Wordsworth and the Well-Hidden Corpse

Marilyn Butler

  • The Lyrical Ballads: Longman Annotated Texts edited by Michael Mason
    Longman, 419 pp, £29.99, April 1992, ISBN 0 582 03302 0
  • Strange Power of Speech: Wordsworth, Coleridge and Literary Possession by Susan Eilenberg
    Oxford, 278 pp, £30.00, May 1992, ISBN 0 19 506856 4
  • The Politics of Nature: Wordsworth and Some Contemporaries by Nicholas Roe
    Macmillan, 186 pp, £35.00, April 1992, ISBN 0 333 52314 8

‘The best-known publication date in English literature,’ says Michael Mason of 1798. But the terse, intelligent Introduction to his new edition of the Lyrical Ballads seems out to disperse the sense of unique significance sticking to the year. Mason points out that the original version of 1798, which was anonymous, caught on less well than the second (1800), twice as long, and firmly attributed to Wordsworth alone. The two authors worked on four editions, appearing over seven years, further proof that there was no ‘historical moment but a sequence of moments’. Mason passes over the innovative 1798 and 1800 and chooses as his text 1805. A revolution, even a sense of historical occasion, is not what he is after.

Facts are one thing, perceptions another, and as Mason also remarks, the date 1798 has acquired resonance partly as a numerical anagram of 1789. Hazlitt exploited the coincidence in the political direction he favoured, by afterwards suggesting that the Lyrical Ballads was to English poetry what the Fall of the Bastille was to the Ancien Régime. Yet the volume was not so interpreted by contemporaries on its appearance in September 1798, when it may actually have disappointed radical expectations.

The first name on the title page was that of the out-of-town publisher Joseph Cottle of Bristol. It’s an odd fact that Cottle authors – the youthful Southey and Coleridge alone, together, or in conjunction with friends such as Lamb – account for most of the modern English poets lampooned for their radicalism in the Government-funded satirical magazine, The Anti-Jacobin, from November 1797 to July 1798. By adding the implicitly genteel ‘Lyrical’ to the plebeian ‘Ballad’, the new partnership of Wordsworth and Coleridge signalled that the series was changing direction. The categories of poem occurring in their 1798 volume – ballad, ‘eclogue’ or pastoral dialogue, inscription, dramatic monologue, rustic character sketch or extract from a verse drama – are standard Cottle fare, but the poems themselves have lost the theme of social or political protest that gives consistency to the contents of Southey’s Poems of 1797, such as his celebrated ‘Botany Bay eclogues’, his sonnets against the slave trade, or his Inscriptions raising notional monuments all over the countryside to eminent dead republicans.

Judged a little less locally, the Wordsworthian lyrical ballad is poetry of its time: that is, poetry of the last decades of the 18th century, not of the early 19th. Within a few years, most, though not all, of the big-selling poems were on public themes, such as history, war and politics, and elaborate historical pastiche was more fashionable than simplicity. As long ago as 1954, in an article still treated as authoritative, R.D. Mayo compared the poems of the Lyrical Ballads with the run of contemporary poetry appearing in the newspapers, journals and literary miscellanies of the day. The drift of the Lyrical Ballads in the direction of nature, simplicity, humanitarianism and sentimental morality was, says Mayo, a cliché, and so far from being Wordsworth’s invention that it could be seen as the ‘excess of a new orthodoxy’.

Mason falls in with both Mayo and Coleridge when he guesses that the Ballads would never have come to seem rebellious if Wordsworth had not added his confusingly worded Preface in 1800. Here he represents the poems as an experiment to replace over elaborate literary language with an idiom he variously describes as ‘the real language of men in a state of vivid sensation’, ‘a selection of language really used by men’, or (in the most obfuscating and questionable version) the language of men in ‘low and rustic life’ who ‘hourly communicate with the best objects from which the best part of language is originally derived’, and hence ‘convey their feelings in simple and unelaborated expressions’. Earlier the Advertisement to Lyrical Ballads (1798) had defined the idiom aimed at as ‘the language of conversation in the middle and lower classes of society’.

Reviewing Southey’s oriental romance, Thalaba the Destroyer, late in 1802, Francis Jeffrey in the first number of the Edinburgh Review brings up the Cottle connection for the first time. Recalling Southey’s earlier political notoriety and Wordsworth’s Preface, he turns the latter by selective quotation into the democratic manifesto of a ‘sect’, the so-called Lake poets. Wordsworth the prose-writer had undone Wordsworth the poet, who, in appropriating Southey’s poetry of simplicity, meant to leave Southey himself behind.

