For the best part of a century, the poems that Wordsworth wrote over the last thirty-five years of his career have been neglected. This was not in the case in his lifetime or in the post-1850 Victorian era, when works such as the River Duddon collection of 1820 and the Yarrow Revisited volume of 1835 attracted good reviews and healthy sales. Wordsworth was valued then not principally for the blank-verse "Greater Romantic Lyrics" he wrote between 1798 and 1810, but for odes, sonnets, inscriptions, and "memorials" (a name he gave to poems that aimed in an impersonal voice to bear witness to history as embodied in monuments, ruins, and relics). Indeed, before 1820 the nature meditations and rustic lyrical ballads that led Keats to refer to Wordsworth's "sublime egotism" were more commonly viewed as ridiculous exercises in self-worship—the poems of an eccentric who absurdly overvalued the observations of his "mean," "puerile," and "namby pamby" mind. It was the tougher, more stoical, more traditional Wordsworth of The Excursion, the Duddon sonnets, and the Evening Voluntaries whom the nineteenth century appreciated.
By the 1960s and '70s, the picture had been reversed. Generations of professional literary critics had held up the earlier work as the apogee of lyric poetry; Wordsworth had become the high priest of what, in a largely post-religious age, was taken to be Romanticism's chief contribution to literature and culture—its ability to transcend both the mundane, industrialized world and the commodified self which that world produced by discovering, via nature, the freedom of the individual imagination (or at least by exhibiting the heroism of the quest). The Prelude became a new bible because it sanctified self-exploration as a mode of self-healing and self-elevation: poet and reader arrived at a deep, psychologized self able to face its isolation and eventual extinction at the hands of time because they could, in poetry, renew the lost past. Thus, for example, Geoffrey Hartman argued of The Prelude that Wordsworth's resistance of "tradition in favor of imagination" produced the poetic "progress" that gave birth to "contemporary poetry." The imagination as expressed in The Prelude was revolutionary and foundational: it "dominates modern poetry." The Cornell Wordsworth—that great editorial enterprise of twentieth-century academe—was the ultimate expression of this critical consensus. It devoted tome after tome to poems of the so-called Great Decade, producing no less than three editions of The Prelude, but then grouped the works written between 1820 and 1845 into a volume entitled Last Poems, as if the verse of Wordsworth's early fifties and late seventies was all of a piece—the final sputterings of a career at its end.
As Wordsworth's oeuvre was divided and the status of the earlier work rose, that of the later work fell. In 1923 H. W. Garrod, reflecting Matthew Arnold's preference for the earlier poems, called the last forty years of Wordsworth's life "the most dismal anticlimax of which the history of literature holds record." By 1935 Willard L. Sperry could already assume that there was a critical consensus as to a decline: the task was merely to explain its causes. It fell to Thomas McFarland to reduce the consensus to its most basic expression. In a polemic so crude as to be counterproductive, he wrote of Wordsworth's "forty-year death-in-poetic life"—a "melancholy" period of desiccated poetry—but the evidence he amassed to support this judgment consisted of just two poems. Hartman's verdict was more considered but just as damning: "Almost all [the] poetry written after 1806 fail[s] to show . . . progress" (toward modernity); Wordsworth "not only fails to condense his thought into a clear structure or dialectic but begins to use poetry purely as a defensive reaction to strange sympathies and apocalyptic stirrings." The later poetry represented a "falling-off" because it did not prioritize lonely struggles toward imaginative self-discovery or attempt to find an intense lyric form to represent such moments. Hartman mourned as an uncourageous decline Wordsworth's turn away from post-religious prophecy, justifying his judgment, however, by discussing only three of the hundreds of later poems. Harold Bloom, wanting Wordsworth to have been the progenitor of a "Visionary Company" of poets culminating in John Ashbery, took a similar course: "Wordsworth's dreadful poetic dotage . . . went on drearily from 1807 to 1850 . . . the longest dying of a major poetic genius in history." The Excursion (1814) became, in the wake of such views, the last poem worth considering in detail—though even it was chiefly summoned to evidence Wordsworth's decline since the 1805 Prelude.
