William Wordsworth

Lyrical Ballads

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Lyrical Ballads Summary

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The majority of the poems in Lyrical Ballads, with a Few Other Poems (1798) were written by William Wordsworth, but a few were written by his friend and colleague, Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Wordsworth and Coleridge are considered two of the most important literary icons of their time and pioneers of the Romantic Movement in literature. In fact, many scholars consider the publication of Lyrical Ballads to be the start of the Romantic Era in England.

The Romantic period in European art lasted throughout the first half of the nineteenth century. The poems, novels, and paintings from this era prioritize emotion and the experience of awe-inspiring and logic-defying visions and events. In many ways, it was a reaction to the Industrial Revolution and the Age of Enlightenment. While the artists of the Romantic period were not all necessarily actively hostile to reason, they wished to beat back against the rationalization of the natural world, instead, appreciating nature for its aesthetic beauty.

Some of the most famous poems found in Lyrical Ballads include Wordsworth’s “Strange fits of passion I have known,” “Lucy Gray,” and “Anecdote for Fathers.” Nevertheless, by far the most famous and well-remembered poem in the collection is Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.”

The narrator of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is an old seafaring gentleman who stops a guest on his way to a wedding to tell a tale. According to the narrator, their ship departs and at first, the trip goes exactly as planned. Soon, a storm blows the ship into the frigid waters surrounding Antarctica. Lost in the cold and the storm, the ship finds its way out of an ice jam and the surrounding turbulent waters thanks to an albatross flying nearby. An albatross is a very large seafaring bird.

Despite the bird’s help in guiding the crew to safety, the narrator shoots and kills the bird with a crossbow. At first, the rest of the crew approves of the narrator’s decision to kill the bird, owing to a superstition that albatrosses bring ill winds like the one that blew the crew and its ship so far South. However, the crew soon begins to believe that the narrator made a grave mistake in killing the bird, thus inciting the wrath of vengeful natural forces. These vengeful forces blow the ship to the equator. While it is warm there, it is too calm for the ship to sail anywhere. It is stuck.

Here, Coleridge includes perhaps the most famous line of the poem: “Water, water, everywhere / Nor any drop to drink.” As the crew suffers from a horrible thirst, they attempt to appease the gods of nature by forcing the narrator to wear the dead albatross around his neck, as a sort of trophy of shame.

Just when things could not get much worse, the crew encounters a Ghost Ship piloted by Death and a ghastly, pale ghoul of a woman, termed, “Night-mare Life in Death.” The implication, perhaps, is that the woman represents a fate worse than death. Meanwhile, the two ghost ship passengers gamble over dice to see whose souls they will claim. Death wins the souls of most the crew, but the lady eyes the narrator, in her estimation, a much more valuable prize. She wins his soul, while Death wins the rest of the souls.

Rather than be released by death, the narrator watches as his crewmembers die; he feels that he is on the brink of death due to his intense thirst. The eyes of the dead seem to judge him for his crime, and he feels responsible for their grisly fate. It is not until the narrator expresses an admiration of the sea creatures around him—creatures he previously denigrated as “slimy things”—that the albatross falls from his neck. All around him, the crew’s spirits rise, guiding the ship through supernatural means.

Finally, the narrator sees his homeland; the ship’s spirits have departed and only the dead remain. He is rescued by a hermit, a boat pilot, and the boat pilot’s son. The narrator looks so frightful that when he awakens and starts rowing, the son cries out, “The Devil knows how to row!” Despite reaching his homeland safely, the narrator feels he must repent for his crime against the albatross and against nature by wandering the land for the rest of his days, telling his story to anyone who will listen. While the listener is annoyed at times throughout the story, he wakes up the following morning feeling like “a sadder and wiser man.”

At the time of its publication, William Wordsworth described the mission statement of Lyrical Ballads: “The majority of the following poems are to be considered as experiments. They were written chiefly with a view to ascertain how far the language of conversation in the middle and lower classes of society is adapted to the purpose of poetic pleasure.” By exploring the lives of “simpler” or “uneducated” folks, and by bemoaning the corruption of society on man’s natural state of existence in the wild, Lyrical Ballads was a profoundly influential work in shifting popular thought when it came to existing power structures and class structures, particularly in the years prior to the French Revolution and other populist revolutions in Europe and around the world.