Like a murderer returning to the scene of the crime, Wordsworth himself points to the well-hidden corpse, politics. More and more critics of the last decade have enthusiastically dug it up, undeterred by the modern scholarly consensus that Wordsworth’s original presentation of the volume was non-political. From a psychoanalytical viewpoint, history repressed is more interesting than history expressed, as in the poetry of Southey, Scott, even Shelley.

Besides, this historical foraging into the bad conscience of Wordsworth the ex-radical challenges the portrait of Wordsworth as counter-revolutionary which began to take shape around 1950, to be gradually developed by some of the leading Romanticists. For M.H. Abrams, Northrop Frye and Geoffrey Hartman, the date 1798 retains all its charm because it signifies not an echo of 1789 so much as a correction of it – the true spiritual revolution after the false, material and murderous revolution ushered in by 1789. Harold Bloom, Hillis Miller and Paul de Man see something profoundly representative in Wordsworth’s sudden retreat from the public to the private sphere – the threshold of modernity, the moment when the political and social goals of history become either unrealisable or shallow. When Francis Fukuyama, a former pupil, of de Man’s, wrote his article ‘The End of History’ amid the events of 1989, he must have been ironically aware that his mentor and his mentor’s friends had been pouring out books for a quarter of a century on another time history died, 1789-98.

As this indicates, Wordsworth’s early poetry has fostered some of the most sophisticated and wide-ranging post-war criticism in English. The three editions of Lyrical Ballads published in the Sixties for use in university teaching furthered this work, and from a scholarly point of view usefully complemented each other: W.J.B. Owen (1967) used the 1798 text, Derek Roper (1968) used 1805, while Brett and Jones (1963) combined 1798 with Vol. II of 1800. Now Mason appears, to reissue the text still available in Roper’s version – and what else? He might have gone in for a critical edition, condensing the interpretative debates, or for supplementing the notes of existing editions on sources, milieu and reception. Mason provides a Bibliography which lists many if not all the most influential recent books and articles, but otherwise leaves out critical opinions. On the milieu he adds little to what is in Roper, though work has been done since 1970 on late 18th-century writing on popular language and orality, and some of this has a bearing on the Preface especially. The Longman series announces a commitment to ‘the quality and value of the annotation on the page in bringing out the text’s full range of reference and meaning for the reader’. For Mason, the meaning that most matters is poetic meaning, and the emphasis of his edition compared with others is literary.

Mason’s editorial priorities show in his General Introduction, where the first two sections, on the immediate history and reception of the Ballads, and the poets’ collaboration, are both far shorter than section three, ‘Lyrical Ballads generically considered’, and section four, a critical essay introducing the poems. The high-risk decision to cut corners on the poets’ collaboration could expose Mason to comparison, not only with two serious recent biographies, of Wordsworth by Stephen Gill and of Coleridge by Richard Holmes, but with Susan Eilenberg’s persuasive book-length treatment of this very subject. Mason underplays the psychological interest of Wordsworth’s unceremonious takeover of the second edition, and (surely) its effect on Coleridge. He atones for it by an uninterrupted focus, which many readers will find refreshing, on the form, technique and peculiar merit of the individual poem. Mason himself becomes a presence in the volume, knowable as most editors are not – a tribute to his considerable gifts as a reader of poems, and to the unique human interest of the Ballads themselves.

To Mason, the collection does indeed belong to Wordsworth. Whatever the claims of ‘The Ancient Mariner’, they are outdone by the quality, Wordsworthianness, given out by ‘Tintern Abbey’ and the best quatrains in 1798, and emerging in full glory in 1800 in ‘Nutting’, ‘Michael’ and the two groups known as the ‘Lucy’ and ‘Matthew’ poems. The essential Wordworth shouldn’t be seen as a recorder of external nature but as a poet of epiphanies, or moments of intense pleasure in animal life which are ‘phenomenologically simple’ and almost untenable. Thus Wordsworth works strange miracles with perception and with language, so that in verses pared almost to the bone the self and objects in view become at the same time distinct and interfused:

There is a blessing in the air,
Which seems a sense of joy to yield
To the bare trees, and mountains bare,
And grass in the green field.

