"Fit though few": anxiety and ideology in Wordsworth's Excursion Quarto.
"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. The hostile reception of Poems moved Wordsworth to shape such scattered remarks into a coherent theory of audience. (11) Wordsworth's doctrine found its clearest and first public expression in the "Essay, Supplementary," where he distinguished a "Public," characterized as "clamorous," "loud," "governed by factitious influence," "unthinking," and limited to the present, from the "People, philosophically characterised," whose present composition as a "few and scattered hearers" would in time grow into an approving posterity whose praise would prove the worth of the poetry currently disparaged. (12)
But in attempting to dull his anxiety of reception by distinguishing the hostile "Public" of the present day from a future class of "People" capable of recognizing literary greatness, Wordsworth encountered a further problem. For his poetry could only find its proper reception with a future audience if it survived to reach that audience. Yet, as Wordsworth well knew, this survival was materially constrained: the timelessness Wordsworth anticipated for his poetry depended on the durability of the books embodying it. Wordsworth's anxiety of reception thus led to a preoccupation--evident throughout his career but especially leading up to the publication of The Excursion in 1814--with the materiality of texts. Indeed, many of the canonical moments in Wordsworth's body of work show his fascination with material textuality. Occasionally, this fascination suggests a confidence in the material durability of books. (15) More often, though, Wordsworth evinces not a faith in the preservative power of the book but rather anxiety about the inefficacy of bibliographic forms to guarantee textual survival. Frequently, such passages indicate the power and significance of this anxiety by imaging books in terms of mortality and burial. (14) Such an association is evident in Wordsworth's most commonly adopted image for the physical form of a literary work that of the monument, whose material permanence provided him with a model for textual inscription. (15) Yet, as Wordsworth knew, the monument only provided a bibliographic ideal. In fact, the permanence symbolized by its durability had to find a physical analogue in the form of the book, and it was Wordsworth's skepticism about the possibility of such a bibliographic analogue that partly generated his anxiety about material textuality.
Wordsworth's anxiety about the perishable materiality of poetry also helps explain his familiarity with the material dimensions of books and publishing, from formats, prices, and print runs, to patterns of circulation and bibliographic codes. Stephen Gill observes that Wordsworth demonstrated a grasp on all aspects of publication," leading him to become so deeply involved in the production of his books that he was sometimes little less than "a printer's nightmare." (16) He was especially attuned to the ways that book format shaped audiences and impacted reception, recognizing, on the one hand, the massive reach of the cheap, small-format chapbook, and on the other, the power of expensive, larger-format books like the quarto to restrict audiences. (17) But he was also aware of how the bibliographic codes attached to a book's format framed its texts. To an extent, this recognition was shaped by his experience at the hands of his reviewers, though Wordsworth himself tended to employ the codes associated with cheap print matter in disparaging popular writers. (18) Such an awareness was evident in his attempts to manipulate the codes of his books during his early career as a publishing poet, as shown in his choice to publish Lyrical Ballads in the simple and utilitarian octavo format. (19) Conversely, Wordsworth also knew what constituted bibliographic extravagance: writing to Edward Moxon of Sonnets late in his career, for example, he confessed that "you somewhat surprize me in purposing to print one Son. on a page, the whole number being I believe 415. Your plan and consequent price would make it a book of luxury (Letters, 6:518). In particular, Wordsworth recognized the power of the quarto book to signify literary value, as indicated by Benjamin Haydon's reminiscence that "[o]ne day Wordsworth in a large Party, at a moment of silence, leaned forward & said, 'Davy, do you know the reason I published my White Doe in Quarto?' 'No,' said Davy, rather blushing. 'To express my own opinion of it,' he replied." (20) Haydon's memory suggests that the poet was acutely sensitive to the impact of bibliographic codes--and especially the luxury codes attached to the quarto--on the reception of Romantic-period texts.
Wordsworth's sensitivity to the quarto's codes was understandable, given that the format was at the center of Regency-era literary discourse, structuring for many readers their reception of the age's most fashionable new poetry. William St. Clair has shown how the economics of publishing in late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century Britain encouraged the rise of the quarto book. Tracing the emergence of the "high monopoly period" that characterized the mid eighteenth-century London publishing industry, St. Clair details how members of London's trade--"a changing association of publishing firms, some large, some small, together covering all aspects of publishing, printing, and wholesale bookselling"--succeeded in monopolizing book production in Britain. (21) In particular, publishers manipulated the material properties of books in order to justify increasingly exorbitant prices. Taking advantage of technological developments in eighteenth-century book-making, the London industry issued progressively more lavish books, and consequently "in the high monopoly period, the typefaces of English books grew larger, paper became whiter and thicker, and the margins on the page widened." Large-format books and pamphlets were especially useful to the London monopolists. (22) In particular, the verse quarto was found to be a reliably profitable speculation, for while the relatively little labor necessary for composing type and the small quantity of ink required per page kept production costs low, the high quality of the finished product could be used to justify ever rising prices. (23) Economic incentive thus encouraged established publishers to issue first editions of new verse in quarto, only later making such texts available in cheaper formats like octavo and duodecimo. By adopting this commercial strategy, which St. Clair calls "tranching down," (24) publishers were able to increase profits on the sale of a text by producing books for a market which was differentiated according to wealth: the first quarto edition was meant to appeal to the richest buyers, the second octavo edition to slightly less wealthy purchasers, and so on. This process allowed publishers to realize the greatest possible profits on a new text by exhausting the different tranches of the consumer market, but the policy also tended to divide the reading nation into layers distinguished by socio-economic class. Those at the top of the income scale had access to the newest titles, but those at the bottom had to wait--often for quite extended lengths of time--until texts were tranched down to affordable formats.
