One for All: A Poetic Proposal

One for All: A Poetic Proposal

An essay by Joanie Papillon

for Prof. Shalon Noble’s course entitled Lyrical Ballads

Poetry has continuously evolved and developed since the Classical period. Since then, an enormous variety of styles and genres have appeared in the vast poetry world. The ballad, for instance, was born in the medieval period, around the 13th century. The lyrical genre came much later, during the romantic period, with the publication of The Lyrical Ballads in 1798.  In fact, this very collection generates a distinct genre: the lyrical ballad. This genre consists of a combination of the ballad and the lyric, created by assembling characteristics of both types of poetry. For example, a fundamental and defining trait of the genre of the lyrical ballad is the presentation of individuals as speakers and symbols for the people, especially the marginal groups. In other words, the lyrical ballad is a poetic communion of the one and the many, which is an element of great importance in the collection. Particularly, this relationship between the single character and the outcast people is emphasized in William Wordsworth’s “Lines Left Upon a Seat in a Yew-Tree,” “Old Man Travelling” and “The Thorn.”

To start with, “Lines Left Upon a Seat in a Yew-Tree,” a lyrical poem, is focused on a single man and his story of isolation. It connects the lonely individual to society, since his story is told by a traveller, a representative of the people, thus translating it into a moral of humility for all men. The main character of the piece is closely connected with society by his very rejection of it. Actually, he chooses to isolate himself in nature to avoid man’s “jealousy, and hate” (16), but this isolation eventually leads to his death. This explains that he absolutely needs human contact to live. Humanity also needs this man, or at least what he has left in the living world, to stay alive by acquiring knowledge. In fact, the author emphasizes this idea with the last line of the second section: “He died, this seat his only monument” (43). Here, Wordsworth describes the seat as the only trace the man has made on Earth. It is when looking at the title that this line becomes truly significant. The “Lines Left Upon a Seat in a Yew-Tree” are precisely what the lonely man has offered to society. Society is symbolized by the traveller who also acts as translator. The reader can also stand for civilization, since he or she is the one who learns and contemplates while reading the text left by the character.

The lyrical poem “Old Man Travelling” by Wordsworth tells the story of the tranquil suffering of an old man visiting his son in a hospital, which consists of a portrait of a poor community and its values. The old man is the perfect reflection of the marginal people, since he is suffering; but he is still  described as very quiet and peaceful: “He is insensibly subdued/ to settled quiet” (7-8) and “He is by nature led / to peace so perfect” (12). This tendency to live peacefully through pain is extremely common among the outcast, since they constantly deal with pain. These people become passively submissive to their misery and live in a meditative mindfulness, like the man, “who does not move with pain, but moves / with thought” (6-7). The importance that the character of the poem gives to his son and his family is very symbolic because the support among family members is a primary value among folk people. The text sketches, as announced in its title, an entire society through the old man, demonstrating at the same time how the individual and the community live as one.

      “The Thorn,” a poem by Wordsworth which is more balladic, is set in a very small and close community. The piece tells the sad story of Martha Rey, an inhabitant of the village who presumably killed her child after the failure of her wedding. It connects her to society by setting her as a villager. Hints of this reality include the speaker’s advanced knowledge of the woman’s story and of the names of the characters presented throughout the text, which indicates that the speaker himself is part of a small community. Also, the speaker says: “Last Christmas when we talked of this” (152), which gives the reader an impression of a close society where people get together at Christmas. The fact that the villagers speak of Martha between them demonstrates that she lives through the society as a legend. This idea is supported by the presence of supernatural events in her story. For example, the speaker says that “if to the pond you go,/ […]The shadow of a babe you trace,/ […] And that it looks at you”(225-229). The village also lives through Martha, since it is only presented to the reader within her very story. It seems that the woman is merrily a simple villager, so her miserable tale could very well happen to any other inhabitant of the small town. The relation of interdependence between the individual character of Martha Ray and her community is undeniable.

Balladic poems such as “The Thorn,” and the lyrical poems such as “Old Man Travelling” and “Lines Left Upon a Seat in a Yew-Tree” from the collection Lyrical Ballads, accurately demonstrate the mutual dependence of the individual and the people. The expression “one for all and all for one” makes inherent within the genre of the lyrical ballad, as the reader comes to understand that the one and the many not only stand for each other, but also profoundly need each other. When  contemplating such meaningful topics, one can surely ask oneself how it is possible to change the world. Does the genre of the lyrical ballad exist as an invitation to political involvement?


Works Cited

Wordsworth, William. ¨Lines Left Upon a Seat in a Yew-Tree ¨. Lyrical Ballads. Eds. Michael Gamer and Dahlia Porter. Peterborough, ON: Broadview, 2008. 76-78.Print.

Wordsworth, William. ¨Old Man Traveling¨. Lyrical Ballads. Eds. Michael Gamer and Dahlia Porter. Peterborough, ON: Broadview, 2008. 137.Print.

Wordsworth, William. ¨The Thorn¨. Lyrical Ballads. Eds. Michael Gamer and Dahlia Porter. Peterborough, ON: Broadview, 2008. 103-110.Print.


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