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.