Even after the London publishing monopoly was broken in 1774 by the House of Lords' decision in the landmark case Donaldson v. Beckett, many high-end publishers maintained their practice of tranching down new texts, and thus quarto production continued at a relatively high rate well into the first decades of the nineteenth century. In consequence, many of the fashionable new poems issued during the Romantic period were published initially in quarto or quarto pamphlet, from Charlotte Smith's Elegiac Sonnets and Robert Bloomfield's The Farmer's Boy to Wordsworth's An Evening Walk and Descriptive Sketches, Coleridge's Fears in Solitude, and Barbauld's England in Eighteen Hundred and Eleven. In fact, as St. Clair explains, this trend became even more exaggerated during the Regency period, which saw a dramatic rise in verse quarto production: Byron's Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, Cantos 1 and 2 and Don Juan, Cantos 1 and 2 were published in quarto, as were Southey's Madoc and The Curse of Kehama, Thomas Campbell's Gertrude of Wyoming, Thomas Moore's Lalla Rookh, and Scott's The Lay of the Last Minstrel, Marmion, Lady of the Lake, Rokeby, and The Lord of the Isles. Though Lalla Rookh saw two quarto editions, Regency quartos were usually printed in a single edition of 500 copies and were sold for colossally high prices, ranging from 25 shillings for Scott's Lay and 30 shillings for Byron's Childe Harold's Pilgrimage to 42 shillings for, among others, Southey's Madoc, Moore's Lalla Rookh, and Wordsworth's The Excursion. St. Clair is thus right to conclude that "[i]n the romantic period the new books of the time were expensive luxuries which could be bought, if at all, only by the richest groups in society." (25)
Publication in luxurious quarto was therefore a common way for established authors to usher long poems into the world during the Regency period, but Wordsworth was able to exploit this publishing practice for his own ends. Having resisted issuing any new collections of poetry for seven years after the publication of Poems, Wordsworth was finally induced by a host of circumstances to publish again in 1814, though amidst "all the other pressures in the years 1812-15 what mattered intensely to him was the redeeming of his reputation." (26) Indeed, Wordsworth's decision to publish The Excursion in 1814 was closely bound up with anxieties about his reputation, as he suggested to Thomas Poole that year in confessing that "[m]y poetical labours have often suffered long interruptions; but 1 have at last resolved to send to the press a portion of a poem which, if I live to finish it, I hope future times will 'not willingly let die.' These you know are the words of my great predecessor, and the depth of my feelings upon some subjects seems to justify me in the act of applying them to myself, while speaking to a friend, who I know has always been partial to me" (Letters, 3:146). In alluding to Milton, Wordsworth meant not just to hint at his rightful place alongside his "great predecessor," but also to express his hope of producing a timeless rather than an ephemeral work, one capable of surviving long enough to reach posterity. Yet while Wordsworth could count on finding a sympathetic audience in his friend Poole and other members of his literary coterie, he could not so trust Regency or future reading audiences. Such fears led Wordsworth to attempt to fashion an ideal readership for The Excursion through the material means of the quarto format.
Letters and publishing records from the period document Wordsworth's involvement in the production of The Excursion quarto and provide compelling reasons to believe that he intended his new work to be published in that quarto format whose luxurious bibliographic properties would direct the poem to an audience whose approbation could establish its success and save Wordsworth's reputation. (27) As a luxury book, the quarto's low print run and high price established its rarity and created a sharply defined readership. Only 500 copies of the book--the standard quarto run--were issued by Longmans. Meanwhile, the price of each of these copies was wildly high, restricting its readership to those wealthiest of readers capable of spending lavishly on a book more expensive than almost any other of the many verse quartos flooding the Regency-period book market. As St. Clair observes, "[a]t 42 shillings (2 [pounds sterling] 2s) before binding, over 45 shillings (2 [pounds sterling] 5s) bound, The Excursion in quarto was, for its length, perhaps the most expensive work of literature ever published in England." So high was the book's price that it was prohibitively expensive for most readers, including, probably, Wordsworth himself. (28) Reviewers recognized the quarto's power to restrict the poem's readership. In an article celebrating the poem's long-anticipated appearance in octavo in 1820, The Literary Gazette observed of the first edition that "a quarto, of the price of two guineas, is likely only to be known by report to the majority of readers of poetry; and the consequence is, that though this beautiful poem has been published, we believe, more than six years, it has, from its size and cost, been as inaccessible to numbers, whom its contents would have delighted, as if it had continued in manuscript." (29) Most readers of the period would thus have agreed with Dorothy Wordsworth that "[t]he edition has no chance of being sold except to the wealthy" (Letters, 3:207).
Wordsworth no doubt sought to achieve some "small pecuniary advantage" during a time of considerable financial insecurity for his household by attempting to market his book to an audience of fashionable and wealthy readers (Letters, 3:184). (30) But he also hoped that quarto publication would mark his status as an established poet and encourage a positive reception for his poem by directing it towards the taste-making class. For, as the Wordsworths believed, it was this class of readers that held the most sway in determining The Excursion's immediate success and establishing the poem's future reputation. Dorothy indicated this conviction following the publication of the book, when in a November 1814 letter to Catherine Clarkson, she remarked that "I am sorry that William did not see the Duke [of Devonshire] on account of the sale of the Excursion. I think the more Friends he has either of Rank or Talents or notoriety the better, that they may talk against the Writers, for the more that is said of the work the better" (Letters, 3:165). Wordsworth gave voice to similar assumptions about the power of the highest tranch of readers to define the public profile of his poem when he reported excitedly to his brother later that month that "the Bishop of London is enchanted with the Excursion, and indeed I hear but one opinion on the subject!" (Letters, 3:171). Most tellingly, he was proud to declare the poem's success with its intended class of readers in a letter to Clarkson penned New Years Eve of 1814:
I will now tell you by way of chit chat the little that I have heard of the receipt of the poem. Dr. Parr ... has declared that it is 'all but Milton'; Dr Johnson a leading man of Birmingham that there has been nothing equal to it since Milton's day. Mr Sergeant Rough had spoken to the same effect. The Bishop of London is in raptures--the Duke of Devonshire made it his companion in a late jaunt to Ireland. ... A gentleman of Derby unknown to me pronounces it an admirably fine poem. A Lady of Liverpool, a Quaker, breaks through all forms of ceremony to express her gratitude by letter, which she does in most enthusiastic terms...." (Letters, 3:182) (31)
Citing the approval of bishops, doctors, gentlemen, and ladies, Wordsworth concludes, "I believe the poem has received a powerful band of fresh admirers" (Letters, 3:183). Though this "powerful band of fresh admirers" might not have been identical to "the People," as he understood this audience, Wordsworth did believe that his new readers did overlap substantially with this idealized readership. In the same letter, for example, Wordsworth claims that the poem has met success with "[a]ll the best endowed readers" (Letters, 3:182), hinting at a conviction that those readers endowed with material means were in many cases also those endowed with the acumen to appreciate his poem and the cachet to establish its reputation. (32) Wordsworth seems then to have assumed that the quarto's power to shape an elite readership made it an effective instrument in his attempt to reach a "'fit audience ... though few'" (xi), as he put it, channeling Milton, in The Excursion's "Prospectus." Though this attempt contradicted a long-standing opposition to fashionable luxury, Wordsworth hoped that the Excursion quarto's success with the highest tranch of readers would prove both financially profitable and professionally beneficial (Letters, 3:171; see also 3:165).
