth the poet, who, in appropriating Southey’s poetry of simplicity, meant to leave Southey himself behind.

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