William Wordsworth, Last Poems, 1821-1850. Ed. Jared Curtis, Apryl Lea Denny-Ferris and Jillian Heydt Stevenson. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press 1999. ISBN: 0801436257. Price: US$105.[Record]

  • Brennan O'Donnell

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  • Brennan O'Donnell
    Loyola College in Maryland

No one familiar with Jared Curtis's work as editor or co-editor of two previous volumes in the Cornell Wordsworth series (Poems, in Two Volumes and Other Poems, 1800-1807 [1983] and Early Poems and Fragments, 1785-1797 [with Carol Landon, 1998]) will be surprised to learn that Last Poems, 1821-1850 is a superbly edited, impeccably presented collection. Curtis and associate editors Apryl Lea Denny-Ferris and Jillian Heydt Stevenson have done an enormous amount of excellent scholarly work, surveying over three hundred manuscripts and printed editions to provide reading texts, critical apparatus, and notes for poems written by Wordsworth between January 1821 and April 1847. As is the case with all volumes in the Cornell Wordsworth, this book also presents photographic reproductions and transcriptions of the most important or complex manuscripts. Excluded from the collection is a large body of work undertaken during this period but included (or to be included) in other Cornell volumes—for example, major revisions of much earlier work (the fourteen-book Prelude, Guilt and Sorrow, The Borderers), translations (included in Translations from Chaucer and Virgil, ed. Bruce E. Graver), and sonnet sequences and poems written during tours (forthcoming in Sonnet Series and Itinerary Poems, ed. Geoffrey Jackson). Still, there remains a considerable body of miscellaneous poetry dating from these years—about two-hundred poems in all, ranging from epigraphs, sonnets, and occasional verse to ambitious major work such as the "Evening Voluntaries" and "On the Power of Sound," a poem that Wordsworth placed prominently as the last of the Poems of the Imagination in collected editions from 1836 forward. Following the principles of the series, which has as its first aim to "bring the early Wordsworth into view," the volume presents as reading texts the earliest versions of the poems and arranges them in chronological order by date of initial composition. Critics of the series, especially those who find fault with what Jack Stillinger called in a 1989 article the "textual primitivism" of its editorial principles, will no doubt find irony in the application to "Last Poems" of editorial principles that preclude printing final versions and that originally were adopted to strip the influence of "late Wordsworth" from the reading texts of earlier work. In fact, the precise meaning of bringing "early Wordsworth" into view has necessarily shifted as the series has moved from its initial focus on recovering and presenting "original texts" of poems written in the 1790s and early 1800s "from which all layers of later revision have been stripped away" to producing editions of poems written later in Wordsworth's life. Revisions made in 1840 to a poem that reached its first finished state in 1836, for example, constitute very different kinds of evidence about Wordsworth's creative processes than do revisions made in the early 40s to prepare "Guilt and Sorrow" (begun as early as 1791) for the 1842 collection Poems, Chiefly of Early and Late Years. In the mid-1980s, Stephen Parrish revised the text of the preface included in each Cornell volume to acknowledge the different aim of volumes dedicated to work of Wordsworth's middle and later years. In these volumes, writes Parrish, "bringing the 'early Wordsworth' into view means simply presenting as 'reading texts,' wherever possible, the earliest finished versions of the poems, not the latest revised versions." Accordingly, Curtis's texts are "ordinarily the first form of the poem published under Wordsworth's supervision" (11). The Wordsworth who emerges from a reading of these texts in this order is a more complex, artistically vigorous, and in some ways more sympathetic figure than he has often been taken to be. Facile views ...