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Occasion of the Lyrical Ballads, and the objects originally proposed—Pre
face to the second edition—The ensuing controversy, its causes and acrimony-Philosophic definitions of a Poem and Poetry with scholia.
DURING the first year that Mr. Wordsworth and I were neighbors,' our conversation turned frequently on 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 colors of imagination. The sudden charm, which accidents of light and shade, which moon-light or sun-set diffused over a known and familiar landscape, appeared to represent the practicability of combining both. These are the poetry of nature.
The thought suggested itself—to which of us I do not recollect), that a series of poems might be composed of two sorts. In the one, the incidents and agents were to be, in part at least, supernatural ; and the excellence aimed at, was to consist in the interesting of the affections by the dramatic truth of such emotions, as would naturally accompany such situations, supposing them real. And real in this sense they have been to every human being, who, from whatever source of delusion, has at any time believed himself under supernatural agency. For the second class, subjects were to be chosen from ordinary life; the characters and incidents were to be such as will be found in every village and its vicinity, where there is a meditative and feeling mind to seek after them, or to notice thein, when they present themselves. /
In this idea, originated the plan of the LYRICAL BALLADS; in
1 [In 1797–8, whilst Mr. Coleridge resided at Nether Stowey, and Mr. Wordsworth at Alfoxton. Ed.]
which it was agreed, that my endeavors should be directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic ; yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith. Mr. Wordsworth, on the other hand, was to propose to himself as his object, to give the charm of novelty to things of every day, and to excite a feeling analogous to the supernatural, by awakening the mind's attention to the lethargy of custom, and directing it to the loveliness and wonders of the world before us; an inexhaustible treasure, but for which, in consequence of the film of familiarity and selfish solicitude, we have eyes, yet see not, ears that hear not, and hearts that neither feel nor understand.
With this view I wrote the ANCIENT MARINER, and was preparing among other poems, THE DARK LADIE, and the CHRISTABEL, in which I should have more nearly realized my ideal, than I had done in my first attempt. But Mr. Wordsworth’s industry had proved so much more successful, and the number of his poems so much greater, that my compositions, instead of forming a balance, appeared rather an interpolation of heterogeneous matter. Mr. Wordsworth added two or three poems written in his own character, in the impassioned, lofty, and sustained diction, which is characteristic of his genius. In this form the LYRICAL BALLADS were published ; and were presented by him, as an experiment, whether subjects, which from their nature rejected the usual ornaments and extra-colloquial style of poems in general, might not be so managed in the language of ordinary life as to produce the pleasurable interest which it is the peculiar business of poetry to impart. To the second edition he added a preface of considerable length ;4 in which, notwithstanding some passages of apparently a contrary import, he was understood to contend for the extension of this style to poetry of all kinds, and to reject as vicious and indefensible all phrases and forms of speech that were not included in what he (unfortunately, I think, adopting an equivocal expression) called the language of real life. From this preface prefixed to poems in which it was impossible to deny the presence of original genius, however mistaken its direction might be deemed, arose the whole long.continued controversy. For from the conjunction of perceived power with supposed heresy I explain the inveteracy and in some instances, I grieve to say, the acrimonious passions, with which the controversy has been conducted by the assailants.
2 [The Ancient Mariner, Poet. W., ii., p. 1.-Christabel, ibid., The Dark Ladie, P W.i., p. 150. Ed.]
3 [The first volume of the Lyrical Ballads was published in 1798. Ed.]
4 [The second edition, with an additional volume and the preface, was published in 1800. Ed.]
5 [“ The first volume of these Poems has already been submitted to general perusal. It was published as an experiment, which I hoped might be of some use to ascertain how far, by fitting to metrical arrangement a selection of the real language of men in a state of vivid sensation, that sort of pleasure and that quantity of pleasure may be imparted, which a Poet may rationally endeavor to impart.” Preface P. W., ii., p. 303. Ed.]
