Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

J.H. Reynolds Re-Echoes the Wordsworthian Reputation: "Peter Bell," Remaking the Work and Mocking the Man

Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

J.H. Reynolds Re-Echoes the Wordsworthian Reputation: "Peter Bell," Remaking the Work and Mocking the Man

Article excerpt

FOLLOWING THE PUBLICATION OF THE EXCURSION (1814) AND HIS COLLECTED Poems (1815), several of Wordsworth's reviewing critics and parodists became acutely wary of and satirically invested in how Wordsworth's poems were "bound each to each." (1) More specifically, along with J. H. Reynolds' parody "Peter Bell, A Lyrical Ballad" (1819), a handful of other Regency parodies call direct attention to the laborious and repetitious construction of Wordsworth's poetic oeuvre by singling out a particular Wordsworth poem as a pathetic, simplistic, and even ridiculous microcosm of his entire poetic works. (2) Undoubtedly, they developed this satirical part/whole focus in direct response to Wordsworth's own prose remarks about reading his poetry in his "Preface to The Excursion" (1814) and in the supplementary prose surrounding and connecting together his collected poetic works (1815). Most troubling for many of Wordsworth's contemporary readers was his claim in the "Preface to The Excursion" that The Excursion acts as the completed centerpiece for his fragmentary--and unpublished--epic The Recluse as well as the link connecting together all of his minor poetic pieces. (3) Responding to this poetic system, Wordsworth's parodists sought to effect a wholesale revision of the relationship between the part (a particular poem) and the whole (the entire projected Wordsworthian oeuvre). (4)

Reynolds' "Peter Bell" certainly was neither the first, nor the last parody attempting to undermine Wordsworth's poetic authority. From the appearance of Lyrical Ballads (1800) to the first half of the 1830s, Wordsworth was, arguably, the most parodied poet of his age, inviting responses that critiqued his subject matter, poetic diction, uses of genres, political inclinations, and choice of poetic associates. Most prominently, the business of parodying Wordsworth's poetry took off after the publication of Poems of William Wordsworth (1807)--his first major collection solely made up of his own poetry. (5) This two-volume edition was met with a surge of negative publicity, erupting from the review culture, contemporary poets, and the general reading public. (6) Although Wordsworth suffered emotionally and economically at the hands of his critics, ironically, this concentrated opposition to and denigration of his Poems solidified a symbiotic, albeit antagonistic, relationship between a New School of Poetry (nominally headed by Wordsworth) and a New School of Criticism (headed by Francis Jeffrey and the Edinburgh Review).

Each school increasingly would come to define itself in opposition to the other by way of genre and politics. Moreover, this vexed relationship between prose criticism and poetry was underscored by parodic writers like Richard Mant, who in The Simpliciad (1808) (7) meticulously groups together the members of this New School of Poetry in order to highlight the failings of their poetic theories by exalting--through the binary setup of his own text--the controlling powers of the New School of Criticism. In The Simpliciad, Mant constructs a text that is bifurcated between his poetry--a synthetic parody pointed largely at the x 807 Poems of William Wordsworth--and his footnotes--a large selection of passages taken primarily from Wordsworth's poetry. First, Mant removes from Wordsworth's poems their contextualizing prose notation. (8) Then, he places passages that were once in Wordsworth's main text in the footnotes of the Simpliciad, to which he occasionally adds his own contextualizing prose remarks. Such a textual juxtaposition parodies Wordsworth's own system of prose notation accompanying his poetry. Further, Mant's footnotes present Wordsworth's poetry as a parodic echo of itself, which short-circuits any possible sympathetic engagement and hermeneutic activity by readers who might be interested in responding to Wordsworth's call--first articulated clearly in his 1800 "Preface to Lyrical Ballads"--to discover and take part in the organizing principles connecting together the individual poems within his volumes of poetry. …

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