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  • The 1798 Lyrical Ballads and the Poetics of Late Eighteeth-Century Book Production
  • Alan D. Boehm

Although the 1798 Lyrical Ballads has generated myriad critical studies, which reflect various historical, cultural, and theoretical perspectives, few readers have contemplated the first edition as a locus of late eighteenth-century printing and publishing practices, and none have examined the commercial considerations that urged the poets and their bookseller, Joseph Cottle of Bristol, to produce the particular book they did. This lack of attention is not very surprising. Readers of literature tend to concentrate their energies on the texts authors write, not on such matters as the type and paper deployed in their reproduction. But the 1798 Lyrical Ballads invites such scrutiny, because for Wordsworth and Coleridge, Lyrical Ballads was as much a publishing venture that engaged their knowledge of the contemporary literary marketplace as a volume of poems that disclosed their aesthetic ideas, a fact signalled by the very title the poets assigned to their book. 1

As a printed artifact, the 1798 Lyrical Ballads has not escaped scholarly notice. It has been the focus of several bibliographic and textual studies—chiefly, those by Thomas J. Wise, D. F. Foxon, Robert W. Daniel, James A. Butler, and Butler and Karen Green. 2 These works explain how the 1798 edition was printed and published. However, they are not concerned with why Cottle, Wordsworth, and Coleridge produced the book in the way they did, what the book’s material features might have meant to the poets and their bookseller, and what the book was intended to signify to readers of 1798, who would hopefully pick it up among dozens of other books in a shop, buy it, and read it with pleasure. But in exploring how, with Cottle’s cooperation, Wordsworth and Coleridge translated their manuscript poems into the print commodity, Lyrical Ballads, with a few other poems, we not only gain a better understanding of the collection itself, but we also sense the need to begin re-examining some of our basic notions about the nature of Romantic authorship. [End Page 453]


Because the appearance of Lyrical Ballads in 1798 followed a series of complicated and at points elusive events, it is helpful to briefly outline its publishing history, placing an emphasis on the material production of the book. As a publishing venture, Lyrical Ballads came into being towards the end of May 1798, when Cottle paid a short visit to Nether Stowey and Alfoxden, and reached an agreement with Wordsworth and Coleridge to issue a one-volume edition of poetry and give the poets 30 guineas for the copyright. 3 During this visit the bookseller and the poets established some preliminary ideas about the way the book would be printed and published, and around May 30 Cottle returned to Bristol with manuscript copies of “The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere” and perhaps other poems, which he soon delivered to his printer, Nathaniel Biggs. On 4 June Wordsworth and Coleridge wrote a letter to Cottle that clarified the scope of the project, reviewed the preliminary production plans, and discussed some new production ideas. This is the only extant document of the time that records in detail the poets’ printing and publishing instructions. 4 Around this date additional letters addressing the volume’s commercial character may have passed between the poets and the bookseller, or a meeting between Coleridge and Cottle may have taken place. 5 But after some point in June any decisions concerning the material form of Lyrical Ballads were probably worked out by Cottle and Wordsworth alone, who spent a good deal of time in Bristol from June to August. By early September, 500 copies of Lyrical Ballads in a foolscap octavo edition of 210 pages, neatly printed on good wire-wove paper, were ready for publication. But for reasons that he never clearly explained, Cottle suddenly declined to publish Lyrical Ballads and looked about for a London bookseller to buy and issue the edition. First he tried to sell it to T. N. Longman of Paternoster Row, even preparing a title page with Longman’s imprint, but Cottle and Longman apparently reached no agreement. Then Cottle sold the edition...