Romantics start here

British Romanticism, in all its guiltless passion, was given a very quiet birth by Coleridge and Wordsworth in an anonymous volume of poetry.
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Two hundred years ago this month there went on sale in London, at five shillings a piece, 500 copies of a collection of poems called The Lyrical Ballads. The book was published anonymously, a common practice at the time. Despite appearances to the contrary, the book had not one author but two, and it contained, at the beginning and the end, two of the greatest poems ever written in the English language. Many of the ones in-between were not half-bad either, though not quite so remarkable as "The Ancient Mariner" and-the-oh-so-casually-named "Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey".

This book, together with its famous preface (which didn't appear in the first edition because it was written later, and in response to criticisms of the book), was a revolutionary act in English poetry, and a defining moment in the development of British Romanticism, a movement which has continued to influence profoundly the way we think about the relationship between life and how we represent it in writing and art.

Its two authors were both young English poets in their twenties, William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Wordsworth's contribution to the book was much the greater - Coleridge contributed two poems, Wordsworth nineteen. The two men were constant companions at this point in their lives. Later on, they became estranged, and as Wordsworth's life gained respectability - he was made Poet Laureate in 1843 - so Coleridge's declined into material wretchedness and drug addiction.

But in the 1790s, they were like two peas in a pod, together almost daily, and they conceived of the idea for this book of poems together. They shared intellectual convictions; they had similar political passions - they were both republicans and staunchly opposed to the war with France. But, of even greater importance, they felt similarly about life.

This snatch of a letter written by Coleridge to his brother in March 1798 could just as easily have been written by Wordsworth; in fact, it reads rather as if it were a commentary upon "Tintern Abbey" which it could not possibly have been because Wordsworth didn't write that poem until two months after this letter was written:

"I love fields and woods and mountains with almost a visionary fondness - and because I have found benevolence and quietness growing within me as that fondness (has) increased, therefore I should wish to be the means of implanting it in others."

There are various hallmarks of romanticism in this extract: the sheer, feeling and intensity of the style of writing; the importance attached by Coleridge to the fact that it is he himself who is experiencing the effect of nature bearing down upon him so benignly - the measure of truth is the individual human response; and the plainness of the language that he is using, quite lacking in artificiality of diction. All these are defining aspects of both Romanticism in general and of The Lyrical Ballads in particular.

The book itself was to consist of two kinds of poem. The first would include elements of the supernatural, though these poems should not lack psychological credibility - the "Ancient Mariner" itself is the supreme example of this. The second sort would consist of subjects chosen from ordinary life, local characters and incidents, and all these poems would be written in a plain, unadorned style. Both poets agreed to observe "the two cardinal points of poetry, the power of exciting the sympathy of the reader by a faithful adherence to the truth of nature, and the power of giving the interest of novelty by the modifying colours of the imagination".

And how did these two revolutionary poets appear to their contemporaries? Like Gods? Or mere men? One of the most vivid accounts of them was written by the wonderfully impressionable essayist William Hazlitt, who met both of them for the first time in the year of the publication of The Lyrical Ballads.

He first glimpses Coleridge, a round-faced man, dressed in a short black coat "which hardly seemed to have been made for him", descending from a coach in Shrewsbury. What strikes Hazlitt so forcibly is how much Coleridge talks, and the brilliance and the intellectual variousness of that talk; how the poet digresses and dilates as he passed with such seeming ease from subject-to-subject, from politics to literature to metaphysical speculation and back again, as if "floating on air or sliding on ice...".

Young Hazlitt is left feeling, by comparison, dumb, inarticulate, helpless, "like a worm by the wayside, crushed, bleeding, lifeless...".

Hazlitt also described how the poet looked. His mouth is "gross, voluptuous, open, eloquent, his chin good-humoured and round; but his nose, the rudder of the face, the index of the will, was small, feeble, nothing...".

And then there is the rest of his person, "rather above the common size, inclining to be corpulent", or, like Lord Hamlet, "somewhat fat and pursy, with long, pendulous hair falling in smooth masses over his forehead", the sort of hair "peculiar to enthusiasts, to those whose minds tend heavenward...".

To Hazlitt, Wordsworth seems plainer altogether, less like someone descended from the stars; a man who talks very freely and naturally, "with a mixture of clear, gushing accents in his voice, a deep, guttural intonation, and a strong tincture of the Northern Burr, like the crush on wine..."

Both poets were in the habit of composing their poems as they walked through the countryside, though their preferred terrains differed. Coleridge liked ground that he could pit himself against - uneven, hacking his way through the straggling branches of a copse-wood. Wordsworth liked walking up and down a straight gravel path, intoning as he went, or some similar spot where "the continuity of his verse met with no collateral interruption".

And what sort of impression did the sight of a poet composing poems out loud in the open air make upon the peasantry of the Lake District? Fortunately, some of them were interviewed by a certain Canon Rawnsley after Wordsworth's death. "Well, you know," replied one of the women, "Mr Wordsworth went humming and booing about, and she, Miss Dorothy, kept close behind him, and she picked up the bits as he let 'em fall, and tak 'em down and put 'em together on paper for him. And you may," continued the good dame, "be very well sure as she didn't understand or make sense out of 'em, and I doubt that he (Wordsworth) didn't know much about them either himself. But, howivver, there's a great many folks as do, I dare say...".

The response to The Lyrical Ballads, from those who said that they did understand the book, was mixed. "The Ancient Mariner" itself was something of a sticking point. The poets had started work on the poem together, but soon Coleridge had flown off on the wings of poesy and left Wordsworth grounded. And when it was finished, Wordsworth took exception to some of the words that Coleridge had used. There were odd adjectives and fake medievalisms running throughout it - such as the word "eldritch". Wasn't this book supposed to be written in the language such as men were actually using, for God's sake? asked Wordsworth. Coleridge agreed - in part - and got rid of a lot of these odd archaisms in later editions of his poetry.

But the judgement of posterity in general has been exceedingly favourable: this book is a milestone in the history of English poetry because it helped to legitimise the possibility of writing guiltlessly, and with great force and passionate simplicity, about the human heart. And this permission to stop being coy about the self, this overpowering recognition that it is the individual who counts above all things else, changed everything - in literature, politics and art.

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