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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.

  • Brennan O'Donnell

…plus d’informations

  • Brennan O'Donnell
    Loyola College in Maryland

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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 of Wordsworth as merely resting on his laurels or working with a sort of blind revisionist obsession to ruin his earlier work will be more difficult to maintain faced with the substantial documentation here of the survival of Wordsworth's dedication to his art. The later Wordsworth surely was at times the victim of his own success, especially after 1835. Many of the miscellaneous sonnets seem less inspired than compelled by a duty to issue a statement from Rydal Mount or by an habitual inability not to turn a chance perception into fourteen lines with a pointed sentiment or moral. Poems written for one or another of the annuals—e.g., The Keepsake, The Casket—often seem to aim at nothing so much as being marketable as "Wordsworthian." But there is also a great deal here that shows Wordsworth continuing to challenge himself to move into new artistic territory. In a judicious and measured introduction Curtis singles out especially the verse romances—"The Russian Fugitive," "The Egyptian Maid," and "The Armenian Lady's Love"—which are clearly Wordsworth's attempts to answer Byron and Moore. The three poems are indeed departures from Wordsworth's usual practice, in genre as well as verse from. (The six-line stanza of mixed trochaic and iambic measures used in "The Armenian Lady's Love" is among the most rhythmically complex forms in the entire corpus.) In fact, the poems of Wordsworth's later years are remarkably diversified metrically, exhibiting much more conscious experimentation with unusual or especially elaborate stanza forms than do the earlier poems. The most obvious example of this is the very ambitious "On the Power of Sound," written in a sixteen-line stanza that is both Wordsworth's invention and the only stanza of ten-lines or more in the corpus that is not simply an extension of a traditional stanza or a combination of shorter forms. But other instances—the triplets of "So Fair, so sweet, withal so sensitive," the trochaic ballad stanza of "The Westmoreland Girl," the septenary lines of "The Normal Boy" and its sequel, for example—appear throughout the collection.

Of particular note, too, are a fairly large number of poems that show Wordsworth's powerful response to rapid and seemingly inexorable change. One of the real jewels of the collection is "Farewell Lines," written probably in 1828 for Charles and Mary Ann Lamb upon the occasion of their retirement to Enfield, revised in late 1841 and early 1842, several years after the death of Charles, and published in 1842. The editors present reading texts of both the first finished and the first published version, as they do for a number of important poems that have particularly interesting textual histories ("Evening Voluntaries," the May Odes, and "On the Power of Sound," for example), allowing for convenient study of a poem whose themes of peacefulness and the hope of meeting again deepen and become more resonant when the "farewell" is uttered not merely over physical and temporal distance but across the boundary of mortality. Among the most successful poems in the volume are the many elegies, memorials, and epitaphs responsive to the passing away of Wordsworth's generation, or, even more movingly, of younger members of his household and circle. And many of the poems that engage issues of political change—"Liberty," "Humanity" and "The Warning," for example—share with the elegies and memorials a creative spark by virtue of being apparently deeply felt responses to pressing events, whatever one might think of the particularities of their politics or sentiments. As Wordsworth put it in a canceled paragraph on "The Warning" intended for the Postscript of 1835, such poems were "written for one of the best reasons which in a poetical case can be given, viz. that the author could not help writing" (Poetical Works, ed. Ernest de Selincourt, Vol. IV, p. 427).

As Wordsworth entered his sixth and seventh decades, he also apparently found prayer to be an increasingly unavoidable mode of poetic expression. Throughout the collection, prayer surfaces both as a theme and as a genre. The two come together most notably in "On the Power of Sound," where all of nature is figured both as and in an elaborate hymn of praise, flowing from and returning to "the Word, which shall not pass away." But there are less obvious and more homely examples, too. "The Labourer's Noon-day Hymn" is clearly intended to be not just a poetic imitation of hymnody but the thing itself, easily memorizable by common people. "How gratifying would it be to me," says Wordsworth in the Fenwick note to this poem, "could I be assured that any portion of these Stanzas had been sung" by children "carrying in their baskets dinner to their Fathers engaged in their daily labours in the fields and woods" (460). One of the more fascinating tensions running through the collection is that between an impulse to write prayers (or employ expressively the speech act of prayer) and to write about (in praise of or to recommend) prayer. In several poems—for example "The Sun, that seemed so mildly to retire" ("Evening Voluntaries," VI) and "By the Banks of a Rocky Stream" (the last poem added to Poetical Works)—Wordsworth seems to toggle back and forth in revisions between first-person petitions or expressions of faith and second- or third-person treatments of prayer, a toggling that suggests that the relation of prayer and poetry was very much an open question with him right to the end. At times, as in the earlier version of "By the Banks of a Rocky Stream," one sees a glimpse of what Wordsworth could have done to enliven contemporary religious discourse with a dose of simple, unassuming, and tonally self-effacing prayer:

Grant me, o blessed Lord a mind
In which my thoughts may have a quiet home
Thoughts which now fret like balls of foam
That in a whirlpool each the other chase
Around and round and neither find
An outlet nor a resting place.—

MS. 143; p. 406

The version of 1847, however, shows Wordsworth pulling back from the role of simple petitioner to the role of preacher, as he adds something like a large gilt Victorian frame to the simple sketch:

Behold an emblem of the human mind
Crowded with thoughts that need a settled home,
Yet, like to eddying balls of foam
Within this whirlpool, they each other chase
Round and round, and neither find
An outlet nor a resting place!
Stranger, if such disquietude be thine,
Fall on thy knees and sue for help divine.

Such examples, as necessarily brief and selective as they are, may suggest some of the many ways in which Late Poems makes its very significant contribution to the Cornell series as a whole. Late Poems is an indispensable book for all students of Wordsworth not only because it reveals the late work itself to be more engaging than is usually supposed, but also, and perhaps more importantly, because it provides an enormous amount of evidence about how Wordsworth was thinking and writing during the years that he was revising his entire corpus, shaping it into its final form, and establishing his legacy as the poet of his age. To follow the late Wordsworth at work on these last poems is also to learn a great deal about his work as a reviser of earlier work and thus about the whole of Wordsworth's poetic corpus. This nineteenth volume of the Cornell Wordsworth, then, is important in itself, and makes an outstanding contribution the series.

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