But the quarto was also a durable book, providing Wordsworth with a bibliographic form capable of monumentalizing a work "that might live." The Excursion quarto was intended to limit this work's present readership to a small class of readers, yet the book was also meant to survive long into the future, ensuring the existence of its text for those future readers whom Wordsworth believed would be more receptive to his work. Certainly, he conceived of the text of the poem along these lines, but the book materializing the text was also designed for permanence. Mary Poovey has suggested that "Wordsworth's insistence that The Excursion be priced for elite buyers may have articulated his preference for future readers over the attention of any of his contemporaries, for well-made, high-priced books would survive longer than cheap editions," (33) but it was the quarto's materiality--the fact that it was "well-made"--as much as its exorbitant price that promised to render its text permanent. As a large and well-crafted book, the Excursion quarto was more durable than small-format books like the octavo or duodecimo, as Wordsworth suggested when he advised Alexander Dyce in 1831 that the "Quarto might have its value with you as a Collector" (Letters, 5:373). By publishing The Excursion in a format recognized both for its status and its durability, Wordsworth thus sought to control the present reception of his text and mitigate his fears about the survival and status of his work.
"More lowly matter": Romantic Ideology and the Excursion Quarto
Wordsworth's attempt to ensure the survival of The Excursion by embodying it in a durable bibliographic format mirrored the poem's preoccupation with permanence--of natural forms over social formations; of the visionary imagination over reason; and of the spiritual over the bodily. In the "Prospectus," Wordsworth introduces a set of oppositions meant to structure The Recluse as a whole. Invoking the "prophetic spirit" as his muse, Wordsworth implores that it assure
that my Song With star-like virtue in its place may shine; Shedding benignant influence,--and secure, Itself, from all malevolent effect Of those mutations that extend their sway Throughout the nether sphere!--And if with this I mix more lowly matter; with the thing Contemplated, describe the Mind and Man Contemplating; and who, and what he was, The transitory Being that beheld This Vision,--when and where, and how he lived;-- Be not this labour useless. (88-99)
In its account of the poem's "high argument" (71), the "Prospectus" configures the opposition between immaterial mind and the material world in terms of dialectical interdependency rather than irreconcilability on the basis of the mind's sublime power to reconcile conflicts in transcendent, visionary unities (62-71). Yet in repeatedly invoking the opposition between mind and matter, the "Prospectus" privileges the former over the latter term, characterizing matter by the "malevolent effect / Of those mutations that extend their sway / Throughout the nether sphere."
The "Prospectus" thus exemplifies what Jerome McGann has called the "Romantic ideology": the "grand illusion" that "poetry, or even consciousness, can set one free of the ruins of history and culture." (34) If Wordsworth's Romantic ideology emerges from anxieties about material change, then such anxieties form the narrative core of The Excursion. The story of Margaret's decline illustrates both the inevitability of material alteration and, through its framing devices, "the proper attitude to [the] human suffering" caused by this alteration. (35) By portraying Margaret's tragedy as a single scene in the cycle of mutability, the Wanderer displaces its causes from the social to the natural and suggests that poetic vision--represented by the blade of spear grass, "so calm and still"--provides an imaginative means for coping with such tragedies. But the story of Margaret also prefigures the "one major, confessed narrative intention" of The Excursion: "to educate the Solitary out of what is said to be self-consuming melancholy and into a state of active acceptance or peace of mind." (36) Triggered by the deaths of his wife and two children and his disillusionment in the wake of the failure of the French Revolution, the Solitary's melancholy is also brought on by his inability to come to grips with the ephemerality of the material world. Rather than finding comfort in the eternal forms of Nature, the Solitary reads these forms as offering further proof of the transience of the world and is left "pleased / To skim along the surfaces of things, / Beguiling harmlessly the listless hours" (138-40) as a recluse among the mountain reaches.
The Excursions narrative records the attempts by the Wanderer and the Pastor to correct the Solitary's despondency by reinterpreting mutability as the sign of a more permanent stillness. Even so, the ideological agenda of The Excursion is deeply conflicted. Though the Wanderer and the Pastor strive to prove the truth of their arguments and convey the strength of their visions, doubts haunt their monologues, structure the poem's narrative, and emerge in The Excursions failure to reach resolution. The poem's uncertainty about its own ideological project is expressed in the unreliability of its narrative voices and its reluctance to privilege any single one of these voices, as well as in its deferral of ultimate resolution to another day (9.985-90, 9.795-96). But The Excursion's skepticism about its declared project is also apparent in its representations of that object intended to transmit it: the book. Wordsworth recognized that only through its embodiment in a durable bibliographic form could the text of The Excursion accomplish its ideological aims. Yet as a physical object, this text was susceptible to those very material changes it was meant to teach readers to transcend. Thus, throughout The Excursion, the ontological status of material textuality is both charged and ambivalent: books are figured by turns as vehicles of spiritual transcendence, as symbols of material decay, and as objects inhabiting a space between textual immateriality and documentary materiality.
In Book i's account of the Wanderer's early reading, for example, the book exists somewhere between textual transcendence and physical deterioration. The Wanderer is given access by the local minister to Fox's Book of Martyrs--which recounts "The life and death of Martyrs, who sustained, / With will inflexible, those fearful pangs / Triumphantly displayed in records left / Of Persecution, and the Covenant"--and a collection of chapbook romances:
And there by lucky hap had been preserved A straggling volume, torn and incomplete, That left half-told the preternatural tale, Romance of Giants, chronicle of Fiends Profuse in garniture of wooden cuts Strange and uncouth; dire faces, figures dire, Sharp-knee'd, sharp-elbowed, and lean-ankled too, With long and ghostly shanks--forms which once seen Could never be forgotten! (1.188-203)
The passage lingers especially on the opposition between the chapbook's material transience and the survival of the images and texts it embodies. [T]orn and incomplete," the chapbook is preserved for posterity only by lucky hap,' while its diabolical images "could never be forgotten" once imprinted on the young Wanderer's receptive mind. The Poet's description of the Wanderer's Bible involves a similar opposition. Amidst "the lonely mountain tops" (1.240) the Wanderer recognizes
... how beautiful, how brightly appeared The written Promise! He had early learned To reverence the Volume which displays The mystery, the life which cannot die: But in the mountains did he feel his faith; There did he see the writing;--all things there Breathed immortality, revolving life And greatness still revolving ... (1.243-50)
Itself a mutable material form like the chapbook, the Wanderer's Bible still embodies transcendent truths: "the mystery, the life which cannot die." Only in the mountains is the Wanderer able to witness the "written Promise" of "immortality, revolving life / And greatness still revolving," which corresponds to the text embodied in his Bible. Subject to decay, the Wanderer s book is opposed to the undying Book of Nature, whose natural fomis eternalize the Bible's "written Promise" in Britain's unalterable landscape.
