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.

There was no correlation between the curve of his poetic value and that of his popularity. Nostalgia had given him a boost; other factors sustained him, particularly amnesia and a hunger for spiritual elevation. Victorian readers paid attention less to the poetry’s politics than to its quasi-religious tone, its sense of the intimate connections between things, its uplifting humanitarian appeal – its ‘philosophy’. This philosophy lacked those troublesome details that sometimes provoke doctrinal disagreement, but its manifest sincerity convinced readers that whatever they believed Wordsworth believed too. Although, as Gill suggests, ‘to many readers Wordsworth’s poetry offered not quite a substitute for religion but an alternative realm in which religious sensibilities could operate,’ not all readers were capable of so fine a distinction. Wordsworth the Anglican was taken variously for a Pantheist, a Quaker and a Catholic by readers who held such beliefs themselves, and the powerful identifications he seemed to invite influenced not only his public but the poet himself. If reading him affected some like a conversion, their adoration exerted a reciprocal pull. During the last fifteen years of his life the poet submitted to something not unlike canonisation. He became an icon, a means of salvation, a site of pilgrimage, an object of devotion whose legend of manly virtue his family and later their editorial allies worked after his death to protect from inconveniently ambiguous facts.

It took time before the poetry could be looked at as poetry rather than philosophy or relic. The first significant signs of impatience with the somewhat woolly spiritual improvement Wordsworth was taken to offer came with the publication in 1861 of Palgrave’s Golden Treasury and that in 1879 of Matthew Arnold’s Poems of Wordsworth. These collections ousted masses of what had come to seem rather dull effusion and longwinded moral instruction – and indeed much of the rest of Wordsworth too. What remained was inevitably more focused: a poetry (no longer a life) of deep feeling, disembarrassed of the religion, philosophy and politics that had seemed to condition it and which, Arnold claimed, had obscured the true greatness of the poetry when it was most worthy of itself.

To us, the essential Wordsworth Arnold believed himself to have extracted no longer looks quite right. For one thing, Arnold’s desire to clear away the second-rate or inauthentically poetic poetry compounded the textual mischief his peers and predecessors had made. For another, too much now deemed vital – most of the Prelude, most of the Excursion – is missing. And it could be argued that it was precisely Wordsworth’s horror of refinement – his insistence that the burring idiots and old men with swollen ankles inhabit the same moral world and the same poetry as their prettier or nobler or more decorous neighbours – that formed the basis of his appeal and his power to comfort. Reading Eliot, Gasketll, Tennyson and Arnold with the same humane and subtle intelligence he brings to Wordsworth, Gill makes it clear that what the Victorian writers who had most deeply absorbed Wordsworth found and (sometimes) cherished in him was the sense that happiness and boredom and suffering breathe the same air. All is distinct and yet all is part of the same whole.

Despite its difficulties, however, the Arnoldian impulse to fling out the dross, the humbug, and come at the ingenuous living Wordsworth – Wordsworth as he was before the tiresome desire to play the sage or the redactor got the better of him – remains strong. A sophisticated form of it is at work in the Cornell Wordsworth series, that exquisite delamination of the texts that has generated such fierce debate about the relative authority of later and earlier authorial intentions and has inadvertently reproduced the effect of textual overabundance that had so exasperated Arnold. Duncan Wu’s new five-book Prelude is merely the most recent and oddly Arnoldian response to the provocation of this paradoxical effect, a response in which Arnold’s celebration of the poet’s joy finds an unnerving echo in Wu’s celebration of the editor’s jeu.

The sense of there being perhaps more Wordsworth than is entirely convenient is especially pronounced in the vicinity of the Prelude. With the arrival of Wu’s volume, one can now read the poem in four distinct versions: the two-book (finished 1799, published 1974), the five-book (finished? 1804), the 13-book (finished 1805, published 1926) and the 14-book (finished 1839, published 1850). Wu’s jacket blurb – for if, as Wu will argue, the author is only one element and not the most important one in the manufacture of a text, why not review the blurb? – addresses itself to readers’ reluctance to be overwhelmed and advertises the benefits of an abridgment without the shame: ‘At once less discursive than the 13 and 14-book versions, but with more of the great poetry than the 1799 two-part poem, the Five-Book Prelude provides students and general readers alike with an approachable introduction to Wordsworth’s greatest work. Never before published, it is likely to become for many the Prelude of choice.’ Well, maybe. But what would be involved in preferring Wu’s Prelude to its rivals is not comparable to what is involved in preferring the 1805 to the 1850 version, or the 1850 to the 1799.

