Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

Rhythm and Repetition at Dove Cottage

Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

Rhythm and Repetition at Dove Cottage

Article excerpt

"Only because it is regular, does rhythm perform what Wordsworth perceives to be its functions." -David Perkins, "Wordsworth, Hunt, and Romantic Understanding of Meter" (January 1994) (1) 

IN 1845, UNDER THE INFLUENCE of his Tractarian friend Frederick William Faber, William Wordsworth added a number of new poems to his sonnet series on the history of the Church in England, Ecclesiastical Sonnets. (2) These additional poems celebrating a sequence of Anglican rites--including "The Marriage Ceremony," "Thanksgiving after Childbirth" (Churching), "Visitation of the Sick," and the "Funeral Service"--effectively marked Wordsworth as an Oxford Movement sympathizer. (3) As Stephen Gill has explained, Wordsworth was cautious not to appear partisan and felt profoundly betrayed when Faber converted to Roman Catholicism; yet Wordsworth's admiration for the rituals and rhythms of the liturgical calendar (which the Tractarians promoted and revived within the Church of England) is explicit in the sonnet series as it was originally published in 1822. Poems such as "The Liturgy" ensured that (in Gill's words) by "the late 1830s Wordsworth's commitment to the Church of England was hardly to be questioned":

YES, if the intensities of hope and fear Attract us still, and passionate exercise Of lofty thoughts, the way before us lies Distinct with signs--through which, in fixed career, As through a zodiac, moves the ritual year Of England's Church--stupendous mysteries! Which whoso travels in her bosom, eye As he approaches them, with solemn cheer.                                              (1-8) (4) 

For those within the protective "bosom" of the Church, knowledge of

the "fixed career" of the liturgical cycle tempers "passionate" thoughts and the "intensities of hope and fear." The emotional equilibrium Wordsworth gains from the regularity of the religious calendar is comparable to that which, in poetry, is provided by meter; "the co-presence of something regular," as Wordsworth explains in the Preface to Lyrical Ballads, keeps excessive feelings under control. (5)

The "ritual year / Of England's Church" is laid out in the Book of Common Prayer, which Wordsworth describes in an 1845 revision to the Ecclesiastical Sonnet, "Rural Ceremony," as "the precious Book which long has fed / Our meditations" (1-2). (6) The Prayer Book helps nourish "meditations" insofar as its formularies, which follow a diurnal and annual pattern, are themselves structured around familiar refrains. For Victorian Anglicans, these rhythms were important means of controlling excitement (including evangelical fervor) and of assuaging emotional and physical distress, and this function was supported by devotional poetry. The "Advertisement" to John Keble's The Christian Year, for example, explains that the "chief purpose" of the volume is to advance "that soothing tendency in the Prayer Book" by bringing readers' "thoughts and feelings into more entire unison" with it. (7) In 1833, Wordsworth gave permission for Ecclesiastical Sonnets to be published as a devotional accompaniment to Keble's volume and Wordsworth's mature poetry was valued by his nineteenth-century readers as a source of spiritual succor; for example, Sara Coleridge (the poet's daughter) annotated her copy of the first edition of The White Doe of Rylstone (1815) explaining that she "used continually to repeat" the first and seventh cantos to herself during "solitary walks & on [her] sleepless pillow at a time when [she] felt bereaved, aimless, almost hopeless." Sara repeated these verses in an attempt to "occupy [her] thoughts & keep the tears from [her] eyes." (8) Thus, Sara used lines from The White Doe as many readers used extracts from Keble's Christian Year. (9) The rhythms created through repetition of poetic phrases are, like the liturgy, a source of stability and consolation.

This all seems rather a long way from prominent images of Wordsworth at the turn of the nineteenth century. …

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