WORDSWORTH'S REVISITINGS by Stephen Gill, Reviewed by Lawrence Poston

By Stephen Gill
(Oxford, 2011), xiii + 265 pages
Reviewed by Lawrence Poston on 2012-04-02.

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Though Stephen Gill is the preeminent Wordsworth biographer of his generation (William Wordsworth: A Life, Oxford, 1989), he has published on British literature of the nineteenth century generally and more recently Wordsworth and the Victorians (Oxford, 1998), which filled a longstanding need. In the present book, the most painstaking textual research is the foundation for a much more ambitious project, which the modest proportions of the volume cannot obscure.

Gill's subject is "Wordsworth's habitual return as a poet 'Into the years which he himself had lived'" (2). The poet's "continual return is not to his past but to his past in his past writing" (10), and each subsequent return to that writing results in revision and sometimes removal to a different location in the collection of his poems. What excited the poet's imagination might lie in a significant historical event, such as the French Revolution, or in a personal memory of a boyhood visit to a particular scene, as in "At Furness Abbey," published half a century after the poet's first sight of it, an example Gill employs in his introduction to explain his own method. Wordsworth might reshape that earlier event in light of current political realities or evolving self-awareness, but he seldom forgot anything, and the result is a layered memory with new and expanded significance. By itself the prospect of a new edition could prompt a "revisiting" that might leave little of a poem (or a passage) unchanged. Portions of the first published text might disappear only to resurface in another place; proposed changes might never make it into print but still affect what did. The revisitings are sometimes geographical (as with the Yarrow poems, which get a chapter), but his revisions chiefly show how time alters his perception of the places he revisits.

Gill treads familiar ground, but he makes new use of it. The locus classicus for the study of Wordsworthian revisitings is The Prelude, which--as a whole--Wordsworth never relinquished to print in his lifetime. Though he never meant to suppress it (and parts of it got out during his lifetime under other guises), he subjected its final release to the accidents of old age and finally death itself. According to Gill, Wordsworth's overriding concern was the trajectory of his oeuvre. The growth of the poet's mind can be understood only as a constant return upon itself; the revisitings of an earlier day, and an earlier Wordsworth, are as much a movement forward as a retrospect. Some writers would (if they could) obliterate earlier versions of their work to leave only a definitive text expressing their final intentions. Wordsworth carefully husbanded records of his deliberations, as if an earlier version might contain a key to later, though at the time unrecognized, possibilities.

Chapter One, "Second Thoughts," richly demonstrates that Wordsworth worked just as hard to revise his previously published work as he did to create it in the first place. Wordsworth, Gill shows, continually crossed "the boundaries that, separating manuscript from printed page, demarcate unpublished from published work" (21). Gill then turns to particular texts: The Ruined Cottage (Chapter Two) and the development of The Prelude from 1804-1820 and 1820-1850 (Chapters Three and Four). Chapter Five starts with "Musings Near Aquapendente" (1837), a little-read poem that turns out to be a wide-ranging and allusive retrospective. It evokes memories dating back to Wordsworth's parting visit with Scott in September 1831, just before the ailing poet's trip to Italy, and further back still to the earliest years of the Scott-Wordsworth relationship, the scenery of the Tweed, the "unvisited," "visited," and "revisited" Yarrow, Scottish border minstrelsy, and the now departed figures of James Hogg and Robert Burns. If Wordsworth is often considered a poet of youth, much of this later work marks him also as a poet of survivorship.

As Gill himself acknowledges, the book involves some revisitings of his own, and over a nearly Wordsworthian stretch of time. The last chapter,"On Sarum's Plain," dates from material first published in Studies in Romanticism in 1972, the earliest-cited antecedent to this study. Its importance as the conclusion to the volume is underlined by the evocative jacket cover bearing Henry Mark Anthony's painting Stonehenge. 1830-59. Something happened to Wordsworth on Salisbury Plain during a solitary walking tour in 1793, but aside from "The Female Vagrant" in Lyrical Ballads, we have only some hints in Book XII of The Prelude to tell us. When Joseph Cottle, the original publisher of Lyrical Ballads, praised the still unpublished Salisbury Plain poem in his Early Recollections (1837), Wordsworth may have sensed that his hand was being forced. Along with a passage on "the mighty mystery of Stonehenge" in John Kenyon's poem "Moonlight" (Poems: For the Most Part Occasional [1838], p. 12), Cottle's praise probably helped to lead Wordsworth back to Salisbury Plain in 1841, when he and his wife Mary were returning from the marriage of their daughter in Bath. Though Wordsworth's letter to Kenyon recalls the original ramble as a sort of "Siesta," his account of it in The Prelude portrays a very different experience, indeed a "spot of time" almost hallucinatory in evoking a prehistoric Stonehenge. It is clear that Kenyon's poem aroused in the old poet feelings much more complex than those he was willing to reveal to the younger.

