Lyrical Ballads by Wordsworth and Coleridge: A Resource & Guide
Below are links to every one of the episodes I have done on the 1798 Lyrical ballads. They include a video (except for The Rime of the Ancient Mariner which is audio only). They all also include an audio podcast available wherever you listen to podcasts (links are provided in each episode). And they include the poem itself.
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge
I released this episode on Halloween, because it is indeed a horror story. In fact, it was so terrifying that when the young Mary Shelley first heard a reading of it, she hid behind a chair. Today, this poem may not terrify us in the way that it did people at the time, but I will be making two big arguments as to why you should challenge yourself to read poems like this even if you at first do not like them.
Coleridge's Mariner may be one of the most influential poems of the British romantics. Not only is there a popular Iron Maiden song but much gothic literature of the 19th century, from Frankenstein and Dracula to The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Picture of Dorian Gray, The House of the Seven Gables and the Fall of Usher was inspired by this poem. In fact,
Coleridge's Mariner brings a major new strain of literary experience onto the scene.
In this episode I will give you the arguments to read poems you don't like, provide a summary of the poem, read a special version of the poem, give you the origin story of the poem, some ways to understand the poem as well as a breakdown of its ideology and the influence it held.
So yes, this is a big episode, prepare yourselves!
"Listen, Stranger! Storm and Wind,
A Wind and Tempest strong!
For days and weeks it play'd us freaks--
Like Chaff we drove along."
Do not be chaff driven along by a tempest. Understand this poem by listening to this episode.
The Foster-Mother's Tale by Samuel Taylor Coleridge
In this episode I will give you two extreme models of education. One is best represented in the tale of Petronilla and the other is best represented in that of Greta Thunberg.
A theme that runs throughout the 1798 Lyrical Ballads by Coleridge and Wordsworth is that of nature as educator for a child. In this poem—a fragment from a theatrical play by Coleridge—we see multiple viewpoints on education. One critical question we must answer is how much, if any, of the outside world and its social ills should a child know about?
Education, knowledge and moral upbringing were of paramount importance to many of the romantics. This is a key theme not only in Lyrical Ballads but in much of the philosophers of this time as well as literary writers such as Mary Shelley. This poem is a first in exploring important ideas in action of sibling affection, taboo and the morality imposed upon young children.
Lines left upon a Seat in a Yew-tree which stands near the Lake of Esthwaite by William Wordsworth
Great men can battle many things, jealousy, hate, scorn, dissolute tongues, but what about neglect? Can a great man or woman persevere in the face of utter lifelong neglect?
What would Einstein be like in old age, had no one taken his theory of relativity seriously? What about Dostoevsky's novels? Galileo famously was locked in a tower. At least he was not neglected!
Neglect it not scorn or hatred. It is to be ignored, unacknowledged, ghosted. This is something profoundly worse than fear or fury.
In this haunting poem, Wordsworth writes about a man he knew at Hawkshead school. The man was educated, a genius even. But something made him abscond from humanity. The only monument were some lines left upon a seat in a yew-tree which stands near the lake of Esthwaite on a desolate prt of the shore, yet commanding a beautiful prospect.
The Nightingale, a Conversation Poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge
It is said that Coleridge's greatest achievement was William Wordsworth. There is some truth to this. But he was also a great poet in his own right. In Lyrical Ballads he and Wordsworth changed English sensibilities (and American) completely. While Wordsworth was the greater poet, Coleridge was the greater philosopher. It is Coleridge's insights as a critic which encapsulates English Romanticism.
In this poem published in 1798, he not only conveys a new style of sensualness but also critiques the literarati before him. It is a truly Literary poem in that it is very aware of the literature that came prior.
The Nightingale opens with Colerdge painting a picture of a nighttime scene with friends. They sit on a "mossy bridge," where they will think on nature. Then, almost on cue, "the Nightingale begins its song." This bird causes him to reflect on the writers of yore. Men who wrote that the nightingale's song was a melancholy one. To which Coleridge replies "A melancholy bird? Oh idle thought!"
He goes on to convey a completely different way to approach our experience of knowledge, learning, nature and literature.
If you have ever wanted to truly experience the grandeur of nature and man in nature, this is a good poem to get you started.
