One Bit of Rock or Moor

Susan Eilenberg

  • Wordsworth and the Victorians by Stephen Gill
    Oxford, 300 pp, £25.00, April 1998, ISBN 0 19 811965 8
  • The Five-Book Prelude by William Wordsworth, edited by Duncan Wu
    Blackwell, 214 pp, £40.00, April 1997, ISBN 0 631 20548 9

Durability was what mattered. Wordsworth founded his poetry on what he called ‘the beautiful and permanent forms of nature’ and built it according to ‘the primary laws of our nature’. It cleaved stubbornly to facts, to countable things, to rocks and stones and trees, and behaved rather like the boy Wordsworth himself, who, as he much later reported, often ‘grasped at a wall or tree’ on his way to school in order to reassure himself of the material reality of a world he did not entirely believe in. Single sheep were to refute by their superior probability the ‘abyss of idealism’ that threatened to reduce even mountains to nothingness, or roaring mist, or ‘huge and mighty forms that do not live/Like living men’ and that eclipse the ‘familiar shapes/Of hourly objects’. Even the most solid and reassuringly massive of Wordsworth’s objects suggest an uneasy awareness of the instability, the nothingness, against which they have been invoked but to which they are liable to succumb. Even the most matter-of-fact of his poems suggest the same imminent threat of ‘blank desertion’.

For all their determination granitelike to endure, Wordsworth’s poems have historically proved unstable entities. For that instability Wordsworth and the culture of his age and that which followed were responsible. The poet presented his poems in such a way that they seemed to confirm either what a reader chose to believe or what an editor wished him to believe. In his rich, engrossing account of Wordsworth’s commercial and cultural absorption into diverse aspects of Victorian culture, Stephen Gill reveals the currency throughout the 19th century of more varieties – and more incompatible ones – of Wordsworth than a modern reader can comfortably keep track of. Nor is the instability all a matter of past blindness and Victorian prejudices: offering his edition of a Wordsworth Prelude that may never fully have come into being and whose brief existence, if it had one, is beyond proof, Duncan Wu reminds us once more of the insubstantiality of any claim to know just what Wordsworth was about.

Wordsworth’s textual being and meaning changed continually even during his lifetime. Writing and rewriting, arranging and rearranging, he left a body of work that is not only its own increasingly orthodox monument but also its own finicking solvent. Mere multiplication, the result of the poet’s inability to leave his poems alone, compromises the authenticity, undoes the apparent self-evidence that was his object. Earlier text challenges later text, and intermediate versions compete with both.

The question for 19th-century and modern editors has been which version of his work to prefer. No publisher could publish it all in all its permutations, nor would any but the most devoted reader have the patience to read it. There is simply too much in too many forms. Most immediately formidable are the nine collected editions, which began appearing in 1815, about the time Wordsworth’s creative energies had begun to give way to irritability. But this accumulation comes on top of the 15 volumes of new works Wordsworth published in his lifetime, and on top of the Prelude, published three months after his death, and of ‘Home at Grasmere’, originally intended as Book I of the never-written Recluse, as well as the many intermediate versions of individual poems Wordsworth seems never to have intended to publish at all. Wordsworth’s obsessive revision and rearrangement, though performed in the conscious service of the definitive, made determination of just what was definitive ambiguous during his lifetime and set a precedent for tinkering that many of his posthumous editors and publishers would follow.

Gill reports that although copyright first controlled which Wordsworth the book-buying public would encounter, as copyrights of individual works and, later, the final collected edition lapsed, publishers published as they pleased. The market for Wordsworth in almost any form was insatiable, and within a few years of his death there were Wordsworths for every taste. Between 1858 and 1882 more than fifty editions of the poetry – individual works, selections and complete editions – appeared in Britain and the US. They ranged from dignified authorised editions to skimpy school texts to luxurious gilded volumes with distracting illustrations of pretty children anachronistically garbed and sentimental maidens in quasi-medieval settings. The texts of many of these editions (including Matthew Arnold’s) were surprising: they included poems appearing under newly concocted titles, selections ingeniously fashioned from distinct versions, and promiscuous arrangements that not even Wordsworth had attempted.

This ‘textual anarchy’, as Gill calls it, was made possible by a combination of reverence for the poet’s wisdom and indifference to his admittedly changeable bibliographical intentions. It is a combination less inconsistent, or at least less incomprehensible, than may first appear, for the devotion Wordsworth inspired had less to do with the words he wrote than with their surmised spirit. Gill suggests that what had pulled him from the semi-obscurity in which he had long since lost his creative power was not the magic of his writing but Coleridge’s death in 1834, an event that prompted the nation to think back and wonder what had happened to that other Lake Poet.

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