Lyrical Ballads

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.

William Wordsworth The Preface to Lyrical Ballads

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.

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The Unknown Washington Irving

Washington Irving was born on this date, April 3, 1783, during the week when New Yorkers learned that the British had finally ceased fighting. His first name was an overt act of hero worship on the part of his family. He would eventually write a multi–volume biography of that other Washington late in his life.

Most Americans know him as the author of two stories, one about a headless horseman and the other about a guy who falls asleep, but he was so much more than that. He edited a satiric magazine, Salmagundi, that made fun of the elite of NYC. He wrote histories, biographies, examinations of Islam, and many more comic stories besides the two you may have read. He was John Tyler’s Minister to Spain for four years, recommended for the post by Secretary of State Daniel Webster. Prior to that he had traveled to Spain in the 1820s, and during that trip he went to Granada and saw the magnificent Alhambra Palace, built by the Moors. From his fascination with that, he wrote a mix of stories, history, and myth called Tales of the Alhambra. He wrote works on British playwright and novelist Oliver Goldsmith and the Prophet Muhammad in back-to-back years. In other words, he was interested in almost everything he encountered. His work was popular in America and Europe, and Oliver Wendell Holmes said that his home, Sunnyside, was second only to Mt. Vernon as the “most cherished dwelling in our land.” Among his other accomplishments, he popularized the term “Gotham” for NYC and coined the phrase “the almighty dollar.” We ignore him at our peril.

By the way, that other story, the one about falling asleep? Far from being a cute children’s story, it is a sly commentary on the way things changed–and sometimes didn’t–during Rip Van Winkle’s long sleep, which corresponded with the American Revolution. Rip has escaped his own personal tyrant, Dame Van Winkle, so that’s good. The portrait of George III on a sign early in the story is replaced after the big sleep with one of George Washington–with the face left in place. Only the headgear and clothing have changed. Go figure.