Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

"Fit Though Few": Anxiety and Ideology in Wordsworth's Excursion Quarto

Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

"Fit Though Few": Anxiety and Ideology in Wordsworth's Excursion Quarto

Article excerpt

IN 1814, WILLIAM WORDSWORTH WAS PREOCCUPIED WITH ONE AIM ABOVE all others: to ensure his literary survival. (1) Intent on publishing a "literary Work that might live," Wordsworth had become fixated on the material, historical, and especially bibliographic conditions of textual survival, leading him to publish his career-defining philosophical poem The Excursion in the durable and high-priced quarto format. In so doing, as this essay argues, Wordsworth was motivated by a need to assuage his growing anxiety of reception by directing his poem to that readership, "fit though few, that he believed would be more receptive than past audiences had been to his work. Yet Wordsworth's strategy only succeeded in complicating the reception of The Excursion, for the lavish bibliographic codes of the book's quarto embodiment contradicted the austere vision of its text. Regency readers were quick to spot the inconsistencies embedded in Wordsworth's book: as one periodical writer declared, "the meek, sentimental, sympathetic and all benevolent Mr. Wordsworth" should have "disdained the pomposity of quartoes, and the extortion ... of two guineas. 2 In the end, The Excursions luxurious quarto format classed the poem's celebration of simple necessity and transcendent imagination by entrusting its future to the judgment of a gentry and aristocratic readership whose response was to prove disappointing.

"Fit though few": Wordsworth's Anxiety of Reception and the Excursion Quarto

In Reading, Writing, and Romanticism, Lucy Newlyn argues that Romanticism can be understood as a species of 'reaction-formation' "intended to mitigate authorial anxiety about the reception of Romantic texts. To Newlyn, Wordsworth provides an especially clear-cut case of this "anxiety of reception. Because he saw that the provisionality of literary tradition its openness to the modifications and revisions of successive generations of reader-writers--made his own work vulnerable to misreading, Wordsworth sought to control the reception of his work through his prose criticism even while the "hermeneutics of collaboration" modeled in his poetry undercut such attempts. (4) Yet while Newlyn focuses on his use of texts to address this anxiety of reception, Wordsworth also sought to alleviate fears about the survival of his works through his use of the formats in which he published them. (5)

During the period leading up to the publication of The Excursion in 1814, Wordsworth's poetic reputation underwent a series of damaging attacks. Initiated by Frances Jeffrey's Thalaba review of 1802, these attacks came to a head in 1807 following the publication of Poems in two Volumes. On the grounds especially of its alleged puerility and its suspect political commitments, Poems was excoriated by the critical establishment, with one reviewer going so far as to hope that Wordsworth would "see his error, and not persist in making murderous attacks upon his own literary reputation." (6) Such reviews decimated sales of Poems, but they also "nearly destroyed Wordsworth's reputation." (7) As late as 1837, Thomas Noon Talfourd could refer to the period between 1807 and 1814 as one during which Wordsworth's name "was made a byword" and his works routinely "scoffed at." (8) The experience taught Wordsworth "that the reception of future volumes must be more tightly controlled than ever" (9) if his literary reputation was to be salvaged.

Wordsworth's attempt to exert such control led him to formulate a doc trine of reading audiences. In the "Preface" to Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth had observed that nascent industrialization, urbanization, and standardization had produced among readers "a craving for extraordinary incident which the rapid communication of intelligence hourly gratifies." (10) This craving was satisfied only by those popular but ephemeral publications that appeared with greater and greater frequency during the 1790s and whose ephemerality distinguished them from the timeless works of art produced by genuine poets. …

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