Wordsworth’s Poetic Collections,
Supplementary Writing and Parodic Reception
Brian R. Bates
London: Pickering & Chatto, 2012
Hardcover. 236 pages. ISBN 978-1848931961. £60.00
Reviewed by Sylvie Crinquand
Université de Bourgogne
With this title, the reader is warned at once about the nature of Brian Bates’ corpus: three different genres are studied in relation to each other, the common point being what we would call today Wordsworth’s communication strategies to entice the audience to read his poems. In the introduction, Bates explains that the reader will find “two intertwined stories” within his book . On the one hand, Wordsworth’s role as editor of his own work is used to demonstrate his ability to guide his readers from one of his collections to the other, while the other “story” focuses on Wordsworth’s reviewers and parodists, the point being to show how they contribute to Wordsworth’s designs.
Rightly included within Pickering & Chatto series, “The History of the Book”, Bates’ book considers texts which are usually judged secondary when trying to make sense of Wordsworth’s poetical endeavours. Prefaces, footnotes, and even tables of contents are here scrutinised, confronted with parodic responses to Wordsworth, and all these texts are considered as part of an overall scheme, whereby readers of any work of Wordsworth’s were deliberately guided towards the discovery of his other works. Thus, Bates does intertwine Wordsworth’s paratexts with some of his readers’ reactions to them, author’s discourse being countered with reader response.
The overall point is argued convincingly, and justifies the recourse to these very different genres throughout the major part of the book. Moreover, Bates’ approach enables him to throw a new light on the circumstances of Wordsworth’s writing, just as it also acts as a useful background to anyone interested in the poet’s work. However, the leap from Wordsworth’s paratexts to parodies of his poetry does not always appear perfectly logical in the book. Likewise, Coleridge’s later additions to The Rime of the Ancient Mariner are used to fuel the same argument; this tends to put all kinds of discourse on the same level without acknowledging each speaker’s specificities.
The first two chapters are devoted to Lyrical Ballads, and more precisely to Wordsworth’s strategies when preparing the second edition for publication. The first chapter focuses on the critical context, and uses contemporary works such as The Pursuits of Literature and The Anti-Jacobin to explain Wordsworth’s concern [Bates actually uses the word “fixation”] with “establishing a brand-name for his poetry and controlling how his volumes would be associated with other collections of poetry” . In other words, Bates considers Wordsworth’s care in setting up the second edition of Lyrical Ballads as a way to protect his collection against satirical reactions, and as a response to critical reviews of the first edition. That is how he interprets the move from Advertisement to Preface. This first chapter thus acts as a framework for the whole book, and illustrates Bates’ “intertwining” technique. The second chapter focuses on Wordsworth’s organisation of a route for readers in the collection, both through his careful composition of his footnotes, and through his use of repetitions as a way of connecting poems together. Bates’ careful attention to footnotes proves stimulating, by modifying the perspective usually adopted by critics of the collection. He then takes the example of the repetition of the word “stone” to illustrate his meaning, and to conclude that readers of Lyrical Ballads have been trained by the poet to become able to read more of his work.
then return to the second intertwined story with a chapter devoted to Richard
Mant’s The Simpliciad, a parody
published in 1808 as a reaction against Wordsworth’s 1807 Poems, in Two Volumes. To develop his argument, Bates points out
that the negative reactions triggered by the book were partly fuelled by the
absence of a preface, which readers of Wordsworth’s poems had come to expect
since the 1800 edition of Lyrical Ballads.
Moreover, part of Mant’s satire lies in his use of footnotes, which parody
Wordsworth’s tendency to highlight his own achievements. However, Bates
concludes his study of the parody by arguing that, ironically, Mant’s satire
does more credit than harm to Wordsworth’s technique, because it demonstrates
the power of the poet’s use of repetition and simplicity.
The next chapter turns to The Excursion and the 1815 Poems, in which Bates pursues his exploration of Wordsworth’s persona as editor of his own work, this time as a response to contemporary taste for bibliomania. Bates reads the paratext added to The Excursion as a manner of engaging the readers of the poem to develop their own responses, so as to make sure they actively buy Wordsworth’s books. This argument is convincing, and the excerpts from the Preface and the “Essay Supplementary to the Preface” also conclusively demonstrate the poet’s “efforts to order his life, his work and his readers” . Wordsworth’s metaphor of a Gothic church to describe his work is used as a case in point. However, Bates also writes that, “Through his prospectus Wordsworth attempts to include readers in the process of producing and collecting together his poetry” . He thus appears to assimilate Wordsworth’s attempts to guide (or manipulate) his readers with a form of interactive creation of the poetry, which is a different matter altogether, and not really supported by the texts he quotes. That is, to my mind, where the limit of Bates’ interpretation lies: he sometimes tends to take some of Wordsworth’s utterances too literally, which contradicts his view of Wordsworth as a careful planner of his career.
Chapter 5 shifts focus once again, this time to turn to Coleridge’s satirical letter from “a friend” in chapter 13 of Biographia Literaria. In his introduction, Bates argues that even though Coleridge uses his friend’s metaphor of the Gothic church, his own practice is unlike Wordsworth’s, in that he does not attempt to create some overbearing sense of unity within his own work, as his friend does. Coleridge is thus here used as a satirist, and belongs with the parodic responses to Wordsworth’s poetry, in order to fuel the overall argument of the book. However, there is a difference between Coleridge and now-forgotten parodists, which is not taken into account here, and which somewhat distorts the view, all the more so since chapter 6 focuses on other parodies of Wordsworth’s poems, with an analysis of J.H. Reynolds’ Peter Bell.
At this stage in Wordsworth’s career (1819), Reynolds is now playing on Wordsworth’s tendency to connect his poems to each other, which has been studied in the previous chapters. Indeed, one of the parodist’s devices is to multiply paratexts, which emphasise the poet’s inability to refrain from commenting on his own characters. Bates argues that Reynolds is thus poking fun at Wordsworth’s concern with his reputation, which led the poet to answer with a parodic sonnet of his own, “On the Detraction which Followed the Publication of a Certain Poem”, where Wordsworth uses Milton to demonstrate his awareness of being part of a tradition of parodists.
This leads Bates to his final chapter, devoted to Wordsworth’s now-achieved status as a monument of literature. The volume under scrutiny is The River Duddon, which he considers as the outcome of Wordsworth’s lifelong efforts to associate his own name with the Lake District, presented in the volume as “the literary and moral seat of Britain”. Bates first insists on the literary context, and argues that the ongoing parodies of his work – in this chapter the analysis focuses on Blackwood’s – strengthened Wordsworth’s position as a poet who deserved attention. The end of the chapter turns to the poems, and the paratexts surrounding them, to highlight Wordsworth’s way of associating his work with England in order to show his status as a national poet.
Bates’ book ends with this chapter, whose last subpart, entitled “postscript”, explains that Wordsworth had now reached the fame he needed to be considered as an established poet, able to publish where he wanted. This ending appears a little abrupt, and contributes to the feeling the book sometimes gives of offering a juxtaposition of concurring analyses, without always proving the cause-and-effect relations between various points. However, even if some parts of the book are less convincing than others, as I have argued in the detailed presentation of its chapters, Bates does make stimulating suggestions about the literary and editorial context of Wordsworth’s compositions.
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