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William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Lyrical Ballads. Ed. Michael Mason. Second edition, Harlow: Pearson Education, 2007. ISBN: 978-I-4058-4060-6. Price: £13.99William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Lyrical Ballads 1798 and 1800. Eds. Michael Gamer and Dahlia Porter. Ontario: Broadview Editions, 2008. ISBN: 978-I-4058-4060-6. Price: US and C$ 19.95William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Lyrical Ballads. An electronic scholarly edition. Eds. Bruce Graver and Ron Tetreault; technical editor, Vivien Hannon:

  • C.C. Barfoot

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  • C.C. Barfoot
    Leiden University, Netherlands

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Whenever editors or publishers contemplate offering students and academics, as well as the general public, Wordsworth and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads for the umpteenth time (and there seems to be no decline in the demand), they are faced with the unrelenting dilemma of what edition exactly to re-publish. As poetry readers and as scholars, our first instinct might be to start with the single volume of 1798, where we will get the creative enterprise in its simplest and most direct form (and if possible read it in one of the available facsimile publications); then read the second volume of the 1800 edition; and finally re-read the poems in the final two volume edition of 1805 – making notes as we go along on the changes spotted in the poems, and the way they are presented to the reader.

If anybody were to follow this purely personal advice he or she would be in a good state to follow it in the three versions of Lyrical Ballads under review. Michael Mason does not seem to have had a great opinion of the first edition of the poem, and even says that “All in all, [the] 1798 [edition] deserves its celebrity only by a kind of courtesy” —a view with which one may wish to dissent vigorously (though naturally in a lyrical fashion), although Mason goes on to justify his dismissal by adding, reasonably, “One will not find anything significant in the first edition of LB which is not retained and perhaps improved in 1800 and later, augmented by Wordsworth’s remarkable prose and verse additions” (with which one would not want to disagree). He then proceeds to offer the reader the 1805 edition of Lyrical Ballads, leaving out everything that comes before apart from what he refers to in his commentary and footnotes, and is offered at the end of the volume. So perhaps Michael Gamer and Dahlia Porter’s edition would be a better initial purchase, since there the inquisitive reader will find a reprint of the 1798 single volume as well as both volumes of the 1800 edition – so three volumes for the price of one. In their Introduction, Gamer and Porter describe having to choose “a base text … choosing not just one version of a poem over another, but also privileging one edition and one historical moment” as “an editorial no-win situation.” However, it also prompts them to provide what they claim is “A Dynamic Edition” that “will help readers to understand the textual revisions to individual poems, as well as providing insight into why Wordsworth radically reordered the contents of the first volume.” Nevertheless, anybody who wants even more dynamism, or perhaps has become addicted to volume change, may decide to stay glued to the computer screen, since in Bruce Graver and Ron Tetreault’s “electronic scholarly edition” the reader has access to all the editions of Lyrical Ballads from 1798 (both the Bristol and the London editions) to 1805, both as transcripts and as facsimiles.

This enables the editors to offer what they call a “Dynamic collation” of all the texts of a single poem with the differing version of different editions on the screen at the same time, so that students can trace in detail the changes that were made over the years. Printing errors may also be examined in detail, as in the case of “Michael,” where in some copies of Volume II of the second edition of 1800 lines 202-16 were omitted. In this case, the text of the relevant pages of three copies of this edition may be compared: one with the error of omission, one with a paste-in of the missing lines, and a third in which two new leaves were added to rectify the fault. This all adds up to an admirable opportunity for anyone wishing to examine and study the textual history of Lyrical Ballads, a major literary work that exists in several variable forms. One might wonder, however, whether this particular electronic version is of any particular use to anybody wishing primarily to read the “lyrical ballads” and their pastoral variants as poems, and not as slippery, in some cases very slippery, texts. Many scholars will be engrossed by the ability of the computer screen to display all the perplexities of the different editions of Lyrical Ballads created for and by the authors themselves, especially Wordsworth, and for later editors and publishers – described with great clarity in the onscreen Editors’ Preface. But it is hardly the best place for any uninitiated reader to begin. There are no literary introductions to individual poems; nor any explanatory notes for occasional rare or archaic words, or place names. All changes in the texts made over the various editions are marked in the transcriptions, but not otherwise commented upon. The bibliography of Scholarly Studies is quite short: no more than twenty-five titles, including a scholarly edition of Lyrical Ballads and the first volume of The Letters of William and Dorothy Wordsworth. Most of the articles and books listed are concerned with the provenance of texts and the history of the publication of Lyrical Ballads – no doubt useful, but somewhat limited.