But a mild March morning, like the one the quatrain celebrates, can turn instantly into a scene of unheralded pain. In Wordsworth’s countryside the dead surround and haunt the living. He has a cast list of figures in extremity – fragile children, mourning women, the old, poor, deformed and dying – who together form what Mason sees as the collection’s ‘underlying image of a man or woman at the verge of life’. As a teacher-editor, Mason succeeds in bringing into focus the different aspects of Wordsworth’s structured simplicity, which is at once more subjective and more formally self-conscious than Coleridge’s objective and detailed naturalism.

Headnotes and footnotes revert to points Mason makes in the Introduction, on how differently Wordsworth uses the narrator from poem to poem, or his experiments with rhyme in his ballads. Having remarked that Wordsworth expects an active, observant reader, Mason sees that he gets one, partly by his own willingness to become puzzled or occasionally angry. Look out for the tantrum he works up over ‘Poems on the Naming of Places’. In the second of the group, ‘To Joanna’, Wordsworth has allowed Joanna Hutchinson a joke against his nature-loving circle,

Who look upon the hills with tenderness,
And make dear friendships with the streams and groves.

But Mason really doesn’t care for ‘a coterie keen on pathetic fallacy’, and a touch of self-satire on Wordsworth’s part won’t win him round. The notes to the third poem in the series look ahead to the circle as it will appear in the fourth, as ‘a vitiated coterie’. In these poems Wordsworth openly displays his will-to-dominate, by renaming as well as re-imagining the landscape, and the critic reacts humanly – that is, with comparable aggression.

Some idiosyncrasies of this edition call for complaint. Mason is much less forthcoming on the handful of poems contributed by Coleridge. He writes rather pedantically about the archaisms in the 1798 version of ‘The Ancient Mariner’ and withholds praise where it is surely due – from the first 13 lines of ‘The Nightingale’. The most unusual feature of the edition is the selection of subsequent comments on the Ballads by the two authors, which Mason places between his own General Introduction and the poems. Coleridge’s best return to the topic, in the Biographia Literaria, is not in, probably on account of its length. But both Wordsworth’s ‘Preface to the Lyrical Ballads’ and his Appendix are in the section – so that the reader doesn’t find them in their place in the 1805 edition and in Roper, at the beginning and end. Yet the contents in due order, including the half-title that marks the start of Volume II, should and easily could have been given. And while we are on the Preface, anyone seriously studying it (or for that matter the 1800 edition) will miss footnotes to mark where material was added in 1802.

Two new critical books illustrate the range and diversity of present historical work on Wordsworth and Coleridge. Susan Eilenberg goes into the deep relationship between the collaborating authors that Mason puts aside, Nicholas Roe the historical circumstances out of which the Ballads arose. Eilenberg’s well-written, clever book shares the recent fashionable interest in poetry’s social dimension. Though she uncovers the pains of joint authorship as Wordsworth and Coleridge practised it, she is positive about the benefits of literary property-sharing for academics. Among the scholars whose recent work is shown to supports hers are Marc Shell, Kurt Heinzelman, Jerome Christensen, David Simpson, Heather Glen, Paul Magnuson, Lucy Newlyn, Raimonda Modiano and Alan Liu. Titles which reflect their common interests include Heinzelman’s The Economics of Literature and Modiano’s ‘The Ethics of Gift Exchange and Literary Ownership’. To keep up Eilenberg’s co-operative style, Jack Stillinger’s new book deserves listing, Multiple Authorship and the Myth of the Solitary Genius.

While economics and property-ownership suggest the vocabulary of the Reaganite and Thatcherite decade, Eilenberg is not herself an ideological critic. She notes but does not systematically pursue real-life economic issues through Wordsworth’s oeuvre. She finds a metaphorical approach more appropriate: ‘The tendency in the [1800] volume is toward an allegorisation of economics rather than a socially-responsible analysis of it.’ Wordsworth, she claims, saw no clear boundary-line between the material and the verbal, a proposition she explores in an absorbing discussion, crossing the line, on Wordsworth’s campaign in the 1830s for the reform of copyright.

