WILLIAM WORDSWORTH, SECOND-GENERATION ROMANTIC: CONTESTING POETRY AFTER WATERLOO by Jeffrey N. Cox, Reviewed by Robin Jarvis
 


WILLIAM WORDSWORTH, SECOND-GENERATION ROMANTIC: CONTESTING POETRY AFTER WATERLOO
By Jeffrey N. Cox
(Cambridge, 2021) xiv + 272
Reviewed by Robin Jarvis on 2022-10-31.

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More than once in his new monograph, Jeffrey Cox reflects on the way in which he was taught Wordsworth -- a narrowly defined Wordsworth of the "Great Decade" -- "an age ago" (158). In the same spirit, I recall being told by one of my own early teachers that I was probably too young to appreciate Wordsworth. In order to understand the great poet of the human heart, he implied, one had first to acquire a certain amount of (inevitably painful) life experience. If there was ever any truth in this point of view, a corollary might be that in order to engage fruitfully with Wordsworth's "late" poetry, so preoccupied with questions of mortality and posterity, one has to be getting on in years oneself.

In recent years, the mini-revival of interest in Wordsworth's post-Waterloo output has aptly been led by scholars who are well advanced in their careers. This is no country for young men, it seems. Still less, perhaps, for young women. As a sexagenarian, I suspect I am of an age close to that of Jeffrey Cox, and I recognize the temporal logic whereby this distinguished Romanticist, who has done important work on Romantic drama and the youthful firebrands of the Cockney School, turns in later life to such rebarbative material as Wordsworth's "Thanksgiving Ode," the Duddon sonnet sequence, and the "Memorials of a Tour in Italy, 1837." He follows in the footsteps of eminent scholars such as Peter Manning, whose series of substantial articles represents the gold standard for criticism of late Wordsworth, and, more recently, Tim Fulford, whose monograph, Wordsworth's Poetry, 1815-1845 (2019), covers the same chronological range as Cox's and whose outrageous faux-Hartman title and cover bespeak a comprehensive ambition.

Understandably, Cox seeks to differentiate his approach from Fulford's. While Fulford foregrounds Wordsworth's preoccupation with "revisiting the past" (26), Cox prefers to highlight the poet's unwavering engagement with the issues of the day. Yet the dividing line between their approaches is not that clear. Moreover, both critics practice the type of fastidious, granular historicism that has become the norm in Romantic studies and both show a counterbalancing relish for the close reading of poetry that is often aesthetically challenging, to say the least.

First of all, Cox aims to explore in depth Wordsworth's role as a public intellectual in the second half of his life. Opposing the familiar line that disenchantment with the French Revolution led Wordsworth to retreat to natural religion or the comfort zone of his autonomous ego, Cox insists on his ever-impassioned interest in social affairs. "Apostate poetry," Cox declares, "is neither a turn from poetry to politics nor a turn from the political to the transcendental but rather the continued use of poetry as, among other things, a political tool now serving a different politics" (29).

Secondly, as the book's title suggests, Cox aims to examine the various ways in which Wordsworth felt obliged to "remake himself" in dialogue with a younger generation of poets (4). This project began with the political face-off between the Lake and Cockney schools in the wake of Waterloo but became more complex and many-faceted as decade followed decade and Wordsworth outlived the leading lights of the second generation. Thirdly, and overarchingly, Cox aims to restore the reputation of Wordsworth's later poetry -- or at least to find the most productive ways of reading it. But as I shall argue, Cox himself does not always seem fully confident of success in this endeavour.

As Cox is at pains to emphasize, the Wordsworth known by the second generation Romantic poets was someone very different from the poet that today's students grapple with. As a poet with epic pretensions rivalling Milton's, he was primarily the author of The Excursion (1814), not the posthumously published Prelude (1850). Cox devotes his first chapter to The Excursion, now very much the preserve of career Wordsworthians, and to various Cockney productions which, he claims, amount to "a collective effort to rewrite what was the central poem in their Wordsworth canon" (43). According to Cox, works such as Shelley's "Alastor" (1816) and Laon and Cynthna (1818), Keats's Endymion (1818), and the third Canto of Byron's Childe Harold (1816) show a varied yet collective response to Wordsworthian despondency, diagnosing the period's disease -- exemplified by the older poet -- as "a retreat from the social" and offering "eroticized sociability" as its improbable cure (66). Yet even though The Excursion has traditionally been viewed as the beginning of Wordsworth's long "anti-climax" (a phrase attributed to H. W. Garrod in 1923) or "falling off" (24), Cox argues that it launches his career as a public intellectual and his attempt to become "the Milton of post-Napoleonic Britain" (34). While the apparent conservatism of the poem clashed with the hopes and ideals of the younger generation, Cox does not join modern efforts to discover a more complex, open-ended text. Instead he probes its ability "to inspire and to infuriate" at the time of publication (37).

Wordsworth's infamous "Thanksgiving Ode" (1816), written to celebrate the re-establishment of peace in Europe after Waterloo, presents a more focused challenge for Cox's project of resuscitating the later poetry. Arguing that this "complicated piece" has been undeservedly "reduced to an ideological bumper sticker" (78), he situates it in a literary and cultural context that encompasses popular theater, Robert Southey's Carmen Triumphale (1814), and Leigh Hunt's response to Southey in his Descent of Liberty (1815). Wordsworth, Cox argues, reads military success providentially and fondly "imagines a global delight in England's triumph" (101). As for the controversial line about Carnage being God's daughter, its true meaning is said to be that victory, though essential, comes at a heavy cost; and rather than being bombastic, as some claim, Cox contends that it achieves "a balance between rejoicing in victory and mourning the humbling loss necessary to earn that victory" (102). Examining periodicals for their polarized responses to Wordsworth's use of poetry for political ends, he compares it to Byron's more liberal, reformist position in Childe Harold 3 and the war cantos of Don Juan (1819). Yet instead of siding implicitly (as many critics would) with what would now be seen as the more progressive stance of the younger poet, Cox treads a middle path in recognizing that both Byron and Wordsworth strove to deal poetically with such difficult subject matter in a responsible way.

