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Innovation and Strangeness; or, Dialogue and Monologue in the 1798 Lyrical Ballads

  • James Treadwell

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  • James Treadwell
    Christ Church, Oxford

Corps de l’article

Commemorating the bicentennial of the 1798 Lyrical Ballads implies something about the volume's innovations as well as its continuity. It is no longer possible to believe that 'Romanticism' started here (as I at least was taught in school). Even if we cannot claim 1798 as a hinge in literary history, though, there is something appealing about celebrating the volume's attitude to newness, as well as the less contentious fact of its enduring importance to readers of Romantic-period poetry. What one risks, of course, is the currently ubiquitous accusation that one is repeating the self-representations of an inappropriately authoritative version of Romanticism, as my school-teacher certainly was (though none of us knew it at the time). There is indeed something innately Wordsworthian about the bicentennial, with its celebration of the endurance of a single past event. We recognise this rhetoric of revisitation and futurity: it is the language spoken by the affirming voice of 'Lines written above Tintern Abbey', the concluding statement of the 1798 volume. The poem reads rather like the recitation of a liturgy. Wordsworth recollects his own faith by restating it, and in doing so he discovers its truth and its guarantee of continuity: "in this moment there is life and food / For future years" (ll. 65-6). However sceptical readers have become about the Wordsworthian-Coleridgean creed, the monumental quality of the volume is not entirely a figment of a literary history in search of Great Traditions; 'Tintern Abbey' writes its own future—and the future of LyricalBallads 1798 as a whole—as well as writing Wordsworth's (and Dorothy's). We may no longer assent to the idea of 1798 as a new beginning, but we still have to accommodate the volume's own assertions about continuity and change.

Perhaps the temptation to go on marking the date arises from the presence of these assertions. Even without the extended prefaces of the later editions, the 1798 LyricalBallads is a strikingly self-conscious collection. It opens and closes with a pair of manifestos. The 'Advertisement' announces a new poetic practice; 'Tintern Abbey' bears witness to the final achievement of imaginative, moral and domestic security. Together, these two documents act like a set of quotation marks. They frame the stylistic and rhetorical character of the volume as a whole within another kind of voice, instructing, guiding, and (re)assuring. However we choose to take the grand Romantic statements that roll so eloquently off the blank verse of 'Tintern Abbey'—seeing into the life of things, feeling something far more deeply interfused—, the mere fact that these assertions are made so explicitly ensures that LyricalBallads will at least sound like an epochal publication. The 'sound' of the collection is of course the problem which the 'Advertisement' wants to pre-empt. Where 'Tintern Abbey' exults in the poetic voice's power to repossess a familiar landscape, the volume's opening manifesto deals with the trickier question of unfamiliarity:

Readers accustomed to the gaudiness and inane phraseology of many modern writers, if they persist in reading this book to its conclusion, will perhaps frequently have to struggle with feelings of strangeness and aukwardness: they will look round for poetry, and will be induced to enquire by what species of courtesy these attempts can be permitted to assume that title.  [1]

This estrangement becomes the key to the radical or innovative quality of the poems that follow. Without its acknowledgment of unfamiliarity, LyricalBallads might not go on being commemorated for its properties of renewal and change. Bewildered readers are to be coaxed into new regions of poetic experience, defined a little later in the 'Advertisement' as `human passions, human characters, and human incidents' (7). The later prefaces, written in explicit response to an emerging literary debate, focus more closely on the particular aesthetic and political character of the volume's newness. They theorise unfamiliarity as a distinctive poetic project. In 1798, however, the poems are casually referred to as `experiments' (7); the emphasis lies on the reader's reactions, the feeling of strangeness itself, and there is no real effort to account for the volume's actual contents. Perhaps the bicentennial of the first edition presents an opportunity to look away from the explicitly innovative poetics of 1800 and 1802, and consider instead the pattern of estrangement, familiarity and revisitation which emerges from the less fully-formed manifestos of the 1798 collection.

