The first edition of Lyrical Ballads was published by William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1798, which was a difficult period for most throughout Europe. Throughout the 18th century, Britain sustained major economic recession. Additionally, following the French revolution in 1989, England entered a costly war with the new renegade French republic. Many highly religious people thought that these corrupt times was the beginning of the upcoming apocalypse.
At a quick glance, it might not seem that the collection of poetry had much to do with this toxic atmosphere that Britain had fallen into. The two grew up in as neighbours in the small village of Holford as boys, in Somerset. This secluded village allowed both to get away from the feisty affairs of the cities, which could often be quite dangerous, especially for young men with nonconformist ideas. During this time, the poets produced great works, and they were able to develop a brave new inventive vision. They began discussing a collaboration on a book full of ‘experimental’ poems. As Wordsworth later explained, their intention of this poetry was to reflect the lives of humble and pastoral people. Together, they wanted to write a collection of poetry that would encourage its readers to rethink poetry and to aid them is seeing the similarities between people, despite differing regional or educational backgrounds.
The book opens with a preface. Wordsworth had added a preface as he felt the need to explain why the poems in Lyrical Ballads were so uniquely different from traditional poetry, as it may have seemed that he was not performing his duty as a writer to some members of his audience. It begins with a discussion of the collection of poems. Wordsworth writes that his poems had a purpose, and that was to portray things that happen in everyday life. Most importantly, Wordsworth considered each poem to be an experiment with the use of diction. He states that poetry must reflect spontaneity and an “overflow of powerful feelings.” However, poetry must not be written spontaneously, even though he believes that it should derive from spontaneity. Wordsworth asserts that any poem should come from one’s own deep reflection. Wordsworth breaks down the poet’s process into four stages; observation, recollection, filtering, composing. The goal for all poets is to express emotions in a way that any reader will be able to understand and therefore relate to. He then moves on by talking about defining imagination, and how the Neo-Classics definition differed from his. They believed that the minds recorded sensations in a simplistic, passive way. However, for Romantics like Wordsworth, imagination is much more creative. Romantics believe that instead of assigning sensations to objects, the imagination holds a certain power that allows it to create a new reality, and to see beyond the realistic world that the poet is stuck in. Wordsworth then goes on to talk about the diction in poetry. Diction is basically the use of language, but more specifically, it’s the choice of words, phrases, and sentence structures. Diction is an important part in all of literature, however Wordsworth places prominence on its role in poetry as its the poets tool, their medium. He argues that diction is the same throughout all of literature and criticises the Neo-Classics for their ‘artificial language. He believes that passion should be the main drive for diction. He wants poetry to be centred around basic human life, using basic language techniques. According to Wordsworth, that is the only thing that will create poetic beauty.
Throughout the book, each poet has their own selection of poems that have been published, yet each have their own views on poetry and techniques to writing it. Coleridge stated that he would treat objects and creates situations as supernatural but portray them in a way that makes them appear real and convincing. Wordsworth on the other hand enjoys taking ordinary objects and everyday situations, but to add in his own imagination to create something completely new. In other words, Coleridge would make the unfamiliar, look familiar, and Wordsworth would make the familiar look unfamiliar. Wordsworth would almost always write about some kind of ‘powerful feeling’ that’s held within a commonplace circumstance: for example, the delight which Betty Foy experiences when she merely observes her son who is mentally disabled in ‘The Idiot Boy’. Coleridge would focus on noticing how the mind functions in unexpected circumstances: The Rime of the Ancient Mariner explores the familiar, everyday sensations of faith, guilt, cruelty, obsession, and endurance, by telling a story of a man stuck upon a ghost ship and who is harassed by supernatural forces. In the ‘preface’, Wordsworth defined poetry as the “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings, arising from ‘emotion recollected in tranquillity”. Throughout each of their works, the two poets declared the importance of portraying feeling and the use of imagination within poetic creation whilst renouncing conventional literacy forms. In this way they articulated the theory and the methods used in this new form of poetry and gave a new purpose to their movement. Thus, as romantic literature everywhere developed, imagination was soon being praised over reason, and emotions over logic. Much of Wordsworth’s easy flow of conversational blank verse holds true grace and lyrical power, and his finest work is infused with the sense of human relationships with nature. He also stated that the language used in poetry should be a mixture of language that is used by people in everyday connections: “there neither is nor can be any essential difference between the language of prose and the metrical composition.” But he didn’t follow his theory of poetic diction in all his works, as when he wrote ‘Tintern Abbey’ he decided not to follow it. For Wordsworth, nature is filled with its own unique personality. ‘To him, nature is a mighty presence, before which he stands silent, like a faithful high priest.’ (Sharma, 2014) Wordsworth had one major influencer to his work, who was Coleridge. He shared so much of Coleridge’s earlier ideas about the processes of the mind and construction of imagination. However, Coleridge became more intrigued in a theory of the imagination that the force of a feeling or a memory serves to alter many others; this in turn would suggest that our thoughts in our mind arise from a stimulus. According to Coleridge, sensations and reflection of objects or events are where all ideas originate from, ‘so if objects of sensation are one source of ideas, the operation of the mind itself is the other source.’ (Sharma, 2014)
Tintern Abbey, written in 1798, is one of the triumphs of Wordsworth’s genius. It deals with the personal experiences of the poet himself and follows the growth of his mid and its imagination throughout the course of his life. Nature is the key theme to the poem as it had a huge influence on him. The poem deals with natures influence on the young boy, the youth, and the grown man. The gathered his ideas for this piece from his first visit in 1793. During the poem he is discussing his second visit. The poem is laid out if five sections. The first section sets the scene for meditation, but it emphasises the passage of time with the slow rhythm that is used to open the poem. The repetition of the number ‘five’ adds emphasis on time that has been spent since his last visit. The following lines develop a clear, visual picture of the trail that he walked through. He describes a scene full of wildness and order. He can see the entirely natural cliffs and waterfalls; and he can see the hedges around the fields of the people. These images suggest how pure nature can be, and it portrays how the rural population live in concord with nature. The second section begins with the meditation. The poet now begins to realise that these beautiful images and places have always been within his mind. From this point onwards, Wordsworth starts to contemplate the beauty of nature, and his awareness becomes clear to him. Wordsworth’s idea within this poem was that humans were not born with corruption, but instead learn it throughout their lives. The poet studies nature by viewing it with an open mind. In the poem, he turns his attention to a majestic river called ‘Sylvian Wye’. He is then reminded of his memories of his previous visit to the river which causes him to think about what his future years my hold. In the past he scampered through the mountains, past the rivers and the stunning streams. In the past he was frightened by the sounds of nature. But that time has passed now. In nature, Wordsworth discoveries the depressing music of humanity. The third section contains a form of doubt. The poet begins to reflect the readers doubts that are possibly going through their heads, just so he can justify how he is correct and explain to them what he means. He doubts whether this thought about the influence of the nature is vain, but he can’t go on. He exclaims: “yet, oh! How often, amid the joyless daylight, fretful and unprofitable fever of the world have I turned to thee” to gather some inspiration and to collect a peace of mind. The then begins to thank the ‘Sylvian Wye’ for the influence that would last forever, imprinted in his mind. This then turns the river into a symbol of spirituality. In the fourth section the nature gives the poet courage enough to be able to stay standing there after he had become perplexed. This is a typical technique of Wordsworth’s as it seems that he is unable to write a piece of poetry without recounting some of his personal experiences. At the start of the poem he was reminiscing about his ‘boyish days’, which have all gone from him now. “That time is past and all its aching joys are now no more, and all its dizzy raptures”. But the poet does not mourn for them, as he has gained something in return: “other gifts have followed; for such loss… for I have learnt to look on nature, not as in the hour of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes the still, sad music of humanity”. This is argued to be a highly philosophical statement about the poet maturing, and about the development of his personality. So now the poet can feel a joy of elevated thought and a sense sublime. Therefore, Wordsworth claims that he is a lover of the meadows and of all which we see from this earth. The poet comes to one singular important conclusion: after all the constructive influences he has encountered, he is now consciously overwhelmed by the nature and has fallen in love with it. The last section continues with more of the same meditation, as the poet now addresses Dorothy, his younger sister. He blesses her and moves forward with giving her advice about the lessons that he has learnt from nature. He tells her that nature has never once been disloyal to his heart. With exquisiteness and silence, nature can impress the mind and feed it substantial thoughts. The poet then turns to the moon whilst he is in a daydream, and he asks the nature to bless his sister in the same way that they did to him. The conclusion to this poem almost takes us back to a physical view of the scenery and landscapes that the poet observed. This poem is full of simple language and it comes across as quite lucid so that the readers are never bored of re-reading it. The medium of this poem is an elevated black verse, so it is neither ballad or lyrical.
