Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Moderation in the Lyrical Ballads: Wordsworth and the Ballad Debates of the 1790s

Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Moderation in the Lyrical Ballads: Wordsworth and the Ballad Debates of the 1790s

Article excerpt

IN A GENERALLY FAVORABLE REVIEW OF THE 1800 EDITION OF THE LYRICAL Ballads published in The British Critic, John Stoddart took exception to the title of Wordsworth's collection for two reasons. Firstly, there were many compositions in blank verse that were not at all lyrical, and secondly, the title was a tautology: "For what Ballads are not Lyrical?" he asked. (1) Precisely what Stoddart understood by the terms "lyrical" and "ballad" is not entirely clear, but his suggestion that ballads had always been lyrical challenges the frequent supposition that in combining these terms Wordsworth and Coleridge had developed a revolutionary new form of poetic expression. Marilyn Butler, for example, wrote that "by adding the implicitly genteel 'Lyrical' to the plebeian 'Ballad,' "Wordsworth and Coleridge signaled a "change of direction" for English radical poetry. (2) As Stoddart's review implies, however, a decade after the French Revolution it was not at all self-evident that these poetic forms mapped as cleanly onto social hierarchies as Butler implies. (3)

Whether the term "lyrical ballad" was a contradiction, a tautology, or an unexceptional generic description is significant given the claims frequently made for the revolutionary nature of Wordsworth's and Coleridge's collection, and its monumental position in the canon of British poetry. The nature of the lyric has been a touchstone for Romanticist scholarship since well before M. H. Abrams first described the "Greater Romantic Lyric" in 1965. (4) The ballad, however, has received a similar kind of attention only more recently but, as I hope to demonstrate, it is worth our trouble to be precise about what was understood by the term "ballad" in the period leading up to the publication of Wordsworth's and Coleridge's collection. By mapping the landscape of popular balladry in the 1790s, taking into account both radical and conservative valuations, I will show how the ballad form had become suffused with anxieties about class, literacy, piety and the interaction of orality and print. Seen in the context of ongoing controversies about the ballad, it becomes clear how careful Wordsworth is in the Preface to present his collection neither as revolutionary, nor as a withdrawal from the political domain, but as cautiously, complexly moderate--a thorny middle ground between radical zeal and sanctimonious piety.

My main interest here is in Wordsworth's theory of balladry, and how the "Preface" participates in contemporary debates about the aesthetics and politics of the ballad and the stakes involved in engaging those debates. As critics from Wordsworth's contemporaries on have frequently pointed out, however, the Preface and the poems it precedes are not necessarily coextensive, and the theory is often unevenly deployed in practice. But seen in the light of the ballad debates of the 1790s, certain poems in the collection that have received scant critical attention, such as "The Two Thieves," appear newly significant for the way they engage with ballad debates. A detailed excavation of these controversies helps us understand that Stoddart's objection to the tautology of the collection's title was a calculated stance, itself an intervention into fiercely contested disputes over the meaning of the ballad form. As I will show, no one who had lived through the 1790s--not Stoddart, and certainly not Wordsworth--could have been insensible to the powerfully contested social, moral, and political valances that balladry carried during the revolutionary decade. Before exploring this terrain in more detail, however, it will be helpful to understand in broad terms what is meant by the term ballad.

1. Defining the Ballad

Commonly defined as "songs sung about the streets," Anglo-American ballad scholarship recognizes, broadly speaking, two different kinds of ballad that are distinct, but connected. (5) The first are the "traditional" ballads collected by antiquaries such as Thomas Percy, Joseph Ritson, Charlotte Brooke, and Sir Walter Scott, the appeal of which was that they were ancient, a kind of poetry that tied the present to the past in ways that writers then, as now, found fascinating. …

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