In the 1980s, the critical consensus about Wordsworthian imagination as the epitome of Romanticism and the inauguration of modernity was challenged. Marxist scholars cast a cold eye on the assumption that "nature" and "imagination" were transcendent and universal values; they argued that they were instead signs of Wordsworth's displacement of history and politics. Critics who devoted themselves to detailing how Wordsworth's verse made him a "prophet of imagination" were said to be uncritically complicit with the poet's ideological maneuver to cut himself free of historical demands he could not or would not meet. Nature poetry and prophetic vision would no longer be constitutive of Romanticism: Wordsworth's indifference to newly popular genres such as the historical novel, women's poetry, and the magazine essay made his verse again seem to many, as it had to reviewers before 1820, self-secluding and marginal.
The New Historicist critique of Wordsworth, and of Wordsworth criticism, had two effects. It provoked a reaction from critics who argued that it misunderstood the poet's key relationships to nature and imagination: the best of these critics set about providing nuanced re-readings of the verse. It also stimulated an effort to explore its engagement with historical discourses: new perspectives were offered on Wordsworth's uptake of feminism, natural history, colonialism, geology, cartography, and several other contexts. Curiously, in view of this paradigm- shift in critical procedure, and the massive expansion of scholarly knowledge that it precipitated, the poetry discussed remained little changed, save that The Excursion (1814) and White Doe of Rylstone (1807-15) came in for renewed scrutiny. Scores of books and articles consider Wordsworth's relationship to history in one form or another; few consider the large body of writing, much of it historical, written after the works published in 1814. In this respect, many contemporary critics have perpetuated the bias of the mid-twentieth-century criticism they sought to supersede: they have inherited their teachers' neglect of the later poems. Jerome J. McGann, for instance, declared the later work to be poetry "we are spared from having to remember." No longer even read, the post-1810 (or even post-1807) work became an omission passed down the critical generations in graduate school.
There were exceptions to the general neglect. One of the first to look again at the post-1814 poetry was, somewhat surprisingly in view of his earlier opinions, Geoffrey Hartman. In "Blessing the Torrent: On Wordsworth's Later Style" (1978), he discussed an 1824 sonnet, and in "Words, Wish, Worth: Wordsworth" (1979), he examined the 1816 poem "A little onward." These seminal essays renewed Hartman's earlier emphasis on a Wordsworth engaged in a struggle to derive a vatic voice from a natural world encountered as sounds and traces. But Hartman now also showed that the terms of the struggle were not repeated, in diminished form, but altered by the anxieties attendant upon age—the responsibilities of fatherhood, fear of incapacity, the weight of earlier work to be lived up to. Wordsworth's profound explorations of the poet's task and searching meditations on the sources of power were no longer confined to the Great Decade: he had an afterlife that was not dismissible as decline.
Hartman's phenomenological Wordsworth was joined a decade later by William H. Galperin's deconstructive poet. In Revision and Authority in Wordsworth: The Interpretation of a Career, Galperin made persuasive arguments for seeing the later poems as neither an anticlimax nor a betrayal of the earlier but as a reworking that restaged its central tension in self-deconstructive terms: "They make clear what is already detectable in the earlier poetry; namely, the arbitrariness of authority in general. Wordsworth does not 'become' an orthodox Christian in his later phrase. Instead, his orthodoxy cancels the authority it supersedes so as to cancel all authority, including, of course, the authority of orthodoxy itself." This insight informs my reading not just of Wordsworth's explicitly religious poetry—his Ecclesiastical Sketches (1822), for instance—but also of poems in which authority is represented through historical institutions and their edifices or through literary form itself—although I prefer destabilization to cancellation as the apposite concept. Wordsworth is not Sterne or a postmodernist avant la lettre: his later poetry dramatizes the conflict between a recurrent concern to situate the self (writer and reader) in a larger whole within which it can find meaning (a historical institution or poetic tradition) and a restless need to reshape that whole or to preserve difference from it. But Galperin is perceptive: Wordsworth's expressions of conformity deform that which they conform to, and put conformity itself in question, but leave no place outside history for individual freedom. That is why they were of interest to young Victorian intellectuals and why they should interest us in today's world of jihad and selfies.