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The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, written in 1798, is a typical ballad by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. This poem deals with one singular situation, and although Coleridge included many smaller incidents, he places them all together in such a way that they appear to look like parts of one major event. The order of events is chronological, and the situation is presented over dramatically. The poet makes good use of prominent dialogues, and the effect is greatly heightened by using repetitions, known as ‘refrains’. This poem holds another typical ballad element, the supernatural. This is usually introduced to create a sense of horror and mystery. Like most folk ballads, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” contains one singular incident that builds up to create an eventful story which is what hold the reader’s attention. The poem ends with the main character being punished for violating the law binding humans with nature and its invisible beings. It is a short narrative poem that contains dramatic elements, like dialogue, quick development of action, and a dramatic ending. Another significant feature of this ballad is the form. This poem is written in four-line stanzas with the usual ballad rhyme scheme (ABCB). Each of the stanzas in this poem is set out in more or less the traditional ballad rhythm. One main thing that stands out of this poem is the simplicity of the language that is being used. There are a few lines in the poem that are very simplistic expressions. “The sun came up upon the left, out of the sea came he”. But like old ballads, this poem has a conveying message which holds a serious purpose. The poem narrates unusual incidents that lead to the refining of our emotions, as well as purposefully portraying an important life lesson. It tells us, in a way that we are able to understand, that the violation of the laws of nature will result in a downfall in the health and safety of men. A crime is committed by the old sailor against the law of love and as a result it causes turmoil within his mind and in the external world. The albatross that he kills may be portrayed as any normal bird, but it is a symbolic spirit, which is hinted at by its arrival into the scene, out of the “fog and mist”. The other mariners are very happy with the arrival of the bird as they believed that it was a sign of good will which has come to help them “as if it had been a Christian soul.” However, when the leader mariner slaughters the bird, this is an abuse of the holiness of life. To alleviate his guilty conscience, he must tell his story of crime to someone who appears to the mariner as appropriate. Only once he has told his story to the right person can he lift his burden and guilt that he was made to carry throughout life. Coleridge was greatly inspired by medievalism and the poem is formed with the glamour of the middle ages. Supernaturalism and sentimentalism were the leading features of the poetry of the medieval time. The poet makes good use of superstitious beliefs to bring out the old-world atmosphere through this poem. The moral of the story is only fully understood at the end of the poem as a final declaration of life. The whole story has a significant impact on us as readers, and it influences us on what mysteries life may hold for us, which is made up of the natural and the supernatural.
The Romantic movement focused on individualism, emotions, and nature, which in turn broke many social conventions. This movement, along with the publication of Lyrical Ballads, could be interpreted as a rebellion against logic, politics, and the church. Romantics believed that the true malefactors of their time were society and its constraints. At the time, literature was usually written in a highly advanced language that could most of the time only be understood by people of the higher classes. In an attempt to allow other, less fortunate individuals access to literature, Wordsworth and Coleridge created Lyrical Ballads, which were written in a language that commoners were able to understand and relate to. They didn’t like the way in which poetry was heading, so they refused to use what was seen as the standard form for poetry in an attempt to change people’s views and opinions to poetry. Furthermore, Wordsworth states in his preface that the two poets constructed each and every one of their poems with a worthy purpose, even though they may have not been the first to use ballads. Their one purpose was “to illustrate the manner in which our feelings and ideas are associated in a state of excitement,” or more specifically, “to follow the fluxes and refluxes of the mind when agitated by the great and simple affectations of our nature.” (Ellmaux, 2014) The embracement of nature is a key element in Romanticism. The Romantics managed to rediscover the beauty in nature during a time of industrialisation, and they held on to it with all they could.
Two of the most well-known poems in Lyrical Ballads are Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey” and Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”; the values and messages of the Romantic movement are perfectly illustrated in both these poems. In “Tintern Abbey”, Wordsworth discusses how human-kind can change dramatically over time and how we observe the world is altered within out adult years once we’ve matured enough. The poem holds a descriptive story of his second visit to Tintern Abbey. He elucidates that five years prior to this visit, his saw the world and this area differently to how he sees it now as he is more meditative and mature. He comments on how simply recalling past memories of his experiences has brought him peace. Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, while making the most use out of gothic elements throughout his poem, tells the story of a prophet of Nature. The encounter near the close of the poem when he goes to tell his story to someone appears to resemble a religious conversion attempt, but is actually a request to love and appreciate nature, as there may be consequences if you do not abide by the rules and laws of nature. Both of these poems contain very similar messages encouraging the readers to return to, and show gratitude towards nature.
All of the pieces in Lyrical Ballads played a very significant part in both the Romantic Movement as well as in making poetry universally available to all those of different classes and backgrounds. Lyrical Ballads demonstrated the beliefs of Romanticism and was one of the first steps towards contemporary poetry.