The 1798 publication of William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poetry collection “Lyrical Ballads” is often hailed as the beginning of the English Romantic period. Its poems contemplate everyday life and nature as a way of realizing profound truths about humanity, and they constitute a striking departure from Enlightenment rationalism and empiricism. Of the 23 poems in the 1798 edition of “Lyrical Ballads,” Coleridge wrote four, and a fifth was added to the 1800 edition.
“The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere”
Coleridge’s famous extended ballad “The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere” is the first poem in the 1798 edition of “Lyrical Ballads.” The poem relates the story of a sailor who suffers terribly after he shoots an albatross, and finally learns that “He prayeth best, who loveth best/All things both great and small;/For the dear God who loveth us/He made and loveth all.” “The Ancient Mariner” remains in the 1800, 1802 and 1805 editions of “Lyrical Ballads.” However, its title spelling is modernized, and it appears as the second-to-last rather than the first poem in subsequent editions. In its place at the beginning is Wordsworth’s “Expostulation and Reply.”
“The Foster-Mother’s Tale”
The second poem in the 1798 edition is a “dramatic fragment” from Coleridge’s 1797 play “Osorio,” called “The Foster-Mother’s Tale.” The titular speaker recalls the story of a baby found in the woods and raised into a boy whose love of nature and disrespect for cultural constraints eventually leads to his imprisonment: “He had unlawful thoughts of many things:/And though he prayed, he never loved to pray/With holy men, nor in a holy place.” The youth finally escapes and sails to the “new world” to live “among the savage men.” In subsequent editions, the poem is the seventh rather than second poem, directly following Wordsworth’s “Lines left upon a Seat in a Yew tree which stands near the Lake of Esthwaite.”
The 1798 edition also includes Coleridge’s poem “The Nightingale, a Conversational Poem,” in which the speaker meditates on the bird’s song as a reminder that “In nature there is nothing melancholy”; any interpretation of the song as carrying notes of sadness stems from human corruption. “The Nightingale, a Conversational Poem” is retained in subsequent editions of “Lyrical Ballads,” with its name changed to “The Nightingale, written in April, 1798,” and appearing later in the collection than it did in the 1798 edition.
Coleridge treats human corruption much more directly in “The Dungeon” than in any other poem in “Lyrical Ballads.” The poem is a bitter polemic against the “cure” society has chosen for its ills. This poem too, in keeping with Coleridge’s themes in the first three, valorizes nature’s ability to heal prisoners with its “soft influences ... of love and beauty.” “The Dungeon” appears again in the 1800 edition, but is absent in the 1802 and 1805 editions.
Coleridge’s ballad “Love,” in which a speaker recalls winning a lady’s heart, is added to the 1800 edition to replace Wordsworth’s poem “The Convict.” The 1800 edition of “Lyrical Ballads” has two volumes, but all of the poems in the second volume are by Wordsworth.