But the book is also more simply grounded on a single well-documented literary collaboration, and what that tells us of the psychology of authorship – notably, of the quite different significance of notions such as proprietorship, possessiveness and possession to different writers. At the heart of the argument is a tough-minded account of the crucial struggle for ownership that occurred in 1800 – that is, Wordsworth’s demotion of ‘The Ancient Mariner’ from the head of the volume, his harsh, belittling new headnote for the poem, his failure to name Coleridge as co-author, and his abrupt ruling against the inclusion of ‘Christabel’, which ensured that Coleridge’s share in the joint venture wasn’t reinforced. Eilenberg attends to what the poets did, not what they said, taking the vocabulary they use when touching on their writing ‘to be motivated by aggressive designs upon the other and upon the reader’.

She is an imaginative, discriminating reader of poetry, better (like Mason) on Wordsworth, and best here, perhaps, on ‘Michael’ or the Lucy poems. Comparison with Mason is easy, for Eilenberg, too, picks out ‘Poems on the Naming of Places’, without Mason’s acute resistance to them. The ‘dear friendships’ do not embarrass her because she sees past a sentimentalised vocabulary to a grim contest for sole possession: as she concedes offhandedly of a harsh exchange with Coleridge late in 1799, ‘Wordsworth was never one to offer unnecessary encouragement to his friends.’

Critics can read a poem closely and well without reading alike. The bright student who has been helped to high undergraduate honours by Mason might benefit from going on to more specialised lines of enquiry under Eilenberg. A point worth noting by those unaware that teaching in the humanities is closely integrated with research, indeed that the best research may become the best teaching.

Nicholas Roe’s The Politics of Nature does not compete in the same professional league. Some of the blame lies in the failure of the book’s parts to synchronise into an argument, more in the argument itself. Roe wants us to read in the poetry of Wordsworth and Coleridge a social philosophy of nature and love. Historically he claims that this was a natural development from the humanitarianism of the earlier 1790s. Politically he sees a present-day use for the philosophy of the Ballads, to challenge the dominant greed and selfishness of the 1980s.

Different parts of this book appear to be oddly at war with others. A narrowly focused polemical introduction, conducted against fellow historicist critics, barely relates to an optimistic Epilogue pitched apparently at a youthful audience. The earlier chapters examine the views of three politically active individuals known to Coleridge in the mid-1790s, George Dyer, Southey and Lamb. Next, for no particular reason, comes the prison diary of an activist arrested in 1794 but not brought to trial, John Augustus Bonney. The second half of the book, which is concerned with some of the Lyrical Ballads, has little obvious common ground with the first half, still less with the diary, except for humanitarian sentiment, which was virtually inescapable.

The trio in the first half were themselves poets, while the young Wordsworth and Coleridge were also pamphleteers. Roe seems to believe that the entire group would have progressed in the direction of the Lyrical Ballads had not want of talent held the lesser three back. Dyer ‘did not fulfil the promise of his Dissertation by writing a poem, like “Tintern Abbey”, that resolved political failure in transcendent democracy’. But is democracy still the same democracy when it becomes transcendent, or when practised by a coterie who look upon the hills with tenderness, or when published in a poem, rather than spoken from the hustings?

The attitudes in Wordsworth and Coleridge that attract Roe are caring. He picks out representative themes from the Ballads – attentiveness to children, affection for one’s sister, friends, neighbours, and an awareness of the interdependence of all living things. The difficulty is his use of the word ‘radical’ for such sentiments. Roe doesn’t manage to show that a reader in 1798 would take humanitarianism and a concern with nature to be radical per se. In fact, the word ‘nature’ might well have radical implications when it meant (scientific) naturalism as opposed to supernaturalism, or Holbach’s System of Nature as opposed to Coleridge’s Christianised equivalent, ‘the One Life’. So it would have been interesting to reread some Wordsworthian Ballads, weighting those words which might have had a specialised scientific inflection, such as ‘animal’. As it is, Roe’s contented use of ‘the One Life’ and ‘transcendent’ in describing the thought of the Ballads seems likelier to recruit them, against the grain of his argument, to an older Anglican or Catholic tradition of nature-writing.

In Romantic Ecology (1991), Jonathan Bate made a useful case, more solid than Roe’s, for the adoption of Wordsworth along with Ruskin by, say the Council for the Preservation of Rural England, as the twin John the Baptists of respectable English conservationism. This line of thought is strongly located in the countryside, and adopts, as its position on the urban masses, the hope that they will stay away. By contrast, Roe’s effort to revive the legend that 1798 is still 1789 has little firm to recommend it – except the time the legend has already taken to lie down. Perhaps the shrewd money should back Roe to win.