Wordsworth's Lyrical Ballads: Summary & Analysis

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  • 0:01 Neoclassical vs.…
  • 2:25 Responding to Changing Times
  • 3:30 New Theory
  • 5:29 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jacob Erickson

Jacob has his master's in English and has taught multiple levels of literature and composition, including junior high, college, and graduate students.

This lesson will introduce William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge's influential collection of poems titled ''Lyrical Ballads''. We'll look at the context, content, and forms of the poems to see how they mark the beginning of the Romantic era in literature.

Neoclassical vs. Romantic Literature

Lyrical Ballads is a collection of poems written by Samuel Coleridge and William Wordsworth, although you may hear some people refer to Lyrical Ballads simply as Wordsworth's because he contributed the majority of the poems. Although Coleridge contributed fewer poems to Lyrical Ballads than Wordsworth, many of his poems were particularly influential, such as The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

The collection, originally published in 1798, was a direct response to the ideas and styles found in the literature written between 1660 and 1798, a period commonly referred to as the Neoclassical era. The Neoclassical era was tremendously influenced by what is called the Enlightenment, the period lasting from the late 17th into the late 18th century that witnessed the birth of modern science and philosophy as a result of thinkers emphasizing reason over tradition. A product of the Enlightenment, Neoclassical poetry is defined by its use of decorated language and rigid poetic form. Writers such as Alexander Pope and Samuel Johnson, for example, produced poems that tend to adhere to strict, formal metrical patterns, use complicated poetic diction, and emphasize the importance of logic and rational thought.

Lyrical Ballads was a clear and intentional challenge to this literary tradition. In fact, when Lyrical Ballads was originally published in 1798, critics were sharply divided on whether the collection was innovative and brilliant or a complete failure. Eager to help their readers and critics better understand the work, Wordsworth and Coleridge reprinted the volume in 1800 with additional poems and a longer preface that carefully outlined their new theory of poetry. This preface, written by Wordsworth, was one of the first and most direct attempts to challenge the popular poetic practices of the 17th and 18th centuries and offer a new poetic theory to replace them. For this reason, Lyrical Ballads is used to mark the end of the Neoclassical period and the beginning of the Romantic period of literature, the period of literature that lasts from about 1798 to 1850 and emphasizes nature, the imagination, and the importance of personal experience rather than scientific logic.

Responding to Changing Times

In addition to the literary conventions and Enlightenment ideals that Lyrical Ballads was responding to, it's important to consider the economic, environmental, and social changes that had taken place in the decades leading up to the collection's publication. In 1760, the production of increasingly advanced technology resulted in the Industrial Revolution, a period of fast economic growth that was defined by large factories in big cities. The changes that occurred during the Industrial Revolution forced a large number of people to move from the countryside to overcrowded cities, where they experienced poverty, poor working conditions, and sickness. Coleridge and Wordsworth saw the problems introduced by the Industrial Revolution as evidence of the failures of Enlightenment philosophy and the Neoclassical poetry that came out of it. This context is helpful to keep in mind when reading Lyrical Ballads, for many of its poems portray the return to a more natural lifestyle as a remedy to the problems created by the Industrial Revolution.

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