These two companion volumes focus on books written in what modern readers now regard as the Romantic period. The Modern reader is rightly reminded by Jonathan Wordsworth that the 'word or concept' Romantic was unknown to those contemporary with this historical era. Literary history, preferring to deal with authors and movements rather than 'individual books', irons out both these kinds of contemporary anomalies and trends. So Jonathan Wordsworth's project sets out '[t]o see a period in terms of its books...[and]...to become aware of trends, values, achievements, inter-connections and disparities, that are normally obscured'. In these two volumes each book from the Romantic period is treated as 'having its own integrity and special qualities' that are 'present from the first', instead of 'those emphasized or detected by succeeding generations'. So not all of the books included within these volumes are considered '[r]omantic in any sense of the word', but are included because they contribute to 'a fuller sense of awareness of the age as it was'.
Ancestral Voices and Visionary Gleam are collections of concisely written, often illuminating, introductory essays to individual books which appeared between 1792 and 1834. Wordsworth's survey of the period encompasses both works by authors whose names are now synonymous with this period and by writers who are little, if at all, known to modern readers. Ranked alongside works by William Blake, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Wordsworth, Percy Bysshe Shelley and John Keats we find poetry by Charlotte Smith, William Lisle Bowles, Richard Mant and Mary Tighe. Wordsworth's scope extends beyond the poetry of the period to include European drama by Goethe, Kotzebue, and Schiller, as well as the political prose writings of Thomas Paine, William Godwin, George Dyer, William Frend, and Richard Price.
Wordsworth writes absorbing and scholarly essays about each of the books he has selected, handling deftly and intelligently the diversity of the material he has at his fingertips. Many of the essays, often those on the more obscured literary figures of the period, contribute to our understanding of the criss-crossing currents of the contemporary social, political and artistic scene, which influenced the composition of works such as the Lyrical Ballads of Coleridge and Wordsworth and Keats's 1820 volume of poetry, now regarded as canonical Romantic texts.
In Visionary Gleam , Wordsworth's essay on Mary Tighe's Psyche with Other Poems 1811 (1805) both draws to our critical attention an accomplished female poet—who wrote 'elegant and cogent spenserian narrative'—and highlights points of creative influence that her own poetry had on Keats's 1820 volume. Mary Tighe's reputation as a poet has not been enhanced, Wordsworth points out, by her being 'known only as a disputed influence on Keats'. In a letter of Christmas 1818, Keats places Tighe 'among poets whom he has grown out of'.
In spite of Keats's declaration he was soon after to adopt spenserian stanzas for his narrative romance, The Eve of St. Agnes , and to write his own ode To Psyche . Wordsworth is keen to remind us that it is unlikely Keats composed the 'first of his great Odes...without her [Tighe] coming to mind'. Such a claim is strengthened by tracing the similarities between Keats's 'central stanza' in Ode on a Grecian and Tighe's repetition of 'ever' in her description of the 'transparent stream' in Psyche . Mary Tighe's own works are sensitively handled by Wordsworth, who recognises the elegiac tones of 'a poetry of secret grief' in Address to My Harp , The Lily and Written at Scarborough, August 1799 . Wordsworth also acknowledges Tighe as 'a poet of many voices' and that '[w]e are aware at times in her writing of Spenser, Milton, Pope, Gray...[and]...Cowper'. The enthusiasm and sensitivity of Wordsworth's essay does much to convince us that the absence of a Collected Works of Tighe is owing to the short-sightedness of literary scholars and that '[s]uch poetry should not be consigned to dark oblivion'.
Essays of equal scholarship, enthusiasm and interest are included in Ancestral Voices . Wordsworth's preface to Joanna Baillie's A Series of Plays ('in which it is attempted to delineate the stronger passions of the mind') contributes much to our understanding of the influences at work on the composition of the Advertisement to Lyrical Ballads , 1798. Where Baillie, in her 'elegantly written' seventy page long 'introductory discourse', writes of 'those works which most strongly characterize human nature in the middling and lower classes of society...will ever be the most popular', Lyrical Ballad 's Advertisement talks of experimenting with 'the language of conversation in the middle and lower classes of society'. Baillie's statement pre-empts Wordsworth's choice of the 'humble and rustic life' as a poetic subject in the 1800 Preface to Lyrical Ballads.
Jonathan Wordsworth points to the primitivist, Hugh Blair, as a major influence on the 'thinking behind Lyrical Ballads and its later Preface' and Baillie as also potentially influential, offering evidence that Coleridge and Wordsworth were familiar with her work before they completed the Advertisement in July, 1798. He argues that Rezenfelt's recollections of childhood, in Baillie's Monfort , with its hooting to the 'night-bird' and 'still twilight hour', prompted 'Wordsworth's memory of hooting to the owls of Windermere' in There was a Boy . Such a case is supported by the 'verbal echoes' between the two passages and Coleridge's pronouncement, after reading Baillie's account, that 'I should instantly have screamed "Wordsworth"'. Coleridge, Jonathan Wordsworth points out, also borrowed an image from Baillie for his rewriting of an early Wordsworth poem in 'Lewti', but in this instance taken from her play, Count Basil . Consequently, Wordsworth concludes 'that a copy of Baillie was available at Alfoxden at the height of the Lyrical Ballads period' and, more importantly, 'irrespective of links and echoes, Baillie and Wordsworth are kindred spirits'.
Even when Wordsworth selects books by authors who are more commonplace and established figures of the Romantic period, his selection is often surprising and insightful. Edmund Burke is not represented, in Wordsworth's Ancestral Voices , by either his Philosophical Enquiry into the Origins of our Idea of the Sublime and the Beautiful , or his Reflections on the Revolution in France , but instead by his lesser known Letter to a Member of the National Assembly. Wordsworth's essay on Burke's letter offers a useful glimpses into his life as a youth, hopeful 'to become a barrister', a 'great political orator and apologist for American freedom' and the 'man of sixty one', who 'offered to the world his reflections on revolutionary France'. Similarly, much is revealed about the works of William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft through Wordsworth's discussion of Godwin's Memoirs of Wollstonecraft and Mary Wollstonecraft's Original Stories from Real Life . The lesser known works, in Ancestral Voices , are chosen over Godwin's An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice and Wollstonecraft's Vindications of the Rights of Women . Nonetheless, Wordsworth's essays on these less well known works offer a wealth of political, social and historical information which has an important bearing on both Godwin's and Wollstonecraft's more famous political treatises. Such insights about Godwin are further embellished with the selection of Political Justice as one of the forty books in Wordsworth's companion volume, Visionary Gleam.
This focus on lesser known books by well known authors of the period bears testimony to the breadth and depth of Jonathan Wordsworth's intellectual endeavour. Wordsworth can produce, for example, informative essays on Coleridge's 'Fears in Solitude' (17980, 'Christabel' (1816), Sibylline Leaves (1817), and his less recognised works, Remorse (1813) and Conciones ad Populum (1795), based on his early political lectures; or write equally elegantly about Shelley's major poetry (in particular The Cenci (1819) and 'Adonais' (1821)) and the circumstances surrounding Mary Shelley's selection and publication of his Posthumous Poems in 1824.
These two companion volumes, Ancestral Voices and Visionary Gleam , provide an invaluable guide to anyone, whether teacher or student, who is about to—or already had—embarked upon the fascinating, although often difficult, journey of charting the varied social, political, historical and literary currents of what twentieth-century readers term 'Romanticism'.