The Female Vagrant by William Wordsworth
The Female Vagrant is one of Wordsworth's most political poems. It tells the story two wanderers seeking shelter during a stormy night on Salisbury Plain in England. The woman tells how she came to be destitute and alone: her father had been evicted from his cottage in the Lakes by a wealthy industrialist neighbor, she had married but the advent of war had ruined them and, in a last desperate attempt to support her and their children, he volunteered for the army. He is shipped to fight in the war of the rebel colonialists in 1776 and she follows him. In America, he and their three children all die. She returns to wander Britain desolate, deprived of all home and sick.
The poem is an investigation into the mind of the female wanderer (vagrant). As is Wordsworth's principal object in most of his poetry: "I proposed to myself in these Poems was to chuse incidents and situations from common life, and to relate or describe them, throughout, as far as was possible, in a selection of language really used by men; and, at the same time, to throw over them a certain colouring of imagination, whereby ordinary things should be presented to the mind in an unusual way; and, further, and above all, to make these incidents and situations interesting by tracing in them, truly though not ostentatiously, the primary laws of our nature: chiefly, as far as regards the manner in which we associate ideas in a state of excitement."
There are many of the romantic flairs we have come to know of this period. The woman, like Hugo's gypsies, is abandoned but remains steadfast and strong. Only when she has lost everything due to imaginary lines drawn in the sand does she lose her "inner spirit."
This is the code of the romantic. To explore the inner world of human beings, so as to better understand human nature. For Wordsworth, experiencing the French Revolution and all of its upheaval, this was a story that struck his imagination, one night, as he lay exhausted at the stones of Stonehenge.
Goody Blake and Harry Gill by William Wordsworth
Why do we cease to teach through the medium of verse? In children we happily sing songs and tell stories to convey moral tales and even astronomy, math, and economics.
We know how effective this is in teaching young children ("My Very Evil Mother Just Swatted Uncle's Nose" -- for the planets) and yet why not teach the theory of evolution in metre and rhyme?
Great poets, in fact, do teach in this manner. In this very simple ballad, Wordsworth conveys a complex theoretical proposition from Erasmus Darwin's Zoonomia: The Laws of Organic Life."
Lines Written at a small distance from my House, and sent by my little Boy to the Person to whom they are addressed by William Wordsworth
In the spring of 1798 William Wordsworth was going through a reckoning. His work on his elusive life project, The Recluse, was draining him. He had set out to study ALL knowledge up to that point in human history, and use it in an epic poem greater than The Iliad, Aeneid, Paradise Lost and all epics before it.
But Wordsworth began to question the relevance of his project and his ability to accomplish it.
In this poem, “lines written a small distance from my house,” he challenges the idea of learning from books alone and advocates for putting down your books and leaving the joyless world of the mundane and entering an awe-filled, joyful world of nature and love.
Special thanks to Don Watkins for his article "The Reckoning: Why 'Serving a cause greater than yourself' cannot give life meaning."
Simon Lee, the old Huntsman by William Wordsworth
How do we treat athletes after they have grown old and infirm? What does it feel like to once have been powerful and then to lose all power and strength?
In Wordsworth's Ballad, published in the 1798 Lyrical Ballads, he explores an incident he had with an old, one-eyed man named Christopher Trickey.
In his youth Trickey had been a strong huntsman with a wealthy family. Now they are all dead and he is impoverished and weak.
One day he is attempting to upturn a root with a farm tool, but he cannot do it. Wordsworth walks by and offers his help. In a single blow Wordsworth breaks the root and upturns it. Trickey, in tears, thanks Wordsworth.
Click here to download a pdf with my notes:
Anecdote for Fathers by William Wordsworth
A flaw in all parents, and one not easily rectified, is the inadvertent expectation of cohesion between your child's view of the world and the parents.
In this poem by Wordsworth he gives you a hint as to how to identify and even rectify this mistake
In the discussion of this poem I also explain an important principle regarding romantic literature and poetry. Hint: It has to do with the way we look at waterfalls!
We are Seven by William Wordsworth
Who among the big six Romantic Poets was the greatest of all Romantic artists? To me this is like asking which part of the Pacific Ocean is wettest.
However, in this discussion I explain some differences among all 6 and I discuss several advantages that William Wordsworth had over fellow poets like John Keats.
Today's poem was based on an incident that Wordsworth experienced while on a walking tour in 1793. He had been forced to flee France after the country was heating up. During this time he did not write as much as other poets of a similar age, but he did have numerous experiences that would be the seeds for future poems, including "We Are Seven."