Gamer and Porter’s edition is intended in the first place for the uninitiated reader as the Acknowledgements indicates when it declares that it began “in a seminar,” not dealing with Lyrical Ballads specifically but “on collaboration and literary property” (11). Appropriately, the volume is “dedicated to our students,” and provides them with all the basic material not only for their beginning to understand “collaboration and literary property” in general but also in the particular instance of Lyrical Ballads. Yet it is clearly designed to take them well beyond that to a proper appreciation of the poems themselves. While the Introduction provides a clear account of the poets’ personal circumstances in which the first edition began to take shape, its reception, and the revisions involved in the two volume second edition of 1800, its consideration of the issues of language and form is basic and succinct. Very little is said about the interpretation of individual poems, although they are ready to assert that “The words ‘think,’ and ‘thought’ occur in Lyrical Ballads so often, in fact, that they can be said to embody one of its central premises” so that Wordsworth and Coleridge “insist that their readers ‘think’ beyond the passive pleasures of suspense and wonder” (22).

When it comes to the poems themselves in the two editions presented in this volume, no headnotes are provided for each poem, so the reader is left to plunge in to each text with few preconceptions. Footnotes indicate which particular poet is the author of the poem about to be read, and, depending on whether one is reading the 1798 or the 1800 edition of Lyrical Ballads, all the changes to be found in the text of the poem in the other edition. Occasional interpretations are offered of more obscure passages, such as, for instance, lines 123-26 of “The Ancient Mariner” – “referring to the luminous appearance of the sea caused by dinoflagellates, greenish-white microscopic organisms” (55 and 265) – which should not hold up the reader too long – and references to sources and other texts. More contentious is the glossing of words, either because they are archaic or dialect, or because they come from a British culture with which the readers may be expected to be unacquainted. To explain that “wist” in line 144 (l. 146 in 1800) of Coleridge’s poem – “A certain shape, I wist” – means “Thought” seems reasonable, but do even North American students need to be told that “Kirk” (pp. 51 and 261) is the “Name of a church in northern England or Scotland”? Perhaps they do; and maybe even a British reader of Wordsworth’s “The Tables Turned” might find it helpful to be informed that “throstle” (l. 13 on pp. 136 and 189) indicates a “Thrush”, but would hardly need to be told that this “is a songbird common in Britain.” And at least one reader laughed out loud in astonishment when he read that “hedge” (in “Goody Blake and Harry Gill, l. 60 on pp. 91 and 202) refers to “A row of bushes or low trees (usually hawthorn or privet) planted closely and pruned to form a natural fence between fields or between field and road.” From which I concluded, perhaps wrongly, that there are no hedges in Canada or the United States, or perhaps people there have other names for them – but at least they seem to know what hawthorn and privet are. There is something more than a little ludicrous and distracting from the main task of the annotations in an edition so continentally bound: surely intelligent readers of this volume, whether their first language is English or not, if they really do not know what a thrush or a hedge is might be expected to have ready access to a dictionary?

But perhaps this edition is principally designed to offer readers on whatever continent, not only on either side of the Atlantic but east or west, a compendium of everything they need to know to read Lyrical Ballads with comprehensive understanding without having to leave the classroom or even their armchair. It comes equipped with a detailed Chronology for Wordsworth and Coleridge from 1770 (when Wordsworth was born) to 1850 (the year of his death) indicating their personal history in terms of locations, publications, finances and other professional achievements as well as the immediate world of politics both in Britain and in France and other relevant parts of Continental Europe during the French Revolution and rise and fall of Napoleon. The footnotes also indicate places referred to in the titles of poems or in the text, as, for instance, Richmond – in “Lines Written near Richmond, Upon the Thames …” (pp. 133 and 236): “A suburb just southwest of central London” (although it does not feel the need to explain what and where the Thames is). And the edition offers an Appendix, “Mapping the Poems” which provides a World Map indicating where five of the Lyrical Ballads were at least in part located, a United Kingdom Map for another seventeen poems, and a Lake District Map as key to another twenty-two poems. The merits of such maps are plain; and one looks forward to an edition of Shakespeare in which all the shifting locations of plays are indicated in a similar manner. What might be even more useful both for Lyrical Ballads and Shakespeare would be illustrations of the landscapes in which the poems are located and to which they refer (and pictures of such places as the Rialto Bridge, the cliffs at Dover, and Elsinore Castle in the case of Shakespeare).

