The "Honourable Characteristic of Poetry":
Two Hundred Years of Lyrical Ballads
Marcy L. Tanter, Tarleton State University
It can be argued that Lyrical Ballads is the most significant book of poetry published in the last 200 years. The reason for this is that the poems and their authors have influenced the generations of poets who have flourished in their wake, even to the end of the 20th century. Wordsworth and Coleridge cannot have understood the full importance of their little book when they saw it pass from the hands of their publishers into the hands of the public. Each of the contributors in this volume in the Romantic Circles Praxis Series helps us to see how the poems have continued to be important and relevant, especially with respect to American writers and readers.
Joel Pace alerts us to Wordsworth's influence on literary reform as related to Poe and Hawthorne and, interestingly, Dorothea Dix. Pace sees a direct correlation between the writers' responses to Wordsworth's lyrical ballads and their use of them "as a model for their own endeavors to bring about change...*." Pace begins his discussion by looking at Poe, who publicly expresses disdain for Wordsworth and objects to the moral lessons learned by Wordsworth's characters. In his own work, however, Poe's characters may experience lessons of morality, or the poet may create "architectural metaphor [s] for the mind" that resemble Wordsworth's studies of the mind. Hawthorne's stories also emulate Wordsworth's depictions "of the mind in a 'state of excitement'*." Hawthorne's Twice-Told Tales are a collection of folk-tales that include elements of reality in a manner similar to the types of tales Wordsworth creates in his ballads. Both Wordsworth and Hawthorne wanted to garner sympathy for the poor and Pace points out that several Unitarians also devised their stories for the same purpose. Dorothea Dix was one such humanitarian who was concerned with the mentally ill and was impressed with Wordsworth's interest in them, especially after she met him. Dix was inspired by Wordsworth and modeled an address to the Massachusetts House of Representatives in which she pled for changes in the state's legislation of laws pertaining to the impoverished mentally ill. According to Pace, this was her first victory in the political realm. As reformers of literary and social movements, it's not surprising that writers such as Poe, Hawthorne and Dix would be drawn to Wordsworth as a model for their work given their common interests.
Charles Rzepka brings Wordsworth's ballads and their influence into the 20th century with a look at Elizabeth Bishop's acknowledged debt to her predecessor. Bishop once said of herself that "'I find I'm really a minor female Wordsworth'',"* and Rzepka notes that Helen Vendler was later the first scholar to note Bishop's direct link to the Lyrical Ballads. There are similarites between the lives of Bishop and Wordsworth, including loss of parents at a young age, rural living and, Rzepka says, "the regaining of paradise—later in life." Bishop's debt to Wordsworth is well-chronicled in her notes and letters, which gives readers an interesting insight into her awareness of her relationship to the older, established poet. Her interest in Nature and the types of "common" characters to which Wordsworth was also drawn is evident in work done in two distinct and very different locales; these locales are radically different from those Wordsworth knew, yet for Bishop the responses to place and people are not so different. While Wordsworth's locales are of European or British origin, Bishop writes from Key West and Brazil. What the Lyrical Ballads seem to have done for Bishop, as Rzepka delineates, is to give her a sense of the possibility of "self-transformation" through which one can be a proactive voice to initiate change in society. A very fitting ideal for the 20th century as we ask ourselves if humanity has, in fact, learned from the mistakes of the past.
From another perspective, Elizabeth Fay works out Wordsworth's adoption of the notion of sensibility and "translates" it into chivalry; she sees the poet thus turning "sensibility against the feminine."* Fay notes the radical and perhaps sentimental positions Wordsworth takes in the 1798 edition of the Ballads but then sees his new poems and Preface in 1800 as a move "to a knightly position from which to preserve the past as something it never actually was." Fay takes the knightly stance and links it to the concept that Wordsworth, as poet, chooses a "manly" style: a man speaking to men, which, in turn, alienates his female audience. She highlights this alienation with a discussion of her own female students who feel excluded from the poet's audience through their readings of the "Preface" and Wordsworth's "chivalric posture" For the modern woman, Wordsworth's work becomes problematic, especially when the few editions of the poems are compared. This modern audience then has to grapple with the problems of Wordsworth's poems, try to reconcile the treatment of the women characters among the different poems and then determine whether or not Wordsworth's declarations in the "Preface" are well-founded or "mere nonsense."
These three essays are representative of Wordsworth's impact on his readers during the 200 years since Lyrical Ballads was first introduced to the public. Readers in the United States have had a unique relationship with Wordsworth's work; we can see this in the likes of Poe and Bishop, whose responses were emotional and assertive. We see it in present-day women readers who feel uncomfortable with the poetry yet are still drawn to it. While many 18th century poets and poems are being forgotten as the new millenium rears its head, Wordsworth's poems continue to startle us and make us think. He said, "It is the honourable characteristic of Poetry that its materials are to be found in every subject which can interest the human mind" (3) and the materials of these poems are sure to interest the human mind for at least another 200 years.Works Cited
Wordsworth, William and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Lyrical Ballads. Ed. W.J.B. Owen. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1969.