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The Left Hand of Darkness - Episode 1

In Our Time newsletter: Lyrical Ballads

Friday 9 March 2012, 16:26

Melvyn Bragg Melvyn Bragg

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Editor's note: In Thursday's programme Melvyn Bragg and his guests discussed Lyrical Ballads. As always the programme is available to listen to online or to download and keep - EMcN.

Hello

Usually In Our Time cuts off any reference to the present day. Contemporary analogies are usually inadequate, unfocused and unhelpful. They have a little shine at the time of saying, but when you open them up (opening up the shine is something that we do all the time in Broadcasting House), then there's not a great deal to them. However, Peter Swaab's reference to Wordsworth and Coleridge as Lennon and McCartney was so shocking that it was not only let pass, but let pass with silent approval. Because it's difficult to think of Wordsworth - his grandeur, all those portraits of him with folded arms and head bowed and Helvellyn in the background, all the solemnity that did hedge the Poet Laureate, and Coleridge, the puffy drug addict; always, it seems, past his best, never the first bloom of youth, always the decaying leaf of old age - difficult to see them as what they were and that was two very young men, broke, excited, radical and as passionate about poetry as, yes, Lennon and McCartney were about pop music, especially rock and roll and soul.

Lyrical Ballads

This fits in all too neatly with an idea that I've been pursuing for the last forty years about the continuous spectrum across the arts, but more importantly, it gave me a jolt. It was the particular energy of youth and trying things new for the first time - making it new, I suppose, is a phrase that is useful here - which led to a volume of a mere twenty-three poems, containing not only two of the greatest poems in the language, but an idea of poetry which was to change the idea of poetry. And all this because Coleridge moved near Wordsworth and leapt over a fence and skipped up the garden path, and there was Wordsworth with his sister, already entranced by this vision of genius. Hazlitt, a few years later, was similarly entrapped by the brilliance that was Coleridge.

What ideas they had! Expressed so simply in Tintern Abbey, for instance. What skills and profound notion of antiquity and surrealism as transforming the nature of the ancient form of the ballad that Coleridge put forward in the Ancient Mariner. Did they know that what they were doing would lead to what has happened now? It could be argued that it was Wordsworth's essay at the beginning of the second edition in 1800 that really reached out, but nevertheless that first volume was - "yeah, yeah, yeah".

So I walked down to the office and piled into the usual load of emails - why were they invented? Please let me have one good reason!

Then drifted through London. Bought a coat - a winter coat - just as spring is all about us, and with my wife had lunch with one of my oldest friends and his wife. When I say one of my oldest friends, I have known him for 68 of my 72 years. His mother and my mother were in the Guides together, his father and my father were in the war together, we went to the same school...need I go on? He, with a couple of others, has stayed close friends throughout my life. There's absolutely nothing like it. After the first hour or so of talking about serious matters like the form of Arsenal and what's going on back in Wigton and the 750th anniversary of the granting of the Royal Charter to a market in Wigton, we get on to one thing and one thing only - the recollection of times we spent together when we have made each other laugh so much it was embarrassing, and what happens is that we once again laugh so much that it is embarrassing. I don't really mean embarrassing. I'm just covering my tracks. I mean terrific!

Best wishes

Melvyn Bragg

PS: He, too, comes from the Lake District, but I very much doubt if he ever went there to see a daffodil in his entire life, or would have considered it in any other light than a very silly thing to do.

PPS: Yes, the daffodils are out in St James's Park, now in full bloom.

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    The Lyrical Ballads became a key text beginning the Romantic Revival in 1798. Wordsworth and Coleridge conceived the idea when they lived together in Somerset as close neighbours,nurtured by their shared sense of the emotional artificiality of 18th century poetry and the petrificaction of its conventions.Of the 23 original poems only 4 are by Coleridge,the rest by Wordsworth.They spoke of the works as “experiments” to introduce the “language of the middle and lower classes” into poetry.To Wordsworth,good poetry was the “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings”.The collection shows Coleridge’s stress on the supernatural and Wordsworth’s was on the everyday. Psychology replaced mythology,scenes from common life,essential passions, individual emotions of marginal figures,nature as the great educator.

    I liked this programme.The spotlight was put on Wordsworth as the great nature poet, whose collection this primarily was with a few contributions from Coleridge to bulk it out.You also unconsciously edited Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner out saying how great it was without saying why,and saving that for another programme(consigning it to the graveyard of IOT future shows).Wordsworth’s claim to effective sole authorship receives additional support from the relegation of the Mariner from 1st to 23rd position in the 2nd edition;from the long new preface,in which he expounds his ideas on poetic diction and the origin of poetry in “emotion recollected in tranquillity”;and from the 2nd volume which consists entirely of his own new poems,including important works such as the ‘Lucy’ poems,’The Old Cumberland Beggar’ and ‘Michael, a Pastoral Poem’.

    In the expanded version prepared for the 1802 edition,he managed to accomodate some of his collaborator’s reservations concerning aspects of the preface,but Coleridge later became dissatisfied withthe ‘Hartleian’ or ‘associationist’,premises of Wordsworth’s poetic theory as a whole, and explicitly distanced himself from the ideas in Biographia Literaria. Lyrical Ballads paved the way for Wordsworth’s later fame as a poet.Its
    preference for subjects drawn from ‘low and rustic life’,and the self-mythologising poetic persona were often ridiculed and lampooned,yet no poet of the Romantic generation was to escape the underlying force of its call for a poetic reinterpretation(hence the title) of the world.Both
    Coleridge and Wordworth’s main inspiration was the French Revolution.

 
 

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