The 'Advertisement' grounds its hint of a new poetics on a kind of private struggle in the imagined readers' consciousnesses. The new practice itself is described fairly summarily, in one sentence about diction; what matters is the critical and emotional renovation of aesthetic judgment in general. Readers are asked to abandon familiar public standards of taste in favour of personal criteria such as 'gratification', 'our pleasures', 'passions', 'severe thought' (7-8). The 'accurate taste in poetry' (8) desired in the 'Advertisement' can only be formed by the kind of procedures that shape so many Wordsworthian narratives: reversion (to 'our elder writers' [8] or to pleasure untainted by formal judgment) and reflection ('a long continued intercourse' [8] with the proper models). In this sense, the reference in the passage quoted above to 'reading this book to its conclusion' seems telling, because the renovation of poetic experience through a return to authentic sources is repeated in the autobiographical narrative of 'Tintern Abbey'. This connection, arching over the whole volume, manages to transcend the question of diction entirely. Whatever the difficulties of 'Tintern Abbey' for contemporary readers, low and undignified expressions cannot have been among them, at least when juxtaposed with 'The Idiot Boy' or 'Old Man Travelling'. The problem of poetic `sound' is subsumed completely by the thematic interplay between personal and aesthetic narratives; renewing or restoring poetry becomes an act of individual dedication, not a question of 'taste'. What the 'Advertisement' refers to as 'the language of conversation in the middle and lower classes of society' (7) becomes instead 'The still, sad music of humanity' (l. 92): an abstract, universal, naturalised voice that need not worry about its vocabulary because it does not speak in words at all. Hence the strange and awkward is reclaimed as the familiar. The poet can return to a place he has already been, and reassure himself of the validity of his enterprise simply by reflecting on the transition from discontinuity to continuity that his revisitation calls up. Through this structure, the story of the readers in the 'Advertisement' is rewritten as a myth of perpetual healing. Their struggles with standards of taste are entirely internalised; the 'human passions' they are asked to search out beneath the unfamiliar diction have now become embedded in 'nature and the language of the sense' (l. 109), and their recourse to personal feeling as a standard of judgment is elevated into the astonishing claim that reflections on natural experience constitute 'The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul / Of all my moral being' (ll. 111-12).

If the 'Advertisement' implies a dialogue with literary culture, the possible anxieties it suggests are soothed at the end of the collection by this transformation into internal monologue. The introductory statement imagines hostile readers, or at least readers unable to find their way in Wordsworth and Coleridge's new poetic terrain. There is no guarantee that their experience of unfamiliarity will eventually result in a new recognition of the 'human' or the natural. However much the authors wish to predetermine their response, the admission that the poems are 'experiments' acknowledges that the results are beyond their control. By contrast, 'Tintern Abbey' manages to absorb the process of reading into its monumental self-confidence, thereby turning the imperfect manifesto of the 'Advertisement' into a conclusive statement of faith. Other readers are banished from the poem, leaving the first-person voice free to read itself. Wordsworth confronts the unfamiliarity of his own experience, the 'many recognitions dim and faint, / And somewhat of a sad perplexity' (l. 60-61), but finds that his sense of estrangement from the past has automatic compensations in his own poetic perception. Where other readers might reject the challenge of the new, the poet has no difficulty in changing his own 'perplexity' into visionary assurance. His moments of doubt about his claims ('If this / Be but a vain belief' [ll. 50-51]) are overcome by the kind of straightforward empirical evidence he urges on readers in the 'Advertisement'. He simply knows that his own feelings confirm his aesthetic and moral doctrines: 'How often has my spirit turned to thee!' (l. 58). Each of these perpetual revisitations indicates that change or difference can always be overcome. The evidence is there, in his own memory (redoubled in the poem's final section by Dorothy's memory, which is the same as his). Where the 'Advertisement' has to appeal to each reader to learn the art of 'judging for himself' (8), 'Tintern Abbey' has only one character—Dorothy being an alter-ego at best—and can therefore be certain about the outcome of its debates.

