Lyrical Ballads by Unlikely Lads 200 Years Ago Wordsworth and Coleridge Revolutionised Poetry. Now What? Asks William Scammell
Scammell, William, The Independent (London, England)
Two hundred years ago, in September 1798, a couple of unknowns published a book of poems, in the hope of raising a bit of ready cash. It was ushered into the world not by a smart London publisher but by a small regional one in Bristol. And it was anonymous. So apart from a few close friends nobody knew who had written it for, as Coleridge said to Wordsworth: "You're unknown and my name stinks." So Lyrical Ballads slid quietly into a few bookshops and revolutionised poetry for the next 100 years and more.
One revolution was announced in its title, which fuses together two distinct genres, the lyric, which usually implies love and something song-like in the delivery, and the ballad, forerunner of a million novels, which emphatically tells a story. Another was spelt out post facto in the famous Preface Wordsworth wrote when the little book went into a second edition: it was "an experiment", written in "a selection of the real language of men in a state of vivid sensation", in order to ascertain what sort of pleasure, and what "quantity of pleasure ... a Poet may rationally endeavour to impart".
It wanted to do away with poetic diction, and likewise with the reactionary politics underlying notions of decorum, dictating which subjects were and were not fit for any self-respecting poet to write about. The two conspirators wanted a poetry that would "interest mankind permanently", one which would explore "the essential passions of the heart ... the fluxes and refluxes of the mind when agitated by the great and simple affections of our nature". Note the careful mix of words, scientific and humanist, in Wordsworth's two-cultures approach.
In short, they wanted to deregulate the muse, freeing up poetry from the stranglehold of official culture and politics, just as Milton and the puritans wanted to deregulate theology, wresting God out of the hands of the priesthood and giving him back to the people. This so alarmed certain Enlightenment savants wedded to the status quo that they hurriedly invented terms of abuse to pelt such upstarts with, such as the "Lake School of Poets", a patent nonsense, or the "Cockney School", in which Keats might be smothered at birth, or the "Satanic School", dreamt up in order to drum the wicked Lord Byron out of polite society.
Long before the French began thinking of their poets as "damned" and poets themselves began wearing the label proudly like a badge, permanently at odds with a repressive and philistine bourgeoisie, William and Sam tuned into democracy, dropped out of the professions, and set up that rural Bohemia which has been with us ever since, where truth and beauty might be reconciled - the forerunner of various utopias, from Lawrence's Rananim to Kerouac's life-as-road- movie and the non serviam or rebellious kick of rock 'n' roll.
If that seems a long way from "emotion recollected in tranquillity", so is poetry from the levers of power (whatever Shelley said about "the unacknowledged legislators of mankind") and Grasmere from London. Yet connections were laid down, moral forces exerted. Those connections were renewed in a conference held at Grasmere last week, "Of Poets and Poetry Today", to celebrate the bicentenary of Lyrical Ballads, still fresh as the day it was born, and to discuss what's happening in English poetry now. Seamus Heaney (once a special advisor to Irish president Mary Robinson - times have changed a little) headed an all-star cast of poets and critics gathered to pay homage to their illustrious forbears and to hear what today's young Turks are doing with their inheritance.
Heaney was joined by Douglas Dunn and Andrew Motion to open proceedings on Tuesday evening with a reading, attended by about 250 people. Tony Harrison, also billed to appear, was in Italy with a film crew. On an action-packed Wednesday, in the sybaritic surroundings of a luxury hotel above Windermere, Seamus delivered the keynote address on Wordsworth, a characteristic mixture of insight, humour and charm. …