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Sewald: Colebrooke Dale

Written 10 years after the publication Lyrical Ballads preface which is often seen as offering a manifesto of Romantic revolutionary aims, this poem seems at first sight to identify itself more strongly with the previous age of Sensibility than with the claim for poetry as a ‘spontaneous overflow’. 

The classical allusions crowding the text, as well as the capitalised proper names and the ornate language all seem to support this reading, situating the poem within a tradition which includes Pope’s Windsor Forest and allied to the georgics and Augustan pastoral tradition. There is little use of simile, but the language does not seem to be aimed at the high Lockean purpose of conveying knowledge, but rather of evoking emotion. 

Sewald seems to have agreed with Johnson that ‘mere nature maybe exhibited with little power of mind’, and that the simplicity of the ballad which Addison celebrated would be too close to unimaginative philistinism, to being ‘vulgar’. In the paradoxical Augustan insistence on both Truth to Nature and Nature to Advantage, she appears to depend more on the esteem for ancient rules implying in her poem that ‘to copy nature is to copy them’. 

In terms of its presentation of landscape, the poem seems to fit in Abram’s view of neoclassical poetry as a mirror which selectively depicts a view of nature, with the ‘final cause’ the effect upon the audience. Conspicuously, there is no ‘I’ and the ‘Now we view’ establishes a sense of community only after painting the scene we are invited to look at, rather than participate in. This is in contrast to the Romantic invitation to identify the speaker with the poet. Yet the poem also seems to partake in the cause of satisfying a need for expression and the specificity of the locale is often seen as a Romantic trend which Abram’s finds as opposing the locodiscriptive Augustan poem. 

The intensity of the tone which suggests a depth of feeling which is marked particularly in expressive adjectives linked to more common nouns: violated Colebrook, moist locks, silver flood, pearly-wristed naiads are all part of a deepening of the lament, and echo in lexical terms the invasion by the Tribes with ‘cheek fulginous’ 

The energy in the descriptive terms does not necessarily set it apart from its neoclassical inheritance however. Rochester, often viewed as the first Augustan, wrote a Satyr against Reason as well as an Allusion to Horace. Recently critics have frequently pointed to the Úlan in much of Pope’s poetry, which at times goes very far from ‘what oft was thought’ as in the Dunciad, or in the sensory description of the Sylphs in Rape of the Lock, which some have seen as an Augustan parallel to Keats’s sensory poetry. 

This emphasis on the senses however can be seen as linking the poem closer to the transitional age of Sensibility, and in the first line ‘wasted bloom’ can be seen as an echo of Gray’s ‘flower born to blush unseen’. The tone of sorrow is similar, and Seward’s poem also seems to share the didacticism which has been seen as typical of this age, which kept Pope’s confirmatory ‘whatever is, is right’ yet transposed the confidence into resignation. Here, there is a sense of this in the last line, a rather laconic ‘ill-suited to such guests’, while the cumulative description of ‘clamour’ and ‘throng’ indicates a more forceful emotion. In terms of form the duality can be seen in the frequent use of dashes which close one description to open another with an abruptness which emphasises the first word, pointing almost like an index to the view being described ‘now we view’ ‘see in troops’. 

Yet reading a poem of the Romantic period as part of an epilogue to Sensibility can be seen as unsatisfying, and simplistic. Situating this poem within it’s Romantic context, it might be possible to read the distaste for emotion implied in the reference to ‘umber’d flames’ and ‘ponderous Engine clang’ in direct opposition to the ‘silent reign’ and very static very serene sense of the beginning, in conjunction with or foreshadowing the turn to conservatism in the early romantics, encapsulated in Southey’s professed dislike of all strong emotion, and sardonically criticised as a common case by Byron. 

Yet, as Butler argues, Wordsworth, the Enlightenment tradition was part of Romantic thinking from the first. The LB preface, while making a case, similar to Wartons, for a more ‘natural’ poetry, juxtaposed this with an awareness that no poem of value is written without mediation and thought, a recognition which seems to echo Goldsmith’s feeling that poetry required ‘inductive reason’ as opposed to the ‘figures in a dream’ of the Gothic mode. 

In a sense, though, this poem does bring figures in a dream before the reader, figured as the waternyphs and naiads in the poem who are seen as memories of a distant ‘past that was never a present’ ‘in times long vanish’d’, this seems to prompt a parallel with the sentimental turn to new forms in Celtic and medieval tradition, as un the Rowley and Ossian poems, while at the same time it is a part of the romantic view, for example in Coleridge’s Kubla Khan. The theme itself of course, of wasted bloom, is a predominant Romantic concern, encoded particularly in Shelley’s view that enslaving the elements man is himself enslaved. In fact parallels can be seen between Seward and Shelley in terms of intellectualism and concentration on the duty of the poet to society. 

The reference to the ‘rapt bard’ again, with it’s focus on the poet as creator of the object, seems a particularly romantic reference, to the sublime power of the mind which not only sees but creates what it sees. Here this is figured in terms of privilege of the learned with ‘piecing gaze’ can see what is invisible to the vulgar. In class terms this echoes Johnson’s view that art should be the province of those who have some learning rather than to ‘Artificers’, yet it is also Romantic in that it is a step away from Lockean empiricist ideas of tabula rasa to a subjectivist solipsistic epistemology which Coleridge famously wrote into Dejection: we receive but what we give. 

written: 2007