Wu protests against the tendency to regard the five-book version as ‘a stepping-stone to the much greater achievement of the 13-book poem’, but that was what it was. Early in January 1804, Wordsworth returned to the two-part Prelude he had finished in 1799 and began to revise it according to a five-book plan. It is clear that in the weeks that followed he finished the first two or more probably three books; it is not clear how much progress he made on Books IV and V. He may, as Wu believes, have finished them, too, or, as Jonathan Wordsworth has suggested, have come at least very close to finishing them. On the other hand, as Robin Jarvis argues, he may have got no further than very rough drafts. The last indication that he was satisfied with what he was writing came on 6 March. By about 10 March he had stopped writing, and by 12 March he had rejected the five-book scheme and begun planning a further expansion and reorganisation of the poem. The idea of the five-book version had held his interest for about six weeks; the poem itself, or a partly-realised version of it, satisfied him for less than a week, perhaps for less than 48 hours. It was not thought good enough even to show to Coleridge, to whom Wordsworth thought of the poem as being addressed; what he sent his friend a week later was a version of the first five books of what was to be the 13-book Prelude.

‘The Five-Book Prelude is distinct from any other version of Wordsworth’s poem in so far as it exists in no complete manuscript text.’ Who but Wu would think of converting the makeshift nature of his text, even its non-existence, into a proud and distinguishing feature? It is from the manuscript sent to Coleridge, the one prepared after Wordsworth had abandoned the five-book version, that Wu draws the first three books of his text; the same manuscript supplies nearly half the material for Books IV and V as Wu pieces them together. He has no alternative but to rely on it if he is to present a text. There is indeed no fair copy for the five-book version, nor any for a single one of its books. There is no manuscript at all for Books I and II. Two manuscripts do exist containing drafts of material some of which was intended for the five-book version’s Books III, IV and V. But these materials are, in Jonathan Wordsworth’s words, ‘faint, fragmentary and frequently illegible’, and they degenerate, as Jarvis notes, ‘into more and more haphazard draft’ as if reflecting ‘the breakdown of the planned coherent poem into random explorations and intuitions, which Wordsworth quickly realised could not be contained within the five books he had projected’. In short, their relation to one another and to any five-book version Wordsworth either intended or completed is puzzling.

Given the prudence of most textual editors, this is the closest thing to a reconstruction of whatever it was Wordsworth was writing early in 1804 that we are likely to see. Nevertheless, what Wu offers may well prove a textual cousin to the brontosaurus, that great palaeological catachresis: the larger pieces are all poetic fossils, but it is not quite clear that they all belong to the same beast. Certainly, the beast itself, if ever it existed, did not last long.

The result of this reconstruction – if that is the correct term for the modelling of something that may never have existed in determinate form even within the author’s imagination – is, unsurprisingly, a poem that feels familiar but incomplete. The first three books, taken as they are from the 13-book Prelude, supply all the poetry we know from the opening books of that work: the glad preamble; the long doubts that begin ‘Was it for this’ and wind their inexplicably curative way through the early spots of time; the self-righteous memories of Cambridge. Book IV contains material that would later appear in the 13-book’s IV and V: the dedicated spirit, the discharged soldier, the lament for the mortality of books, the infant prodigy and the boy of Winander. Book V contains material from the 13-book’s XI and XIII, opening with Mount Snowdon, continuing with the attack on the tyranny of reason and ending with a short version of ‘There are in our existence spots of time,’ the girl with a pitcher and the waiting for the horses. Notably absent are the dream of the Arab, the crossing of the Alps, residence in London and in France, Sarum Plain, the poet’s long despair, his many expressions of gratitude and friendship and anything resembling a conclusion.

Perhaps this is precisely what the five-book Prelude was meant to look like. If so, it is a lucky coincidence – and we will never know our good fortune, for what is presented here can neither be verified nor falsified. Wu makes no claims for the accuracy of his reconstruction: his is a rough approximation, he says. He has, moreover, no interest in arguing particulars: argument from facts will take him only so far, and he refuses to discuss why, despite longstanding controversy about such matters, he includes what he includes and excludes what he excludes. He will not justify his decisions. If he has to choose between a modest scholarly agnosticism and an autopoetic editorial apotheosis, he chooses the latter: what he does must be its own justification.

It is a surprising position to find a textual editor taking, and although he clearly enjoys its outrageousness, Wu adopts it under duress. He tries first to take Wordsworth’s sponsorship of his project as far it can go. He points to evidence of authorial intention. Wordsworth meant to write the poem in five books, and made what he himself regarded as progress in that writing.

In one sense it hardly matters whether Wordsworth completed the poem or not. The justification for reconstructing it and analysing it is simple: for six weeks in early 1804, the poet conceived of it as representing the Prelude in its ultimate form. That is to say, its structure and contents had an imaginative reality for him during that time. For that reason alone, it is vital to our understanding of the poem’s evolution.

Reading this, one might almost suppose that Wu valued authorial intention above all else, certainly above a text which, whether authentically Wordsworthian or editorially reconstructed, offered at best a reflection of that primary intention. But the aspect of authorial intention Wu is most interested in is the one which points the way towards editorial discretion. Drawing on a favourite anecdote, he tries to persuade his readers that Wordsworth’s invitation to Humphry Davy to help him punctuate the 1800 Lyrical Ballads amounted to a renunciation of authorial exclusivity and an implicit invitation to future editors to regard themselves as collaborators in the production of the nominally Wordsworthian text.