Gamer and Porter’s volume also provides a selection of reviews (some twenty-two in all) both of the 1798 and 1800 editions of Lyrical Ballads; some of the correspondence from both Dorothy and William Wordsworth and Coleridge, as well as Charles Lamb, Robert Southey and Charles James Fox, concerning the publication and reception of the poems; followed by later commentary by Coleridge (from Biographia Literaria), Hazlitt (from “My First Acquaintance with Poets”) and Wordsworth (the Isabella Fenwick notes from 1857). After a further appendix indicating the “Dispersal of Lyrical Ballads into the Collected Works of Coleridge and Wordsworth,” there follows an ample gathering of excerpts from contemporary prose works (by Joshua Reynolds, James Beattie, Erasmus Darwin, George Dyer, Joanna Baillie, Mary Wollstonecraft and Edmund Burke) and poems, whole or in part (by Crabbe, Charlotte Smith, Cowper, Helen Maria Williams, Darwin and Baillie again, Gottfried August Bürger, Southey, Thomas Beddoes and Mary Robinson, and even by Wordsworth himself – his early “Sonnet on Seeing Miss Helen Maria Williams Weep at a Tale of Distress”) that in one way or another influenced the critical contentions (as expressed in the Advertisement to the 1798 edition and the Preface to the 1800 edition) and the contents and style of the poems. Regrettably absent from the selection of poems in this appendix is anything from “New Morality” published in the last issue of The Anti-Jacobin; or, Weekly Examiner on the Monday of the week that Wordsworth and his sister made their excursion to “the Banks of the Wye … July 13, 1798” (see my article in “A Natural Delineation of Human Passions”: The Historical Moment of Lyrical Ballads, one of the many books listed in an extensive Select Biography at the end of the volume).

Whatever its shortcomings may be, some of them odd and amusing as already indicated, a few more irritating – such as ragged appearance of the footnotes (without full justification on the right margin), their failure to properly indent usually the even lines of both versions of the “The Ancient Mariner” (nothing but a timid gesture is made), Michael Gamer and Dahlia Porter’s Lyrical Ballads 1798 and 1800 is an invaluable contribution to the number of resourceful editions of Wordsworth and Coleridge’s poems that should encourage readers to enjoy and study more. One hopes that should the book be reprinted it will not be before more care is taken over the appearance of the book as a whole, and the appearance of certain poems. The Correspondence appendix contains a letter to Joseph Cottle (c. 28 May 1798) in which Coleridge says he has not had the time to write the “Essay on the Metaphysics of Typography” he had intended for him, but he offers a few tips on the number of “lines a page … closely printed,” the ink and the margins and adds: “That is beauty – it may even under your immediate care mingle the sublime!” (pp. 456-47). The publishers, the printers and even the editors of this volume should have taken note, and appreciated that the way it is printed helps poetry, in whatever form of the language it is written, to communicate its sublime presence.

Gamer and Porter’s Introduction refers to the “iconic position” of Lyrical Ballads “within histories of British Romanticism” – after which the reader might expect them to describe Wordsworth and Coleridge as poetic “legends.” Fortunately, their journalistic style does not descend any lower, and, as we have seen, they go on to debate the complications involved in the establishing of this popular status. Michael Mason immediately indicates in his General Introduction a more skeptical attitude to the manner in which Lyrical Ballads has established itself first and foremost as a date in the literary canon and calendar: he admits that it is “a famous work, but not a uniquely famous one”: “However, it is associated with a date, 1798, which could claim to be uniquely famous” since it “is probably the best known publication date in the history of English literature.” But Mason suggests that this is an unfortunate accident, partly due to “the suggestive resemblance of” of 1798 to 1789; and declares, rather in the manner of Gamer and Porter, that the appearance of Lyrical Ballads “in English literature was not a historical moment but a sequence of moments” (1). It may be that the phrasing of Gamer and Porter’s discussion of “one historical moment” is derived from the original publication of Michael Mason’s edition which appeared in 1992, but probably not, since it is an initial consideration that no editor of Lyrical Ballads can avoid.

In the Preface to this second edition, John Mullan speaks of Mason’s “probing and deeply personal engagement with the poems, expertly annotated yet read as if for the first time. ‘Strangeness’ was one of Wordsworth’s words for the likely impression on the reader … and their strangeness was what [he] tried to bring alive” (ix). As a former colleague of Michael Mason, who died in 2003, Mullan celebrates his “impatience with unexamined piety” and recognizes in his annotations “the bracing critical intelligence and skepticism of the man” bringing “to the business of editing not only a necessary discipline and exactitude, but also a personality and a tone of voice” (xi). And these observations are particularly relevant to the editorial style of this volume, which offers the 1805 edition of Lyrical Ballads.

