Critical Essays on William Wordsworth

G. K. Hall and Company, Boston, 1990


From the Introduction:  Representations of Wordsworth


In spite of the shifts in cultural perspective that have recognized William Wordsworth as a radical of the 1790s in style and thought, as an “establishment” poet laureate, as the “Daddy Wordsworth” admired by the Victorians, as the “simple” Anglican poet of nature, as the “problematic” poet of “consciousness,” and, recently, as a “Nobodaddy” who was too conservative in the Age of Revolution, the poet’s reputation as one of the great masters of English poetry continues.   Along with Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare, Milton, Pope, Tennyson, and Eliot, Wordsworth is one of those poets whose name still defines an age; in 1988 an extensive exhibition of English literary and visual art from the turn of the nineteenth century toured the United States under the title, “William Wordsworth and the Age of Romanticism.”  The exhibition asserted the centrality of the poet in spite of the undisputed genius of his contemporaries, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, Keats, and, especially, Blake.  It represented the renewal of Wordsworth’s reputation in the twentieth century after the indifference of the Modernists (who favored, if any of the Romantics, the “aesthetic” Keats) and the disfavor of some contemporary scholars who preferred “revolutionary” Blake. 

To some extent, Wordsworth fashioned himself into the emblem of his own age.  His poems in Lyrical Ballads (1798) and his defense of them in the Preface added to the second edition (1800) proclaimed what should represent English taste and style at the beginning of the nineteenth century and articulated issues by defining the ideal characteristics of the poet and poetry.  Wordsworth found in the old pastoral themes of the importance of nature and the joys of a simple life a basis for renewal of the human spirit in an age marked by the uncertainty of European war and revolution.

In 1972 M. H. Abrams published a collection of critical essay from the flowering of Wordsworth scholarship in the postwar period.  In the introduction he charted “two roads”:  one in England, where the “simple Wordsworth” of emotion and feeling was newly appreciated in the light of the wartime experience and in reaction to Modernist values; and the other in America, where a “problematic” seed sprouted in a fertile soil of fascination with literary psychology and took form is explorations of what Abrams called “consciousness.”  Since Abrams published his collection of essays, examination of Wordsworth and “consciousness” has continued to be an attractive pursuit to scholars, and my collection includes an excerpt from his magisterial study, Natural Supernaturalism:  Tradition and Revolution in Romantic Literature (1971).  A more clinical treatment is Richard Matlak’s look at the “psycho-biographical” context of the disturbing “Lucy” poems.  Less formal essays that relate the poet’s life to his art are Donald Reiman’s judicious description of Wordsworth’s “heroism” in struggling to channel the passions of intimate family relationships into his creativity, and Jean H. Hagstrum’s not so tame portrait of the poet obsessed with a sexuality that lurks just under the surface of his poetry.

Essays collected here dealing with the influence of aesthetic traditions are Carl Woodring’s placement of “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey” in the context of Wordsworth’s understanding of the theory of the sublime; Stephen J. Spector’s study of the poet’s use of mirror images drawn from the tradition of the picturesque; and my own look at the analogy between Wordsworth’s way of seeing Nature and his ideas on landscape and the English garden.  Study of Wordsworth’s uniquely Romantic employment of rhetorical devices also enhances understanding of the poetry:  Susan J. Wolfson examines the poet’s reliance on the interrogative mode in the Lyrical Ballads, including “Tintern Abbey”; Peter J. Manning explicates Ode:  Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood by allusion to Virgil’s fourth ecology; and Paul. H. Fry studies Wordsworth’s adaptation of the genre of the ode to the philosophical needs of the Intimations Ode.

New, indeed, since Abram’s collection is the emergence of William Blake as a true rival to Wordsworth for the role of Romantic “spirit of the age.”  Some readers have not found Wordsworth meaningful because he did not take an energetic enough role in the politics of the Age of Revolution; ironically, it is the battle between the life of action and the life of the mind that Wordsworth dramatizes in Books IX through XI in The Prelude.  This controversy is the background of recent reconsiderations of the poet’s political and social ideas.  Ronald Paulson describes how in The Prelude Wordsworth had to come to terms with his own identity as a result of his experience of the French Revolution.  Arguing against traditional “literary” readings of the Intimations Ode, Marjorie Levinson decodes the references in the poem to Wordsworth’s experiences in France and to his nostalgia over losing his innocence during the Revolution.  Karl Kroeber admits the rivalry with Blake for critical esteem and defends Wordsworth’s merit on grounds relevant to the late twentieth-century interest in conserving the natural world:  he treats Home at Grasmere as the expression of a preservationist’s ecological vision.  In the afterword to the collection, Alan Grob responds to recent critics who view Wordsworth as reactionary; looking back to Abrams, he argues that out of the poet’s turn to “consciousness” evolved the very means by which he could assume the role of an influential exponent of change.

Such arguments touch on a crucial development in scholarship today:  the rise of critics who ascribe an “ideology” to an artist or his defenders, or, conversely argue rigidly from the point of view of a particular ideology, rather than give real consideration to the creative work.  In selecting essays, I have sought to avoid this neoclassical Modernism, which continues under the auspices of “postmodern” claims for the authority of method; rather, I present a gathering of scholars with diverse approaches who are committed first and foremost to their subject of study, Wordsworth and his poems.   Their efforts offer instructive and occasionally delightful access to the most frequently read poems. 


Additional Information on Critical Essays on William Wordsworth




George Gilpin’s edition of Critical Essays on William Wordsworth in the Critical Essays on British Literature series consists of fifteen essays that provide a variety of approaches to the author.  The editor’s introduction traces the history of critical opinion on Wordsworth, while his selection of essays includes several on each of Wordsworth’s major works, the Lyrical Ballads, the Intimations Ode, and The Prelude, as well as others with diverse perspectives regarding the poet’s work and life.  Most of the selected criticism is of recent origin.  Original essays especially written for this volume include Gilpin’s own study of Wordsworth’s fascination with gardens and Alan Grob’s concluding treatment of Wordsworth politics.



Table of Contents


INTRODUCTION:  Representations of Wordsworth

            George H. Gilpin




            The New Sublimity in “Tintern Abbey”

                        Carl Woodring

            Speaker as Questioner in Lyrical Ballads, 1798

                        Susan Wolfson




            Wordsworth’s Severe Intimations

                        Paul H. Fry

            Wordsworth’s Intimations Ode and Its Epigraphs

                        Peter J. Manning

            The Intimations:  A Timely Utterance

                        Marjorie Levinson




            Wordsworth’s Prelude and the Crisis-Autobiography (Excerpt)

                        M. H. Abrams

            Wordsworth’s Prelude

                        Ronald Paulson




            “Home at Grasmere”:  Ecological Holiness

                        Karl Kroeber

Wordsworth Mirror Imagery and the Picturesque Tradition

                        Stephen J. Spector

            In Wordsworth’s English Gardens

                        George H. Gilpin




            Poetry as Familiarity:  Wordsworth, Dorothy, and Mary Hutchinson

                        Donald H. Reiman

            Wordsworth’s Lucy Poems in Psychobiographical Context

                        Richard E. Matlak

            William Wordsworth:  “Relationship and Love”

                        Jean H. Hagstrum


AFTERWORD:  Wordsworth and the Politics of Consciousness

                        Alan Grob



·  Hardcover: 360 pages

·  Publisher: G K Hall (July 1990) 

·  ISBN-10: 0816187746

·  ISBN-13: 978-0816187744

·  Product Dimensions: 9 x 6.2 x 1.3 inches