Wordsworth and Coleridge: 'Lyrical Ballads'

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WORDSWORTH AND COLERIDGE: 'LYRICAL BALLADS'. By John Blades. Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004. Pp. xii + 291. ISBN 978 1 4039 04804. £45.00 (hb) / £14.99 (pb).

This student textbook is part of Palgrave Macmillan's expanding 'Analysing Texts' series, under the general editorship of Nicholas Marsh, which includes a number of volumes on Romantic-period authors. The General Editor's Preface explains that the series is based on the claim that 'we can all enjoy, understand and analyse literature for ourselves, provided we know how to do it', a claim that appears tautologous and self-evident. These books, Marsh tells the apprentice reader, 'will not do all the work for you, but will provide you with the tools, and show you how to use them'. They do so by providing 'samples of close, detailed analysis, with an explanation of the analytical techniques utilised'. The series, then, focusing on the writing of individual authors (except in the present case), seeks to provide exemplary textual analysis alongside relevant contextual information in order to enable students and other inexperienced readers to read for themselves.

Blades' book on Lyrical Ballads consists of two parts. 'Part 1: Analysing Lyrical Ballads' presents readings of sixteen poems from Lyrical Ballads organised into five chapters according to five different themes ('Childhood and the Growth of the Mind', 'Imagination', 'Old Age', 'Social Issues' and 'Nature and the Supernatural'). 'Part 2: The Context and the Critics' consists of five chapters on 'The Politics of Wordsworth and Coleridge', 'Reading and Writing in Eighteenth-Century England', 'The Poet as Critic and Theorist', 'Dorothy Wordsworth and the Lake Poets' and 'Critical Responses to Lyrical Ballads'. One way of approaching Blades' book is to examine its success in meeting the series' stated aims. In these terms, I suggest, the present book falls short in too many ways.

A major problem throughout is that Blades fails to anticipate the needs and potential difficulties of his intended readership. Apparently assuming that his readers are already familiar with Lyrical Ballads and have a modern edition to hand, he does not bother to give basic introductory information about the original publication and often analyses long poems on the basis of short extracts while nonetheless referring to passages that he has not quoted. His failure to put himself in the place of the intended reader manifests itself in other ways as well. The first poetic analysis begins, for example, with the information that 'Lucy Gray' is based on 'a story suggested by Dorothy', but there is no indication of who 'Dorothy' might be. More seriously, while some of Blades' readings of individual poems can be insightful, he signally fails to explain the analytical techniques and terminology he uses and the assumptions he makes in developing those readings. Too many of his interpretive claims are simply presented as obvious truths (bolstered by 'of course', 'clearly', etc.), potentially leaving the apprentice reader baffled as to how he arrives at his insights. One arbitrary assertion among many is the claim that Lucy's 'recognition of the moon in line 20 suggests that she sees in it something of a natural, celestial father' - a claim that appears to have no basis whatsoever in line 20, in which Lucy simply says 'And yonder is the Moon'. The intended reader is also likely to be excluded by the way that far too much background knowledge is taken for granted and/or deferred until the end of the book. Similarly, Blades often laces his discussion with literary allusions that the intended readership is not likely to notice or understand. In other words, the book appears to me to fail in multiple ways to meet the brief of the series.

There are further errors that make the book not only of limited use to the intended readership, but also potentially damaging. The analytic technique and presentation display many of the faults that university teachers of English strive to eliminate from their students' essays. …