The great outburst of romantic poetry began in 1798, when two young men, William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, published a collection of poems, which they called “Lyrical Ballads”. It was a landmark in the history of English literature and had an enormous influence. For it was the first conscious protest against the ideals of classicism and the product of the romantic spirit : a harmonious blending of sensibility and imagination into one creative impulse”.
From this date onwards poets relied on inspiration from within, finding their own means of expression, for their individual insights rather than regarding poetry as “what oft was thought but ne’er so well expressed”. This individuality was kindled by the French Revolution, which proclaimed the rights of man and the abolition of class distinctions, doctrines welcomed by young England.
As a young man of twenty, William Wordsworth, who had been brought up in the Lake District in the North Western part of England, visited revolutionary France and had admired the glorious prospect of a new society. On his second visit in 1791, he grew attached to a girl, named Annette Vallon, who bore him an illegitimate child.
The lovers were parted by the storms of the French revolution and Wordsworth left France, disillusioned by the excess in cruelty of the revolutionaries and the rise of Napoleon. What was left of his revolutionary sentiments was the conviction that man in the lower ranks of society also has his dignity and deeper feelings.
This is the reason why he chose his subjects from incidents in the lives of humble people. He and his friend and neighbor, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, agreed to produce a book of poems written to a recipe or programme; Coleridge was to write about the supernatural and Wordsworth was to direct the readers’ attention to “the loveliness and the wonders of the world before us”.
The outcome of this agreement was the publication of “Lyrical Ballads”. In the second edition of this collection, Wordsworth announced that he wanted to bring his “language to near to the language of men”. Another characteristic of his poetry is his deep reverence for the child, because, according to him, nature is a living soul which enters all created things. In her he sees man’s shortest way to God, to whom the child with its simple faith is nearest.
Wordsworth’s most creative period was from 1796 to 1806. But his creativity waned and it was clear, after 1816, that he was lost to poetry of a high order. Samuel Taylor Coleridge aimed at something different in poetry. He wanted to renew poetry by conjuring up a sense of mystery. He succeeded in creating an unreal atmosphere, not of his world, but wholly supernatural, which all the same has the power to keep us spell-bound.
His finest contribution to the “Lyrical Ballads” is “the Rime of the Ancient Mariner”. It is a long narrative poem, told with the simple directness of an old ballad. Coleridge’s life was an unhappy one and so was his marriage. As a result of this and other unhappy circumstances and ill-health, he took opium. After one of his opium dreams he wrote down what he remembered of it. The result was “Kubla Khan”. In 1816, he entered the house of a surgeon, James Gillman, and remained under the later’s patient care till the end of his life.
Coleridge’s brother-in-law, Robert Southey, who shared the romantic ideals with Wordsworth and Coleridge is chiefly remembered on account of a few poems such as “The Battle of Blenheim” and “The Well of st-Kyne. These three poets: Wordsworth, Coleridge and Southey, are sometimes called the Lake District poets, may be because they lived in the Lake District, which is one of the loveliest districts of England. It is thought that it was the wonderful scenery of the Lake District which turned their minds to romanticism.