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It is now over forty years since Robert D. Mayo published his essay on 'The Contemporaneity of Lyrical Ballads', arguing that the experimental novelty claimed so eloquently by the volume's 'Advertisement' was, in fact, illusory, and that the ballads were just the sort of thing any reader of magazine verse at the end of the eighteenth century would be used to. In her influential survey, Romantics, Rebels, and Reactionaries (1981), Marilyn Butler was heard similarly dismissing 'the belief, still widely held, that Wordsworth's contribution to the Lyrical Ballads of 1798 represent an altogether new kind of poetry'. Of course, no poetry is ever 'altogether new', and there is no doubt that the 'Advertisement', like the later 'Prefaces', is at least as much an episode in the history of publicity as it is in the history of poetry (to use Leavis's phrase). But despite the revisionary ambitions of such historically-minded critics, and the undoubted justice of their case, the 1798 Lyrical Ballads seems oddly resistant to all attempts to relieve it of its momentous character: 1798 remains one of those indisputably memorable dates of literary history (though it was hardly noticed at the time), and the small volume must have a good claim to being the most famous single book of poems of all, Shakespeare's Sonnets being its only serious competitor.
The occasion of the Lyrical Ballads bicentenary comes around as more than just another welcome opportunity to commemorate romantic literature and thought. We have had many such occasions recently, making it, if not exactly bliss to be alive, then at least a happy time for conference-goers. But the Lyrical Ballads bicentenary feels like something with much more to do with us than does, say, the anniversary of Political Justice, or of Wollstonecraft's Vindication, both of which otherwise promise a contemporary relevance so loudly. It is an unlikely volume to launch a revolution: the utter contingencies of the project, and the nonce quality of the book that happened to happen, are very well known; and the discrepancy between 'Advertisement' and many of the poems that follow it (including 'The Ancient Mariner') are obvious to anyone. But then it is the the strangely hybrid quality of the volume, catching between covers the tangle of common pursuit and cross-purposes that characterised the Wordsworth-Coleridge partnership, that make it seem so much more closely involved with the possibilities open to the literary intelligence now than, say, Blake or Byron or Keats, each of whom recent anniversaries and birthdays have similarly brought to mind. To speak of LyricalBallads as somehow the foundational work of English Romanticism is, of course, to create an historical myth, possible only to one wise after the event. But perhaps Lyrical Ballads makes itself exemplarily romantic in our eyes precisely because it contains the radical difference that Coleridge would later discern between himself and Wordsworth - and go on to detect, as well, within the mysteriously double-minded genius of Wordsworth alone. Such difference persists through succeeding literary generations as a provision of imaginative possibilities, between which choices are to be made. Such difference persists, as well, to shape the conflicts of our contemporary critical schools - largely thanks, no doubt, to the lasting influence of Coleridge, 'father of modern criticism', whose self-examinatory mulling over that difference animates the Biographia Literaria. We could express the kinds of difference in many ways: as the democratic injunction to use language of men against the 'elitist' insistence on the special languages of art; as a preference for subjects drawn from the everyday versus an adherence to subjects romantic or supernatural; as an humanistic interest in the possibilities of the dramatic method opposing a self-elevating concern with the experience as the poet qua poet; and so on. Perhaps, then, we are looking in the wrong place when we surprise ourselves by discovering that the poems in Lyrical Ballads, individually, are not that different from what was going on elsewhere at the time: maybe it is the generative sense of difference within the volume, animating the implicit but unmistakable sense of dialogue between the individual poems, that is the important kind of differentness at stake.
The fine interpretative essays gathered here each, in their diverse ways, addresses the question of differentness and the Lyrical Ballads. James Treadwell's exploration of 'Innovation and Strangeness'‚ in the poems deals with just these matters, singling out 'Tintern Abbey' as the place where the self-consciously innovative programme of the volume meets alternative kinds of imaginative impulse: the dialogic interest that characterises the experimentalism of the 'natural' poems suddenly meets the monologic ambitions of a poetry creating an authoritative voice of experience. Keith Hanley's piece similarly explores varieties of self-division within Wordsworth's imaginings, setting them off suggestively against one of the contemporary texts with which the Lyrical Ballads project seems to have most in common: Joanna Baillie's plays, and especially De Monfort. The first two sections of the essay, meanwhile, pursue the 'revolutionary' language-project of the book, arguing that Wordsworthian subjectivity precedes the ideological premises of modern critics like McGann and Bate in its 'preoccupation with the metalinguistic potential of language itself to recover the originary structure of imaginary subjectivity'. Wordsworth and Coleridge weren't alone, of course, in the ballad revival, and Christopher Smith's expert scholarship relates Southey's ambivalent place within the history of the Lyrical Ballads: his work stands on either side of the book, as both an important source and a tendentious rejection of its literary experimentalism. Southey's attitude towards the genre is interestingly muddled from the start: drawn to the antiquarian pursuits of balladry, he is yet rather disdainful of the ballad form itself; and mixed feelings like these are brought into sharp relief by the volume of his two more-or-less friends. Southey's famous review is fruitfully re-examined by Smith, and the poems of his 1799 volume suggestively interpreted as, in part, a kind of 'corrected' Wordsworthian-Coleridgean idiom. Finally, Joel Pace, in another piece of original and important research, deals with a different aspect of influence, tracing the delayed impact of the Lyrical Ballads in America, especially within the Unitarian community, and particularly upon Emerson.
One of the most tenacious forms of influence exerted by the little volume of 1798 was upon the two authors themselves: by the end of his life Coleridge was being casually referred to in diaries and journals as 'The Ancient Mariner', and Wordsworth never escaped his association with low and humble subjects, although, considering his career as a whole, the connection is much less obvious than the Ballads might lead one to expect. For both poets, self-examination manifested itself in an obsessive habit of revision, returning to the poems, touching, pruning, and (in the case of 'The Ancient Mariner' especially) large amounts of complete re-writing: here is a new kind of differentness, the internal kind that arises when an older author returns to the words of his earlier self. Critical opinions differ on this point, some finding in the re-writing a betrayal of revolutionary youth, others (most recently Zachary Leader, in his outstanding Revision and Romantic Authorship) finding instead a moving insistence on the continuity of the self. What everyone is agreed upon is the desirability of knowing as much about the revisions as we can; and this is the problem facing all editors of the Ballads. Like the poets, we live in revolutionary times, though perhaps the most significant revolutions of our own are of a technological rather than sanguinary variety; and the rapid development of electronic editions has begun to make possible kinds of scholarly texts that were unimaginable even ten years ago. The chaos of revisions and second-thoughts that the successive versions of the Lyrical Ballads poems reveal might have been designed to show off to best advantage the capability of the electronic text; and Romanticism on the Net is very fortunate to have two reports on progress by editors engaged on just such a project. Ronald Tetreault and Bruce Graver's electronic Lyrical Ballads is due to appear from Cambridge University Press in the near future, and may well, by a happy contingency, put the little volume of 1798 at the heart of a new kind of momentous change.