Today is the birthday of William Wordsworth (1770), who with Samuel Taylor Coleridge published a slim volume with a modest title, Lyrical Ballads, in 1798, when he was 28 and Coleridge two years younger. Its effect was anything but modest; it is probably the single most important volume in the history of English poetry.
The goal of the collection was to drive a stake through the heart of eighteenth-century poetry, and for that alone we should be grateful. As Wordsworth stated in the preface, which is nearly as valued as the poems themselves, they wished to move the language of poetry away from the academic and cerebral toward something ordinary people could understand and appreciate. It gave rise not only to the Romantic movement but to a sense of the modern, which would no longer be beholden to convention and antiquity. The first poem was Coleridge’s most famous, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” and the last was Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey.” If it had only contained those two, its appearance would still have had seismic effects. I have always been more partial to Coleridge’s strangeness than Wordsworth’s worship of the rustic, but the latter is probably the more influential. Lots of poets learned to write like Wordsworth; almost no one could write like Coleridge except Coleridge.