Peter J. Manning has investigated the later work as a "complexly situated rhetoric" in which the restless self-troubling of the early 1800s is still present in altered form. Manning illuminates the poetry in a variety of contexts: in "Cleansing the Images," he explores Wordsworth's use of Latin and his responses to German Romanticism in the 1820s and 1830s; in "Wordsworth in The Keepsake, 1829," he investigates the poet's uneasy involvement in the popular periodical press, initiating print-culture approaches that replace the stereotype of the isolated, unworldly bard with an account of an author prepared to take advantage of the latest trends in the publishing business (the work of Lee Erickson on the marketing strategies that Wordsworth adopted in tandem with his publisher Edward Moxon is also instructive in this regard). Further articles have explored Wordsworth's travel poems—in Scotland and Italy—in their relationship, both critical and admiring, to the historical romanticization of these places by Walter Scott. At home in the Lake District too, Wordsworth's politics of place, Manning shows, involved anxious negotiations of divided political loyalties related to patronage relationships. He reveals that there was no simple shift from Jacobinical youth to conservative, Tory-supporting age but, instead, a tension between the expression of loyalty to authority (both to the political interests of aristocratic landowners and to traditional literary form) and its displacement—an argument also made by James K. Chandler, who analyzed the Burkean influences in both early and late work. I attempt something similar here in Chapter 2.
For Peter Larkin, the complex rhetoric of the later poems—the turbulent selving that it crystallizes—comes into focus when viewed in relation to the earlier ones. He examines a series of poems that are clearly belated with regard to the self-questioning nature verse of the earlier career. Rather than examine these late meditations in order to demonstrate the superiority of the pre-Excursion poetry of imagination, Larkin considers them as intricate comings-to-terms with being the poet who once intimated immortality but who now no longer wishes to do so. These late poems are not rejections of past work; they are not attempted recollections or repetitions of it, either, but recessions from it. Larkin's pondering of the poetics of lateness informs my discussions of the "evening" poems Wordsworth wrote from the 1820s on.
Wordsworth's politics in the Waterloo period have been discussed by Philip Connell, who notes "his imaginative identification of Britain's imperial and domestic civilizing missions" in The Excursion. Philip Shaw has traced the need to define this mission after the defeat of France to the lack of an "other" against whom England could be defined. Richard Gravil has explored the rhetoric of the "Thanksgiving Ode" in terms of its Biblical resonances, while Jeffrey N. Cox has pioneered the study of its reception in a contentious and politicized literary sphere, in which it was one of many new discourses competing for attention in the reviews, journals, and magazines. Reconstructing reactions to Wordsworth by Keats and Leigh Hunt and by him to them, Cox has reminded us that Wordsworth was not, after 1814, simply a past body of writing by which a budding poet might be inspired and/or intimidated, but a living writer and as such a potential ally or rival. The poetry of the younger generation was written and read in this context, as was Wordsworth's own new work. The line of influence was not necessarily one way; nor was there, as literary history tended to assume, a "natural" progression from first to second generation. The later Wordsworth becomes a key figure in a redrawn Romanticism that reveals not the decline of the once-revolutionary 1790s poets into reaction, to be superseded by a new crop of radical young poets, but a continuing contest for authority in a divided public sphere.
Stephen Gill's work on Wordsworth's late poems has been instructive in two ways. Gill reveals how revision and reorganization became Wordsworth's creative modus operandi—a moving forward to new work not by harking back to but by continual self-parturition from the old; as a corollary of this, he also shows that Wordsworth became an astute, market-oriented writer who actively shaped his publications for success and was prepared to travel to do so. Gill's later Wordsworth was no solitary recluse but an experienced man of the world who recorded his engagement with places at home and abroad at least in part because tourist poetry was popular. As Peter Simonsen shows, to appeal to posterity he paid considerable attention to the formatting of these publications—typography, layout, design—even thematizing the printed appearance of the poetry within poems, as if to make them ekphrases of themselves. By the end of his career, Wordsworth had moved beyond the hostility to the public that had led him to be self-defensive up to 1815: his anti-commercialism had proved to have considerable commercial appeal, at least within a specialist sector of the public. He was an early example of the niche marketing today beloved of indie bands, sold on the basis of their resistance to the mainstream.