Dialogues are perhaps the most characteristic feature of 'Lyrical Ballads' 1798, which makes it all the more interesting that it should close with a monologue. One might identify here two possible ways—both fairly traditional—of thinking about what makes the volume go on being celebrated, about what it is that we are commemorating. In one interpretation, 'Tintern Abbey' stands for the achievement of a poetic voice that will become the most visible sign of a turn in literary history. It is the grandest statement of the triumph of reversion over unfamiliarity, or of return over loss, and therefore of the creation of a new poetics out of the perplexities and anxieties of change. Another view might concentrate on the hoary issue of poetic language and content, preferring to see the matter and manner of poems like 'Simon Lee', 'We are seven' and 'The Thorn' as the truly innovative feature of the collection, the mark of a distinctive poetic practice. The monologue represents a poet declaring his creed, the new aesthetics of Wordsworthian-Coleridgean Romanticism; the slighter, more ballad-like pieces present a poet in dialogue with a new kind of subject-matter, discovering an innovative poetic language through encounters with people and objects previously placed outside the domain of the literary. One reading concentrates on the construction of the poet's `own' voice; the other emphasises a language spoken elsewhere, which the authors have apparently chosen to reclaim.

Are these really alternative attitudes to newness? 'Tintern Abbey' does not think so, and neither would some modern readers of 'Lyrical Ballads'. Poetic vocation and poetic diction might be brought together as aspects of the same renovating power, via the mediation of some such term as 'nature' or 'humanity'. Wordsworth (the argument goes) merges strangeness into achievement by discovering that his unprecedented literary subjects are true to nature; he has found the poetry of authentic human experience. The discovery is enacted in the collection's stories, which (according to 'Simon Lee') may not sound like poetry but have instead some more essential relation to the reader's experience:

O reader! had you in your mind
Such stores as silent thought can bring,
O gentle reader! you would find
A tale in every thing.


These experimental instances of 'a natural delineation' (7) of humanity are then generalised in 'Tintern Abbey' into the music of nature itself. All the preceding encounters—with vagrants, mad mothers, children, as well as the rocks and stones and trees —become repetitions of one fundamental process, seeing 'into the life of things'. In this way, questions of proper poetic subjects and languages merge into the grand credo of the volume as a whole. Put another way, the faintly defensive stance adopted in the 'Advertisement' solves itself by absorbing all dialogues into monologues. Whatever Wordsworth looks at or talks to lies open to his harmonising imagination; everything has a life of its own, but it is all one life, and that life is defined by the rhetoric of 'Tintern Abbey'.

It is hardly necessary to point out that interpretations of this sort have been under attack for a good many years. Anti-Romantic critics have concentrated their fire on the use of 'nature' or 'humanity' as terms capable of reconciling the Wordsworthian-Coleridgean manifesto with its apparent subjects. They want to see 'the life of things' either as a humanist fiction erected to paper over the disintegrations of textuality, or in terms of the economic and political realities which are occluded by 'Tintern Abbey's spiritualised biology. But what if the poem is taken as a refinement of the issues raised by the collection as a whole, and especially by its 'Advertisement'? Instead of asking what the Wordsworthian ideology suppresses, we might wonder how 'Tintern Abbey' works to alter 'Lyrical Ballads' itself, to create a single and continuous project out of the 'strangeness and aukwardness' encountered earlier on. This might in turn suggest that the didactic first-person voice is resisted by other presences in the volume, and that the point of greatest resistance is the matter of poetic or linguistic unfamiliarity which (I have been arguing) 'Tintern Abbey' works to transcend.

After all, the life into which 'Lyrical Ballads' sees is freighted with obdurate strangenesses. The more closely things are looked at, the less likely they seem to give up their secrets to the narrating voice. Even if we set aside (as Wordsworth himself eventually did) the luminous supernaturalism of 'The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere', in which bewilderment becomes a redemptive value, there are plenty of occasions when perfectly mundane objects appear to be mysterious. This is after all the method described in the opening manifesto: ordinariness—'every subject which can interest the human mind'—is extraordinary material for poetry. But where 'Tintern Abbey' prefers to describe revisitations of what is already known, 'The Thorn' (for example) works by interrogating the same tiny scene over and over again, without ever 'seeing into' it. The mossy heap hides whatever it covers, so that the narrator is forced to keep admitting that he 'cannot tell' (77) the story he so obviously knows. Instead, it is the surface of the moss which draws his lyrical attention:

Ah me! what lovely tints are there!
Of olive-green and scarlet bright,
In spikes, in branches, and in stars,
Green, red, and pearly white.


