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Brian R. Bates. Wordsworth's Poetic Collections, Supplementary Writing and Parodic Reception.

Brian R. Bates. Wordsworth's Poetic Collections, Supplementary Writing and Parodic Reception. London: Pickering & Chatto, 2012. Pp. 236. $99.

Brian Bates's book, part of Picketing and Chatto's "History of the Book" series, contributes to the recent swell of interest in Romantic print culture, book studies, and reading audiences. The book tells, as Bates puts it, "two intertwined stories," of "how Wordsworth used supplementary writings to shape and engage readers in his poetic collections" and "how Wordsworth's critics and parodists responded to and were connected with the designs of those collections" (1). In so doing, it explores how these forms of paratextual and parodic writing, typically relegated to the margins of literary scholarship, in fact played a key role in shaping literary production, reception, and culture during the Romantic period, as part of a "wide-spread struggle between early nineteenth-century authors, reviewers and publishers to negotiate and create the tastes of contemporary readers" (15).

Wordsworth's Poetic Collections is meticulously researched and documented-its endnotes weigh in at over fifty pages, roughly a third as long as the main text. It is also refreshingly clearly written and free of jargon, while at the same time critically astute. The book investigates how William Wordsworth used various forms of supplementary writings from the 1798 Lyrical Ballads through the 1820 River Duddon volume, including "prefaces, footnotes, endnotes, headnotes, half-title pages, epigraphs, advertisements and other paratexts" (1), to shape his poetic oeuvre, his literary identity, and his relationship with readers. Bates shows how these paratexts engaged in public contestation and dialogue with the writing of various critics, reviewers, and parodists, as "poetry and parody, verse and prose, writers and reviewers, redefine[d] one another" in an ongoing dialectic of framing and refraining (76).

One particular delight of the book is its exploration of the symbiotic relationship between Wordsworth and his parodists, whose writings often benefited the poet even as they sought to ridicule him. J. H. Reynolds's "Peter Bell, a Lyrical Ballad" (1819), for instance, not only imitated Wordsworth's repetitive style but literally appropriated and mashed together his titles, yet ended up swelling sales of Wordsworth's own Peter Bell by thrusting it into public attention. Reynolds, like other parodists, mocks Wordsworth's repetition of words, obsessive cross-referencing of his own poems, explanatory notes, and aggressively egoistic attempt to define his own public. Like many of the "best" or "most popular" parodies of Wordsworth's poetry, Bates argues, it "left readers unable to determine whether it was written in earnest or in jest, or if it was written by Wordsworth or someone else" (15). Yet Wordsworth reshaped this parodic discourse; in another turn of the wheel, as part of the ongoing refashioning of his own poetic identity. An 1820 poem "On the Detraction Which Followed the Publication of a Certain Poem," for instance, denounces such parodies in order to affirm the coherence and value of Wordsworth's own poetic works, labor, and reputation; yet at the same time, "to remain prominent in the public eye, Wordsworth needed the 'harpy brood'" of critics and parodists "that his sonnet denigrates" (136).

Bates identifies a main source of contestation with parodists and reviewers in Wordsworth's theme of "connective reading" (12): his use of repeated words and themes across poems, as well as repeated references and allusions to his own works, to induce readers to approach his oeuvre as a single coherent structure. Bates traces various forms of connection in a number of Wordsworth's volumes, such as repetition of the word "stone" in the 1800 Lyrical Ballads; the way the various flower poems in the 1807 Poems speak to one another; and how the word change in the title from "Written" to "Composed" in the 1815 version of "Tintem Abbey," together with some added notes, draw his various poems in the collection into association. Wordsworth used such connections, Bates argues, both to gather power through repetition and to direct readers to discover larger patterns of significance that unite his past, present, and even future projected works.

