The beginning of the British Romantic Movement is generally considered to have been marked by the collection of poems titled Lyrical Ballads, first published in 1798, most of the poems of this first edition belonged to William Wordsworth, while only  four were contributed by Samuel T. Coleridge, among which, one of his best known works: The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

A second edition was published in 1800 with the famous Preface written by W. Wordsworth in which the poet outlines his poetic standpoints about Romanticism and that can be accounted for as the Manifesto of English Romanticism. In 1802 yet another edition came out with an appendix written by Wordsworth, Poetic Diction, to provide further insight regarding the main features and the radical changes that both these poets brought forth in the development of this new poetic theory.


William Wordsworth was born in the Lake District and attended St John’s College in Cambridge. As was customary for scholars of those times he went on his Grand Tour through Europe and while travelling on foot the French Alps, in 1790, he became familiar with the revolutionary democratic ideas that so much affected him. However, he was soon greatly disappointed for they turned into raging fury destroying any hope of a more just social order. He was so distraught by such turn of events that he had a nervous breakdown that nearly annihilated him and from which he recovered only thanks to the close contact to nature that such an important part will have in his poetry later on.

His close relationship with his sister Dorothy and his friendship with Samuel T. Coleridge were crucial for Wordsworth poetical growth and development. In 1802 he married Mary Hutchinson with whom he had five children, he also had an older daughter from a previous relationship he had had with Annette Vallon.

A distinguished intellectual and artist he was made Poet Laureate in 1843. He died at the age of eighty in 1850.

Wordsworth’s Poetry

The first most important task that he set for himself as an intellectual and a poet was to reunite realism and poetry since throughout the Augustan Age realism had been used exclusively in prose, and he succeeds in his intentions by drawing poetic inspiration from incidents and episodes taken from everyday life, from the common country people who lived in close contact to nature whose observation brought solace and consolation to Wordsworth.

Elementary Feelings vs Poetic Diction

According to him poetry could, in fact, penetrate the realism of the “elementary feelings” experienced by common country people which were more easily understood on a universal scale so that anyone could sympathise with them. Consequently the language used had to be as far away as possible from “poetic diction”, with this definition he identified the elevated language used by neo-classical poets that he considered pompous and artificial, and as close as possible to the one used every day, simple and clear.

Recollection in Tranquillity and Subjective Memory – The Poet as a Guide

At the same time imagination was also important and went hand in hand to the new role he assigned the poet. Wordsworth believed that the poet had deeper insight because he was endowed with a higher degree of sensibility allowing him to see beyond the observation of mere facts and, therefore, he was a teacher and a spiritual guide who was capable of showing the objects observed from different perspectives enlarging their spectrums. Moreover, the poet had the gift to store within him the feelings and emotions stirred by the contemplation of nature and through what he refers to as “recollection in tranquillity” he reorganises these past feelings and emotions he experienced and recreates them by a subjective memory.

Poetic Themes

Wordsworth focuses on two main poetic themes, nature and childhood. They are both bound together as for Wordsworth the child’s sensations of the outside world, free of any cultural contamination, are retrieved through the adult’s memory and meditation and recreate his inner life which is enriched then by a quiet contemplation of Nature’s beauty. Nature is, according to Wordsworth, a living presence; not only plants and animals, but inanimate things such as mountains, stones, rivers are also endowed with a spirit and a living essence of their own and man can therefore see in it God’s creation linking nature to his own inner life, so man, through this blending of his deeper essence with Nature, and through this special relationship can rediscover and be part of the All Mighty’s design.


Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Samuel Taylor Coleridge was born in Devonshire in 1772, he studied at Christ’s Hospital School in London and then in Cambridge but he never graduated. He was much inspired by the new democratic ideals of the French Revolution and became a Republican, with his friend Robert Southey, a radical, he meant to set up a utopian community in Pennsylvania where private property did not exist but everyone worked for the community’s interest in peace. This idea never became reality and the French Revolution also turned into a great disillusionment, furthermore Coleridge suffered from chronic rheumatism and to alleviate the pain he was prescribed opium which in turn made him develop an addiction to the drug that will condition his entire life. His friendship with William Wordsworth became very important to him and during these years he created his best poetic works. Later, he lived in Malta for some time and when he returned to England he dedicated himself to teaching literature and journalism. Shakespearian criticism owes him the basis for its development and literary criticism in general, thanks to his Biographia Literaria (1817). He died in 1834.