As the poem proceeds, the distinction between what the eye sees and what the 'I' knows becomes increasingly troubling. Repeatedly confessing ignorance of the true story of Martha Ray, the narrator instead invokes his simple empirical experience: what he can see ('But plain it is, the thorn is bound / With heavy tufts of moss `) and what he can hear ('And this I know / That I have heard her cry' [78]). Such straightforward evidence is in both the 'Advertisement' and 'Tintern Abbey' the guarantor of felt truth: readers recognise familiar human passions, Wordsworth recognises that the recurrent memory of a familiar place is a healing presence. In 'The Thorn', though, the certainty of experience is hardly reassuring. If the hill of moss is beautiful, it can only be so in contradiction to the secret it hides: 'never, never any where, / An infant's grave was half so fair' (71). The poem circles repetitively around a cluster of simple natural objects, but its perpetual return to the scene has none of the gratifying continuity sensed in Wordsworth's revisitation of the Wye valley. Instead, the objects are unsettling and provoking, generating anxious and unanswered questions from the poem's unidentified interlocutor:

"But what's the thorn? and what's the pond?
"And what's the hill of moss to her?
"And what's the creeping breeze that comes
"The little pond to stir?"
I cannot tell


In this exchange, the 'Advertisement's picture of a bewildered reader looking around for the reassuring presence of poetry is graphically re-enacted. Here, though, nature has taken the place of poetic familiarity. This is just as 'Tintern Abbey' prescribes: but the syntax lends nature a weirdness altogether remote from the concluding poem's magisterial interpretation of trees, hills and breezes. The two words 'to her' make the questions refer to Martha Ray (and therefore to the poem's narrative, rather than the scene itself), but they do not carry enough weight, and do not connect to the second sentence at all, so that the confused reader/interlocutor appears to be asking what a thorn is, what a hill is, what a breeze is. These same objects produce the same kind of uncertainty in the narrator, whose much-derided repetitiveness gives the impression of an unwillingness to speak the truth. Disclaimed by the 'Advertisement', which argues in rather Coleridgean fashion that the poem is 'not supposed to be spoken in the author's own person' (8), this narrator expresses a fascination with obscurity that is actually entirely characteristic of one of the Ballads' most pervasive voices.

In 'The Thorn', then, the language of nature compounds strangeness rather than relieving it. If there's a human truth buried under the bewilderment, as the 'Advertisement' and the quatrain from 'Simon Lee' imply, then it will be learnt through the narrator's insistent interrogations of the surface of things, rather than via the penetrating vision of the monologue. Whenever the collection tends towards exemplifying its radical linguistic experiments—and 'The Thorn' is surely the most extreme case, as the defensive remarks in the 'Advertisement' and the 1800 'Preface' suggest—, dialogues with natural language appear as encounters with that 'mystery / Of all this unintelligible world' (ll. 39, 41) that 'Tintern Abbey' insists on lightening (and enlightening).

Perhaps the most obdurately unintelligible interviewees of LyricalBallads 1798 are two figures whose innocence marks them as dwellers in undifferentiated nature: the girl in 'We are seven' and the hero of 'The Idiot Boy'. In each case, the language of natural simplicity proves impenetrably self-sufficient. Whatever affective pathos lies in Johnny and the nameless girl must emerge from their opaque responses to the questions put to them. Like the narrators of the two poems, readers are thrown back onto their own feelings of surprise in the face of nature's refusal to respond to their probings. The disorientating otherness of the children's perceptions remains unsolved. In 'Tintern Abbey' too Wordsworth confesses that his earlier, purely natural identity is a mystery to him—'I cannot paint / What then I was' (ll. 76-7)—but the solipsism of the poem transcends this momentary obstruction, because after all that past self is still the same person as the present speaker. The child who bounded 'Wherever nature led' (l. 71), like the boy of Winander later, has no need of language, even the quasi-natural 'language of conversation in the middle and lower classes of society' (7). His identity is expressed for him by the remembering poet. By admitting that the past self cannot be described, the child is lent the unspeaking voice of nature itself: 'nature then / To me was all in all' (ll. 73, 76). With Johnny, however, natural experience must be spoken in order to be heard (the narrator cannot simply remember it), and so the radically incommunicative diction implied in the 'Advertisement' emerges with the full force of strangeness and awkwardness:

"The cocks did crow to-whoo, to-whoo,
"And the sun did shine so cold."
—Thus answered Johnny in his glory,
And that was all his travel's story.


