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William Wordsworth, Last Poems, 1821–1850. Edited by Jared Curtis et al.

Thursday, May 15, 2003 - 06:26
William Wordsworth, Last Poems, 1821-1850. Edited by Jared Curtis, with Associate Editors Apryl Lea Denny-Ferris and Jillian Heydt-Stevenson.  The Cornell Wordsworth.   Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1999. lxxxv + 852 pp.   Illus.: 112 halftones.  $110.00 (Hdbk; ISBN: 0-8014-3625-7).

Reviewed by
Kurt Fosso
Lewis & Clark College

In recent years The Cornell Wordsworth series has more than realized General Editor Stephen Maxfield Parrish's vision of a multi-volume collection of the "earliest complete versions" of Wordsworth's important longer works.  The expanded series will soon comprise all of the poet's poems, from the first to this present volume's last.  In this pursuit Cornell's editors have followed the lead of the Clarendon Press's pioneering edition of the Poetical Works, in which editors Ernest de Selincourt and Helen Darbishire printed variants, including some draft texts, of the final authorized versions of Wordsworth's poems and also appended much of his unpublished juvenilia.  The Cornell Wordsworth series has, of course, gone considerably further, ambitiously attempting, as Parrish states, to "offer successive stages of a [complete] poem to show how Wordsworth's poetic strategies evolved over the years of his poetic life."1

Most significantly, the Cornell editors have sought to strip away the "layers of later revision" that "obscured the original [texts]" Wordsworth composed--texts now to be reclaimed "in the form of clean 'reading texts'" (v).  On this count, the series has understandably provoked controversy and concern.  Donald Reiman questioned the editors' premise that Wordsworth's "earlier inspiration . . . was greater (or at least more interesting) than his later judgment," and feared Cornell's publication of reading texts of early drafts would "drive out of some textbooks . . . later versions that [Wordsworth] had himself authorized and approved for publication."2  Karl Kroeber more specifically argued that Cornell's publication of reading texts of the two complete manuscript drafts of The Ruined Cottage had, more than any other recent editorial action, encouraged "the modern predilection for early versions of Wordsworth poems (now enshrined in the Cornell Wordsworth series for worship by textual primitivists)."3  And, indeed, the seventh edition of The Norton Anthology of English Literature prints Cornell's MS. D reading text of The Ruined Cottage, with the questionable result that an author's rejected draft, unknown to most of his contemporaries, has been transformed into a definitive text.  It is a practice and end to which Cornell has greatly contributed, for better or worse (I would argue for the former), as have Norton's edition of the 1799, 1805, and 1850 versions of The Prelude and Clarendon's aforementioned Poetical Works, which included the MS. B draft text of The Ruined Cottage.

I doubt few of The Cornell Wordsworth Series planners envisioned one of their editors some day grappling with the elder poet's last poems, since it was the work of the early, more radical Wordsworth that the series was intended to restore.  This controversial inaugural aim is all but irrelevant to the final stage of Wordsworth's poetry.  Parrish argues that the series' goal nonetheless remains to present "the earliest finished versions of the poems, not the latest revised versions" (v).  But for these last poems the difference between an "earliest" and a "latest" version is often a slim one.  Most of the poems collected in Jared Curtis's impressive, expertly edited volume are, word for word, very near to the authorized texts in Poetical Works.  Few even of the earliest draft lines will be new to the Wordsworth scholar, the majority having been included in the apparatus criticus of that earlier edition.  Line for line, Last Poems is thus the least primitivist, "unauthorized," and controversial tome of The Cornell Wordsworth, in marked contrast to such volumes as Carol Landon and Curtis's bookend edition of the Early Poems and Fragments, 1785-1797, chronologically the series' first volume.   Wordsworth would have needed to live a good deal longer still, of course, for it to be otherwise.

This is not to say that Cornell's new volume has little to offer simply because it does not restore an earlier, lost Wordsworth.  After all, the series's editorial plan is also distinguished by its other principal aims: to provide an accurate record of all variant readings of Wordsworth's poems from the first drafts to their final or earliest posthumous publication, and to enable careful study of this textual development by providing photographic reproductions of principal manuscripts, with facing-page transcriptions, along with detailed manuscript censuses and cogent introductions describing those manuscripts as well as relevant biographical and historical details.  Like the other published volumes, Curtis's edition of Last Poems will prove, along these lines, an invaluable resource for the specialist, particularly (and most obviously) for the specialist of the poet's later writings.  It will not, I think, be popular among general readers of Wordsworth, nor will it often be found in the syllabi of graduate seminars.  For the reasons mentioned, its reading texts are unlikely to drive out any final, authorized versions of the poet's works.  I also doubt whether these late texts will, despite their new presentation, alter significantly our assessment of the later Wordsworth, except insomuch as an impressive new edition like this one will tempt scholars to read or reread poems that they may previously have overlooked or dismissed.

Like the other Cornell Wordsworth volumes, Last Poems provides a helpful introduction, reading texts (Part 1), extensive, useful notes and nonverbal variants (Part 2), photographic reproductions and facing-page transcriptions (Part 3), appendices, an index of titles and first lines--and, near the head of the volume, what must be the most extensive manuscript census of the entire series.  Totaling nearly 200 texts, this census includes manuscripts from the Dove Cottage collection, The Huntington Library, Cornell, Harvard, Princeton, and Yale universities, and the Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature, among others, not counting the numerous letters in which Wordsworth also included drafts.

