Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Lyrical Ballads 1798 and 1800

Thanks to insistence of occasional contributor Sean Moreland, I've lately taken some interest in British romanticism. The impetus is a co-authored paper that we are writing on Schelling, Coleridge, and Poe. I've already mentioned the fun I've had reading Poe, but my research on Coleridge has increased my interest in the aesthetics and politics of the British romantics, not only STC, but also Wordsworth, and the now lesser-known John Thelwall.

After reading volume one of Coleridge's Biographia Literaria, acquiring a copy of Lyrical Ballads seemed to be the next obvious step. But which edition to acquire was not so obvious, since they are numerous. I did some browsing and settled on Lyrical Ballads 1798 and 1800, edited by Michael Gamer and Dahlia Porter, and published by Broadview Press. This edition was slightly more expensive than those of Penguin or Oxford, but it is more useful for the academic who finds himself (or herself) a novice in a new field.

The Lyrical Ballads 1798 and 1800, reproduces not just the first two editions, but also  an excerpt of Wordsworth's 1802 preface, contemporary reviews of both editions, and numerous appendices including: poems by Coleridge that were originally intended to be published in the LB, correspondence and commentary on the volumes, excerpts from contemporary prose and poetry, and a short section on mapping the locations of the poems. 

It's a lot of material, but very useful. For my purposes, I was interested in how Wordsworth's contemporaries received the poems. For I was initially hesitant to make the jump from German to British romanticism because I had understood Wordsworth to be, as he is now often presented, a nature-poet. Reading Rancière in advance of the Lyrical Ballads had challenged that characterization, and the contemporary reviews, reproduced in this volume, confirm that his contemporaries did not miss the political aspect of Wordsworth's concept of nature, from the hints of Rousseau, to the way that his experiments in ascertaining "how far the language of conversation in the middle and lower classes of society is adapted to the purposes of poetic pleasure" undermined the accepted hierarchies of aesthetic, moral, and political attitudes of the time.

I found the 1798 edition to be more compelling, but this could be due to reading the 1800 edition soon after. Nevertheless, I do appreciate the playful aspect of beginning the later edition with Wordsworth's "Expostulation and Reply" and "The Tables Turned," which introduce the Lyrical Ballads by asking the reader not to read it. And I couldn't complete this short review without noting the apt characterization (in the 1800 edition's 'Argument' prefacing The Ancient Mariner) of the mariner's act as a demonstration of "contempt of the laws of hospitality."

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