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This article is taken from PN Review 171, Volume 33 Number 1, September - October 2006.

The Word in Time 4: Lyrical Ballads Chris McCully

4: Under the influence: Lyrical Ballads

 In 1747 William Collins began his lyric ‘To Evening’ like this:
 

 If aught of oaten stop or pastoral song
 May hope, O pensive Eve, to soothe thine ear…
 

 It’s poetry of deliberate assonance, of what Collins called ‘soften’d strains’. As it encounters the stressed vowels of these lines – aught, oaten, stop, pastoral, song, hope, pensive, Eve, soothe, ear the tongue has no choice but to engage ina sort of quietly conspiratorial dance. These carefully deployed vowel shapes have an iconic function: the poem is attempting to embody what it describes.

 I like this kind of extravagant aesthetic discipline, in which poetry smiles to itself, satisfied with artifice. But a century and more after Collins' reconsideration of the government of the tongue, the discipline itself would break out into an unfortunate slogan – 'Art for Art's Sake' – and end in a kind of parodic dandyism for which, hélas, one can’t wholly blamethe French. Muses don’t like slogans, in any language.

 On the other hand, there were those closer in time to Collins who, while technically indebted to him, also rejected his characteristic themes – thoughtful rural idylls, evenings of tranquil ease apparently peopled only by the poet, an odd besmocked deity, and a neatly personified Melancholy, who ‘Poured through the mellow horn her pensive soul’. These sterner souls imagined that poetry had a more rigorous business to ...


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