Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Wordsworth the Revisionary

Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Wordsworth the Revisionary

Article excerpt

In the late autumn of 1802, Coleridge and Tom Wedgwood went into South Wales to stay with the Allens, who were related to the Wedgwoods. While they were there, Coleridge asked Fanny Allen whether she liked poetry, and, when she said she did, proceeded to read to her Wordsworth's "The Leech-gatherer." Unfortunately, when he reached some lines about the old man's skin being so old and dry that the leeches would no longer stick to it, she found herself overcome with mirth; the more she tried to stop herself laughing the more she laughed, until she was quite convulsed, at which point Coleridge became angry and put the manuscript away, saying that to anyone who could not respond to genius such a poem might seem absurd.

Fanny was not alone. The year before, shortly before William was to marry Mary Hutchinson, he sent Mary and Sara several poems including "The Leech-gatherer" and invited them to comment. When Sara injudiciously said that she found the Leech-gatherer's speech "tedious," she prompted a long letter from Wordsworth beginning "My dear Sara: I am exceedingly sorry that the latter part of the Leech-gatherer has displeased you, the more so because I cannot take to myself (that being the case) much pleasure or satisfaction in having pleased you in the former part" (WL 366-67).

A similar remonstrance had been addressed to Lamb the year before when Wordsworth had sent him the second volume of Lyrical Ballads, apologizing for not having acknowledged his receipt of a copy of a tragedy Lamb had sent him and pleading in defense that he now had an "almost insurmountable aversion from Letter writing." Lamb had thanked him though he had also mentioned--unfortunately, as he said--that no piece had "moved him so forcibly as the Ancient Mariner, the Mad Mother or the Lines at Tintern Abbey" : "The Post did not sleep a moment. I received almost instantaneously a long letter of four sweating pages from my reluctant Letterwriter, the purport of which was, that he was sorry his 2nd volume had not given me more pleasure (Devil a hint did I give that it had not pleased me) and "was compelled to wish that my range of Sensibility was more extended ..." (LL. Mars I 272)

In spite of such extreme defensiveness Wordsworth was not altogether deaf to the criticisms he received--particularly when they came from or were supported by his own inner circle such as Coleridge or Dorothy. "The Leech-gatherer" was changed after these years--so radically in fact that whole passages were cut out of the manuscript notebook, and only the stubs of some pages remain. He was stubborn in the face of criticism, as in the case of "We are Seven," but, on occasion, as editors have come to recognize--sometimes to their dismay--he was also an inveterate reviser, sometimes responding to particular criticisms.

However, in the period I have been referring to, he was unusually defensive. The first Lyrical Ballads volume been strongly criticized, but, in the second, he was conducting experiments which might not be welcome to the general reader. They came after a period in which he was concerned with the role of the individual and his apparent power to speak from a wisdom transcending the normal chapter of every day. This could extend not only to the recording of an unusual speech but to his own presentation of such a figure. In the letter to Sara, he tried to explain why he could not find such a figure tedious: "What is brought forward? A lonely place, a Pond 'by which an old man was, far from all house and home'--not stood, nor sat, but 'was'--the figure presented in the most naked simplicity possible." Even stranger, in spite of this firm and spirited defense, neither this formulation nor the reference to the extreme dryness of the old man's skin survived into the published version.

There was a difference between the practices of Wordsworth and Coleridge in this matter. The publication of Coleridge's complete Poetical Works in the Princeton Collected Works has revealed the extraordinary extent to which Coleridge tinkered with poems once he had written them. …

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