The General Introduction inevitably begins with the issue of texts and editions. The collaboration of Wordsworth and Coleridge is discussed in some detail, before going on to ruminate over the question of what exactly is to be understood by “lyrical ballad” and “pastoral,” and the verse forms used. As one might expect this to lead to a serious consideration of the contentious issue of what Wordsworth meant by “the language of conversation” in the Advertisement to the 1798 edition and “the language really spoken by men” in the Preface, and the declared commitment to a plain idiom (described throughout Wordsworth and Coleridge’s prose works in various forms). The extended final section of Mason’s Introduction (18-31) is a discussion of the “infinite complexity of pain and pleasure” that Wordsworth identifies as the poet’s task to express and explore (75). Mason finds this paradox of poetry creating pleasure out of the dramatization and expression of pain that is at the core of so many of the poems in Lyrical Ballads philosophically taxing, with “theological overtones” (26), raising moral and aesthetic problems not only for the poet (and in many cases, his narrators) but also for the reader. As readers of Wordsworth’s poetry, we are challenged to move “beyond the realm of indignation about human pain into the altogether more difficult territory where it can be asked how this pain counts in the whole life of mankind” (31).

Consequently, Mason sets a high level of appraisal for readers of the poems: after they have found their way through the “Authors’ accompanying statements”, including various notes and letters and extracts from letters by the poets on particular poems and their intention and purpose, as well as the 1798 Argument, and the 1802 Preface and Appendix, all of which are frequently subject to substantial footnotes both explanatory and polemical, the 1805 edition of Lyrical Ballads with Pastoral and other poems begins, with a modest and informative footnote on the volume’s Motto. The difference in terms of information and argument between Mason’s edition and Gamer and Porter’s might be immediately judged by comparing each of the footnotes on the Epigraph – the latter devoting some five lines to the half a dozen Latin words, Mason giving us some fourteen.

All the poems that follow have headnotes varying in length from five lines to two and a half pages: the more substantial of these headnotes (for “The Thorn”, “The Ancient Mariner”, and “Tintern Abbey”, for example) in themselves are often almost mini-essays, not only giving an account of when the poem was written and where and why, the peculiarities of its form and language (where relevant), but also the interpretative possibilities and problems. A characteristic start to such a discussion may be found in the second paragraph of the headnote to “Michael”: “Wordsworth’s description of his hero in the Poole letter as a man of ‘strong mind’ and ‘lively sensibility’ puts its finger on some of the most moving effects of the poem, and perhaps on some part of its meaning” (341). It is the “perhaps” that warns the reader that more discussion is needed to open up a poem which Mason interprets Wordsworth as signifying will find “an audience … narrow in quantity and quality” (342). And one cannot help feeling that this is the very audience Mason’s edition is seeking to attract and keep. Perhaps in the case of all annotated editions, the texts of the poems should be read before the notes are even glanced at. Despite Gamer and Porter’s feeling that “thrush” and hedge” need explaining, there are really few linguistic difficulties in Lyrical Ballads. Most native readers of English should be able to guess at occasional archaisms or dialect words and carry on reading. Many of Mason’s notes offer a substantial commentary on the text and in many cases should be avoided until the poem itself has become reasonably familiar.

At the end of the volume, Mason offers a list of the poems as they appeared in the 1798 and 1800 editions (the 1802 edition having the same order as the 1805 edition Mason uses); Wordsworth’s later classification of his poems; and the authors’ later comments, including Coleridge’s glosses for the 1817 reprint of “The Ancient Mariner” and passages from Biographia Literaria, and Wordworth’s Fenwick notes. This is followed by a number of prose and poetic literary sources for five of the poems; the 1798 text of “The Ancient Mariner” (which is printed with the necessary line indentations that Mason’s version of the 1805 text fails to deliver, although as the online version demonstrates they were still retained in the later edition); and an account by Danny Karlin, of Wordworth’s revision, including the questionable alterations to “Simon Lee” that is then given in its original 1798 version. This is followed by a substantial Bibliography and list of suggested reading, supplemented for this second edition of Mason’s volume, and an Index of Titles and First Lines, which is unfortunately absent from Gamer and Porter’s edition.

All in all, many readers, certainly those not familiar with Lyrical Ballads in any of its versions will find Mason’s volume a formidable enterprise, which suggests they should start with Gamer and Porter’s edition. Once that has been digested, certainly Mason’s edition should be taken on with the expectation of increasing delights and a worthy expansion of an awareness of the depths and the heights in knowledge and understanding that Lyrical Ballads has to offer us all. Thereafter the online version may be consulted for revealing comparisons of the various versions of one of the great creative achievements in English poetry.