Because of their mutability, books are primarily imaged throughout The Excursion as existing in various stages of decay. In Book 1, Margaret's decline and the ruin of her cottage are marked by the deterioration of her books. The Wanderer explains of his third return to the cottage that though Margaret "seem'd the same / In person and appearance ... her House / Bespake a sleepy hand of negligence":
The floor was neither dry nor neat, the hearth Was comfortless, and her small lot of books, Which, in the Cottage window, heretofore Had been piled up against the corner panes In seemly order, now, with straggling leaves Lay scattered here and there, open or shut, As they had chanced to fall. (1.855-64)
Like the Wanderer's "straggling volume" by "lucky hap preserved," the "straggling leaves" of Margaret's books signify the forces of misfortune besetting her, having scattered across the floor "as they had chanced to fall." The decaying book's power to indicate the dissolution of a psychological state as well as the destruction of a physical space recurs in Book 2, when the Poet describes the Solitary's mountain cottage: "What a wreck / We had around us! scattered was the floor, / And, in like sort, chair, window-seat, and shelf, / With books, maps, fossils, withered plants and flowers, / And tufts of mountain moss; and here and there / Lay, intermixed with these, mechanic tools, / And scraps of paper,--some I could perceive / Scribbled with verse ... (2.286-93). As in Book i's description of Margaret's cottage, the disorder of the Solitary's hovel tropes the disorder of his mind. Along with those other signs of death--"fossils, withered plants and flowers"--littering his room, the Solitary's books and "scraps of paper" also evoke the ruin of his life. The scraps strewn about the cottage, some "scribbled with verse," hint at the Solitary's despondency and signify the alterations that have brought it on. Bibliographic decay symbolizes the material ruination afflicting Margaret and the Solitary as well as the loss of any textual guidance that might lead them toward transcendence of their afflictions.
While the matter cluttering his cottage suggests the disorder of his life, the Solitary's damaged psychological state is most clearly expressed in the image of that book found by the Wanderer and the Poet as they approach his home. Roaming among a cluster of baby-houses erected by local children nearby, the Poet finds "[a] Book, that, in the midst of stones and moss / And wreck of party-coloured earthen-ware ... had lent its help to raise / One of those petty structures" (2.456-59):
The Book, which in my hand Had opened of itself, (for it was swoln With searching damp, and seemingly had lain To the injurious elements exposed From week to week,) I found to be a work In the French Tongue, a Novel of Voltaire, His famous Optimist. (2.461-67)
Like those books found in the cottages of Margaret and the Solitary, and the chapbooks read by the Wanderer, the Solitary's copy of Candide is found in a state of decay, "swoln / With searching damp." On the one hand, the book's condition--waterlogged, broken, and used by the children to erect their imaginary community--figures as both juvenile and ephemeral the utopian optimism of Voltaire and the other Enlightenment philosophes whose works helped form the ideological ground for the French Revolution. But the book also metaphorizes the life of the Solitary, thought at this point in the narrative to be dead by the Poet and the Wanderer: as the Wanderer observes, "'A Book it is ... to the Person suited well ... (2.482-83). Referring to the children who have constructed the houses, the Wanderer exclaims that the book is "a sad memorial of their hapless friend" (2.480) and a "relique" (2.509) memorializing the political disappointment that haunts him. During his discussion with the Solitary, who miraculously appears following the book's discovery, the Wanderer returns the book, but not without denying its power to guide the Solitary through his troubles: "Gentle Friend .../... You have known better Lights and Guides than these ... In the ports / Of levity no refuge can be found, / No shelter, for a spirit in distress." Instead, he urges the Solitary to recognize the "law of duty" whose practice wards off "each vicissitude of loss and gam" and resolves the "vain anxiety" caused by the fear of material change (4.1012-37).
Even while most often imaging the book in terms of mutability, The Excursion occasionally figures the book as a lasting object capable of preserving transcendent truths. This power is a function not so much of the book's material form as of its status as a vehicle for immaterial texts. In his attempt to correct the Solitary's despondency in Book 4, the Wanderer reminds him that
books are your's Within whose silent chambers treasure lies Preserved from age to age; more precious far Than that accumulated store of gold And orient gems, which for a day of need The Sultan hides within ancestral tombs. These hoards of truth you can unlock at will. (4.561-69)
Unlike the decaying books belonging to Margaret and the Solitary, or found on the shelf of the Minister, those books imagined by the Wanderer are durable containers for texts figured as Eastern jewels. In preserving their "hoards of truth" for posterity, such books are figured as capable of lasting in a manner feared to be impossible by the Solitary. Even so, the book occupies an uncertain place between life and death, its chambers capable of preserving its textual luxuries but still "silent" and tomb-like. This ambiguous mortality is reinforced by the Pastor, who also imagines books in terms of their divided preservative power. In the first of his "[authentic epitaphs," he tells the story of the Unrequited Lover, whose love gradually weakens him until he is killed by a fever. Upon his deathbed, the Lover asks that his beloved accept
Of his possessions, that which most he prized; A Book, upon the surface of whose leaves Some chosen plants, disposed with nicest care, In undecaying beauty were preserved. Mute register, to him, of time and place, And various fluctuations in the breast; To her, a monument of faithful Love Conquered, and in tranquility retained! (4.211-18)
As in Books 1-3, the form of the book merges with the forms of nature, as indicated by the "leaves" preserved within its covers: as the surface upon which the "chosen plants" are placed, the leaves of the book grow imperceptibly into the leaves of the flowers. Like those natural forms described in Books 1-3, the plants placed in the book are "undecaying," but only as a consequence of the book's preservative power. Just as the silent chambers of the books described by the Wanderer preserve textual luxuries, the "mute register" of the Lover's book preserves mutable natural objects against the decay of time, thereby monumentalizing his love. The story of the Deaf Man emphasizes a similar durability:
books Were ready companions whom he could not tire,-- Of whose society the blameless Man Was never satiate. Their familiar voice, Even to old age, with unabated charm Beguiled his leisure hours; refreshed his thoughts; Beyond its natural elevation raised His introverted spirit; and bestowed Upon his life an outward dignity Which all acknowledged. (7.439-48)
Only by virtue of their durability can the Deaf Man's books provide any sustaining power. Their charm "unabated" even into his old age, his books provide him with abiding solace: "The dark winter night, / The stormy day, had each its own resource; / Song of the muses, sage historic tale, / Science severe, or word of holy Writ / Announcing immortality and joy / To the assembled spirits of the just, / From imperfection and decay secure" (7.456-71). Like the Wanderer, the Deaf Man finds consolation especially in poetic epics, tales, and mathematical texts, but his Bible provides him with the strongest assertion of his own eventual immortality in the face of "imperfection and decay."