Wu would like to have Wordsworth’s blessing, even if only at second hand, but he is restive under the sponsorship he claims: he dislikes conceding so much power to the poet, who, he reminds us, is in no determining sense an author at all. An author is a mere ‘fiction’, a ‘theoretical construction’, behind which those who wield the term hide unacknowledged critical agendas. To believe in the author is to be taken in by a ‘totem’; it is also to overlook the vital context constituted by ‘human conventions, expectations, practices and procedures’, the ‘linguistic, stylistic and symbolic conventions in place at the time and place where the work was composed’, by which Wu seems to mean the fact that Wordsworth depended on Dorothy Wordsworth and Mary Hutchinson to write down what he dictated. The relationship of composition to inscription in the Wordsworth household disseminates and even inverts poetic authority, elevating the amanuenses into authors, demoting the poet to mere aide: ‘no doubt Mary and Dorothy would have taken Wordsworth’s advice as to the ordering of some passages,’ but they need not have done had his advice not satisfied them.

Wu derives his sense of prerogative from these precedents. He sees himself as engaged in an act of creation not essentially different from the construction or reconstruction Mary and Dorothy wrought to bring the poem into being or from the earlier collaboration to which Wordsworth had invited Humphry Davy; he sees himself as sharing the poet’s authority, possibly even setting right his errors of judgment, for in Wu’s version of things the poet declines into an editor, one among many, whose incompetence, regrettably, made the work of his successors harder than it should have been. The author whose preferences Wu might have felt required to consult is now no more.

Wu celebrates this oddly contrived state of affairs in language borrowed from Barthes and Derrida. Speaking, presumably, for langue itself, he rejoices in indeterminacy and aporia, in his and presumably also our liberation from the authored text. Yet what is perhaps most striking about the five-book version is the scarcity rather than the abundance of aporia. Missing here is precisely the sense of something missing – the sense, that is, of anticlimax, of disappointment of the derailment of expectation that in the later versions will come at the botched crossing of the Alps and the failure of the French Revolution – around which Wordsworth would structure his oddly sublime recuperations.

The vulnerabilities of Wu’s Five-Book Prelude are often precisely though inadvertently Wordsworthian. Questionable though Wu’s motives and presentation may be, his reconstruction nonetheless re-creates the curious problems that characterise the Preludes Wordsworth owned. Wordsworth had fractured his poetic identity long before Wu ever sought to; he had been the first to present himself as a mere reader or misreader of the elusive text of his past self, helpless to recover the truth of what once had been; he, again, first turned his own intentions into a matter of comic inconsequence, the Prelude developing by error, accident, failure and surprise. And it was Wordsworth, not Wu, who first invoked this text of partial erasure and imperfect recovery from a textual void.

For the Prelude is founded on the absent and the unwritten. The origin the poet seeks eludes him, self-eclipsed, ‘by its own weight/Wearied ... out of the memory’, its vacancy transformed into an abysmal breathing place, the source of wordless voice and indistinguishable language. The poem springs blind and baffled from lost words. ‘Was it for this’, the two-part version begins, its antecedent not merely lost but unconceived; and though the later versions provide themselves with 269 lines of hope and exasperation to ground the strange cry whose originary force they would disguise, the question remains, exceeding its belatedly supplied occasion. It points to the unwritten but in 1804 not yet obviously unwritable Recluse, the great millennial poem ‘On Man, on Nature, and on Human Life’ that Coleridge had been urging an intensely uneasy Wordsworth to write. The Prelude was Wordsworth’s way of preparing for, while also industriously delaying, that terrifying project, whose completion would in turn justify the Prelude and redeem its egotism and delay. Each poem was to be the other’s alibi. But the Recluse was never written. Wordsworth went on denying the obvious for a very long time, publishing the Excursion as ‘a Portion of THE RECLUSE’ in 1814 and retaining that identification through 1836. By the time the Prelude was finally published, posthumously, in 1850, it had long been clear that no Recluse would ever follow: the Prelude is a prelude to nothing. Its very title (given by the poet’s widow) insists on the vacancy of the place it points towards.

Does the Prelude’s intimacy with emptiness – no surprising thing in the autobiography of one whose disposition, he tells us, was ‘to be affected more than other men by absent things as if they were present’ – justify Wu’s five-book version? Probably not. Such is not the ground on which Wu asks to be justified, and the carelessness of his introductory argument and of his footnoting do not inspire confidence (any student who needs the note informing him that ‘respired’ means ‘breathed’ will probably require more help than Wu’s intermittent and lackadaisical comments afford). Nevertheless, there is a sense in which Wu’s apparent indifference to an authenticated text and its impossible origins is precisely right. As Gill so satisfyingly demonstrates, the Wordsworthian text has from the beginning had a tendency to surrender its hard-won determinate form to the demands of its readers. He reminds us of Ruskin’s remarks on being asked to join the Wordsworth Society: ‘What the text of Wordsworth is is of no consequence – and the localities of less: – one bit of rock or moor is as good as another – and one can gather leeches in any pool, and break stones on any road.’ He joined anyway.