To these critics can be added several who have elucidated particular poems of the later period: Theresa Kelley explored the move to an aesthetics of beauty and containment and discussed later poems invoking waters; Robin Jarvis demonstrated how the terms of Wordsworth's negotiation with Milton were altered in the tour poems he composed at Vallombrosa; Philip Shaw revealed a productive tension between paternal authority and Ovidian classicism in a late poem addressed to Wordsworth's daughter. These essays took up the mantle of Hartman in delineating a poet engaged in finding new terms for his old struggle to claim a prophetic voice. So too Richard Gravil and James Garrett, who examined the gradual identification of that voice with the nation of which, increasingly, the later Wordsworth claimed to be the bard. My own Lake Poetry of the Lake Poets explores a similar tussle over sources of the authority that accrues to poetic form—history, prehistory, the Biblical god, pagan divinities.
Simon Jarvis and Eric C. Walker discussed the elaboration of a flexible poetic language for pondering late-life experiences in the poetry of 1819-20—Jarvis from a phenomenological standpoint, Walker from a historicist position that juxtaposes Wordsworth with Jane Austen as writers responding to the impact of war on gender relations. Judith Page extended the consideration of gender in Wordsworth and the Cultivation of Women, offering a nuanced portrait of a poet less egotistically assertive in his later years and therefore able, within limits, to imagine women other than as helpmeets and nature-spirits. Noah Heringman discussed the "Kirkstone" ode as an encounter with stone that proved too other to be invoked, precipitating a turn from the sublime. Christopher R. Miller studied the Evening Voluntaries as responses to an eighteenth-century tradition of crepuscular poetry. My work has benefited from all these accounts, which exemplify ways of reading the different language of a later poet whom they show to be surprisingly various. Together they suggest that the tide of critical neglect has begun to turn.
My intention in Wordsworth's Poetry, 1815-1845 is not to reverse the biases that Galperin, Manning, Cox, Gill, Larkin, Gravil, Shaw, and others have begun to correct. This book does not advance the claims of "Humanity" over the 1805 Prelude or of the ode "On the Power of Sound" over the Immortality Ode. Nor does it provide a comprehensive survey: thirty years' worth of writing cannot be explored in one book, and the varied writings of such an extended period do not produce a single consistent "achievement." I aim, rather, to explore what seem to me the pieces that are most illuminating about the later work and/or that make the strongest claims on our attention; to allow us to read them again, alongside the earlier work and in their own right—and to place in literary history a different Wordsworth—a wholler Wordsworth, not predicated on youth but continuing to write beyond most of the Byron generation that many critics thought to have superseded him.
It is as a history poet that the later Wordsworth most frequently speaks to the preoccupations of critical readers today, and much of the verse I explore responds to historical issues and events and to the issue of historicity itself. The response is often but not always explicit or made at the level of content. Frequently, historical pressures are refracted at the levels of form, style, genre, and prosody; form, style, genre, and prosody also shape historical interventions. My concern is to analyze this two-way process of refraction from both ends: I aim to track the logic of the verse so that historical quiddities and ideological battles appear not as externalities but within, as the animating forces of the poems. In the first three chapters I explore historical contexts beyond the literary, as they bear upon the poetry's voice, form, diction, and meter; in the next five I investigate the literary as a historical actor in its own right: forms, genres, and styles, each of which possessed a history and/or currency of its own and did not just reflect but brought into being Wordsworth's views on political and religious history.
Wordsworth's Poetry, 1815-1845 is organized chronologically, within sections that focus on particular genres and themes. In Part I, "Producing a Poet for the Public," I examine Wordsworth's self-fashioning in his 1815 collection of poems. Chapter 1 investigates manuscript revision to show how an old poem was reworked for publication: I take my cue here from studies of Romantic poetry as a matter of multiple versions rather than originary inspiration and from accounts that place Wordsworth as an agent in the print culture of his times rather than as a lonely wanderer on the fells. In Chapter 2 I take a Marxist approach to the local and national politics of landscape writing, developing the work of Raymond Williams, John Barrell, Stephen Daniels, and David Simpson, to clarify the poetic effects of anxieties about labor produced by Wordsworth's acceptance of patronage.
