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