Throughout The Excursion, then, books are figured as ontologically unstable objects, being imaged both in terms of their mutability as well as their potential to preserve texts for posterity. This instability helps explain the recurrent association between books and burial evident in the poem. In Book 5, for example, the Solitary instructs his companions to "stoop, and place the prospect of the soul / In sober contrast with reality / And Man's substantial life" before inviting them to imagine
[i]f this mute earth Of what it holds could speak, and every grave Were as a volume, shut, yet capable Of yielding its contents to eye and ear ... (5.246-49)
Like the Solitary's notion of "Man," the book possesses both the "substantial being" of its material form and something over-and-above matter--an undying text corresponding to the "soul" of "Man." Poised between life and death, the book is like a "grave / ... shut, yet capable / Of yielding its contents to eye and ear." The Solitary's suggestion that "every grave / Were as a volume" corresponds to the poem's tendency to image books as tombs, as when the Wanderer refers to Candide as "a sad memorial of their hapless friend" (2.480) and a "relique" (2.509), the Solitary to books as "silent chambers (4.562), and the Lover to his book as a "monument of faithful Love / Conquered, and in tranquility retained!" (4.217-18). But throughout The Excursion, the book's function is always preservative: upon the Minister's shelf is "preserved / A straggling volume" for the Wanderer's use; the Wanderer's stepfather provides him with books to "preserve the mind / Busy in solitude and poverty"; the Solitary's books hold treasure "[preserved from age to age"; and the Lover's book contains flowers that "[i]n undecaying beauty were preserved."
These images provide further evidence that Wordsworth sought to mitigate his fears of bibliographic perishability by publishing his text in the form of the monumental quarto. Yet the attempt to monumentalize The Excursion through the durable form of the quarto also displayed the contradictions at the core of Wordsworth's ideological project. Through the voices of the Wanderer and the Pastor, The Excursion sought to assure its reader that "poetry, or even consciousness" could set "one free of the ruins of history and culture" by guiding one toward the imaginative transcendence of material ephemerality. Yet insofar as it indicated Wordsworth's lingering fear of the inevitable ruin of bibliographic culture, the Excursion quarto itself signified the dependency of this ideology of transcendence on the very material forms meant to be transcended. In reminding readers that the transcendent power of poetry is necessarily embodied in books that exist, decay, and die, Wordsworth's monumental quarto enacted at the level of bibliographic form the contradictions of Romantic ideology. However, such contradictions were not confined to Wordsworth's desire to ensure the material durability of his immaterialist poetics. Instead, as Regency readers were quick to notice, the quarto's status as an exorbitantly priced luxury book also complicated its poem's celebration of rural simplicity and natural necessity. As early as March of 1815, reviewers had begun to focus their vitriol on the format of Wordsworth's poem, as is clear from a short essay published in The Scourge that month under the title "Spoils of Literature" (see note 2). Castigating the ways in which "the Scotts, the Wordsworths, and the Southeys, come forth in all the pomposity of ponderous quartoes, beautiful to the eye, and expensive to the pocket" (221), the author of "Spoils" lamented that "[t]he really deserving portion of the literary community is left to pine in necessity and despair while the manufacturers of quartoes absorb the attention of the public, and the money of the bookseller" (222). Worse, the practice amounted to a species of fraud, with publishers relying on a poet's established reputation to sell a new quarto, thereby convincing "[t]he admirer of poetical talent, and the critical friends whose expectations have been excited by the promise displayed in his first effusion [to] pay the additional price for conveyance by the mail, [and] sacrifice their dinners or their places at the theatre, to the anticipated luxury of enjoying a second Lay" (223). Publishers and booksellers--those "mercenary dealers in tales of sympathy, and scenes of chivalrous generosity" (222)--were partly responsible for this state of affairs, but so were poets like Wordsworth:
But what shall we say of the meek, sentimental, sympathetic and all-benevolent Mr. Wordsworth. It might, on superficial reflection, have been imagined that so solitary, so philanthropic, and so abstinent a being would have disdained the temptation of base lucre, and in his regard to the general instruction and amusement of mankind, in his love of simplicity and abhorrence of ostentation, he would have been contented with a legible type, on humble margin, and a moderate price. A man like him should have disdained the pomposity of quartoes, and the extortion (we beg pardon for using the word) of two guineas. Yet, strange to say, this immaculate and virtuous enthusiast has ventured upon a mercantile speculation that would scarcely have become the character of his own pedlar, and has published 'The Excursion, a Portion of the Recluse,' a poem, price 2 [pounds sterling]. 2s. o. (224)
With its large type, ostentatious margins, and magnificent price, the Excursion quarto's profile as a pompously overpriced luxury good subverted the purported egalitarianism of its text, creating a "mercantile speculation" at visible odds with its text's glorification of impoverished figures like the Wanderer, Margaret, and the Solitary. But the luxuriousness of the quarto also adversely affected Wordsworth's poetic reputation as a man "meek, sentimental, sympathetic and all-benevolent" and driven by "his love of simplicity and abhorrence of ostentation." Aware of both Wordsworth's apparent motivations in choosing to publish his poem in quarto as well as the social meaning of this choice, the essayist concluded by suggesting that "[a] shilling pamphlet would contain all the tolerable passages of his book, and would have exalted the reputation of their author, without injustice to his friends" (224).
By 1821, objections to the luxury of The Excursions quarto format had become almost conventional. Congratulating Wordsworth's publishers on their publication of a long-awaited octavo edition of The Excursion, the writer of an 1821 verse piece issued in London Magazine hinted at the tension between the luxurious form of the quarto and its aesthetic program. (37) To the poem's original "cumb'rous shape" (13), the writer owed "[a] tangible objection: / For books, which one is only able / To read--by spreading on a table, / Seldom invite inspection" (15-18). In alluding to the quarto's reputation as a luxury product, meant for placement on drawing room tables rather than in readers' hands, the writer configured the first edition of The Excursion as a bibliographic ornament rather than a readable text. Yet the writer of "Verses" objected even more strongly to the book's price, complaining that if "[t]welve shillings, for a book like this, / E'en for poor bards, is not amiss--/ Two guineas is--the d-1!" (22-24). The quarto's celebration of the wandering, the broken, and the solitary came at the expense of excluding the actually impoverished from the poem's readership. The format reshaped the poem's celebration of rural simplicity and noble poverty, exposing its ideological program as "a mine / Of Poesy's true lore divine, / Rich veins of thought affording" (7-9). Casting Wordsworth's poetry of transcendence as a veritable gold mine, the writer of "Verses" uncovered the luxury of The Excursions "[r]ich veins of thought" in the precious rarity of its material form, which rendered the poem "half inaccessible, / By means of that forbidding spell / Which lurks in quarto boarding" (7-12). Contemporary readers thus understood that the Excursion's quarto format classed the poem's aesthetic ideology, directing the poem away from those marginal figures celebrated by its text and toward those men and women of material substance who were capable of purchasing the book and assuring Wordsworth's lasting reputation.
