William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge both compiled ‘Lyrical Ballads’ with the aim of appealing to the middle and lower forms of society. Wordsworth states in his famous preface that in order for the lower classes to understand his work, he has composed the language of the poems to match the “language really used by men”. By appealing to these classes, both authors were able to convey a sense of sympathy for those who had been unfortunate enough to be imprisoned or isolated from society. However, the level of sympathy evoked in poems such as The Convict and The Dungeon presented criticism from members of the public, who deemed Wordsworth and Coleridge as being too sympathetic towards common criminals.
Both writers were heavily influenced by the work of the naturalist philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau, who argued that society ultimately corrupts what is originally virtuous in man. In Coleridge’s The Dungeon, the reader observes the central core of Rousseau’s work through the narrative of a man trapped inside a dungeon (that being society’s corrupting influence). The poem itself is a clear example of Coleridge’s censure of the penal system and also his blatant sympathy for those affected by this system. In The Dungeon, various lines describe to the reader the amount of suffering the man is undergoing. Coleridge describes how the man’s soul has become “hopelessly deformed”.
The use of the adjective “deformed” in reference to his “soul” is effective because the word is usually associated with physical appearance, however, as it is his “soul” being deformed, Coleridge illustrates how his suffering is essentially deforming his mind. This is emphasised further by the way Coleridge expresses the narrator’s sympathy for the man. The use of the question marks in the line “and what if guilty?/ Is this the only cure?” help to emphasise the narrator’s sheer confusion at how solitary confinement is labeled as a “cure”. One other expression of sympathy from the narrator is displayed in the words “To each poor brother” when explaining how most men in prisons are innocent. The combined use of the words “poor brother” implies to the reader that the man is a human being with emotion and feeling, which Coleridge uses in order to elicit further empathy from the reader.
The use of the noun “brother” is also echoed in Wordsworth’s companion piece The Convict. After observing the convict’s demoralised existence in the “vault of disease”, the onlooker states to him that he has come “as a brother thy sorrows to share”. Although the use of the noun “brother” is used in a slightly different context to The Dungeon, it nonetheless illustrates the onlooker’s empathy for the convict and his willingness for the convict to share his condolences with him. Wordsworth’s subtler criticism of society’s negligence towards the convict is more clearly stated when the onlooker declares to the convict; “Poor victim! No idle intruder has stood”. In a similar fashion to The Dungeon, the use of the adjective “poor” helps to evoke this sense of pathos and sympathy aimed at the reader. The paradoxical use of the adjective “victim” when describing the convict reinforces the idea of society’s callous treatment towards him, which evokes a greater amount of sympathy from Wordsworth. The lines “no idle intruder has stood” emphasise society’s reluctance to visit the convict. Instead, they have deliberately dejected him into isolation, despite his feelings of remorse.
One poem that differs greatly from The Dungeon and The Convict is The Female Vagrant. However, although the poem differs in setting and narrative, it nonetheless captivates the suffering of a person as a result of the social and political agendas of the time. Wordsworth evokes sympathy from the offset in the juxtaposition of the noun “female” with the adjective “vagrant” in the title of the poem. This is effective because Wordsworth stresses that it is a “female” who is aimless and “vagrant” in disposition, as oppose to a man; preparing the audience for the tragedy of the poem. The poem is also written in a first person perspective, which heightens the level of sympathy from the reader due to the intense level of emotion expressed through the protagonist’s tale. One example of this intense emotion is shown through the metaphor; “through tears that fell in showers”, after the repossession of her family’s home. This line could easily have been a simile, but Wordsworth chooses a metaphor in order to fully accentuate the profound emotional connection that the woman had to her home. Her crying in the form of “showers” also evokes an image of sympathy because of the realisation that she has now become homeless and poverty stricken.
One other technique used by Wordsworth in The Female Vagrant can be seen in the alliteration of the words “dried up, despairing, desolate”. The alliteration of the’d’s serve to illustrate the impact of the events which have caused her to become highly melancholic. Although sympathetic in its own right, these words (and the rest of the poem) have more poignancy when contrasted with the woman’s idyllic life at the beginning of the poem. Wordsworth deliberately constructed lines such as “with thoughtless joy I stretch’d along the shore” in the first stanza in order to heighten the heartbreak of her tale later in the poem. This line in particular acts as a stark contrast to the line “for no earthly friend/ Have I. -” in the final stanza, when describing her loss of dignity and eternal solitude. The words “thoughtless joy” in the first stanza are countered by the technique of enjambment in the words “Have I. -“. Wordsworth isolates these words through a full-stop and a hyphen in order to visually illustrate the woman’s destitute isolation, defining her tale as extremely sympathetic and woeful.
Wordsworth and Coleridge elicit sympathy from the reader through a variety of literary techniques. In The Dungeon, Coleridge uses an irate narrator in order to display the inhumanity of the penal system and how it affects the man. Similarly in The Convict, Wordsworth uses the onlooker as the catalyst for sympathy between the convict and the reader. Although different in narrative, The Female Vagrant also utilizes a narrator in the final line of the poem in order to describe how the woman could not finish her tale because “She wept; – because she had no more to say”. The device of the narrator to evoke sympathy is successfully used by Wordsworth in The Female Vagrant in order to visually summarise her utter heartache at the death of her family and the loss of her home.