One chapter in the book illuminatingly compares the "gothic Church" metaphor that Wordsworth uses to figure the organic unity of his works in the "Preface" to The Excursion with Samuel Taylor Coleridge's reconfiguration of that metaphor in the purported letter from a "Friend" in chapter 13 of the Biographia Literaria, to characterize the effect of his own theory of Imagination upon the reader. In contrast to Wordsworth, Coleridge uses this metaphor to present a "Gothic labyrinth of connective possibilities" among which readers must "make their own cultural and textual forays" (104). Coleridge's poetic collections also use prefaces, notes, and other paratexts to shape their reception, but they do so in terms of "incompleteness, textual mobility, changeableness" and the general instability of a being forever "in progress" (108). While both Wordsworth and Coleridge use supplementary texts as ways to encourage active, connective reading, Coleridge deliberately provides multiple windings to free the reading process that Wordsworth seeks to tightly control.

As the book moves chronologically from 1798 through 1820, it explores networks of connection both within and between Wordsworth's various poetic collections, as well as with a wide array of parodies and critics: including also Richard Mant's The Sinpliciad (1807), John Gibson Lockhart's Benjamin the Waggoner (1819), William McGinn's double parody in "Don Juan Revisited" (1819), and an extensive collection of critical reviews. Bates also traces how Wordsworth's use of notes and other supplementary materials positioned him in relation to other prominent contemporary poets, especially Thomas Percy and his Reliques of Ancient Poetry, which provided a model for Wordsworth's editorial arrangement of his own works into a coherent whole. Bates also explores how Wordsworth defined the cultural significance of his works as a kind of "mini-library" (78) in relation to the vogue for "bibliomania" or library collection in the early 1800s. The final chapter argues that the River Duddon volume capitalized on the popularity of landscape tourism in northeastern England as it "asserts the Lake District as the literary and moral seat of Britain, and identifies Wordsworth's collected works as the central prospect from which to view the nation's character" (142).

As this summary of themes demonstrates, the volume is eclectic in its critical engagements, as the strands of supplementary writing and parody come together and wander apart into various loosely related configurations. It moves from intensive engagement with one specific form of paratext or parody to another. As a result, while the volume is rich with insightful and provocative readings, it does not theorize much on the overall role of parody, supplementary texts, or intertextual dialogue in Romantic-era print culture. Bates contrasts effectively how Wordsworth and his parodists invoke repetition to contest different models of reading, for instance, but he does not explore the political, cultural, or historical significance of that contestation. The book also repeatedly appeals to the category of"the nation" but remains vague and unsatisfying on what constitutes this "nation" and how notions of nation might have been contested within print culture, through parody and paratext in particular. "Nation" as a result becomes a bit of an empty buzzword after awhile. Overall, Bates's provocative readings would benefit from a more developed historicity and more capacious theorization.

Like many studies of print culture, Bates's readings also slide away at times from the specific social, economic, and discursive networks within which these publications operated, favoring instead more traditional thematic interpretations--as when he traces repetitions of themes or words or the way various poems connect within or across volumes. Some of these readings, such as Bates's exploration of how Wordsworth's "gothic Church" metaphor affirms an organic unity of his works and career; how the River Duddon sonnet sequence connects the poet's life, the Lake District, and the nation; and the overall role of monumentality and stones in Wordsworth's poetry, will not be new to most Wordsworth scholars. All of Bates's points do connect in some sense to print institutions, book composition, and audience, but the book would be stronger by tightening some of those connections.

To ask for more in these ways, however, does not denigrate from the book's many impressive accomplishments. Overall, Wordsworth's Poetic Collections, Supplementary Writing and Parodic Reception conclusively demonstrates the importance of studying supplementary paratexts and parodies in relation to Wordsworth's poetic collections, as well as Romantic-era poetic collections generally. Full of specific, provocative readings, Bates's book shows how authors, publishers, and reviewers used these forms of parody and paratext to contest various ways of reading, competing constructions of literary identity, and the overall cultural significance of poetry.

Scott Hess

Earlham College
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Author:Hess, Scott
Publication:Studies in Romanticism
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2013
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