Conclusion: The Excursion Quarto, Life, and Death
Even so, in the end, and for all Wordsworth's attention to format, The Excursion failed to sell: only 291 of the 500 copies of the poem printed by Longman had been purchased by June 1815, and sales continued to dwindle over the new few years, with the last 36 copies finally remaindered in 1834. (38) As most contemporaries recognized, the problem was that the poem had been issued as a luxury book with such a prohibitively high price that it was rendered "a 'sealed book' to no inconsiderable number of readers." (39) William and Dorothy recognized early on that quarto publication had been a mistake, and that instead of establishing his literary position, the high price of the luxurious quarto had only retarded sales. Meanwhile, their attempts to identify those markets, from the aristocracy to Quakers, whose members would be willing and able to purchase such an expensive book failed, and the Wordsworths' anxiety over the reception of the poem--and by implication the future of William's poetic reputation--only increased. Failing to convince wealthy buyers to purchase the book, they hoped for the edition to sell at least enough copies to justify the publication of that second, octavo edition that was finally issued by Longman in 1820. (40)
Wordsworth's use of the quarto to publish The Excursion thus failed to achieve its aim of establishing his reputation for the simple reason that the book's status as an expensive luxury heavily impeded sales. Rather than cementing his position as one of the dominant poets of the period, The Excursion's luxury status restricted the circulation of the work and therefore undermined its potential to serve as an effective vehicle for Wordsworth's career-making poem. Partly for this reason, after its initial appearance in 1814, The Excursion was never again published in quarto. Indeed, though the poem was widely reprinted, passing through seven individual editions between 1820 and 1850 and appearing as the final volume in each issue of Wordsworth's Poetical Works, it tended to appear in progressively smaller formats. (41) Though these formatting choices were of course partly determined by the economics of the publishing industry, Wordsworth also recognized that only by reprinting his work in inexpensive, small format editions would he increase the circulation of his poem, reach properly receptive audiences, and more certainly ensure his reputation. (42) To a degree, Wordsworth and his publishers succeeded in correcting their mistake, for to Victorian audiences, "The Excursion was the long Wordsworth poem." (43) This popularity is usually attributed to "the characteristic narrowness of Victorian orthodoxy," but the proliferation of smaller, cheaper copies of Wordsworth's poem--excluding the quarto edition, twenty-five authorized issues of the poem or selections from it were published during his life alone--does just as much to explain its success with later generations. (44) In the end, the Excursion episode was to teach Wordsworth that mass distribution across the reading "Public" rather than limitation to the "fit though few" constituting the "People" was the real condition of literary durability.
Loyola University Chicago
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"Poems, in Two Volumes." Edinburgh Review XI (October, 1807): 214-31.
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--. The Excursion, Being a Portion of the Recluse. London: Printed for Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown, 1814.
--. The Letters of William and Dorothy Wordsworth. 8 vols. Arranged and edited by Ernest De Selincourt, Chester L. Shaver, Alan G. Hill. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967-1993.
--. Lyrical Ballads, with Other Poems. In two volumes. London: Printed for T. N. Longman, and O. Rees, 1800.
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(1.) Wordsworth, The Excursion, Being a Portion of the Recluse (London: Printed for Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown, 1814), viii. References to The Excursion will cite this edition, unless otherwise noted.
(2.) "Spoils of Literature," The Scourge ix (March, 1815): 224. Subsequent quotations from this article cited in the text.
(3.) Newlyn, Reading, Writing and Romanticism: The Anxiety of Reception (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), ix.
(4.) Newlyn, Reading, 92, 133.
(5.) While Newlyn does acknowledge Wordsworth's interest in the formats he used to publish his work (93), her argument focuses only in passing on his material strategies, concentrating instead on Wordsworth's theoretical attempt to direct the public's expectations" and the ways in which this attempt was contradicted by his poetry.
(6.) Poems, in two Volumes," Poetical Register for 1806-07 (1811): 540. Other reviews also warned that the collection's failure had the potential to damage Wordsworth's literary career and poetic reputation irreparably: see "Poems, in two Volumes," Annual Review VI (1808): 529; "Poems," Satirist 1 (November, 1807): 189; and "Poems, in Two Volumes," Edinburgh Review xi (October, 1807): 218.
(7.) Nicola Trott, The Shape of the Poetic Career," in The Cambridge Companion to Wordsworth (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 12.
(8.) See Richard Swartz, "Wordsworth, Copyright, and the Commodities of Genius," Modern Philology 89, no. 4 (May, 1992): 482, 488.
(9.) Newlyn, Reading, 94.
(10.) Wordsworth, Lyrical Ballads, with Other Poems. In two volumes (London: Printed for T. N. Longman, and O. Rees, 1800), xix.
(11.) Evidence for this development is found primarily in Wordsworth's letters from the period. In May of 1807, Wordsworth abuses the "public" in a letter to Lady Beaumont, confessing of Poems that it "is impossible that any expectations can be lower than mine concerning the immediate effect of this little work upon what is called the Public" (The Letters of William and Dorothy Wordsworth, Arranged and edited by Ernest De Selincourt, 8 vols., and ed. [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967-1993], 2:145; hereafter cited in the text and notes as Letters). Writing almost a year later to Sir George Beaumont, Wordsworth complains in reference to Peter Bell of "the sickly taste of the Public in verse. The People would love the poem of Peter Bell, but the Public (a very different being) will never love it" (Letters, 2:194). Yet, as Wordsworth insists, the audience of the "people" did not yet exist but would rather be found in "an improving posterity. The fact is, the English Public are at this moment in the same state of mind with respect to my Poems, if small things may be compared with great, as the French are in respect to Shakespear, and not the French alone, but almost the whole continent" (Letters, 2:195). Wordsworth's distinction between the "public" and the "people" resurfaces again in an 1808 letter to Dorothy concerning The White Doe, where he writes that "I do not think it likely that I shall publish it at all--indeed I am so thoroughly disgusted with the wretched and stupid Public, that though my wish to write for the sake of the People is not abated yet my loathing at the thought of publication is almost insupportable" (Letters, 8:11).
(12.) Wordsworth, "Essay Supplementary," in Poems. In Two Volumes (London: Printed for Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, Brown, 1815), 374-75
(13.) See, for example, the Simplon Pass episode in Book 6 of the 1805 Prelude (The Prelude 1799, 1805, 1850, eds. Jonathan Wordsworth, M. H. Abrams, Stephen Gill [New York: Norton, 1979]). There, the visible expressions of the transcendent unity of mind and nature are figured bibliographically, as Characters of the great apocalypse, / The types and symbols of eternity, / Of first, and last, and midst, and without end" (6.636-40). The "characters" and types of eternity are not simply Biblical but also material, referring to the linguistic characters and types imprinted on paper as Nature imprints them on Wordsworth's mind. The timelessness of natural sublimity is thus imaged in terms of a permanently durable Book of Nature.
(14.) See, for example, The Prelude 5.18-22, 5.45-49, and 5.88-98, as well as The Prelude 5.161-65, 8.725-27, and 9.238-245.
(15.) See The Prelude 6.48-60, 13.432-56, and 1870 8.608-16.
(16.) Gill, William Wordsworth: A Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), 185. See also, e.g., Letters, 2:275-76.
