Innovation & Strangeness; Or, Dialogue And Monolog

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Innovation & Strangeness; or, Dialogue and Monologue in the 1798 Lyric

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

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 Lyrical Ballads 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 Lyrical Ballads 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 Lyrical Ballads 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, Lyrical Ballads 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. (62)
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 t

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