It is widely believed that Lyrical Ballads by Wordsworth and Coleridge was one of those rare books which was a significant publishing event in itself and which also changed the course of English poetry. Penguin Books have reinforced this general belief by issuing the 1798 edition in the same series as Burns’s Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, Housman’s A Shropshire Lad and Yeats’s The Tower. Another recent reprint adopts a similar perspective and insists on the volume’s innovative and radical credentials by prefacing the introduction with two strongly expressed quotations: first an apparently unqualified endorsement by an unidentified critic in The Guardian: ‘[it] must have come on like punk rock to a public groaning under the weight of over-cooked Augustanisms’; and, secondly, a description from the Courier Mail: ‘a grenade hurled against the Establishment’. Yet a third publisher compromises the latest edition of a judicious, scholarly and carefully balanced book by printing on its cover, without explanation or apparent reservation, exactly the same passage from The Guardian.
While all three publishers are justified in recognising the special force of Lyrical Ballads (which in its way was a great deal more innovative and revolutionary than any of its companions in the Penguin list), the implications of such apparently unqualified endorsements could easily be deceptive. To begin with, the collection’s title was a great deal less daring and original than most readers assume.