Coleridge and Wordsworth famous collaboration, Lyrical Ballads, was first published in 1798 and is considered by many as the starting point for the Romantic Era in literature. Groundbreaking and unique, it changed the way English literature was read. In its original form, Lyrical Ballads included classics such a Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancyent Mariner” and Wordworth’s “Lines written above Tintern Abbey.” These poems, with their revolutionary views of nature and their new definition of the role of the poet, are now used as quintessential examples for defining the Romantic period. While the first edition was published in 1798, Wordsworth later added more of his poetry and a preface and re-published the work in 1800.
While many modern critics focus on the artistic and intellectual strains that existed between Wordsworth and Coleridge during the creation of Lyrical Ballads, one must not let these ideas overshadow the great impact this work had in the world of poetry. At the time of its publication, Coleridge was already enjoying success as a writer. He did not need to worry about his income as he, by this time, had agents willing to publish any poetry or prose that he submitted. Wordsworth’s success as a poet, on the other hand, depended very greatly on Lyrical Ballads. Only after the publication of this work was Wordsworth able to advance his reputation as a respected poet.
In attempting to discern which poet’s voice was more prominent in Lyrical Ballads, its impossible to simply count whose poems outnumber the other’s. To understand this work, the reader must keep in mind that while one poet’s name is accredited to each poem, every piece of writing is a product of their intellectual partnership. Coleridge said himself of Wordsworth’s Preface, that the poem, “arose so out of Conversations, so frequent, that with few exceptions we cold scarcely… say which [poet] started any particular thought.” Just as Coleridge claims to have a great part in adding ideas to Wordsworth’s Preface to Lyrical Ballads, it is also on record that Wordsworth contributed to part of Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancyent Mariner.”
The records of their poetic partnership have been preserved thanks to their main copyist, Dorothy Wordsworth. Along with Sarah Hutchinson, Dorothy hand-copied the poems of Coleridge and her brother Wordsworth and documented their experiences in their journals. If not for these women, the original version, and in some cases the only existing version, of many poems would never be available to modern readers.
Courtesy of Ronald Tetreault of Dalhousie University and Bruce Graver of Providence College: This picture displays the Table of Contents of Lyrical Ballads as it was printed within its first publication in 1798. To see more of their selections from Lyrical Ballads, view their Lyrical Ballads Bicentenary Project.
Worthen, John. The Gang: Coleridge, The Hutchinsons & the Wordsworths in 1802. London: Yale University Press, 2002.