Lines written in early spring by William Wordsworth
What does contemplation look like and how can we know it when we are doing it? This will be one of the themes to be explored on this episode.
On this Sunday Morning Poetry I'll be reading not only the Lines poem but a passage from Wordsworth's The Prelude and a poem from Robert Burns. We will learn much about a pivotal shift in the early Wordsworth's philosophy and poetry. It is the shift that made Romanticism... Well... Romanticism.
In Lyrical Ballads there are several poems by Wordsworth with the title simply "lines" and then a subtitle like (written in early spring) or (left upon a yew tree...). The most famous of these, and the most famous of all Wordsworth's poetry is the finale of the 1798 Lyrical Ballads, Lines (written a few miles above Tintern Abbey, on revisiting the banks of the Wy during a tour, July 13th, 1798).
These "lines" poems have at their core a certain way of contemplation reality. It is one that has changed English writing and thinking ever since. And it is a way of contemplation that will make your life worth living.
The Thorn by William Wordsworth
In this balladic poem, Wordsworth tells the tale of a "solitary thorn," or British Hawthorn Bush, that "marks the spot where a pregnant woman, driven from town and forced to give birth alone on the heath, died from famine, pain and cold and anguish."
In typical Wordsworthian fashion, however, he was not at all interested in the tale of the woman. he was interested in how a tale like that, a stormy night and a solitary thorn can have a deep impact on the mind and soul of a certain type of man.
For Hawthorn, his main purpose for many of his poems was "to illustrate the manner in which our feelings and ideas are associated in a state of excitement. But, speaking in language somewhat more appropriate, it is to follow the fluxes and refluxes of the mind when agitated by the great and simple affections of our nature."
Before listening to this poem it is important to note the narrator. In this case, it is NOT William Wordsworth. Instead, Wordsworth is projecting the character of a specific type of superstitious mind.
In this poem the narrator is:
A sufficiently common man
A captain of a small trading vessel
Past the middle age of his life retired on an annuity to a small village or country town
He is not a native of the town he has retired to
Men such as this having little to do, become credulous and talkative from indolence. They are prone to superstition. This character is best able to exhibit, for Wordsworth "some of the general laws by which superstition acts upon the mind."
This will be our journey for this episode. How does superstition act upon the mind? What effect does it have? What turns of passion do men and women operating under superstition make?
The Last of the Flock by William Wordsworth
William Wordsworth changed the way we use language. He changed the way we investigate human beings. This is the romantic legacy. The usage of imagination to delve into the inner world of man. As Hugo put it "There is one thing grander than the ocean, that is the sky; there is one thing grander than the sky that is the interior of man's soul."
This is one of the major projects of the romantics, to illustrate the depth of man's inner world. How, for instance, an event can cause a schism in ones values in this world.
That's exactly what happens to the main character in Wordsworth's ballad, "The Last of the Flock." He has to butcher a single sheep in order to feed his growing family, but in dong so we learn about the values of christianity, modernism, industrialism and more. And we learn of the conflicts that arise in these systems.
Increase your imaginative faculty with "The Last of the Flock."
The Dungeon by Samuel Taylor Coleridge
What is the purpose of a penal system? Is it strictly to punish or can it be to reform? If it can reform what are the best methods of accomplishing this?
The romanticist Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote a poem called The Dungeon, which is a soliloqouy from a man who resides in a medieval dungeon. He is lamenting more than his own personal situation, but the idea of what man has made of man. Do dungeons and prisons truly work for the guilty? Or do they make their souls even more rotted than when they entered?
And, of course, in the heart of a romanticist is an answer to the proper way to reform those souls plagued from within. Listen to find out Coleridge's proposed solution.
The Mad Mother by William Wordsworth
A #Mothersday challenge! This poem by William Wordsworth, THE MAD MOTHER, is not your typical lovey-dovey mom poem. Rather, it focuses on a woman, whose husband abandoned her and her newborn, as she copes with this new reality and her own apparent insanity.
One way art causes serious contemplation in the mind of an active observer is by "the pleasure which the mind derives from the perception of similitude and dissimilitude."
In other words, the mind find pleasure in seeing similarities among dissimilar things.
What can we learn about motherhood from an insane, abandoned, wild mother?