6 [In illustration of these remarks or the allusions that follow, the Editor gave rather copious extracts from the E. Review of Oct., 1807, Nov., 1814, and October, 1815, which I believe that, after all, he would have felt it not worth while to reprint; and I therefore refer the curious reader to those specimens of the criticism of thirty years since in their own place. I think it right, however, to preserve the Editor's comment upon them, which is as follows :
It is of great importance to the history of literature in this country that the critiques contained in the Edinburgh Review on Wordsworth, Southey, and Coleridge, should be known and reperused in the present day ;—not as reflecting any special disgrace on the writers (for as to them, the matter and tone of these essays only showed that the critics had not risen above the level of the mass of their age,-but for the purpose of demonstrating that immediate popularity, though it may attend, can never be a test of, excellence in works of imagination; and of teaching, if possible, the duty and the advantages of respect for admitted genius, even when it pursues a path of its own making. Just consider what was the effect of all the scorn and ridicule of Wordsworth by which the Edinburgh F'eview, the leading critical Journal of the nation for a long time, distinguis ved itself for twenty years together. A great laugh was created in the fashionable world of letters, and the poet's expectation of pecuniary pro.it was destroyed. Public opinion was, for about a quarter of a century, set against the reception of works, which were always allowed to be innocent, and are now everywhere proclaimed as excellent; and for the same space of time a great man was defrauded of that worldly remuneration of his virtuous labors, which the authors of frivolous novels and licentious poems were permitted—and in some instances helped—during the same period to
Had Mr. Wordsworth's poems been the silly, the childish things, which they were for a long time described as being; had they been really distinguished from the compositions of other poets merely by meanness of language and inanity of thought ; had they
obtain for their compositions. To make the lesson perfect, it has pleased Heaven to let Wordsworth himself live to see that revolution legitimated which he and his compeers, Coleridge and Southey, in different ways and degrees, together wrought; and to read his own defence and praise in the pages of the same work by which some of his most exquisite productions were once pronounced below criticism. Ed.
Agreeing as I do with these remarks in the main, I venture to observe that in my mind they ascribe too much influence upon the early fate of Mr. W.'s poems to the E. Review. That those poems were not generally admired from the first, was, in my opinion, their own fault, that is to say, arose principally from their being works of great genius, and consequently, though old as the world itself, in one way, yet in another, a new thing under the sun. Novelty is delightful when it is understood at once, when it is but the old familiar matters newly set forth; but here was a new world presented to the reader which was also a strange world, and most of those who had grown to middle age acquainted with the old world only, and chiefly with that part of it which was least like Wordsworth’s—the hither part, out of sight of Chaucer and Spenser and the old English Poets in general, could never learn their way, or find themselves at home there.
Periodical literature can hardly be said to create public taste and opinion: I believe it does no more than strongly reflect and thereby concentre and strengthen it. The fashionable journal is expected to be a mirror of public opinion in its own party, a brilliant magnifying mirror, in which the mind of the public may see itself look large and handsome. Woe be to the mirror if it presumes to give pictures and images of its own !-it will fall to the ground, even if not shivered at once by popular indignation. Such publications depend for their maintenance on the public which they are to teach, and must therefore, like the pastor of a voluntary flock, pipe only such tunes as suit their auditors' sense of harmony. They cannot afford to make ventures, like warm-hearted, disinterested individuals. It is far from r y intention to deny, that the boldest things are often said, the most extravagant novelties broached in publications of this kind : that the strongest and most sweeping assertions, fit, as might be supposed, to startle and shock even the cold and careless,-ascriptions of saintly excellence to men whose unchristian acts of duplicity or cruelty are undenied and undeniable--of worse than human folly and wickedness to men, whom millions have regarded with reverential gratitude, and this in the way of mere assertion, with no attempt at proof, or only the merest shadow of a shade of one-references to the authority of accusers, who are themselves resting their vague and violent charges on the authority of previous accusers and bitter enemies,