In his preface, Curtis frankly states that the volume's contents, composed between 1821 and 1850, must be considered in terms of what has been omitted: "longer works, composed much earlier but thoroughly revised during this later period--Guilt and Sorrow, the fourteen-book Prelude, and The Borderers--[a]nd the various sonnet series and 'tours'" (xvii; emphasis added).  In other words, some of Wordsworth's finest later compositions are excluded from Last Poems: the River Duddon sonnet series, Yarrow Revisited, the tour series of 1833 and 1837, and--not for all tastes, certainly--the Ecclesiastical Sonnets.  These works will appear in Cornell's forthcoming Sonnet Series and Itinerary Poems, 1819-1850Last Poems thus presents only "a portion of the poet's output during the last three decades of his life" (xvii), and by no means necessarily the share one likely would gather together to represent the finest of his late writings--although this edition certainly contains several of the best poems of these years.  The volume's "portion" is, despite these omissions, a large one, numbering over 200 poems.  Nevertheless, one wonders whether a two-volume work, comprising all of the poet's late works, would have provided a clearer sense of this corpus and of its author's development, as well as a good deal more pleasure.  As things stand, the reader may conclude that Last Poems ought really to have been titled Miscellaneous Last Poems, which better describes its hodgepodge character, particularly since many of the edition's contents were first published in Wordsworth's Miscellaneous Sonnets.

One asset of this "last" Cornell Wordsworth volume is that it enables the reader to peruse the included works and drafts chronologically.  Another plus is certainly the inclusion of a few previously unpublished works (so far as I can determine from comparing the contents to those of de Selincourt's and William Angus Knight's editions).  Last Poems publishes the early stanzas "To A Friend" (a draft version of "Liberty") and a draft text of "Devotional Incitements."  Cornell also unearths three conservative epigrams on the Reform Movement and a draft ("Text 2") of Evening Voluntaries, along with a few scattered, more minor works, including the lines "Fairy Skill" (from the poet's cousin Dora Harrison's autograph volume) and "Sigh no more Ladies, sigh no more."  The edition provides readers as well with an opportunity to re-access the poet's final published attempts not just in the sonnet form, of which there are here abundant examples, but also in the genres of epitaph, elegy, topographical and nature poetry, and ballad--the latter including "The Russian Fugitive," "The Egyptian Maid," and "The Armenian Lady's Love," Wordsworth's responses to the popular romances penned by Byron and by Thomas Moore.  In these and other of his late poems, Wordsworth significantly continues to experiment with narrative voices that, Curtis argues, "could disturb the surface of the reader's consciousness, so that the light of perception is refracted in new and revealing ways" (4).

"The poetry of Wordsworth's later years has not ranked high in the world's opinion," Curtis states at the Introduction's close (10).  The poet's emphasis upon memory and youth, and the disparagement of his later works by the likes of Coleridge and Arnold, accounts in some measure for this low estimation.  Yet were we only to possess Wordsworth's post-1814 oeuvre, it seems probable that he would still be ranked with Byron, Hemans, Clare, and other poets of the day.  After all, included among these Last Poems are the poet's skilled and frequently moving epitaphic and eulogistic writings: "Elegiac Stanzas, 1824" for Mrs. Fermor, "Elegiac Musings" for George Beaumont, Wordsworth's epitaphs for Charles Lamb and Robert Southey, his eulogistic poems for Burns, his elegiac sonnet to his grandchild ("Son of my buried Son . . . "), and, best known, his "Extempore Effusion upon the Death of James Hogg."  By most any measure, "Musings" and "Effusion" are major works, as arguably are the Evening Voluntaries and the intriguing "Stanzas on the Power of Sound."  Also worthy of attention, even for the more casual reader, are the fine sonnets "Why should we weep or mourn, Angelic boy," "Scorn not the sonnet," and "On the Projected Kendal and Windermere Railway."  One does, of course, discern in this volume's poems the author's conservatism (notably in the above anti-Reform poems) and his deepening faith.  The edition, in fact, is bracketed by sonnets concerned with religious piety, opening with "The Decay of Piety" and winding down (fifth from the end) with "Where lies the truth? Has Man, in wisdom's creed."

The last "last" poem, likely not entirely penned by the Poet Laureate, is an "Installation Ode" to commemorate Prince Albert's installation as Chancellor of Cambridge.  This musical ode is a fitting, if staid, end to the comprehensive Cornell Wordsworth series, for it addresses, Curtis observes, the same basic theme of education treated in the poet's very first public poem, his celebratory lines for the bicentenary of Hawkshead School, which nearly leads off Landon and Curtis's edition of Early Poems and Fragments.  W. J. B. Owen said of the latter "first" volume that the various materials it collects did "not seem likely to enhance Wordsworth's reputation as a poet."4  I doubt many readers will prefer this last volume's closing installation lines even to those celebratory ones written as an exercise sixty years before, or that Last Poems will restore to favor many more of the poet's accomplished late works.  But Wordsworth scholars are nonetheless fortunate to have this edition of the poet's last poems.  All readers who explore the volume will find something, indeed much, to appreciate, not least from what the editors have accomplished in this latest installment of Cornell's ambitious enterprise.

1. Stephen Parrish, "Versioning Wordsworth: A Study in Textual Ethics," The Wordsworth Circle 28 (1997): 98-100; 98. (Back)
2. Donald H. Reiman, "The Cornell Wordsworth and the Norton Prelude," in Romantic Texts and Contexts (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1987), 130-55; 135. (Back)
3. Karl Kroeber, Ecological Literary Criticism: Romantic Imagining and the Biology of Mind (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), 48. (Back)
4. W. J. B. Owen, Review of Early Poems and Fragments, 1785-1787, by William Wordsworth, edited by Carol Landon and Jared Curtis, Review of English Studies ns 50 (1999): 391-93; 392. (Back)