Part II, "Spots of Space: Materializing Memory," considers the poetry of 1814-29, focusing on the effects of particular historical engagements in generating a highly varied formality through which "history" is not evaded, denied, or even displaced into hymns to nature or the individual imagination, but commemorated in what Wordsworth called "memorials." The later Wordsworth increasingly wrote poems on tour, focusing, in the spaces he traversed, on specific sites in which the past was evident—monuments and ruins. Recollecting the history that made these sites significant to him and to others, he articulated them as places through which the past was recollected: they became, in his memorialization, spots that stood out from surrounding space as they focused times past. What they memorialized was not just the formative incidents of Wordsworth's mental education, as in The Prelude, but a public history—events through which, once revived by the poet, a local and national community could find itself. He now sought out spots in space, further afield, when once, having returned to home turf in 1800, familiar spots returned a personal past to him willy-nilly.
In Chapter 3 I suggest that Wordsworth's tours of Scotland were crucial in his development as a history poet: he adapted, from the examples of Scott, Hogg, and Burns, terms for thinking about the material remains of nationalist and independence struggles, about conflicts between loyalty and rebellion, and about the legacy of historical dispossession and trauma. Here I intervene in recent critical debates about the romanticization of the political and literary cultures of Scotland, as a nation colonized by England.
In Chapter 4 I benefit from recent studies of book history and manuscript culture in reading Wordsworthian memory in the context of the material practice of writing and transcription in the Wordsworth household. I look at a single poem that Wordsworth revised in response to the new perspective on historical time and on extinction produced by a geological discovery, but what I reveal about its formal alteration (and its thematization of its own altered form) has implications for understanding the oeuvre as a whole. Wordsworthian recollection did not precede the acts of writing words down on paper and then storing, retrieving and altering them (often repeatedly), producing more manuscripts. Memory materialized on paper, as transcribed and curated and reassembled by the scriptorial assistants—Dorothy, Mary, Dora, and Sarah Hutchinson. It was not spontaneous, or given, but constructed in the act of inscribing and rescribing. The published poems were neither "overflows" nor organic, but assemblages of fragments: to have a "spot of time," Wordsworth had to write a spot of time and have his family store it for rewriting and patching into the pieces of paper that were joined (or grown) into the "poem on the growth of my own mind."
In Part III, "The Politics of Diction," I examine the language of poems of 1819 and 1835 with the purpose of altering the received picture of the later Wordsworth as having defaulted to an authoritarian and declarative style—preachy generalities. I show that he was able to rework his earlier style—the sensual Ovidian diction of 1814 and the plain language of Lyrical Ballads—in competition with his younger imitators. In this process what occurred was not merely restatement but also renovation, with the older influenced by and taking on aspects of his followers' versions of his work. Not only was Wordsworth revitalized by his rivalry, he was also put into dialogue with a younger generation. He was not, that is, a Lake dinosaur ignoring or opposing new developments but, like the later Yeats and Hardy, an elder poet producing new work alongside that of his juniors. What was at work here was an anxiety of influence felt by the older, influencing poet as much as by the younger, influenced one, and in the process Wordsworth's own characteristic poetic voice was altered. He became more like his admirers than he cared to admit. Seeing Wordsworth in this way allows us to breach traditional accounts of influence and to reimagine Romantic periodicity so it no longer is divided into pre- and post-1814 epochs and into first and second generations who are, for the most part, studied separately. Within this section, Chapter 5 construes Wordsworth through the lens of scholarship into debates about sex and gender provoked by the poetry of Byron and the mores of the governing aristocracy. Chapter 6 puts Wordsworth in contact with laboring-class poetry that he precipitated, "recovering" a poet neglected by critics in the process. Here I expand the Romantic canon in the wake of Marxist literary historians, including John Goodridge, Ian Haywood, and Anne K. Janowtiz.