Literary Features

Coleridge’s literary production is quite varied and vast, ranging from translations of German works to essays on philosophy and politics, among other things. Yet, it is mainly his poetic work that will be discussed here.
He too, with Wordsworth, belongs to the First Generation Poets of the Romantic Movement and contributed with some prized writings to the collection of poems Lyrical Ballads. Coleridge can be said to be even more Romantic than Wordsworth since many of his most exquisite literary works contained most of the typical Romantic themes such as the rhythm and rhyme patterns as well as the dramatic atmospheres of the medieval ballads along with the medieval settings. Coleridge also makes great use of mystery and supernatural elements in his poetry, although nature and exotic distant places aren’t underestimated because of the powerful grip they would exercise on the reader’s imagination. His literary style is quite peculiar as well, he adopts devices such as alliterations, assonances, onomatopoeias, internal rhymes, repetitions that have a musical sound and recreate the necessary unreal and, at times, mysterious atmospheres of awe. Unlike Wordsworth though the nature he outlines is not happy but foreboding.

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

COLERIDGE: ANCIENT MARINER. The mariner shoots the albatross. Wood engraving after Gustave Doré (1832-1883) for Samuel Taylor Coleridge's 'Rime of the Ancient Mariner', 1798.
The mariner shoots the albatross. Wood engraving after Gustave Doré (1832-1883) for Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, 1798.

His most representative poem is undoubtedly The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, the opening poem of Lyrical Ballads. It was written between 1797 and 1798 and it is about an old sailor who stops people to tell them his story as if compelled by an external necessity or duty. The story regards a journey taken on a ship that is, at first, under a good omen, that of the albatross who comes to visit the crew on a daily basis to be fed. Then, one day, unexpectedly and for no apparent reason the mariner shoots and kills the albatross whose dead body falls on the shoulders of the mariner, while his fellow crew members look at him in schock and bewilderment. From that moment on the journey turns into a nightmare. The weather has a sudden change and the ship will undergo terrible hardships to the point that no one survives, except the mariner who is condemned to tell the story over and over to passerbys as if to leave a warning message to the world.

It is a cut above many of his contemporaries’ poetic efforts as it contained all of Coleridge’s mastery of rhythm, poetic and melodic language, as richness and sharpness of metaphors. This long ballad is about a crime and its punishment told by the protagonist as a form of repentance imposed on him by a higher being from which he cannot withdraw himself.

Literary Symbols and Inspirations – Writing Techniques and Style

The narration is full of exceptionally well balanced real and unreal elements; it follows a progression of causes and effects that give its structure and contents, though rich in supernatural aspects, a plausible outcome. The unreal and nightmarish worlds that Coleridge recreates recall some of the Gothic and medieval features included in the novels of his time, while the obscure symbols that are scattered throughout the poem allow numerous interpretations. For one thing the poem may have been inspired to Coleridge during a dream caused by opium since some of the descriptions seemed to have been quite common to opium addicts and Coleridge used it to deal with the rheumatic pains that much afflicted him. In the second place the sea voyage may symbolise life and the crew mankind that pays the consequences of the evil deeds committed by only one individual while the albatross might represent a universal deal for mutual love uniting all living creatures. It could also be a moral parable of man in various phases where the killing of the good omen birds stands for the original sin, leading into isolation as the deserved punishment, and where the blessing of the water snakes represents repentance, while, finally, the obsessive repetition of the story is the mariner’s penitence. But, the poet’s intentions may have been more subtle, as the American critic Robert P. Warren notes by speaking of the contrast between rationality and irrationality, where rationality is embodied in “sunlight” since all the bad events of the narration take place during daytime, therefore reason; whereas the latter is associated with “moonlight”, night time as being the setting for all the good episodes is connected to imagination thus exemplifying fully the Romantic contrapositions between reason versus imagination.

Coleridge’s Primary and Secondary Imagination – The Poet as a Prophet

As far as imagination is concerned Coleridge had his own theory partly derived from his German studies. He divided it into two parts which he called “primary” and “secondary”. In his opinion, during “Primary imagination” the world around us transmits us information that all human beings commonly perceive through their senses. “Secondary imagination”, instead, is the special gift that poets have “to idealize and unify” in a sort of ecstasy, images are associated to others according to laws of their own that absolutely escape those of simply putting together data coming from experience. Imagination though has nothing to do with “fancy” since this is the mechanical use of poetic devices such as metaphors or similes. Both Wordsworth and Coleridge prefer imagination to Fancy, their difference consists in that for Wordsworth the poet modifies or transforms and “half-recreates” the information gathered through experience by “recollection in tranquillity”, Coleridge, instead, believes that imagination goes beyond the data of experience and does actually “create”.

This leads us right into his new idea of the poet and its task. Coleridge sees the poet as the prophet who searches for truth and he finds it within himself and not in the outside world through reason and experience, rather by falling into a state of ecstatic unconsciousness that once it fades away it is recollected by memory thus allowing the poet to join together his conscious and unconscious self.


Video Lesson on the First Generation Romantic Poets – W. Wordsworth and S. T. Coleridge

Images taken from Google Search

The reading of “Daffodils” by Jeremy Irons is taken from You Tube, uploaded by “Noxdl”

while the reading of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” by Richard Burton is taken from You Tube, loaded by “Metrisch”

To both of them goes my appreciation and gratitude.

© L. R. Capuana


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