So I’ve now left the cheerfully syrupy novels of Frances Burney for the hills and valleys of Romanticism-with-a-capital-R. Now, Romanticism is a thing that I thought I would like. It’s all about the power of the imagination, the beauty of nature, the lonely genius standing among swirling mists (like this guy), the penniless poet in his freezing garret, etc., etc. “Kubla Khan” is Romantic. “Ozymandias” is kind of Romantic. William Blake’s poems are sort-of-early-Romantic. These are all poems I love. So I should love Romanticism, right?
Lyrical Ballads is famous (infamous?) for being a founding Romantic collection of poems. First published in 1798, it (so the academics tell us) champions a new kind of poetry: simple, “real-life” language, as opposed to the highfalutin poetic diction of, e.g., Paradise Lost, scenes of real, rural life, ballad verse-forms instead of blank verse and heroic couplets.
It’s also pretentious, unremarkable twaddle.
Okay, that makes me sound like something of a philistine. But, cry your pardon, it’s true. With the exception of “The Ancient Mariner” (which has the advantage of being the poem quoted in Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, so I am very biased in its favour) and possibly “The Thorn” (*sob*), I genuinely believe there’s nothing very special about any of the poems of Lyrical Ballads. Sure, they’re quite pretty, some of them have nice rhymes, the stories they tell are often quaint and touching, but…that’s all. They don’t do what poetry is meant to do, which is make you cry or laugh or sing. They just don’t feel true, and perhaps this is the heart of the problem: they are poems about things which never really existed, about a kind of sanitized poverty which is never dangerous or dirty or terrifying, a nature which you can look at without experiencing, an ideal of childhood rose-tinted by the nostalgia of a middle-class man who went to Cambridge and never suffered for anything, ever.
These are not poems of the world. They are poems of fantasy, and not the good kind of fantasy that shows you the world in a different kind of mirror. They are annoying poems, insubstantial poems, meaningless trickery prefaced by 50 pages of self-aggrandising hokum about how Lyrical Ballads is better than any poetry ever written anywhere.
And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to write an essay about how all the Romantics were liars.