(17.) Wordsworth's awareness of the functional significance of the chapbook is indicated in a June, 1808 letter to Francis Wrangham. Discussing the education of the rural "labouring Classes," Wordsworth claims that "I find, among the people I speak of, half-penny Ballads, and penny and two-penny histories, in great abundance; these are often bought as charitable tributes to the poor Persons who hawk them about (and it is the best way of procuring them); they are frequently stitched together in tolerably thick volumes, and such I have read; some of the contents, though not often religious, very good; others objectionable.... I have so much felt the influence of these straggling papers, that I have many a time wished I had talents to produce songs, poems, and little histories, that might circulate among other good things in this way, supplanting partly the bad; flowers and useful herbs to take the place of weeds. Indeed some of the Poems which I have published were composed not without a hope that at some time or other they might answer this purpose" (Letters 2:247-48). See also William St. Clair, The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 201.
(18.) In its review of Poems, for example, the Satirist asserted that "[i]nstead of occupying two duodecimo volumes of wire-wove and hotpressed paper, with a beautiful type and a large margin, these poems would have been more appropriately invested with a fine gilt wrapping, adorned with wooden cuts, and printed and bound uniformly in all respects with Mother Bunch's tales and Mother Goose's melodies" (188). Wordsworth employed such codes in disparaging other writers when, for example, in speaking of copyright he writes in 1808 that "[t]he law, as it now stands, merely consults the interest of the useful drudges of Literature, or of flimsy and shallow writers, whose works are upon a level with the taste and knowledge of the age; while men of real power, who go before their age, are deprived of all hope of their families being benefited by their exertions" (Letters, 2:266). In describing the "useful drudges of Literature" and other "shallow" writers as "flimsy," Wordsworth implicitly draws an analogy between the impermanence of the weak writer's reputation and the ephemerality of the format used to preserve it.
(19.) That Wordsworth was intent on so shaping the format of Lyrical Ballads is apparent from the letters he and Coleridge sent to their publisher, Joseph Cottle, regarding the publication of the book. Writing to Cottle regarding the preparation of Lyrical Ballads in 1798, Wordsworth had requested with Coleridge that the text be printed with "18 lines in a page, the lines closely printed, certainly more closely than those of the Joan (Oh by all means closer! W. Wordsworth), equal ink; & large margins. That is beauty--it may even under your immediate care mingle the sublime" (Letters, 1:219-20). Wordsworth's interest in typographic codes is evident throughout his career. Yet though Wordsworth and Coleridge attempted to convince Cottle to produce an aesthetically appealing object, they also sought to prevent the Lyrical Ballads book from incorporating any of the extravagant codes associated with the luxury quarto. According to Alan Boehme, "the simple typographic style of Lyrical Ballads was crafted to exemplify in material form the artful simplicity of Wordsworth's poetry and, consequently, to help justify his verse 'experiment,'" while the edition's relatively cheaper, relatively more accessible octavo format enacted materially the volume's project of promoting an ideology of egalitarianism ("The 1798 Lyrical Ballads and the Poetics of Late Eighteenth-Century Book Production," ELH 63 : 464).
(20.) Haydon, The Diary of Benjamin Robert Haydon, 5 vols., ed. Willard Bissell Pope (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1960-63), 2:470.
(21.) St. Clair, Reading Nation, 93. In order to preserve their monopoly, members of this association relied on "every restrictive practice known to modern regulators," including "cartel, conspiracy, price-fixing, predatory pricing, rent seeking, repetitive and baseless litigation, entry barriers, market division, credit-fixing, collective refusal to deal, exclusionary joint ventures, resale price restrictions, tying, and vertical non-price constraints" (St. Clair, 101). Price-fixing became especially common, as did the widespread adoption of publishing practices likely to drive up the costs of books (St. Clair, 98).
(22.) St. Clair, Reading Nation, 100. "Large and heavy books" like the quarto "which remained immobilised in aristocratic and institutional libraries had slow velocities of circulation both new and second-hand, an arrangement which kept second-hand prices high and access restricted," and in general the quarto was ideally suited to an industry in which "unnecessary luxury [was offered] as a way of justifying high prices" (St. Clair, 100).
(23.) Lee Erickson, "The Poets' Corner: The Impact of Technological Changes in Printing on English Poetry, 1800-1850" ELH 52, no. 4 (Winter, 1985): 894.
(24.) St Clair, Reading Nation, 32.
(25.) St. Clair, Reading Nation, 200, 196. Moreover, these prices were attached to unbound books. Purchasers interested in binding Wordsworth's Excursion--and this meant most purchasers, for [i]t was low tone for a gentleman to have unbound books on his shelves--like putting milk bottles on the breakfast table" (St. Clair, 192)--would have had to spend at least an additional three shillings on labor and materials (St. Clair, 201).
(26.) Gill, A Life, 300.
(27.) Wordsworth explains to Wrangham in an April, 1814 letter that "I am busy with the Printers' Devils" (Letters 3:144), and Wordsworth's 1814 correspondence with his publisher demonstrates the depth of his involvement in the printing of The Excursion (see W. J. B. Owen, "Letters of Longman & Co. to Wordsworth, 1814-36," The Library, Fifth Series 9 [March, 1954]: 26). For evidence of Wordsworth's intention to publish in quarto, see in particular Longmans' March 16, 1814 letter to Wordsworth (Owen 25-26). Wordsworth evidently hoped to profit from the so-called "Southey plan," and Longmans' ledgers provide evidence that Wordsworth agreed explicitly to this plan, showing "the initials W.W.' written in against the accounts, implying that Wordsworth personally inspected and approved them on a visit to London" (St. Clair, Reading Nation, 201). In general, Longmans seem to have given Wordsworth control over his formatting choices (see Owen 26 and 27, for example), as suggested by Hay don's story about Wordsworth's awkward exclamation concerning "the reason I published my White Doe in Quarto" (Diary, 2:470). See also Mary Poovey, Genres of the Credit Economy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), 297-98.
(28.) St. Clair, Reading Nation, 201, 202.
(29.) "The Octavo Edition of Wordsworth's Excursion," The Literary Gazette and Journal of Belle Lettres, Arts, and Sciences 206 (December, 1820): 837. William and Dorothy were also aware of the ways in which the price and low print run of the quarto impeded access to the poem (Letters, 3:210-11, 207).
(30.) See also Gill, A Life, 295.
(31.) Parr was "one of the many 'literati' deceived by W. H. Ireland ... and his forgeries of Shakespeare in 1795," while Rough was a "judge in Ceylon ... and Chief Justice of its Supreme Court" (Letters, 3:182, notes 2 and 3).
