Dialogue and Monologue in the 1798 Lyrical Ballads

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Dialogue and Monologue in the 1798 Lyrical Ballads

Commemorating the bicentennial of the 1798 Lyrical Ballads implies something about the volume's innovations as well as its continuity. It is no longer possible to believe that 'Romanticism' started here (as I at least was taught in school). Even if we cannot claim 1798 as a hinge in literary history, though, there is something appealing about celebrating the volume's attitude to newness, as well as the less contentious fact of its enduring importance to readers of Romantic-period poetry. What one risks, of course, is the currently ubiquitous accusation that one is repeating the self-representations of an inappropriately authoritative version of Romanticism, as my school-teacher certainly was (though none of us knew it at the time). There is indeed something innately Wordsworthian about the bicentennial, with its celebration of the endurance of a single past event. We recognise this rhetoric of revisitation and futurity: it is the language spoken by the affirming voice of 'Lines written above Tintern Abbey', the concluding statement of the 1798 volume. The poem reads rather like the recitation of a liturgy. Wordsworth recollects his own faith by restating it, and in doing so he discovers its truth and its guarantee of continuity: "in this moment there is life and food / For future years" (ll. 65-6). However sceptical readers have become about the Wordsworthian-Coleridgean creed, the monumental quality of the volume is not entirely a figment of a literary history in search of Great Traditions; 'Tintern Abbey' writes its own future—and the future of Lyrical Ballads 1798 as a whole—as well as writing Wordsworth's (and Dorothy's). We may no longer assent to the idea of 1798 as a new beginning, but we still have to accommodate the volume's own assertions about continuity and change.

Perhaps the temptation to go on marking the date arises from the presence of these assertions. Even without the extended prefaces of the later editions, the 1798 Lyrical Ballads is a strikingly self-conscious collection. It opens and closes with a pair of manifestos. The 'Advertisement' announces a new poetic practice; 'Tintern Abbey' bears witness to the final achievement of imaginative, moral and domestic security. Together, these two documents act like a set of quotation marks. They frame the stylistic and rhetorical character of the volume as a whole within another kind of voice, instructing, guiding, and (re)assuring. However we choose to take the grand Romantic
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