The Wordsworthian Sonnet Revival: Poems in Two Volumes (1807)

  • Joseph Phelan


It was until fairly recently possible to argue that Wordsworth ‘resurrected the sonnet from the virtual oblivion in which it had lain for more than a century and re-established it in a position of eminence’, but such assertions have become increasingly implausible.1 It is now clear that when Wordsworth produced his first sustained exercise in the form in Poems in Two Volumes (1807), he was rather belatedly adopting a form that had already been rediscovered and popularised during the last quarter of the eighteenth century. Thanks to recent scholarship the story of the sonnet revival has become a familiar one, from the role played by Percy’s Reliques in disinterring this apparently moribund poetic form to the work of women poets, especially Charlotte Smith, in developing the ‘elegiac sonnet’ into a vehicle for the articulation of a certain type of intense and personal experience.2 The sonnets in Poems in Two Volumes do not even represent Wordsworth’s own first attempt at sonnet-writing; in spite of his claims to the contrary, we now know that he wrote and published sonnets before 1807, and that these sonnets were heavily indebted to the elegiac sonnet tradition that he later disowned. Under these circumstances it seems a severe distortion of literary history to credit Wordsworth with having ‘revived’ the sonnet, a distortion complicit with the general tendency of literary history to appropriate women’s achievements and innovations and reassign them to men.


Literary History Late Eighteenth Century Foreign Land Sustained Exercise French People 
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  1. 1.
    Lee M. Johnson, Wordsworth and the Sonnet, Anglistica XIX (Copenhagen: Rosenkilde and Bagger, 1973), p. 10.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    See Stuart Curran, Poetic Form and British Romanticism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986), ch. 3; Google Scholar
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  4. 3.
    Cited in Alun Jones ed., Wordsworth’s Poems of 1807 (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1987), p. 159; Wordsworth’s account is corroborated by one of Dorothy Wordsworth’s journal entries (hence the editorial emendation to the date): Google Scholar
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  6. 5.
    Mary Robinson’s preface is reprinted in Paula R. Feldman and Daniel Robinson eds, A Century of Sonnets: The Romantic-Era Revival 1750–1850 (Oxford and New York: OUP, 1999), pp. 233–40; Google Scholar
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    Doubtfully headed ‘To [?] Charles Lamb’, but the words in question were intended for the poet’s brother John; see Alan G. Hill ed., Letters of William Wordsworth: A New Selection (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1984), pp. 59–60.Google Scholar
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    See ch. 1 of Biographia Literaria for Coleridge’s account of his discovery of Bowles’ sonnets; the quotation is from the second version of Coleridge’s sonnet to Bowles, 1. 8. Coleridge’s tortuous relation to the sonnet tradition is discussed in detail in Daniel Robinson, ‘“Work without hope”: Anxiety and embarrassment in Coleridge’s Sonnets’, Studies in Romanticism 39 (2000), 81–110.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    John Kerrigan notes the significance of this phrase in ‘Wordsworth and the Sonnet: Building, Dwelling, Thinking’, Essays in Criticism 35 (1985), 57.Google Scholar
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    Alan Liu, Wordsworth: The Sense of History (Stanford, California: Stanford UP, 1989), p. 431.Google Scholar
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    Preface to Poems (1815); John O. Haydon, Wordsworth: The Poems (Harmondsworth, Middx.: Penguin, 1982), II, p. 919.Google Scholar
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© Joseph Patrick Phelan 2005

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  • Joseph Phelan

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