Justice cannot here be done to a complex and elegant argument, but according to Gill, the publication of Guilt and Sorrow; or, Incidents Upon Salisbury Plain at the head of Wordsworth's last discrete collection, Poems, Chiefly of Early and Late Years (1842), "embodied the most astonishing act of revisiting" in Wordsworth's career, spanning "a greater period of time than any other revisiting Wordsworth dared to make" (182). Tracing the poem in the original manuscript and through all its extracts and even narrative dismemberments, Gill significantly reconfigures the ideological narrative that has dominated studies of Wordsworth's politics ever since the youthful Browning's portrait of the apostate poet as a "lost leader."

Salisbury Plain is not one of Wordsworth's major achievements. But in Gill's retelling, it marks an important turning-point in his career because it led him to realize that he wanted to be more than "a closet intellectual radical who wrote verses" (197-98). At the turn of the century, as he worked out the principles expressed in the 1800 Preface to Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth was beginning to say (notably in his correspondence with Coleridge) that their joint venture would stress feelings over actions, that feelings would give meaning to action and situation, and not the reverse -- a reaction to the poetry of incident exemplified by his own Salisbury Plain. This new stress on inwardness also marked a more confident move toward the kind of poetry he wanted to write. Subsequent revisions of The Female Vagrant -- for many years the only published extract from the Salisbury Plain manuscript -- progressively eviscerate its elements of social protest. The changes spring not so much from radical revision of the poet's politics as from a shift in his poetics, which now stressed the limitations of the overt social protest form taken by the original poem.

The new title given the poem upon its publication in 1842, Guilt and Sorrow; or, Incidents Upon Salisbury Plain, effectively subordinates the location of its events to the feelings that were its true subjects. Given the length of time he had spent on the poem, it was now a product of both "early and late years," as promised by the title of the volume as a whole (Poems, Chiefly of Early and Late Years). To confirm the essential continuity of the poet's career from the 1790s to the 1840s, the Advertisement to the poem as published in 1842 appears to set aside years of revision, rewriting, suppression, and development. Yet Wordsworth's claims of continuity can be justified in at least one respect. If he had jettisoned the note of radical protest, he had not forgotten the sufferings of the poor; as Gill explains, however, he viewed those sufferings not as the product of malign agency or state or individual tyranny but simply as part of the law of "unending struggle" (206). Furthermore, rather than de-historicizing his original narrative, Wordsworth makes it a commentary on the Hungry Forties, as Richard Gravil suggests in a book Gill cites, Wordsworth's Bardic Vocation (2003). By 1839, Gill reminds us, when John Keble presented the poet with an honorary degree at Oxford, the earlier Victorians widely recognized Wordsworth's sympathy for the downtrodden and oppressed poor. It therefore seems, after all, that Wordsworth's revisitings reveal as many continuities as disjunctions, that he probed the past to ensure a usable future for his work. In decrying the New Poor Law of 1834 and the death penalty, he was defending the poor as much as he had in a more radically anxious decade half a century before, though he would no longer be called a "democrat," as he once called himself.

Gill makes no special claims for Wordsworth's later poetry, though he does admit that his former tutor, Jonathan Wordsworth, would have been puzzled by his liking for it, and he does not argue that Wordsworth's revisitings always led to improvement. But he effectively challenges the notion that Wordsworth spoke with "two voices," that the inspired Romantic gave way to a plodding Victorian. Perhaps more profoundly, this book fundamentally alters -- or should alter -- many of the presumptions with which Wordsworth has been taught, especially to undergraduates. The history of Wordsworth's revisitings and revisions needs to be assimilated into a pedagogical narrative that respects them; however glancingly and partially, it should try to show how Wordsworth's first experience of a scene, his first recollection of it, and his first re-creation of it in poetry all combine with intervening political disturbances, third-party reportage, and circumstances of publication and republication to shape the poem that has come down to us. It is Gill's achievement that in the process of revisiting Wordsworth, even at the closest level of textual engagement, he has given us not an anxiety-ridden Tory but a poet who never lost his ear for the still sad music of humanity.

Lawrence Poston is Professor of English Emeritus at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

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