Debating Wordsworth’s “Idiot Boy”

Although “The Idiot Boy” has never been as celebrated or as widely read as many other Lyrical Ballads, it was among the most controversial in its time. To some of Wordsworth’s contemporaries, “The Idiot Boy” represented everything that was wrong with the romantic “experiment” (Preface, para. 1). Its plot went nowhere; its meter plodded; its subjects were too vulgar to be represented in poetic form.

In this PDF, you can read three evaluations of the poem: one is Wordsworth’s response to a young critic; one is by Byron, who passes the charge of “idiocy” onto Wordsworth (and riffs on “The Tables Turned,” while he’s at it); and one is by Coleridge, reflecting on Lyrical Ballads later on. (Consider it recommended reading.) Note the fluidity with which the topic changes from poetic language to language-based disability, social class, and motherhood, and vice versa. How much of it sounds familiar? As contemporary readers, are we troubled by the same aspects of the poem as Wordsworth’s first critics, or different ones?

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