The first proposal for the book Lyrical Ballads was for a two-volume work. The first would comprise two plays: William Wordsworth’s The Borderers and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Osorio. But this plan was changed so that the book was anonymous and would begin with the poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. In the preface Wordsworth describes the poem as ‘professedly written in imitation of the style, as well as the spirit of the elder poets’. The poem is introduced as The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere, in seven parts.
The poem was so different from all the other works in the collection that readers had difficulty understanding it. Coleridge used archaic spellings and obsolete words, and an often inverted word order, apparently driven by the need to achieve rhymes:
The Marineres all ‘gan pull the ropes,
But look at me they n’old;
Thought I, I am as thin as air –
They cannot me behold.
The first reviews found the style and content bewildering, ‘more of the extravagance of a mad German poet, than of the simplicity of our ancient ballad writers’, wrote a reviewer in the Analytical Review in December 1798. An interest in old English ballads or songs had recently been revived and the poem seemed deliberately confusing. The English poet Robert Southey famously wrote, ‘we do not sufficiently understand the story to analyse it,’ (Critical Review, October 1798).
The following year Wordsworth wrote to the publisher to say he felt the inclusion of The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere had been harmful to the Lyrical Ballads, and proposed omitting it from the second edition.
For the second edition it was moved from the opening position to the penultimate position of the first volume.