The child who insists that 'we are seven' eventually forces her questioner to admit that he is 'throwing words away' (68). His repeated questions are as fruitless as those in 'The Thorn'; he cannot see into her life any more than that poem's narrator can see into the mossy hill. Curiously, 'We are seven' turns out to invert 'Tintern Abbey's procedures in a more specific sense. The Fenwick note tells us that Wordsworth met the girl described in the poem in the upper Wye valley in 1793, on the same walking tour recollected in 'Tintern Abbey'. But whereas the natural site could be returned to, prompting 'Thoughts of more deep seclusion' (l. 7), the encounter with another speaking person evades repetition:

in the spring of 1841 I revisited Goodrich Castle, not having seen that part of the Wye since I met the little Girl there in 1793. It would have given me greater pleasure to have found in the neighbouring hamlet traces of one who had interested me so much; but that was impossible, as, unfortunately, I did not even know her name.


The poem is all about an encounter with that which resists assimilation, which cannot be revisited. The situation is much more than merely a comic impasse; after all, we know from 'Anecdote for Fathers' and 'Simon Lee' that the deep human truths mentioned in the 'Advertisement' can strike the narrator after precisely such apparently trivial dialogues as this. Yet it is the disparity between the language or narrative and the sentiment that matters in these poems. The sudden sense of an inappropriate tone is defended in the 'Advertisement' and done away with in 'Tintern Abbey' (and recollected again in the detailed critiques of volume two of Biographia Literaria ), but elsewhere in the collection it leaps out of the poetic flow to indicate that humanity's music is rich and strange as much as still and sad.

There are some dialogue poems that are closer in spirit to 'Tintern Abbey', but it is noticeable that they too prefer to sublimate the voice of natural truth into wordlessness. 'Expostulation and Reply' and 'The Tables Turned' are more to do with the voice of the poet countering the doubts of one particular hostile reader than with the kind of direct encounter staged in 'The Thorn' or 'We are seven'. The first person of the former pair of poems takes for granted his own hearing of 'this mighty sum / Of things for ever speaking' (105), and uses this entirely natural language to contradict the written text of Hazlitt's books. This is dialogue at one remove. As in 'Tintern Abbey', nature ever speaks but is only spoken about, so that its strangenesses become intimately familiar: an 'impulse from a vernal wood' watched and received by 'the heart' (106). Like the 'Advertisement', the poems propose a new language, felt by reflection and confirmed by intercourse with the right models: in this case not Sir Joshua Reynolds but the preaching thrush, 'Nature' who is to be 'your teacher', and—most 'Tintern Abbey'-like of all—'the light of things' (105). Yet these beautiful poems leave no space for the reader's bewildered sense of a 'struggle' (7) with something unprecedented and alien. Going a step further than the 'Advertisement', and therefore a step towards the assurances of the concluding monologue, they tell the reader 'Matthew' to stop reading altogether. Things shine with their own light, and the new poetry will derive its vision from the same illumination.

Still, for all the proselytising didacticism of 'Tintern Abbey', this is not the whole story of LyricalBallads . Saying that one can see into the light or the life of things is a different kind of poetic performance from actually staging an encounter with nature's objects. There is a connection between an experimental 'natural' language and the Romantic aesthetics of a visionary poetry, between innovative dialogue and the monologue of self-proclaimed renewal. However, the link is not simply mediated by the kind of rhetoric and terminology 'Tintern Abbey' uses (nature, humanity, familiarity, revisitation, permanence). The monologue wants to theorise the tendencies of the volume as a whole: that is what it is there for, to put an assured autobiographical seal on the collection, to recollect newness as permanent truth. The more anxious, less determinate terminology of the 'Advertisement' suggests an alternative reading of innovation. From this perspective, a healing return to what was already there—the return to natural 'human passions'—is modified by the strangeness of what is discovered by this movement; an estrangement which appears in nature's answering voice. The newness of the poems' language becomes the sign of a poetic first person that goes on being surprised by its unprecedented encounters. A manifesto of 'strangeness and aukwardness' (7) coexists with a manifesto of 'tranquil restoration' (l. 31). Should we feel a faint shame about persisting in celebrating 1798 as a turning-point, it may be worth remembering that LyricalBallads , at least as it first appeared, is ambiguous in its innovations.

Parties annexes