How the Lyrical Ballads Portray a Natural and Exuberant Sense of Life?

‘Lines’ opens with a celebration of natural life and its exuberance, ‘the red-breast sings from his tall larch’. Here the singing robin is portrayed through metonymy giving a sense that it is something accessible and familiar to the common people. The singing ‘red breast’ and ‘tall larch’ are dual symbols of joy and renewal, linked through the idea of nature being a constant source of vitality. This idea is particularly true, when placed in the context of spring ‘the first mild day of March’ as it represents the start of the fertile year and epitomises growth and rebirth. Birds held metaphorical significance for Romantic poets (‘the Nightingale’, albatross in ‘Rime’ and woodland linnet/ throstle in ‘Tables Turned’) as they symbolise freedom through their flight and offer perspectives that humans are unable to. Through the contemplation of natural forms, Wordsworth and Coleridge thought, one could attune into a transcendental quasi-religious experience and achieve a sense of joyful fulfilment, which could be viewed as exuberant.

In this way, nature releases a force within the human mind allowing us to achieve a state of euphoria and heightened awareness of the ‘life in things’. Later in the poem Wordsworth states,

‘One moment now may give us more

Than fifty years of reason;

Our minds will drink at every pore

The spirit of the season.’

The collective pronouns ‘us’ and ‘our’ suggest a unity between Wordsworth and the reader and invite a sense of agreement. Outwardly, Wordsworth seems to celebrate the exuberance which nature offers and this is intensified by the rhyme which synthesizes the ideas of ‘reason’, nature and the ‘season’. The first two lines of the stanza are a reaction against conventional ‘reason’ in the form of empirical, possibly Newtonian, science (as represented in ‘Anecdote for Fathers’, ‘We are Seven’ and ‘Expostulation and Reply’). In this way, the quatrain becomes both a celebration of life, nature and exuberance but also a veiled attack upon the rationality of science. Wordsworth believed that the idea of ‘feeling’, as opposed to thinking, was paramount in the absorption of this aforementioned ‘spirit’.

The conflict between reason and feeling is also clearly presented within the poem ‘We are Seven’ in which the speaker and a small girl’s views on life and death are juxtaposed. The little girl offers what she believes to be quantifiable evidence to the speaker of her siblings’ continued presence in her life, after death, ‘Their graves are green they may be seen…Twelve steps or more from my mother’s door.’ The modifier ‘green’ is frequently associated with vitality and growth, thus life itself. Furthermore, the numbers of steps are counted and emphasized by the internal rhyme as if to dispute, in a scientific way, every aspect of the man’s argument. Wordsworth is perhaps trying to show the fresh perspective children bring to life and the way in which they are unencumbered by the rational adult view of mortality. In the process, the poem highlights the cynicism and exasperation of the speaker, ‘But they are dead, those two are dead!’ and his inability to force his rational viewpoint onto the natural innocence of the child. Thus, the child is presented as being pure in thought, in a state of grace and optimism, akin to nature. This conflict comes to represent wider contrasts in the anthology such as innocence and experience (recalling Blake), age and youth, and science and the imagination.

What Wordsworth saw as the true understanding to be found in nature, is at the heart of ‘Tables Turned’ and also echoes some of the sentiments expressed in ‘Lines’. Wordsworth argues that a joyful and truthful lifestyle must come primarily from an appreciation of nature which is itself constantly alive and changing, ‘Come hear the woodland linnet…There’s more of wisdom in it’. The simple ballad rhyme scheme reflects the joyful tone of the poem (a reaction against complex Augustan use of form and structure?). Wordsworth’s argument is an attack upon the jaded and vicarious experience to be found in ‘Books!’ and is in contrast to the life affirming joys to be found through nature.

Later in the poem, he talks of the ‘blithe…throstle’ as being ‘no mean preacher’. The modifiers ‘mean’ and ‘blithe’ are juxtaposed showing the exuberance of natural life compared with the contrived and scholarly life of a preacher. This is also perhaps a reflection upon the changing nature of religion which had been undermined by Enlightenment science (the Age of Reason), with the Romantics now looking to rediscover a, possibly heretical, sense of religion through nature (recalling Francis of Assisi). It is clear that Wordsworth feels that conventional religious ideas imposed upon man are not conducive to a spontaneous, spiritual lifestyle.

Similarly, in the poem ‘Lines’, Wordsworth also encourages a disregard for man’s calendar within ‘Lines’ in favour of a ‘living’ one, governed by the changes in nature rather than man’s own fallacious idea of time and season (possibly anti-reductionist). This dismissal of routine in favour of spontaneity, however limited, could be linked to the idea of revolution. Wordsworth is challenging social conventions in the hope that it will lead to a more fulfilling and exuberant lifestyle already implicit in natural forms.

Wordsworth challenges conventional routine for the desensitizing effect it has upon the mind, urging his sister Dorothy to break her monotonous ‘morning task’ in favour of spontaneity, suggesting instead, ‘For this one day// We’ll give to idleness’. Wordsworth presents spontaneity almost as the antidote to monotony, in which the constraints of work are joyfully cast aside in favour of more natural pursuits. Interestingly, however, the determiner, ‘one’ (day) still limits Wordworth’s proposed rebellion against such convention. This is in contrast to the ‘Yew Tree’ which is about a complete devotion to solipsistic idleness.

