Wordsworth, Joseph Johnson, and the Salisbury Plain Poems

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In December, 1792, on his return from France, Wordsworth brought the manuscripts of An Evening Walk and Descriptive Sketches to Joseph Johnson for publication. Johnson was a respected, successful and well-known liberal publisher, friendly to authors who supported religious dissent, parliamentary reform, and the French Revolution, including many that Wordsworth admired: William Godwin, Mary Woll-stonecraft, and Coleridge. Seeing liberal sentiments in the poems, Johnson agreed to publish them. Wordsworth would continue to think of Johnson as his publisher until 1799; Johnson, however, did not seem to think much of Wordsworth after 1793. He published Wordsworth's poems separately as quarto pamphlets and featured them in the Analytical Review, but after low sales and poor reviews, Johnson forgot about him. This failure may have contributed to Wordsworth's life-long dread of publishing and to his break from Johnson--a break which becomes a subtext in the Salisbury Plain poem, his next major work, which, after many revisions, was finally published in 1842.

As well as being a liberal publisher, Johnson figures prominently in the bourgeois public sphere of the 1790, Habermas described in The Structural Transformation of the Public, Sphere as "a forum in which the private people, come together to form a public, readied themselves to compel public authority to legitimate itself before public opinion" (25). The "people's public use of their reason," was the leading characteristic of the public sphere and Enlightenment practice (27) and Johnson, who published dissenters, reformers, and other Enlightenment thinkers, was a major "stakeholder" in the British public sphere of the 1790s. After the French Revolution this public sphere had become a highly-contested space for civic debate, unlike the Augustan public sphere that Habermas discusses. In the 1790s, the public sphere was, in the words of Terry Eagleton, "fissured and warped," a site of intense ideological conflict or a propaganda war (37). The consensus among Whig reformers, religious dissenters in the early 1790s was disrupted by reactionary organizations and publications aligned with the government, closing off the public sphere until the end of the war with France. A propaganda war created "counter-publics" split off from the public sphere. (1)

The multiple versions of Wordsworth's Salisbury Plain poem reflects this contentious public sphere. The first version, "A Night of Salisbury Plain" (1793), shows his attempt to create a poem that Johnson might publish, representing Johnson's reformist and dissenting agenda, at a time when such an agenda was considered treasonous. The second version of the poem, entitled "Adventures on Salisbury Plain" (1795), exhibits the influence of William Godwin and what I call his rationalist "counter-public," which functioned as a discursive site critical of the larger public sphere that Johnson represented. Finally, the most famous version of the Salisbury Plain poem, "The Female Vagrant" in Lyrical Ballads (1798), reflects Wordsworth's own rustic "counter-public" in the West Country, created in conjunction with Coleridge and Dorothy Wordsworth. It also represents Wordsworth's last effort to re-enter the public sphere while it was being dismantled by reactionary critics.

The story behind Wordsworth's Salisbury Plain poem: while traveling through Salisbury Plain, Wordsworth and William Calvert were involved in an accident that destroyed their carriage. Miraculously unharmed, decided to split up, with Calvert heading north and Wordsworth west, towards Wales. For two or three days, Wordsworth wandered the bleak Salisbury Plain, composing as he went his first version of the poem. This version reflects Wordsworth's intense isolation now that Britain was at war with France and he was separated from his Annette Vallon and their child, Caroline, in France. For Wordsworth, the cannons, on both sides, were pointed at people he knew. …