(32.) Dorothy expresses a similar belief in the relationship between nobility of mind and nobility of rank in the same letter, when she asserts that "[a]s to the permanent fate of that poem or of my Brother's collected Works I have not the shadow of a doubt. I know that the good and pure and noble-minded will in [seal] days and when we sleep in the grave be elevated delighted and bettered by what he has performed" (Letters, 3:184).
(33.) Poovey, Credit Economy, 298.
(34.) McGann, The Romantic Ideology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985), 91.
(35.) Peter Manning, "Wordsworth, Margaret, and the Pedlar," SiR 15, no. 2 (Spring 1976): 207.
(36.) David Simpson, Wordsworth's Historical Imagination: The Poetry of Displacement (New York and London: Methuen, 1987), 200.
(37.) "Verses to Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown on their Publication of Wordsworth's Excursion IN OCTAVO," London Magazine xiv, no. 3 (February, 1821): 165; lines from "Verses" cited in the text.
(38.) St Clair, Reading Nation, 661.
(39.) "The Excursion," British Review VI (August, 1815): 50. See also Literary Gazette's "The Octavo Edition of Wordsworth's Excursion," 837.
(40.) Letters show that the Wordsworths grew to regret The Excursions quarto publication. Dorothy observed in a February 1815 letter that "[t]here are few persons who can afford to buy a two guinea Book, merely for admiration of the Book. The edition has no chance of being sold except to the wealthy; and they buy books much more for fashion's sake than anything else--and alas we are not yet in the fashion" (Letters, 3:207). A month later, she noted that "[i]t is the great price of the work that keeps it on hand ... for many who cannot spare two guineas are waiting--and unfortunately the fashionable will not buy until Wm becomes one of their fraternity" (Letters, 3:222). She thus was driven to admit that "I see clearly the effect of the publication has not been such as I expected" (Letters, 3:184) and concluded that "I cannot but regret that it was published in Quarto" (Letters, 3:202). Wordsworth concurred, lamenting the book's "present expensive shape" for similar reasons (Letters, 3:181). In an attempt to improve sales, the Wordsworths hoped to direct the book to wealthier buyers. In this endeavor, they relied in part on their friends to push the book's sale: Dorothy expressed her desire that "somebody would but puff the Book amongst the fashionable and wealthy" and wished for "some fortunate turn, either in the whims or the understandings of a portion of the fashionable and wealthy" (Letters, 3:213), while Wordsworth promised Thomas Poole in March of 1815 that "[i]f you can conscientiously recommend this expensive work to any of your wealthier friends, I will thank you, as I wish to have it printed in a cheaper form, for those who cannot afford to buy it in its present shape" (Letters, 3:210). In particular, William and Dorothy sought to target the Quaker market, and Wordsworth was especially intent On convincing writers at The Philanthropist to puff the poem due to the periodical's readership. On New Year's Eve, 1814, for example, he writes to Catherine Clarkson that "I mentioned the Philanthropist because it circulates a good deal among Quakers, who are wealthy and fond of instructive Books" (Letters, 3:181), and Dorothy agrees, writing that "I think with William that something might be done among the Quakers" (Letters, 3:183-84). Finally, the Wordsworths sought to convince their wealthier acquaintances themselves to purchase the book, though with generally little success. This strategy is evidenced, for example, in Dorothy's complaint about Wordsworth's reluctance to approach the Duke of Devonshire about "the sale of the Excursion" (Letters, 3:165). So intent was Wordsworth to force the book's sale among the wealthy that he generally refused even to give away copies. As Dorothy notes, "upon the application of our summer neighbour Mrs Green (a widow with 1500 [pounds sterling] per annum of whom you must have heard us speak--a blue-stocking Dame) he refused, giving his reasons" (Letters, 3:184). Yet even such wealthy buyers balked when faced with the book's high price: upon being informed of Wordsworth's refusal to present her with a copy, Mrs. Green "had exclaimed with horror 'Two guineas! And for a part of a work!' and then she pettishly told him that she must wait till her return to York when she could have it from a circulating Library; for she never bought books unread!" (Letters, 3:184). As the Wordsworths knew, most readers awaited the poem's publication in an affordable form Dorothy notes, for example, that Hannah More "is determined to buy it, and is only waiting for the Octavo Edition" (Letters, 3:213)--and as Wordsworth explained to Longman in a letter dated May 10, 1815, "[t]he Letter forwarded to me by you was to inquire whether I purposed to print an Oct[vo] Edition of the Excursion. Many applications to the same effect have been made to me from different Quarters; and I wish to know whether the Sale goes in such a way as to afford a hope that the wishes of these persons may be gratified" (Letters, 3:236). Even so, Wordsworth had to wait until 1820 for a second, octavo edition of The Excursion to be published at the significantly reduced price of 14 shillings (St. Clair, Reading Nation, 662).
(41.) Small-format editions of The Excursion appeared in 1820, 1827, 1832, 1836, 1841, 1844, and 1847. The poem was also reprinted in editions of Wordsworth's collected works in 1827, 1832, 1836, 1840, 1841, 1843, 1845, 1846, 1847, twice in 1849, and 1850, and passages were also included in editions of his selected works in 1831 and 1834 and in A Guide through the District of the Lakes in 1835, 1842, 1843, and 1846 (The Excursion, eds., Sally Bushell, James A. Butler, Michael C. Jaye, David Garcia, in The Cornell Wordsworth [Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2007], 26-27).
(42.) Wordsworth writes in a letter dated 1840 that "I frequently receive testimonies from Individuals who live by the labour of their hands, that what I have written has not been a dead letter to them; and for this reason chiefly, I shall propose to my Publisher to print the Excursion in double column, so that it may circulate as cheaply as can be afforded" (Letters, 7:153). This strategy seems to have paid off, for, as Owen writes, "[s]urprisingly, in view of the many later readers who have considered it one of the dullest of Wordsworth's poems, The Excursion emerges ... as a work which sold steadily in all editions after the first expensive quarto of 1814. The 1820 octavo sold faster than the Miscellaneous Poems of that year, the 250 separate copies better, proportionately, than the corresponding Works of 1827, and the 500 separate copies about as well, proportionately, as the Works of 1832. If we ignore copies in sets of 1827 and 1832, 1,714 copies were disposed of, and 1,558 were actually sold, over the period 1814-36 ... [A]mong Wordsworth's separate works only Lyrical Ballads, Peter Bell, the prose Guide, and the late Yarrow Revisited approached or matched the success of The Excursion, while The White Doe, The Waggoner, The River Duddon, Memorials, and Ecclesiastical Sketches lapsed quickly into the obscurity of collected editions and remainders" (Owen, "Letters of Longman," 107).
(43.) Trott, "Poetic Career," 13. See also Stephen Gill, Wordsworth's Revisitings (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 2.
(44.) See, for example, William Galperin, Revision and Authority in Wordsworth: The Interpretation of a Career (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1989), 30.
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|Publication:||Studies in Romanticism|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2016|
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