Romantic Marks and Measures: Wordsworth's Poetry in Fields of Print

Romantic Marks and Measures: Wordsworth's Poetry in Fields of Print

Romantic Marks and Measures: Wordsworth's Poetry in Fields of Print

Romantic Marks and Measures: Wordsworth's Poetry in Fields of Print

Synopsis

In the late eighteenth century, British print culture took a diagrammatic and accentual turn. In graphs of emphasis and tonal inflection, in signs for indicating poetic stress, and in tabulations of punctuation, elocutionists, grammarians, and prosodists deployed new typographic marks and measures to represent English speech on the page. At the same time, cartographers and travel writers published reconfigurations of landscape on large-scale topographical maps, in geometric surveys, and in guidebooks that increasingly featured charts and diagrams. Within these diverse fields of print, blank verse was employed as illustration and index, directing attention to newly discovered features of British speech and space and helping to materialize the vocal and visual contours of the nation.

In Romantic Marks and Measures, Julia S. Carlson examines Wordsworth's poetry of "speech" and "nature" as a poetry of print, written and read in the midst of topographic and typographic experimentation and change. Investigating the notebook drafts of "The Discharged Soldier," the printer's copy of Lyrical Ballads, Lake District guidebooks, John Thelwall's scansion of The Excursion, and revisions and editions of The Prelude, she explores Wordsworth's major blank verse poems as sites of intervention--visual and graphic as well as formal and thematic--in cultural contests to represent Britain, on the page, as a shared landscape and language community.

Excerpt

When Francis Jeffrey reviewed Thalaba in 1802, he made Robert Southey’s poem a test case of all that was wrong with the new, revolutionary school of poetry. One of his strongest criticisms concerned the poem’s measures: Southey’s predilection for experimental, unrhymed verse-forms was, he said, untraditional and unEnglish: “Blank odes have been known in this country about as long as English sapphics and dactylics; and both have been considered, we believe, as a species of monsters, or exotics, that were not very likely to propagate, or thrive, in so unpropitious a climate.” Here Jeffrey echoed the satire of Gillray whose 1798 print “The New Morality” portrayed Southey as an unpatriotic worshipper at the shrine of revolutionary France on the basis of his unrhymed experimental forms (Figure 1). Southey is pictured as an ass braying out “Sapphics” as radical print spills round his knees from a “cornucopia of ignorance,” the blank verse Joan of Arc stuffed in his pocket. His collaborators Lamb and Lloyd are depicted as frog and toad croaking blank verse from their volume by that name, while Coleridge, also pictured as an ass, counts out dactyls on his fingers. Blanks were not musical but mechanical, dissonant, and dangerous: the vehicle of foreign and Jacobinical ideas.

Southey’s attempt to naturalize sapphics had failed, Jeffrey asserted, and he predicted a no better fate for Thalaba—“a jumble of all the measures that are known in English poetry, (and a few more), without rhyme, and without any sort of regularity in their arrangement.” Strange combinations exercised the mind, and rather than being “repeated with any degree of uniformity were multiplied, through the whole composition, with an unfounded licence of variation.” Thalaba’s cadences were not merely unprecedented but failed to set precedents within the poem. Readers, in effect, were presented with a trick of print—“the greater part of the book,” Jeffrey declared, “is mere prose, written out into the form of verse” (70). He excerpted various passages, defying readers to discover in the clusters of indented lines the melodies that Southey claimed were there. the voice of the “dullest reader,” Southey asserted in the preface, could not fail to make them “perceptible.”

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