‘Lines Left upon a Seat in a Yew Tree’ presents the limits of an exuberant lifestyle. It is a poem also notable because it is set within an infertile and desolate natural context, ‘No sparkling rivulets…these barren boughs the bee not loves’. The description is largely negative. Furthermore, the awkward syntactical structure suggests dysfunction and is emphasized by the alliterative and plosive ‘b’ sounds. Bees often carry the symbolic value of community and government which is absent for the solitary protagonist and allows him to engage in his quasi-solipsistic behaviour unregulated.

Previously, nature and children (though largely ignored) have been symbols of an exuberant sense of life. However the symbolic importance of the yew tree is in complete antithesis to this. Its connotations of death are largely due to the poison in its berries and leaves- often considered fatal by consumption. Furthermore, the historic tradition of making yew wood into long-bows is well known and thus it is also has these deadly associations. Finally, yew trees were often found in graveyards and related to the underworld in Latin poetry and therefore seen as inextricably linked with one’s eventual demise.

Instead of using nature to nurture him to a higher state of spiritual being, as in previous poems, the protagonist misuses it, to self-indulgently to ‘nourish’ his vicarious ‘morbid pleasure’ and ‘mournful joy’. The landscape seems to form out of the protagonist’s unhappy sentiments, almost an extended pathetic fallacy and the natural world which he immerses himself in is anything but exuberant and thus the only monument of his passing is a ‘lonely’ yew tree. Here Wordsworth inverts the vitality of nature though in doing so, ironically, he still highlights nature’s power by its very absence.

In the poem ‘Goody Blake and Harry Gill’ this absence of natural joy is presented within a context of social injustice. Wordsworth subverts the idea of exuberance by having Goody Blake constrained by a figure which one would usually consider an example of physical exuberance: ‘lusty…stout of limb…cheeks were red as ruddy clover…voice was like the voice of three’. Harry Gill is the physical embodiment of youth and vitality (and a metaphor for the emergent middle classes?). His description is contrasted with that of Goody Blake, a symbol of the aged proletariat and abandoned woman (cf. The Female Vagrant, The Thorn, Mad Mother- possibly reflecting his troubled affair with Annette Vallon). Blake is described as ‘old and poor…ill fed…thinly clad’ and the descriptions are stark in their unadorned simplicity. It becomes clear that her inability to lead a joyful lifestyle is limited by her old age, poverty and the harsh winter, compounded by the selfish actions of Gill.

His attempts to prevent her from taking wood for her fire exposes his lack of altruism and is represented by the onomatopoeic refrain of his chattering teeth:

‘evermore his teeth they chatter,

Chatter, chatter, chatter still’

Wordsworth focuses upon the physical implications for Gill’s health and the repetition of ‘chatter’ is almost a feverish manifestation of his lack of spiritual warmth. Interestingly, as in the Yew Tree, this idea is represented through the natural environment- though here from a more seasonal perspective- with the poem moving away from the abundance of summer, where exuberance is implicit, towards the cold austerity of winter. This seasonal metaphor ties together all the poem’s thematic material and is used as a transformational device bringing about change within the poem and altering nature from a life-giving force to an unsympathetically destructive one.

Though the treatment of exuberant nature in the ‘Yew Tree’ and ‘Harry Gill and Goody Blake’ is unconventional, in ‘the Dungeon’ (a parallel to the Bastille?) nature is completely absent. This is clearly shown in the line: ‘Each pore and natural outlet shrivell’d up.’ The word ‘pore’ has a living quality though this is undercut completely in the context of the dry and lifeless ‘shrivell’d’. The opening line, ‘And this place our forefathers made for man?’ is almost starkly unpoetic, in its incredulous response to the sight of the dungeon. This is a vision almost hell-like in its total absence of anything natural or joyful. Coleridge’s personal expression of indignation ‘Merciful God’ is quickly followed by images of an all encompassing spiritual and social degeneration. One negative image associated with the effects of imprisonment is piled upon another and its accumulative impact is almost overpowering. Critically, the prisoner ‘lies circled with evil’ the evil is not located within the prisoner for his crimes but with those who have imprisoned and debased him. The stanza presents prison as starkly unnatural, culminating in the line: ‘his very soul unmoulds its essence, hopelessly deformed’. The soul represents man at his purest, most spiritual and ethereal; that this should be ‘hopeless deformed’ is shocking. Clearly, the dungeon epitomises a lack of hope, nature and exuberance but also represents a force which exacerbates the descent into corruption.

This creates a sense of structural polarity when the second stanza is read, showing a complete joyful contrast and the redemptive power of nature not just to heal the body but also the soul. Coleridge’s heart-felt and searing appeal ‘O nature’ is not a lament but rather an overwhelmingly joyful call, encapsulating his feelings. Nature here is at its most exuberant: ‘sunny hues…fair forms…breathing sweets’ it is something vital and given greater power by its contrast to the earlier description of the dungeon. The lines have a sensual power and the musicality of ‘Thy melodies of woods, winds and water’ is almost palpable in its euphony. The rewards of nature are most extolled by this poem because it begins in such a hopeless and hostile environment. There is a sense of climactic release when the hypothetical prisoner succumbs to nature, ‘Till he relent,’ the comma presents a slight pause almost suggesting an expiration of breath which has built up, from the accumulative descriptions of nature. A soul and spirit which had unmoulded its natural shape and lost all exuberance, is here ‘healed and harmonized’ resolving the poem literally and also satisfying the musical motif which had been suggested by reference to ‘melodies’ and ‘dissonance’.

Leave a Comment