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Matthew Bevis, Wordsworth’s Fun. Reviewed by Jeremy Noel-Tod

Monday, January 4, 2021 - 15:07

Matthew Bevis, Wordsworth’s Fun (University of Chicago Press, 2019). 303 pp. (Hdbk., $82.50, ISBN: 9780226652054)

Jeremy Noel-Tod
University of East Anglia

It’s easy to laugh at Wordsworth. Connoisseurs of parody will know J.K. Stephen’s sonnet on the poet’s ‘two voices’: one sublime, one ‘an old half-witted sheep’,

Which bleats articulate monotony,

And indicates that two and one are three,

That grass is green, lakes damp, and mountains steep

And connoisseurs of radio comedy may know Sue Limb’s The Wordsmiths at Gorsemere, ‘An Everyday Story of Towering Genius’ which rewrites the early years at Grasmere as The Goon Show. The first episode opens with Dorothy Wordsmith rhapsodising, to appropriate sound effects, about being close to nature (‘the wind in your hair, the rain on your face’), only to be interrupted by brother William: ‘But we’re indoors, Dorothy’.

The common joke is that Wordsworth is, like lakes, wet: a solemnbore. Matthew Bevis’s Wordsworth’s Fun sets out to show that the poet’s uses of humour are, in fact, altogether deeper and stranger than popular caricature allows. Quoting enfant terrible Nigel Molesworth (‘weedy people say la and fie and swoon when they see a bunch of daffodils’), Bevis proposes that the moral of Wordsworth’s most parodied poem is that we are all ‘weedy’ at heart: ‘to be open to ridicule is to be open to possibility’.

As the two-way apostrophe of his title suggests, Bevis’s criticism is alert to the possibilities of double meanings in the simple phrase, habitually turning his own sentences around to see them from the other end. Inevitably, this recalls the indefatigable wit of Christopher Ricks, and reading Bevis’s introduction I worried a little that his thesis would be leapfrogging through its 250 pages by Ricksian chiasmus (‘So while I study some poems for the seriousness of their comedy, I’m also interested in how an elegy, or an ode, or an epic like The Prelude can be read for the comedy of its seriousness’).

One of the book’s charms, however, is its ironic awareness of the risks of bringing the sledge-hammer of the monograph to bear on the nut of its neglected topic: ‘even a sympathetic reader,’ Bevis acknowledges, ‘might ask: Wordsworth’s Fun? It’s worth a speculative essay – but a book?’. As that reader, however, I’m happy to report it was well worth it: this is the sort of study you want to tear passages out of and tuck inside the Complete Poems to inform all future readings.

Its episodic structure encourages such vandalism. Divided broadly into four types of fun (Laughing; Playing; Fooling; Humoring), these are then subdivided into three shorter chapters of about twenty pages each, with one-word titles such as ‘Fits’, ‘Idlers’, and ‘Idiots’. It is the monograph as sitcom boxset, and it keeps up a sparkling pace.

After starting with the ‘laughing company’ of the daffodils, Bevis’s arguments mainly orbit the Wordsworth of Lyrical Ballads and the still discomfiting, misfit experimentalism of that collection. Unease is Bevis’s deep subject, and much of what he has to say illuminates an idea coined by Keston Sutherland’s 2010 essay on the obstinately unlyrical banality of ‘The Thorn’: ‘wrong poetry’.

In his chapter on the problem of singularity, ‘Oddities’, Bevis brilliantly reads the Partridgesque speaker of ‘The Thorn’ as Wordsworth’s ‘most Swiftian creation’, suggesting that Wordsworth’s note inviting readers to imagine ‘a Captain of a small trading vessel’ conjures a Gulliver. He then segues (via Sianne Ngai’s portmanteau concept of ‘stuplimity’) into a speculative excavation of the poem’s ‘bewilderingly personal’ roots:  Wordsworth’s own grief as an orphan, as revealed and veiled by the ‘Waiting for the Horses’ episode, one of the oddest passages in The Prelude.

This Wordsworth is both ‘egotistically sublime and ridiculous’, mercurial as Bevis’s own essayistic quickness. His close readings are sharpened by a formalist’s instinct for singularity, holding up rare rhymes and rhythms to the analytic light, while his literary history is enlivened by a gregarious range of reference from the eighteenth to twenty-first centuries. Among the bonus features of Wordsworth’s Fun are its many citations of modern Anglo-American poets – from John Ashbery to Stevie Smith – for whom oddity was a USP.

In light of this, it is a bit surprising that Bevis passes up the opportunity to remark likenesses between the rubber masks of Romantic comedy and the grotesques of Victorian dramatic monologue: Browning, Clough and Tennyson are absent from the index. But perhaps that would have been another book. It is the effect of this excellent and generous study, so full of original insights, to be suggestive of further fun: a comparative reading of ‘We Are Seven’ and Monty Python’s ‘Dead Parrot Sketch’, for example.