The Idiot Boy by William Wordsworth
On this special episode I will read The Idiot Boy by William Wordsworth. This poem was published in the 1798 Lyrical Ballads and it was very controversial. Yet, it is a beautifully written poem.
I spend the majority of the time simply reading the poem. I hope you enjoy the reading! At the end I give a small critique of Wordsworth's philosophy, but mostly I defend him and Romanticism from the cliche attacks toward Romanticism.
What magic is in the woods? What can nature and reality do for our souls? Romanticism is often defined as a reaction against reason. This poem is a perfect example proving the case against romanticism, while simultaneously DISproving the case.
Check out my argument for the common misunderstandings in romantic literature, after my reading.
Lines written near Richmond, upon the Thames, at Evening by William Wordsworth
There is deep value in removing yourself from your own skin and entering the skin of another person.
Only through poetry and literature and painting can we exercise this ability of humans. And in this poem, Wordsworth teaches you how.
At the bottom is a poem by William Collins "Ode on the Death of Mr. Thomson," which Wordsworth alludes to heavily in his poem.
Expostulation and Reply by William Wordsworth
In his conversation poem, "Expostulation and Reply," William Wordsworth brings the art of argument into poetry.
A school teacher, Matthew, trained in the classical method of jamming facts into people's foreheads, admonishes young WIlliam for sitting out in nature and contemplating it. “Up! Up! and drink the spirit breath’d / “ From dead men to their kind," he says.
In other words, get out of nature and read your books young Willy!
Well, you can imagine the young romantic poet had something to say about that!
The Tables turned; an Evening Scene, on the same subject by William Wordsworth
In this special episode I quote several passages from William Wordsworth's prefaces to the Lyrical Ballads and passages from C. Bradley Thompson's newest book "America's Revolutionary Mind."
My argument is that Wordsworth, in telling people to put away their books and look to Nature is reflecting a philosophical view from Isaac Newton and John Locke.
Up ! up ! my friend, and clear your looks,
Why all this toil and trouble ?
Up ! up ! my friend, and quit your books,
Or surely you’ll grow double.
There are times when we should put away our books. More importantly, there are dangers to only look in books for answers and not thinking for ourselves. Wordsworth in Lyrical Ballads and elsewhere is desperately trying to get people to look at the reality of human nature and the greater Nature that man inhabits.
This is a lesson we need now more than ever, as we are turning our backs on Man, Nature and the Right morality for living on this earth.
Old Man Travelling by William Wordsworth
In the Oxford Book of English Verse, edited by Christopher Ricks, there are 9 William Wordsworth poems. Old Man Travelling, animal tranquility and decay was selected twice.
Like many of Wordsworth's best poems, this one power is so subtle it is easy to miss it. However, it is poetry and art par excellence.
Since the poem is so short I do not wish to spoil the exhilarating emotional revelation that occurs in a renewed investigation into this poem, so I will merely say that the experience this poem will give you will make you a better person. (Please note that I do not say "may" make you a better person.)
The Complaint of a forsaken Indian Woman by William Wordsworth
This is one of Wordsworth's most far-reaching poems. It takes place in a land he never set foot on: America.
Based on stories he read about traveling tribes of American Indians, he wrote this harrowing tale about a woman who is too sick to continue walking with her tribe, so they abandon her.
The Convict by William Wordsworth
In November, 2019 the state of Oklahoma released almost 500 "non-violent" criminals in the largest commutation in US history. This brought up many issues regarding the justice system and the court system. But it also brings up a critical issue about the role and goals of the penal system.
Can convicts be reformed? If it is possible then what is in our best interest to support? If a convict CAN be reformed, then should not not attempt to help them do so? And at the very least, should we not get in the way of possible reform?
These are some important questions, among many others, that William Wordsworth asked in this poem.
It was so controversial, in fact, that he removed it from all subsequent publication.
Lines written a few miles above Tintern Abbey by William Wordsworth
The full title of this poem is:
Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, On Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour. July 13, 1798.
Can recollecting your past be done improperly? Is it an infallible process? If it is not infallible, what should we do about it? These are some of the themes we will see in Tintern Abbey by Wordsworth.
This blog post is dedicated to an audio/visual exploration of this great poem. I hope that it will serve as a useful guide and resource to understanding and gaining insights from this poem of reflection.