Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

The Influence of Anxiety: Spenser and Wordsworth

Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

The Influence of Anxiety: Spenser and Wordsworth

Article excerpt

   We poets in our youth begin in gladness,    But thereof in the end come despondency and madness. 

IN THE MONTHS BETWEEN LATE 1801 AND THE SUMMER OF 1802, A remarkably productive period for Wordsworth and one filled with alternating hopes and fears over advancing age, the lawsuit to recover the modest patrimony so long withheld by Lord Lonsdale, thoughts of impending marriage, and the need to visit Annette and Caroline in France, the Wordsworths and Mary Hutchinson were frequently found deep in Spenser. On November 16, Dorothy reports, "Win somewhat weakish, but upon the whole pretty well--he is now at 7 o'clock reading Spenser." (1) Two days later, "We sat in the house in the morning reading Spenser"; and on the 24th, "After tea Wm read Spenser now & then a little aloud to us." At the start of the next month, Dorothy writes, "In the afternoon we sate by the fire--I read Chaucer aloud, & Mary read the first canto of the Fairy Queene" (Dec. 6). On the following March 16, "After dinner I read him to sleep--I read Spenser while he leaned upon my shoulder"; and on April 25, "we spent the morning in the orchard. Read the Prothalamium of Spenser--walked backwards & forwards." On June 4, Dorothy "read Mother Hubbards Tale before I went to bed"; on the 16th, Dorothy "read the first canto of the Faerie Queen to William," who "went to bed immediately"; and finally on July I, "William read Spenser." (2) If the "Spenser" which at one point had to be retrieved from a fiver bank where the poet had left it (Dec. 28, 180l) was actually a close-fitting short jacket and not a book, (3) it was a garment well named.

A number of poems came almost immediately out of this immersion in Spenser's works. Wordsworth clearly had paid close attention to Spenser's Colin Clouts Come Home Againe, which suggested the arresting image of the pagan god Triton rising from the sea in the sonnet "The World is Too Much With Us," probably written or begun in May or June 1802--as was perhaps also the sonnet "Pelion and Ossa," Wordsworth's attempt to outdo Spenser's tribute to classical peaks in Virgils Gnat (lines 21-24) by singing his own Skiddaw with its "streams more sweet than Castaly." (4) The poem "Beggars," written in March 1802 though based on a meeting with a beggar woman (that "tall weed of glorious feature") and her wild sons nearly two years previously, clearly owes something in phrasing and idea to a reading of Spenser's Muiopotmos (lines 209-13), where a bold, carefree young butterfly in an idyllic landscape proves vulnerable to death. (5) The carefree first half of Spenser's poem also informs Wordsworth's opening hopes in "Home at Grasmere" about 1799-1800 (lines 1-35), as well as a passage of Book 10 of the 1805 Prelude as annotated by Jonathan Wordsworth, where the poet, troubled by the revolution's failure, hopes for a metamorphosis of "worm-like" man into a winged state of "Liberty," becoming "Lord of himself in undisturbed delight" (lines 835-38). (6)

I have reserved for last as the center of my discussion the most famous of the group of poems written during this period of readings in Spenser. This is the work that began life under the title of "The Leech-Gatherer" in May 1802 and became in final form in June/July 1802 the powerful "Resolution and Independence," whose full Spenserian nature has yet to be understood.

Despite the many filiations recognized (or as yet unrecognized) in the poetry of these and other years, Spenser has generally taken a back seat to Milton in accounts of Wordsworth's primary influences. If he was set "very early" by his father--before age 8, when his father died--to learn "by heart" and "repeat large portions of Shakespeare, Milton, and Spenser," and if as a youth resolving to be a poet he "feared competition only with Chaucer; Spenser; Shakespeare and Milton," (7) Wordsworth's search for the sublime and his revolutionary sympathies have seemed to link him most closely to the Miltonic model in the minds of many, notably Harold Bloom. …

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