Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Wordsworth's "Prospectus": The Genre

Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Wordsworth's "Prospectus": The Genre

Article excerpt

In the Preface to The Excursion, when Wordsworth describes the 107-line extract from the unfinished first book of The Recluse as "a kind of Prospectus of the design and scope of the whole Poem" (x), he invokes a genre which would have been familiar to contemporary readers. M. H. Abrams, who builds his masterwork Natural Supernaturalism around this text, describes it as a "poetic manifesto" (73), an "indispensable guide" not only to Wordsworth's poetry but also to Romanticism itself, so clearly does it articulate the deepest literary and philosophical concerns of the movement (20). This claim rests on the "high argument" and imagery of the "Prospectus," Wordsworth's announcement of his plan to surpass Milton's Paradise Lost by writing a visionary poem about "the Mind of Man, / My haunt, and the main region of my Song" (96-8), and by reformulating the ancient Biblical prophecy of a new heaven and a new earth as an apocalypse of the imagination, "A simple produce of the common day" (113).

Wordsworth's term "Prospectus" also links his manifesto with the mundane realities of the book trade. A prospectus in the literal sense was a printed advertisement for a projected book, book series, periodical, or other publishing venture, circulated prior to publication (and sometimes prior to writing) in order to attract readers and obtain advance sales. Prospectuses were a marketing device that played a part in subscription publishing, a method of publication used for most periodicals in this period and for certain types of book, particularly expensive, specialised books and multivolume books or book series such as collected editions, encyclopaedias, and anthologies (Feather 14). Typically a prospectus would describe the proposed work, explain the reasons for publishing it, how it improved on the competition, and what the terms and conditions of sale were, including where the order could be placed, how much it would cost, when the book was expected to be published, and how it would be delivered to the purchaser. If an order were placed, the prospectus became in effect a contract of sale and might even be used as a receipt, with the author's signature and the name of the subscriber. The prospectus could also contain specimen pages, a table of contents, endorsements (sometimes called "sanctions"), and illustrations, anything that might entice a prospective buyer or subscriber. Often the prospectus would be printed on the same paper and in the same format as the work itself, so that the prospectus would provide a physical sample of the book, not just an abstract description of it. This aspect of the transaction was important: a material object as well as an intellectual product was being offered for sale, and book purchasers were attentive to formats, typefaces, paper quality, and other physical features, all of which would be specified on the prospectus under the "Conditions of Sale."

A prospectus could range from a single page to four, eight, twelve, or even more pages, but a typical length was four pages, and a typical format was octavo. Prospectuses were free-standing pamphlets, distinct from other forms of advertising such as newspaper advertisements, publishers' catalogues, and end-page advertisements, all of which were used in this period (Raven 283). Prospectuses would be sent to booksellers, librarians, and individuals, and distributed at public places such as coffee houses. Some publishers and booksellers had national networks of agents who toured the country distributing catalogues and prospectuses. Often, though, authors themselves distributed the prospectuses and received the orders, and authors frequently wrote the prospectuses, as authors still sometimes write their own jacket "blurb." (Powers 135) And they were used on a wide scale: the print run of a prospectus might be many times that of the work itself. The intended publisher of Coleridge's journal The Friend (which eventually acquired around 650 subscribers) advised that 10,000 copies of the prospectus be circulated in advance, with another 2000 per month for each new issue (I. …

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