"Late Genres" (Part IV) examines how form shapes Wordsworth's presentation of the passage of time—history both public and private. Chapter 7 approaches Wordsworth's sonnets through a Historical Poetics methodology, exploring how the history of the form is not only developed by Wordsworth but is itself materialized in his practice in relation to the social issues of his time. The observation of the historical form of the sonnet leans Wordsworth toward, and even shapes, his representation of the church as a historical materialization of the past in the present. Chapter 8 also examines formal innovation, reading Wordsworth's "evening" poems in the wake of critics who have considered late style, including Peter Larkin, Edward Said, and J. H. Prynne. The experience of living beyond a past practice of formal experimentation is itself a pressure refracted in the formal developments of Wordsworth's late poetry. The late career is overdetermined by the past: how to write without repeating or to write anew without the new being judged in relation to the old—especially when the past work, and its formal innovation, is already public and thus a matter if literary history beyond the author's revisionary control? The Evening Voluntaries, a new hybrid form, are stunning late-life responses to these questions, revealing a poet able to put his superb technical control to the service of the most subtle and delicate articulations of time passing (articulations that restructure time as poetic meter and movement even while accepting its ultimate escape from the poet's hold).
What escapes, as I show in the coda, "Elegiac Musing and Generic Mixing," was confronted in a series of poems that hybridized the traditional genre of elegy with genres such as the epistle, the inscription, and the nature poem. This generic hybridization, I suggest, is the refraction of tensions arising from the understood complexity of the poetic task: for Wordsworth to be an elegist meant the serving of contrasting purposes—the expression of personal grief and the doing of commemorative duty toward friends who were also public figures. Not just public figures, but renowned writers, so that the issue of what kind of elegy they received was shaped by that elegy's relationship with their own work. Form and style became issues in themselves, because they were received in relation to the recent literary past—to the dead writer's form and style; because also, they could not help resonate, for Wordsworth and his readers, with his own earlier writing. As a young man, already long an orphan, he had written about older men marked by loss in the figures of Matthew, Michael, the Old Cumberland Beggar, and the Discharged Soldier. As an old man himself, finding himself deprived of friends and loved ones, he was not only late in life but anticipated in this lateness by his own earlier evocations of it. How was he to find poetic words appropriate for his need to mourn, remember, and commemorate without their seeming already superseded, or at least shaped, by the prequel written when he had not yet experienced the aged perspective he now was forced to take by the death of his own generation and the younger generation too? He found those words by crossing the genres in which he had previously imagined death and loss—chiefly the pastoral lyrical ballad—with that traditionally associated with mourning—the elegy—so as to benefit from the formal conventions by which, historically, the elegy conferred gravity upon mourner and mourned while still preserving the freedom to write in a personally resonant way that did not simply recapitulate the grief-stricken paralysis of Michael or the burnt-out silence of the old beggar. By this means, although he published no poems called elegies, he put elegiac form self-reflexively into question even as he commemorated the lives of the illustrious dead.
In sum, Wordsworth's Poetry, 1815-1845 explores the work of a varied and surprising, rather than desiccated and reactionary, older poet. It presents him probing the experiences and perspectives of later life so as to discover fragile poise in the evocation of transience and diminution, as a poet formally and stylistically adapting the past—his own past verse and others'—to sketch ways of writing beyond the ways of recollecting the past that had been so central to his earlier art. A poet able to acknowledge the debt of his writing to women—to the counsel, rather than, as in 1798, to the naive naturalness of Dorothy. A poet modifying his writing in light of his younger followers' work. A love poet of companionate tenderness rather than passionate lament. An angry poet—bitter at capitalist exploitation of others and at a world in which vanity is rewarded while worth goes mad or dies. First and foremost, a history poet more probing and more clear-sighted than any of his time in his understanding of the responsibilities and temptations of all who try to find forms in which to put the past onto the page. It is this restless and transformative Wordsworth I explore in these pages—a poet who is sometimes consolatory, and sometimes testy, but who always demands of himself and his readers that they think hard and differently from the ways to which they have become accustomed.