Since Peter Bell was written in 1798 but not published until 1819, Cox smuggles some of the energy of the Great Decade into his consideration of the mature poet. As with The Excursion and the "Thanksgiving Ode," Cox tracks reception--especially the response of the Cockney School--as closely he tracks the text of the poem itself. In the year of Peterloo, Hunt had already mounted a fierce attack in The Examiner on Methodism, which is key to Peter's conversion and repentance, so he was one of several critics who read the poem as weaponizing religion against potential social malcontents. On a different tack, Shelley identified Wordsworth with his protagonist. In his satirical Peter Bell the Third, he makes Peter guilty of the overbearing egotism that the second generation disliked and distrusted in their precursor. Cox's analysis of what he calls a "battle of the books" is perhaps overcooked: did the contemporary response to Peter Bell really amount to "a battle for the soul of the nation" (127)? Nevertheless, his approach has the interesting secondary benefit of showing how the meaning of a poem depends--at least in part--upon the time and circumstances of its publication rather than on what its author may have intended at the moment of composition.

Chapter 4 treats the sonnets of The River Duddon (1820), a volume whose publication spurred a major upward turn in Wordsworth's reputation as a poet. Though this volume appeared in the same year as more obviously consequential books by Shelley and Keats, Cox argues that it joined a vital conversation about the shape of poetry in a new decade. Defiantly setting his Englishness against the cosmopolitanism or Europeanness of the younger poets, Wordsworth is said to be asserting himself as "the key national poet of the post-Napoleonic moment" (131). While admitting the literary self-consciousness of the Duddon sequence as highlighted by other critics, Cox highlights the "hidden influences" that reveal Wordsworth's preoccupation with younger contemporaries (135). For instance, Cox argues, the Duddon sonnets allude to Shelley's "Mont Blanc" (itself a response to earlier poems by Wordsworth as well as Coleridge's "Hymn before Sun-rise, in the Vale of Chamouny"). While the purported allusions are pretty convincing, Cox hedges his bets: his conclusion that at "some level, Wordsworth and Shelley are in conversation" (147) seems mealy-mouthed. Yet one of the strongest threads in the book is the broader argument that Wordsworth is re-patriating English poetry. By fixing on a Lakeland stream (rather than anything from ancient Rome or the East or the Alps), he aims "to reground poetry on native ground" (148) and consolidate his unique position against more radical contemporary voices.

Cox's final chapter looks at what is indisputably "late" Wordsworth: the Yarrow Revisited volume of 1835 and the "Memorials of a Tour of Italy, 1837" from his 1842 collection. Cox finely shows how "Yarrow Revisited" typifies the agenda of the aging poet. As Cox says (again with a nod to "Mont Blanc"), Wordsworth asks Shelleyan questions in this poem, and the answers are at least partly Shelleyan too. As for the memorials of the Italian tour, Cox notes that this "uncannily unlovely body of poetry" was written at a time when Wordsworth's cultural prestige was at its highest. Having outlived the stars of the second generation, he no longer needed to fear direct poetic competition, but Cox argues that he remained acutely aware of the younger poets' work and intent on differentiating himself from them. His musings on Italian sights typically bring him back to English associations, and predominantly, the poems affirm Christian traditions and celebrate national liberty. Wordsworth had come to admire Shelley and knew more of Byron's poetry than he cared to admit, but in these poems, however covertly, he is pointedly diverging from his Europhile successors by offering a different Italy -- or a different set of lessons drawn from Italy.

Cox begins his study by arguing that traditional models of influence distort the relation of Wordsworth to second generation Romantics by obscuring the fact that they were contemporaries for a number of years and ignoring important, larger networks of lesser or noncanonical writers. It is a virtue of this book that it fills in that wider, deeper literary context with such care and precision. At the same time, in Cox's constant emphasis on how Wordsworth had to reinvent himself so as to compete with younger poets I sense a lingering attachment to the agonistic, Bloomian model of influence that sometimes sits uneasily with Cox's passion to historicize and deep-contextualize.

There are other faults. Some of Wordsworth's later poetry is, as Cox admits, "difficult." Given that level of difficulty, his habit (shared, of course, with critics far and wide) of constructing paragraphs that are effectively mosaics of quotation from primary texts can be immensely frustrating. Since the poetry cannot always be relied on to speak for itself, more explication and analysis are sometimes required. Secondly, when he is trying to re-valuate a notoriously unpopular body of verse, it is surely advisable to avoid conceding too much. Cox's recurrent expressions of doubt, such as "If we find late Wordsworth unlovely . . ." (195) and "What stands in the way of our appreciating such poems?" (196), convey a sense of desperation or hopelessness that is rather baffling.

Having stated those reservations, I should make clear that William Wordsworth, Second-Generation Romantic is a brave, insightful, formidably well-researched study. Cox makes us reconceptualize Wordsworth's relationship to his younger contemporaries. I particularly admire, too, his determination to remain ideologically even-handed: the historical empathy he displays in evaluating the inevitably shifting political ideals and commitments of an aging writer is all too rare among scholars of this period. Though he sometimes seems to lack conviction, it may be that passionate intensity would have been equally counter-productive. Suffice to say that "late Cox" is a generous, knowledgeable, and acute critic of the later Wordsworth.

Robin Jarvis is Emeritus Professor of English Literature at the University of the West of England, Bristol.


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